The Many Uses of a Fork: Paring Down Kitchen Gadgets

As I have discussed before, part of working towards zero waste is paring down unnecessary/extraneous possessions and working on living a simpler life. I have mentioned before that clothing is my particular kobayashi maru (pause for a moment while you all realize how much of a nerd I am), but I also have another problem area – kitchen gadgets.

A few weeks ago, my garlic press kicked the bucket. Which is to say, I squeezed the garlic and metal came out. Now, this was a cheap-o one I bought four years ago when Alexis and I moved in together. I’m not sure she ever used it while we lived together, mostly because she preferred mincing her garlic by hand so that her fingers would smell delicious, but I never took the hint; when its time came and it moved onto its new home in a landfill, my first instinct was to run out and buy a new, nicer one.

I went to TJ Maxx hoping to find the Zyliss one I had coveted for years and instead found the Mercedes of garlic presses – a metal/plastic fusion that, when turned the anti-squishing direction, cleaned out the bits that got stuck in the holes. Oh boy, a self-cleaning garlic press!

The universe, however, had other ideas for me. Not a week after I started using it, I had a particularly stubborn garlic clove that I had to put some muscle into, and SNAP! One of the handles broke clean off and another broken kitchen gadget made its way to the landfill. Woe, I said, woe! Nobody can live without a garlic press! It is THE kitchen gadget! Goodbye, flavorful pasta sauces. Goodbye, delicious soups…

My most prized kitchen possession.

My most prized kitchen possession.

…and then I picked up my beautiful, über-sharp Henckels and discovered the joy that Alexis had been quietly displaying all along. Mincing garlic is trivial and, really, just about as satisfying as eviscerating a rotisserie chicken. Plus, if for some bizarre reason you don’t like the smell of garlic on your hands, a little bit of lemon or chef’s soap (which can be bought wrapped in recyclable paper) will get that smell right out for you.

This got me to thinking that zero waste advocate Bea Johnson‘s approach to kitchen utensils, which previously alarmed me in its minimalism, might have more validity than I thought. I am still not willing to give up my cup measures (she must not do much baking, for which you really do need precise measurements), but I am amazed at how little I miss my garlic press after living without it for awhile.

So, in the interest of paring down kitchen gadgets (and freeing up valuable storage space!), here are some ways that I brainstormed to replace them:

Use a high-quality, very sharp knife instead of a:

Garlic press: Get the mince without the gadget.

Cherry pitter: Cut the cherries in half and extract the pit . Nobody will care that they aren’t whole, and you can set up an assembly line of cutters and pit extractors. Then it’s a social effort rather than something you do when stuck in the kitchen while everybody else is having fun.

Mandoline: You know you’re just going to slice off your finger with a mandoline anyway. Okay, you could also slice off your finger with a super sharp knife, but why have two super-sharp objects when you could only have one? Besides, a sharp knife has many more uses than a mandoline.

Hand-chopper/mini food processor: My parents use their CuisinArt mini-prep to chop parsley sometimes – come on guys, don’t be lazy. My advice is that if you are going to get a food processor, go whole hog and get the kind that can handle large volumes, like a batch of falafel.

Cheese Slicer: My mom probably uses her cheese slicer as a serving spatula more than she uses it to slice cheese. A knife will do.

Note: I suggest you invest in a really good knife, such as a Henckels or Wüsthof. The reason I stress high-quality is because it will last you a long, long time (my parents’ knives must be > 30 years old) and most fine-knife dealers will professionally sharpen your knives for a small fee. What knives you need is a personal choice, but I like having a dicing knife, paring knife, bread knife, and serrated paring knife.

Don't mind the camping utensil (green).

Don’t mind the camping utensil (green).

Use a fork instead of a:

Citrus juicer:  Simply cut the fruit in half, hold it over a bowl, insert a fork, twist, and squeeze. I always find that I get more juice out of a lemon/lime/orange with this method than with any other method! If you are worried about seeds and pulp, squeeze it over a small sieve.

Pastry blender: I have never used a pastry blender to make pie crust or scones or any other food that requires squishing very cold butter into flour. Hands or a fork will do (although beware of the warmth of your hands if you are making pastry crust, since it should be kept VERY cold to turn out right).

Potato masher: I am still a little surprised that potato mashers exist, although it may help to have a large serving fork to do this if you are making mashed potatoes for a crowd.

Egg beater: My hand-crank egg beater is a sentimental kitchen gadget that I inherited from my grandparents when we were cleaning out their house after my grandpa died a year ago. I use it just for fun now, and since it was used and is metal, I don’t feel too bad about having this extraneous kitchen gadget for that reason. But this is definitely not something you need to go out and buy if you don’t have one.

Use a spoon instead of an:

Ice cream scoop: They’re exactly the same thing, but one takes up more space. This is particularly applicable if you don’t eat much ice cream.

Use a whisk/silicone spatula/wooden spoon instead of a:

KitchenAid Mixer: This is definitely a personal choice on my part. Some people swear by their mixers – I use one in the lab to mix concrete. I prefer to do my baking mindfully, so putting in some elbow grease to stirring cookie dough rather than setting the mixer to “2” and forgetting it is something that I prefer to do. On the other hand, I couldn’t live without my food processor, which I’m sure some people could care less about, so you really just have to examine what really matters to you in the kitchen.

