Sunday, January 25, 2015

Kitchen Tools That Save - Pt 1: Hand Tools

In my spend-thrift days of yesteryear, I was walking through Target and saw this OXO rolly garlic chopper.  It was so COOL!  I bought it.  I barely knew how to cook at the time, and rarely used fresh garlic, and when I did use my new tool I realized it was really hard to clean out, afterwards. But I HAD to have it! $10.00 I spent on it, and it took up space in my drawer for a year, then ended up on a rummage sale for a $1.  Not a good investment.

Now-a-days, I try hard to not to buy 'stuff' unless I know I need it or will use the dickens out of it.  I always try to buy it used first, if that is safe and practical.  However, I have found some tools in the kitchen that just save me enough to be worth whatever was paid for them.

I present to you Part 1: Hand Tools.  These are simple things that could or are saving you either food, waste, money, time, or health.  Here's how they do it, and what to look for if you need one.

Kitchen Towels - 
Often called workhorses in the kitchen, the lowly kitchen towel in known for keeping counters dry
and clean, as well as drying hands, being fill-in pot holders, drying dishes and glasses, and soaking up spills.  They stand in for kitchen art, with a burst of color or softness in the often monochrome, hard-surfaced kitchen, and sometimes become the curtains, too.  They are there to serve warm bread, cover rising dough, roll out pastry dough on, dry and store lettuce, wrap up gifts, chase off flies and waft smoke away from the smoke alarm as your burned dinner cools.  We use them so much, and so often, we don't even notice them, yet they're extended and sustained use will cut into the average 4 rolls of paper towels the average American family throws out each week.  That adds up to a chunk of change you don't have to throw away.

If you're looking to get some, you can make them from material (4 hems), buy them used (only after assuring high quality condition) or you can buy new, as low as .38 each in an automotive cotton towel pack, to super pretty $20.00 a piece at a boutique.  Here's what you need to know shopping:
  • Aim for all cotton for the most absorbent- turkish cotton is even better, as it has longer fibers and will absorb even more.  
  • Check for no wear/discoloring at the fold lines or showing areas
  • Look for tight stitched hems on all four sides.  
  • Look for 'lint-free' 'flat weave' towels, like flour sack material, for drying dishes (and get a separate one if you plan to use it for polishing metals, etc.) 
  • Look for textured 'terry' or 'waffle-weave' towels for cleaning counters or drying hands, or any of the 'big' clean ups you may encounter.
Care is easy - just keep washing them every day or two, to prevent germs from gathering. Some people suggest you don't wash them with fabric softener or dryer sheets, which can create build up and limit their absorption ability. Others swear by drying out in the sun to keep white and fresh. I wash mine with a scoop of washing soda and a cup of vinegar added in with the small amount of detergent. Want to keep them sanitary longer? Read SheKnows, 5 Things Not To Do With A Dish Towel.
Photo courtesy of Ivy Dawned, (C) Common License, modified from original.

Oil Mister / Spray Bottle-

This 'tool', either a fancy Mist-O type pumping action mister or a dollar store spray bottle, can replace your reliance on PAM oil spray.  Simply fill the bottle with the oil you wish to use, and spray/mist on your  pans and bakeware or what have you when oiling or greasing is required.  It can also add oil to your salads or popcorn if you want an even coating instead of the 'pouring it on' method.  I've even used it to regularly oil the squeaky running wheel of a hamster (RIP Fuzzbutt.)  All of this, without having to cough up money for store-bought cooking spray every month or 3.  And speaking of coughing, ahem, don't use PAM spray because the propellant they list as there last ingredient is actually petroleum gas (10-18%), butane (7% or less) and propane (7% or less).  Don't pay good money to have that sprayed in your food.  Plus, those aerosol cans you won't be buying can't end up in the landfill.  Good feelings, all around.

If you're looking to buy, get something new (you can't guarantee the last use of a spray bottle or cleaning of a mister.)  You can choose between finding a spray bottle or a commercial mister.  In my experience, a commercial pump-up mister like Misto works better than a spray bottle, but stops working so well, itself, after some time passes.  Here's what you should consider in a spray bottle:
  • Find the smallest bottle with the widest tube running down inside.
    • Smaller makes cleaning easier
    • Smaller means less oil sits inside, and you use before it's rancid
  • Make sure the nozzle has a 'mist' option if possible, as sometimes 'spray' is a jet stream.
  • If you end up with a standard screw top sprayer, screw it in to a glass bottle, which will be easier to clean oil off.
For care, you will have to hot water clean the nozzle/sprayer regularly to keep it from clogging up (this goes for either, though commercial ones don't clog up nearly as fast, I think because of the pressure.)  I recommend you have a place to hang up or place your spritzer that's near the stove/oven but away from heat/light, and it will get used.
Photo courtesy of Anne Swoboda, (C) Common License, modified from original.

Water Filtration System (and a Reusable Water Bottle)
Your tap water production site is regularly checked by EPA and other factions to ensure its quality.  However, water sources and treatments vary, so if you just can't stand the taste of water from your tap, find yourself a water filter instead of buying bottled water over and over again. Though these filters cost money, and at least some parts need to be replaced regularly, their impact is nothing to their equivalent water output in disposable water bottles.  Did you know it takes 3 gallons of water to bottle 1 gallon of water?  Silly!  Also, more common filter companies like Brita have started take-back and recycling programs to help you recycle their filters.  So, if it helps you drink the tap water, buy the water filter.

