Cooking in my mother's kitchen can sometimes be a chore: She and I just don't think the same way when it comes to food, despite the many years I spent as a student under her tutelage. As a child of the Great Depression, she represents the commitment to thrift mixed with an often-blind love for the technological wonders of the last century so common in her generation (her frequent use of powdered milk is just one example). But there are times in her kitchen when I remember my roots and thank her silently for bequeathing to me a love for, and skills with, some low-tech tools that are both useful and low-cost.
Want to use your kitchen better without spending a lot? Here are six gadgets from Grandma's kitchen that should be in yours:
Wooden spoons. Even a premium-quality wooden spoon will cost you just $5 or $6, compared to an average cost of $40 for an electric hand mixer to several hundred dollars for a beautiful stand mixer. And while it's true that it's less strenuous to use an electric mixer to cream butter or mix up a nice fluffy cake batter, I figure, if I'm going to bake something delicious, the least I can do is get a bit of exercise at the same time (and you should see my muscular arms!). Best of all, wooden spoons are small, easy to wash, pretty to store in a canister, and, in my opinion, do a better job of getting butter creamy or cake batter mixed well. And the collateral damage (splatters of batter all over your kitchen) is much less of a problem.
Cast iron skillet. I have several, heavy, cast-iron skillets; my mom has a half-dozen, and I don't think she's ever had to replace one. For $10 to $20 each, cast-iron skillets are much less expensive than other cookware, especially the nonstick skillets that took over the country in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Cast iron has the significant advantage of not having been associated with toxicity concerns. They're also typically more utilitarian than nonstick pans, going from stove-top to oven and then to the table with grace and style (but don't forget the hot pad). I use cast iron skillets for everything from roasting chicken and frying bacon & eggs to baking cornbread and making pancakes or my favorite Coney Island chili. Want more ideas? You can also use a cast iron skillet as a sandwich press for stovetop panini. While the coating on nonstick pans can easily be scratched or worn, cast iron pans last (almost) forever. If you treat it right, you'll be handing this skillet down to your great-grandchildren, and they, to theirs.
Mortar and pestle. A Cuisinart can set you back $200 or more, and if you've ever broken the little plastic doohickey that fits into the other doohickey to engage the motor, you know just how frustrating high-tech kitchenware can be. The low-tech version -- the mortar and pestle -- was invented before recorded history (at least four thousand years ago). I got my mortar and pestle for five dollars at a garage sale (sold to me by a locally famous pastry chef, no less), but even if you go retail, you can find a top-quality set for $20 or $25. Use yours to make pesto, mayonnaise, hummus and herb butters; grind spices; crush nuts; make a quick dip for chips; or whip up a salad dressing. It's easier to manage the consistency of your sauce or grind with a mortar and pestle, and cleanup is far easier, too (see: wooden spoons). And a mortar and pestle is beautiful no matter what the materials.
Really good knives. A great knife isn't cheap; my favorite, the Wusthof, retails between $40 and $200 for each implement (although I would caution readers to look for sales and coupons; you will end up spending 50% or less of the retail price). But, like the other items on our list, a really great knife can last for decades, can be taken with you, and the motor will never burn out. My knife block has three -- only three -- truly expensive workhorses: a long serrated knife for bread, cheese, tomatoes, pineapples and artichokes; a 10" chef's knife for chopping, smashing, dicing and slicing; and a 6" "utility knife" for small work: pitting olives, taking the stems off strawberries, peeling avocados, slicing apples, and such. A Twitter follower of mine who manages a local kitchen store tells me her "one really great knife" is a 7" Shun Santoku; at $100 to $125 online, it's still a better long-term bargain than a mechanical alternative. I greatly prefer a chef's knife to a Cuisinart, even if the machine works faster, because it gives me more control and takes up far less space.
Mason jars. If I told you I had one kitchen product that could work for long-term food storage in the pantry, odor-free storage in the freezer, moth-free flour containment and fermented pickling, and you could bake a cake in it, drink everything from wine to hot cocoa out of it, or use it for a homey vase, would you laugh and wait for the classic infomercial line "But, wait, there's more!"? The product I'm talking about isn't sold only on TV, and it's cheap (and, better yet, you can find them at garage sales and thrift stores everywhere for less than a buck). I love the Mason jar, and several Facebook friends (two of them food authors) include the Mason jar in their list of best low-tech kitchenware. Glancing around my kitchen right now, I can see Mason jars used to steep strawberries in apple brandy; hold maple syrup I bought in bulk from the co-op; store my assortment of locally made flours (barley, spelt, kamut); preserve currant jelly and a new batch of strawberry lemon vanilla jam; and contain leftovers from yesterday's dinner. And all that storage cost less than $10.
French rolling pin. While my boys would rather use the French rolling pin as a sword (forcing me to now keep it stored out of reach), it's really a lovely and multipurpose kitchen tool that costs between $10 and $20. I use it for the traditional things -- pie crusts, biscuits, sugar cookies -- but also for a variety of other tasks. For instance, I smush my version of spicy kimchi (my recipe includes fresh jalapenos; trust me, you don't want to use your fists!); I crush dried peppers; and soon, as a Twitter friend suggested, I'll try it on mashed potatoes.
While I began this list with six low-tech kitchen gadgets in mind, during my research, I got so many great suggestions that I think an honorable mention is in order. Either a Bodum French press or a Moka coffee maker can sit in a place of honor on your kitchen counter, or come along with you on a camping trip or to a motel for fantastic coffee anywhere, with only hot water and coffee grounds as raw materials for about $20 or $25. Mini-whisks cost between $2 and $5 and can do anything from froth milk for homemade lattes to scrambling eggs to whisking a simple instant salad dressing. Kitchen shears can chop chives, snip herbs, cut canned tomatoes into bits, or open stubborn packages for $5 to $20. A hand-held cherry pitter may be a "uni-tasker" but it's so, so useful and very inexpensive. One friend insists on steel wool for frugal potato peeling. And while there's really no high-tech alternative, there's no replacement for a set of graduated stainless steel bowls and glass measuring cups.
Having the latest fashionable-colored kitchen gadget on your counter may make for a good magazine spread, but it probably won't make for a good investment. If it's still in Grandma's kitchen after all these years, you may want it in yours -- but check estate or garage sales and thrift stores for bargains, because Grandma probably hung on to such a useful tool until her kitchen days were done.
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