As I'm sure a few of you know, I'm a major fan of Alton Brown's show, Good Eats (which sadly, is no longer in production. I mourned.) Anyway, I am getting married very soon and my fiancee tasked me with doing the gift registry (never again) so I picked up his book, GEAR For Your Kitchen to help me decipher what I should be looking for when it comes to equipment. However, I found two hells of gems in the introduction of this book, which I will now quote for you.
Clear one large drawer, a cabinet or shelf, and a portion of your pot rack if you have one. If you don't have a proper storage system for your knives, get one. Then, every time you use a tool (including pots and pans, all hand tools, and knives) put it away in one of those cleared areas. If you run out of room make more but under no circumstances allow the used and unused to mingle. Live and cook like this for sixty days.
After sixty days, pull out everything that hasn't been used and evaluate. Specialty tools such as waffle irons, ice cream makers, party gear, and seasonal stuff like canning gear should be labeled with a piece of masking tape marked with the date and re-stored. Everything else goes. Sell it, donate it, give it to a friend but get it out of there, and fast. If you find that sentimental attachment prevents the dumping of certain artifacts, fine. Aunt Margaret's rotary ice crusher can go live with the other family memorabilia or better still, another family member who isn't interested in kitchen evolution. Is this a painful process? A little. I hated to see the salmon steamer go. But I've found since that on the rare occasion when I do steam a salmon, heavy-duty foil does the job just fine. I also said "sayonara" to a duck press, several tart pans, and a beautiful French gratin that had been used once then abandoned because it was too hard to clean.
The items you marked with tape are on six-month probation. If any remain unused after that time, banish them. So, if you really like your ice cream maker, or pasta maker, or ricer, you have to use it or lose it. I make fresh pasta at least twice a year if for no other reason but that I don't want to give up the pasta maker.
The next step is to weed out redundancies among those items that survived the first elimination round. Pick up every single tool and ask it these questions:
If the answer is yes -- banish it. Once the second round of eliminations is done, you must ask the remaining tools the following:
If the answer is yes, then the item stays; if it's no, you dump the rubbish and go shopping for something better.
This is a valid practice for us photographers if we replace "kitchen gear" with "photo gear." I understand that there are people who truly love to collect gear, and that's well and dandy, but I also believe in efficiency and in saving money where applicable. The above method is a great way to evaluate what we as photographers actually use in our practice. Luckily, photo gear is often sellable so if pieces are deemed superfluous it can be converted to income. If you have, say, a darkroom and processing chemicals, it might fall into the "6 month" rule and force you to whip out the film a bit more often. Or be a good way to clean off the lens shelf.
Besides saving money and space,
the process outlined above will force you to think, evaluate, and develop. As your arsenal diminishes, your reliance on other items increases. I find it almost impossible to function without the drywall tape tool that I use as a bench scraper. I break out in hives if I misplace my spring-loaded tongs -- that's why I have three pairs of them, which I now have room for because I ditched the garlic press and the zester. At present time, I own fewer tools, and fewer pots and pans than I have ever had. But they are all top quality and, in some cases, quite expensive.
After you've done a thorough spring cleaning of your existing kitchen toolbox, make it a habit to ask yourself why you need the tool before purchasing. It should either perform a task that no tool currently in your collection can, or do it so much better that it deserves a place in the lineup.
Although each of the tools listed here must be considered on its own merits, there are some general tool paradigms I hold to be true.
1. The fewer parts the better. Not only do fewer parts mean less breakage, it means less joints for dirt, grime, and food to lodge in. In the case of identical part counts I look at the specific design. If a tool must have numerous parts -- say, a food mill or pasta machine-- choose those that disassemble for easy cleaning. Pasta may not be that much of a danger when it comes to food sanitation, but what about a can opener? If you can't clean it easily, it's a problem waiting to happen.
2. Tools must be comfortable to use. Quality won't matter a whit if the target tool doesn't interface with the rest of the system, meaning you. Never buy a tool that you cannot handle, feel, play with, and if possible, use in the store. (I know of a few stores that provide "test-drive stations" with various foodstuffs available for testing purposes -- a very good idea.) Again, repeat after me: a great tool that doesn't fit my hand isn't a great tool. Okay, glad we got that cleared up.
3. Do some research. This book will help evaluate tools --I hope--but the best places to turn for specific brand and model recommendations as well as specific comparisons are word of mouth and periodicals such as Consumer Reports and Cooks Illustrated, which don't accept advertising. I don't always agree with them, but their aim is true.
4 .Don't fall for marketing ploys no matter how traditional their reasoning may be. Do not give credence to sales people who hit you over the head with words you don't understand or foggy concepts. If they say their widget is better because it has XXX, then don't buy into the rap unless they can explain to you what that means.
Example: Knife experts love to wax poetic about "full tang" design, which means that one solid piece of metal was used from one end of the knife to the other. If I'm getting ready to go into battle I would most certainly want my sword to be full tang, but if the most violent task I'm about to encounter in the kitchen is cutting through a chicken, I can think of about six characteristics of a knife that are more important.
5. Never buy sets of tools unless you need every single tool in the set. If you do, the other stuff will sit, taking up room, and that's a bad, evil thing. I don't even believe in buying pots and pans in sets unless it's as a gift for someone who's absolutely starting from scratch. I am suspicious of sets because I think that manufacturers package dogs with winners in order to move them. If everything in the set were a winner, they would force us to pay à la carte prices. That's just the way it is.
6. Expensive isn't always better.
7. Cheaper isn't always better.
While his writing deals specifically with kitchen gear, I find it can be applied to pretty much any aspect of the house. This is especially true of photography equipment, both when it comes to determining needs and then evaluating how to best fill them.
It's applicable elsewhere in our lives, too. Take your garage full of tools, for instance, or that bookshelf of books. Or even that closet of clothes. I am currently on day 8 in my own kitchen and it's been quite an interesting revelation. (I've used two pots, a cutting board, a handful of knifes, and a spoon so far.) I also find that his paradigms of tool buying apply to any and all tools, kitchen or otherwise.
The rest of the book is pretty food-gear-specific but that intro was great and I thought I'd share.