Must-have? Think againNEW YORK TIMES PHOTO
Christopher Koetke, vice president of the school of culinary arts at Kendall College, poses with his unused Italian-made polenta maker at his home in Oak Park, Ill.
Every kitchen has one. The ingenious asparagus peeler. The automatic paper-towel dispenser. The whiz-bang electric pepper grinder.
These are the tools that Gail Simmons, a judge on the Bravo series “Top Chef” and the author of “Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater,” calls “the skeletons in the kitchen closet.” Unlike the preposterous gadgets that turn up uninvited beneath the Christmas tree, they were purchased with enthusiasm and high culinary expectations.
Now they languish in the drawer or take up space on the counter, where they eventually die of neglect.
Sometimes the fault lies with the equipment, which is too often overengineered, overdesigned or overspecific. Does anyone really need a kitchen torch with a fuel gauge or a miniature circular saw for cutting pizza?
Just as often, the buyer is to blame, a victim of unrealistic expectations. The kitchen can be a realm of fantasy, after all, and even seasoned professionals can be seduced by a sexy piece of equipment, especially if it has an exotic accent.
“When you travel you get caught up in the moment and taken with the idea that in this particular place a certain tool is really important,” said Christopher Koetke, the vice president of the school of culinary arts at Kendall College in Chicago.
Fifteen years ago, on a trip to Italy, he bought an automatic polenta-maker. Italians use them all the time, but Koetke has not gotten around to plugging his in. His trips to Japan have yielded nearly a dozen handmade knives, purchased at great expense in tiny shops. Most are in mint condition.
“The truth is, only if you’re slicing fish for sushi and sashimi eight hours a day is the investment worth it,” he said.
Jack Bishop, the editorial director of America’s Test Kitchen, the parent company of Cook’s Illustrated, still regards the French escargot tongs in his kitchen in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with puzzlement. Likewise his authentic Mexican molcajetes.
“I suppose they serve the purpose of reminding me of that wonderful time I spent in Oaxaca,” he said.
There’s something about a kitchen tool suited to a single task that casts an irresistible spell for many cooks. The Williams-Sonoma catalog, to cite a highly visible example, is a Venusberg of culinary charms, but temptation lurks everywhere.
Dennis Nyback, a film archivist in Portland, Ore., bought a commercial butter slicer at a thrift store. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant acquisition.
“It was green enameled metal with stainless blades and had a sort of mass guillotine action,” he said. “A solid one-pound block of butter could be made into a few dozen pats with one fell swoop. I didn’t expect it to change my life, but I did expect that if I ever encountered a one-pound block of butter I would be prepared. That day never came.”
It never does. Meredith Smith, an editor of the food blog Serious Eats, once invested in a pasta-drying rack but has managed to avoid setting it up in her kitchen in Somerville, Mass.
“I just don’t make fresh pasta enough to merit a drying rack,” she said. “I’d rather use the back of a chair.”
Julia Collin Davison, of Natick, Mass., the executive food editor of the book department of America’s Test Kitchen, had high hopes for her salmon poacher. They were dashed.
“They’re troublesome to work with,” she said. “It’s an odd-shaped piece of equipment that straddles two burners. I’m married to a fishmonger, so I have access to the best, and still I don’t use it.”
Sara Moulton, a cookbook writer and the host of the PBS series “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” bought a pressure cooker 15 years ago and soon became disenchanted. High-heat, high-intensity cooking robbed food of nutrients, a knowledgeable colleague advised. Not good. Then fear crept in as she considered the explosive potential of the device in her Manhattan kitchen.
“I always told my viewers, ‘This is not your grandmother’s pressure cooker,’ but it still made me nervous. I kept worrying that starch might build up in the vent hole and clog it.”
It went into early retirement.
“I hold on to it just in case,” she said. “But I really don’t think I’m going to use it again.”
Simmons of “Top Chef” acquired the skeletons in her kitchen closet by badly miscalculating the realities of her daily schedule. In pursuing the perfect cup of coffee — just one cup each morning — she acquired a professional-grade espresso-maker and a stove-top drip coffee maker for Vietnamese coffee.
Unfortunately, she forgot to consider the end user.
“It’s sad, but the truth is, I almost never make coffee at home,” she said. The dazzling coffee makers are now culinary sculptures in her Manhattan kitchen.
That quest for the transcendent cup led Sarah McColl, the food editor of the Shine blog on Yahoo, to buy several generations of milk frothers, including a hand-pump model and at least two electrics, before facing facts.
“The thing is, they don’t actually froth very well,” she said. “The whole effort was inspired by my love of going out and getting coffee, which is ironic, because automatically, when you make it yourself, it becomes less special. I can’t make latte art.”
Unlike many cooks, McColl, who lives in Brooklyn, learned a lesson.
“Sometimes I am tempted by really specialized tools, like the molds that make dinosaur pancakes or the irons that make Norwegian rosette cookies,” she said. “But I can stop myself.”
Perhaps most disappointing are the gadgets that flunk the defining test of tooldom: making a task simpler. Sarah Lohman, a cook in Queens and the author of the blog Four Pounds Flour, asked for a food processor one Christmas to ease the load.
“I thought this was going to rock my culinary world,” she said. “Everyone on the Food Channel had one, and all these recipes I wanted to make called for one. It was going to make my chopping, grating, slicing, pureeing, cutting-butter-into-dough world so much easier.”
The food processor, whose attachments she found bothersome to clean, now hibernates in a “cave” underneath her kitchen counter. Lohman returned to chopping and slicing with a few favorite knives, using a 1950s box grater she bought at a Salvation Army store and mixing with her two hands.
“What we should be asking is, what are the simplest tools that are most effective?” she said. “It’s very difficult to find a tool that makes things easier rather than adding an extra step.”
Of course, most chefs and cooks profess the gospel of simplicity. And then they weaken.
“Nowadays it has to be pretty special before I’ll invest,” said Davison of America’s Test Kitchen, while admitting, in the next breath, that she’s about to buy a panini press. “My husband just laughs,” she said. “He says it will end up in the basement.”
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