Archives for Appliances, Equipment, & Gadgets

Questions for cooks: Splatter free

Reader Nagle submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I have always wondered how people avoid having a kitchen coated in splatter when using their stove-top griddles for cooking steaks, etc. It seems to me that the clean-up is not worth the “convenience” of cooking inside. So, I avoid doing it … Is there a trick I don’t know about?

When cooking steaks, frying something on the stove, or making a tomato-based sauce, I simply use a splatter guard. It significantly reduces the amount of oil, fat, and sauce splatter that makes it onto the stove, underside of the microwave, into the air, and on me.

Splatter guards don’t last very long — maybe six months — so I get the least expensive one with the smallest mesh I can find. I toss it into the dishwasher after a meal, and recycle it when it’s time to get a new one.

I also keep a damp sponge with a dollop of dishwashing detergent on it next to the stove as I cook. If I notice any spills or splatters, I clean them up immediately before they can dry and become difficult to remove. Cleaning as you go saves a lot of time over the long term. I also throw the sponge into the dishwasher at the end of the day to clean it. Then, after it has gone through the dishwasher, I’ll get the sponge damp again and throw it into the microwave for a few minutes to kill any remaining bacteria and germs — just be sure to let the sponge cool thoroughly before touching it again.

I have to say, though, that I like grilling and I think it’s fun to do even in the coldest of winter. If cooking outside is something you enjoy year round, by all means keep cooking outdoors. I especially like how it keeps the mess out my kitchen, too.

Thank you, Nagle, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

The smell of a slow cooker

I love my slow cooker so much because it’s like a little robot chef who prepares meals for me while I’m away, happily laboring so I can be off living life. I also dig how it fills my home with the smell of whatever it contains while cooking. As I’ve learned, this can be both good and bad, especially when living in an RV.

Living in such a small space means things that have strong odors tend to collect and intensify in the RV, creating some funny stories as a result.

For example, there was the first time I made black beans in my slow cooker. After a day of soaking in water, I put them in to start cooking on low as I went to sleep. When I woke up, the distinct smell of farts surrounded me. It was everywhere, like I’d risen from sleep to find myself in the men’s restroom at a chili cook off. That’s when I remembered the beans slowly cooking away in the kitchen. With a very thankful nose, I now keep a window cracked when using my slow cooker to prepare dried beans.

More positively, on my way to Zion National Park, I stopped in Glendale, Utah, as apple season was in full swing. The RV park where I stayed was surrounded by an orchard, and guests could pick as many apples as they wanted. With my trusty slow cooker at the ready, I picked about two dozen fresh apples right off the tree, then after being cored they began a slow trip to sauceville. I added in plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg, which eventually became the primary scents emanating from the slow cooker. The RV became saturated with a rich perfume and suddenly I was living in a giant apple pie. It was pure heaven.

My favorite smells are those that trigger a taste memory powerful enough to start me salivating. Since slow cookers are so great for slowly braising meat, I was pretty enthusiastic when I found this great recipe for carnitas. Big chunks of deliciously spiced pork shoulder cook with braising liquid for five hours on the low setting, turning them into the most tender, fall-apart filling for tacos or burritos you’ll ever eat. The smell of them cooking has combined with the ecstasy of that meal to create an intense connection somewhere in my primitive brain. Now, whenever I cook carnitas, that rich smell of pork and spices coming from my slow cooker sets off that scrumptious taste memory. I love it!

On the opposite side of the spectrum are recipes that use a slow cooker for aromatic ends without any expectation of a delicious meal to follow. These potpourri creations use ingredients like citrus, cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla to pump out scents that are sure to make your mouth water while transforming your home into grandma’s cozy warm cottage.

Is your slow cooker having an affair with your nose? Tell me in the comments!

Our favorite cookbook and electronic device holder and protector

Cookbook holders aren’t necessary for cookbooks, but they can be nice to own if you’re a messy cook. Spills on pages can build up over time and turn a book into a feeding ground for mold, mildew, and pests. If you like to use your laptop, iPad, or ebook reader (like a Kindle) in your kitchen, holders and protectors cease to be optional and become a necessity. No one wants to lose a $500 (or more) investment to a few drops of milk.