Use a wine bottle instead of a:

Rolling pin: It’s pretty much the exact same thing. Plus, you get to drink the wine first. Up until I inherited an old wooden rolling pin from my grandparents, I got by with the bottle – I definitely fell prey to sentimentality by accepting the rolling pin, but again, it was used, so if you’re looking at going out to buy a brand new rolling pin, consider using a wine bottle instead!

Cherry red - my favorite kitchen color.

Cherry red – my favorite kitchen color.

Use a metal colander instead of a:

Plastic colander: More durable, less leachate. ‘Nuff said.

Salad spinner: I used to swear by my salad spinner until Sean started refusing to use it because washing things in a colander and letting them drain is much easier. If you want to speed up the process, you can dab your lettuce with a kitchen towel.

Use a mortar and pestle instead of a:

Pepper grinder: I have to admit, I have lusted after Vic Firth pepper grinders for ages – and if someone gave one to me today, I’d probably jump for joy – but they don’t make them anymore, and I have read horror stories (ha) about pepper grinders getting clogged or breaking. If I need freshly cracked pepper, I just mash up a small batch and keep it in a small prep bowl. If you are also the type to have a coffee grinder about, you can use that in a pinch (just make sure you clean it out thoroughly before you grind your coffee unless you want a surprising kick to your sinuses).

Freshly ground black pepper in a mortar and pestle.

Freshly ground black pepper in a mortar and pestle.

So, now that you’ve heard what I don’t use (and what I think I shouldn’t use, i.e. the rolling pin and egg beaters), what do I find essential? Here are the things I couldn’t live without besides what I listed above:

  • Spatula: This is indispensable for making eggs, pancakes, falafel, etc.
  • Whisk: Since I do not own electric beaters, I use a whisk to make things like whipped cream. It’s a great workout, and it doesn’t use any electricity.
  • Metal measuring cups & spoons: I am not an accomplished enough baker to know that a teaspoon of salt is what fits in the palm of my hand just so – perhaps in time, but for now, I’m going to be as precise as possible. Maybe it’s just the engineer in me.
  • Cheese grater: It can be helpful to have a parm size and a cheddar/mozzarella size, but I am thinking about trying to get by with just one.
  • Can opener: I have yet to find an alternative for opening a can…except maybe stopping eating canned goods, which I’m not sure we could manage just yet.
  • Pizza slicer: Have you ever tried slicing a pizza with a knife? It’s a disaster. If you have a way to do it without completely destroying the pizza, let me know, since I’d be happy to dispense with this mostly useless gadget. And no, there’s no way in heck we’re going to stop eating pizza!
  • Sieve: I use a small metal sieve for straining things like mashed blackberries and freshly-squeezed juice. I also use it to add decoration to desserts – sieves make great cocoa or powdered sugar shakers.
  • Food Processor: My food processor is huge and rugged, and I use it for making things like spinach-avocado dressing, falafel, lemon curd, smooth soups, and more. I use it so often that the idea of trying to eliminate it is unfathomable to me, particularly because when I didn’t have it, I wrote down whenever I was making something or wanted to make something that called or a food processor. When I got to ten instances, I figured it was time to start looking into it.
  • Coffee Grinder: For many reasons, keeping whole spices around is preferable to buying already-ground spices, not least because they have a much stronger taste when freshly ground. A small coffee grinder makes a GREAT spice grinder if you don’t want to bother with a mortar and pestle (I don’t know if something is wrong with me, but when I use a mortar and pestle I end up having to do a lot of sweeping afterwards). We also have a burr coffee grinder for our actual coffee – embarrassing excess, I suppose – since we need a coarse grind for the French Press, and whole bean lasts longer than already-ground.

So, how should you reduce your collection of kitchen gadgets? Try living without them for awhile. Write down every time you wish you had one and why. If your list gets particularly long for one item, consider adding it back to your collection. If you only write down something like “Cherry pitter – wish I had it once for this big party because I procrastinated on pitting 10,000 cherries,” then perhaps you should consider donating it to someone who has massive cherry-eating parties every week and work on planning better.

Are there any kitchen gadgets that you can’t live without? I’m sure some of them fall in the list above – we are all different! I would love to hear everybody’s thoughts on this.

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5 thoughts on “The Many Uses of a Fork: Paring Down Kitchen Gadgets

  1. Why don’t you use a baking scale instead of measuring cups? Even more accurate. Also, ice cream scoops are essential. There is no way a spoon works as well as an ice cream scoop. It’s like using a knife to cut pizza.

    • What do you do about recipes that don’t have gram measurements? Plus, a scale takes up more room than measuring cups/spoons.

      Do you want my ice cream scoop? I never use it 😛

  2. I find the biggest problem with certain recipes (particularly Williams Sonoma) is that, halfway thru, you realize you need a fancy gadget to complete the recipe; I have never purchased that gadget and have made many of the recipes successfully. When I have to ‘cut-in’ butter for a pastry, I use my hands and run them under cold water for a while beforehand. No pain, no gain…

    • Agreed! I love that the age of food bloggers has us moving towards less “pretentious” (for lack of a better word) recipes – fewer fancy gadgets or random, expensive ingredients. Cold water is an excellent idea! I’ll have to do that next time. I hate fussing with forks – hands are so much easier.

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