As far as cookbooks, ebook readers, and iPads are concerned, an adjustable cookbook holder with an acrylic shield is inexpensive and well-suited for the task:

Holders like this are easy to clean, work with all different types and sizes of cookbooks, ebook readers, and iPads, and fold flat for storage when not in use. It keeps the book or device off the counter in case of spills, too.

For individual recipes and pages I print from websites, I stick them in vinyl sheet protectors so I don’t have to reprint the recipe whenever I want to use it again. After I’m finished, I wipe off the sheet protector and slip it back into a three-ring binder.

Finally, we actually don’t recommend bringing laptops into the kitchen. Instead, put them near the kitchen and pump up the text size on the screen so you can read it from a distance. To zoom in on a Mac, hold down the Command key and press the +/= key. To zoom out, hold down the Command key and press the _/- key. On a PC, it’s the same except you hold down the Control key instead of Command.

We strongly advise against wrapping plastic wrap around your machine or sticking it in a large zip-top bag to try to protect it in the kitchen because your computer needs air circulation to function properly. You can overheat and ruin your computer in just a few minutes if you stick it into a bag with no circulation. Keyboard and screen protectors are okay, but they won’t protect your machine if you spill liquids on it or near it. Plus, small particles from grains like flour and corn starch can be sucked into your computer and also do damage. It’s best to leave your computer out of the kitchen unless you have a secure and protected place for it to reside.

Assorted links for January 31, 2011

In case you missed them in the news, these are some wonderful articles from the past week about food, kitchens, and cooking:

  • The New York Times is doing a two-part series on food through their Freakonomics podcast. The first episode explores Nathan Myhrvold’s science of cooking, and Alice Waters’ response to it: “Waiter, There’s a Physicist In My Soup, Part I.”
  • In what has turned into a controversial article, the Los Angeles Times reports that “Eating bad food may make you sad.”
  • If your kitchen is also the place where everyone in your family dumps his or her stuff, you might be interested in The Washington Post’sIt’s a kitchen, not a chatchall.”
  • This article is a year old now, but I’m going to try following this technique the next time I season our cast-iron skillet. Sheryl Canter suggests in “Chemistry of Cast Iron Season: A Science-Based How-To” to use food-grade flaxseed oil instead of other oils. When I get around to it, I’ll definitely document the process and report back to you.

Have you spotted interesting food-related articles in the news recently? Share your findings in the comments.

Bare bones kitchen essentials

Outfitting a kitchen is an extremely personal endeavor. One person’s must-have gadget can be clutter in another person’s home. Matt and I both love cooking, but the items we believe to be essential are vastly different. This makes a lot of sense since what we use and rely on day-in-and-day-out is closely tied to the foods we love to eat and enjoy preparing. Also, our amount of kitchen storage is considerably dissimilar.

We have received a few requests asking us to create a universal list of kitchen essentials. Since we don’t believe a real universal list exists, we’ve made a couple lists based on our preferences. Below is Matt’s list, full of items he has in his RV. I think of Matt’s essentials as the bare bones of outfitting a kitchen. I’ll publish my list next week and you’ll instantly see that just a few more feet of space, and a difference in favorite foods, makes what we consider to be essential extremely different.

Bare Bones Kitchen Essentials

Understanding cooking thermometers

In all of the posts we’ve written about meat, we’ve talked about cooking the meat to a specific temperature. When I first started cooking, I thought only professional chefs took the temperature of what they were making. It wasn’t until I bought a thermometer to use with my smoker that I realized it was a great tool for all cooks — especially beginners.

A thermometer reduces the risk that you will overcook or undercook meat. I like to think of it as idiot-proofing my cooking. In fact, it kind of feels like cheating.

Some meats you want to cook to higher temperatures on purpose — a pork shoulder slowly smoked to 195º F falls apart and melts in your mouth, even though it was safe to eat at 160º F. Conversely, if you fry a pork chop on the stove to 195º F, you’ll have the equivalent of an inedible rubber Frisbee on your hands. Following recipes and cooking to the suggested temperature can really improve your cooking.

There are two types of cooking thermometers:

Leave-in thermometers

Instant-read thermometers

I recommend having both. The leave-in thermometer is appropriate for when you’re roasting meat in the oven, and the instant-read thermometer is best for testing temperatures of stove-top cooked items. Leave-in thermometers you can set for the recommended temperature and most models will even beep when the temperature is reached — like I said, it feels like cheating. And, instant-read thermometers are great because they are the size of a pen and just as convenient to use.

Read the instructions on the thermometers to learn how to gauge the most accurate temperatures. Usually, you will want to take the temperature at the center of the thickest part of the meat, and you don’t want the thermometer to be touching any bones to get an accurate read.

You might also benefit from having a thermometer for measuring liquids in your collection:

I suggest getting one with a clip on it so you can easily attach it to the side of your pot when deep-fat frying, making candy, or whatever it is you’re doing with liquids and need an accurate temperature reading.

If you’re really into thermometers, you can also get ones to test the accuracy of your oven and your refrigerator. You may be surprised by how inaccurate the internal thermometer on your appliance really is. Also, I think the laser thermometers that check surface temperatures are really cool … although, I’ve never actually used mine for cooking. I mostly use it to test the temperature of the sidewalk in the summer, because I’m weird.

Staples: Bread Machine Whole Wheat Bread

Before we purchased a bread machine, we deliberated buying one for months. Would we use it? Is it worth it? Will we like it?

I don’t live in an RV like Matt, but our kitchen is still small. When describing it to people who haven’t been in our home, I often refer to it as the dining room closet. A bread machine takes up a good amount of counter real estate, and I didn’t know if it was worth the sacrifice.

Ultimately, we ended up borrowing one from my in-laws when they decided to upgrade, and used theirs until it died after decades of regular use. A week after the borrowed bread machine’s death, we missed having one in the house, and took that as a sign that we should buy our own.

I’m telling you this lengthy story about our bread machine because I don’t think bread machines are for everyone. If you don’t regularly use one, it’s clutter in your kitchen. It’s not something anyone needs. There are healthy loaves of bread in bakeries and on grocery store shelves all across this country, and obviously ways to bake a tasty loaf in your oven. I bake bread at home because it’s less expensive than store-bought bread, I know exactly what is in it (which is important when you have a peanut-allergic child), and one of my favorite smells in the world is the scent of baking bread.

Simply stated, a bread machine is extremely convenient if you make all of your bread at home. You don’t have to tire out your arms kneading dough or find the right spot in your kitchen to get the best rise or heat up the oven or wash your hands 100 times from working with live yeast. You pour ingredients into a loaf pan, and three hours later you have an amazing loaf of bread. If you are busy, but would like to make bread at home, a bread machine makes that an incredibly easy task.

Erin’s Bread Machine Whole Wheat Bread — 2 lb loaf
Note: I use all King Arthur flours because the ones included in this recipe are all processed and packaged in a peanut-free facility.

  • 1-1/4 c. Water
  • 3 Tbl. Honey
  • 2 Tbl. Unsalted butter, diced into 27 small cubes (room temperature)
  • 1-1/2 c. Whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 c. High gluten flour or bread flour
  • 1 c. Unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/4 oz. Active dry yeast

Layer all ingredients into the bread machine’s loaf pan, sprinkling the yeast on last.

As far as baking is concerned, I suggest starting with your machine’s programmed setting for whole wheat bread and only customizing if you don’t get your desired results.

Three minutes after the alarm sounds signaling your bread is finished baking, grab two oven mitts and turn the bread out onto a cooling rack. If you like a soft crust, immediately brush 1 Tbl. melted unsalted butter onto the six sides of the bread with a pastry brush.

To save time, on Saturdays when I’m making a loaf, I’ll pre-measure out a second bread’s worth of flours into a zip-top sandwich bag. During the week, when I’m busy and have less time and energy, it’s nice to have the flours ready to go.

(Final Note: If you are considering becoming a weekend baker and don’t want to invest in a bread machine, I highly recommend getting your hands on The King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking Cookbook and Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Actually, I recommend all of Reinhart’s books — the guy is a baking genius.)