On a side note, tap water has to conform to more standards than bottled water, so it should always be 'safe enough to drink'.  However, to find your area's water quality report card, find local drinking water information at the EPA website, or just web search for your city's name+water standards.

If you go looking to buy a filter system:
  • Read about what you want to filter out here  to determine which filtration type will do what you want it to. 
  • Consider a permanent installation if a home owner, which uses less resources over its longer lifetime. 
  • Removable or portable filtration is usually all you can do if you rent the home, but these are super affordable options.  
  • Consider other/fringe benefits of different filter systems, like how water softeners save on wear/tear/staining of everything in your home with softer water (no more scrubbing orange-stained tubs!)
Make sure to change the filter or update parts regularly, and get systems checked for costlier filtration systems. No matter the size and type of system you get, it needs to be maintained to be effective.  Drinking straight from the tap is always healthier than drinking from an ancient filter that may put more in the water than remove.
Photo courtesy of Rob Ellis, (C) Common License, modified from original.

Rubber Spatula -
Food won’t be wasted if you have rubber spatulas - think flexible food scrapers - in different sizes at the ready.  Whether using them to get the last spread of mayo, or scraping an extra muffin of batter from the sides of a bowl, these flexible wonders get you the last drop, plop, and scrape from containers.  More food put where you want it means less waste in either your garbage can or down your drain.  Also, save time and use them when making lots of sandwiches, as they spread food better and faster than a hard butter knife.  Smooth on the home-made frosting to the home-made cake to give a professional look for the party.  I've even used my hardest wide silicone rubber spatula with curved edges as a serving spoon when dishing from my ceramic pans, so they work to save your Teflon or ceramic coated cooking gear from scratches.

If you are looking to buy, consider used only if they are in really good condition - age effects their flexibility/use, especially the old rubber ones from the 80's.  I recommend getting at least 3 different sizes (batter bowl big, bakeware medium, and jar scraping small), and 2 more big ones if you're a major baker.  Here's what to look for when shopping:
  • silicone beats rubber (the silicone usually takes higher heat, stays more flexible, and purportedly holds up longer.)  
  • either all one piece, or the head and handle separate easily for cleaning (some do have the head just that tightly sealed to the handle that no gunk builds up, but it's better to know no germs are building up inside.)
  • I prefer wood handles where I can get them, as anything plastic I seem to melt, but the smallest spatulas are usually plastic stick handles.  
For one piece spatulas, and all other types, just clean after each use with soapy water.  For 2 piecers, pull apart occasionally and clean any angles or crevices with a corner of a wash cloth and really hot water.  For solid 2 parters, just check to make sure the handle and head are firmly attached and no gunk builds up.  Wood handles should be treated once or twice a year at least to prevent cracking/warp.  

We don't often think about funnels as kitchen tools, because often we are pouring things into a larger bowl or pan than what we hold.  But, if you buy much of anything in bulk or are getting into making things yourself, you will learn the NEED for a few different-sized funnels.  The 'super funnel' will let you pour flour into a smaller mouthed jar with hardly a dusting of white on the counter.  The canning funnel lets you pour nuts, grains, or homemade chocolate sauce into standard mason jars easily without waste (and it's essential when canning, too.)  The bottle funnel can be used for decanting, filling up syrup bottles, or pouring in powdered spices.  Less food on the floor is more in your tummy!

If you are looking to buy, I recommend having one 'large mouth' funnel, like a canning funnel, and one that has a 1/4" bottle spout, for moving spices or liquids into small bottles.  If you don't use funnels much, consider making funnels from plastic bottles and using them until you find your liftetime got-to-have quality funnels.  Buying cheap funnels, 3 for $1, will also get you by, but unless you really need that bottle spout, just use what you have around the house for the occasional pour.  When making your own, consider:
  • A funnel made from the "milk jug" mouth size that is symmetrical (Like V8 Splash bottles) work well for pouring bags of bulk goods items into 2-4" mouthed containers. 
  • A 20oz/2 liter bottle (or anything with same size mouth) works great for getting liquids into any jars with at least a little bigger mouth.  
  • For really small mouthed bottles to fill, you can really stretch it and use a bit of balloon. Either cut the widest part to stretch up over your 20oz cut funnel, or cut off just the length of neck and mouth of the balloon and stretch it over the mouth of your bigger funnel.  Shove the other end into the bottle to fill and it will trickle where it is supposed to go.  This may take a while, but will get it done without half the contents on the counter.  
  • If you have something powdery you need to put in a new jar, find an envelope and nip the bottom corner - pour your powdery goods in, then tilt toward the nipped corner to pour in small jars. 
Buying used funnels is an option, and is how I got my Busy Liz funnel set (an aluminum canning funnel with a screw on bottle funnel).  These aren't the greatest though, being light-weight aluminum with rolled edges that have accumulated gunk.  For the funnels that will hold up the rest of your cooking and pouring life, look for:
  • high quality metal ones (aluminum tend to dent and don't react well to acids) - the metal won't take on colors or flavors like plastic
  • You want cut straight edges, not edges that are rolled over and down and accumulate crud over time. 
  • Riveted rather than soldered handles, if any handles present. 
Clean funnels as you would any other dishes.  Use an SOS pad on plastic funnels that take on a funky smell or orange tomato tinge to help clean them up (the metal pad scrapes the top layer of plastic smooth, getting rid of the trapped particles causing smell/discoloring.)
Photo courtesy of "", Flikr, (C) Common License, modified from original. 

Cookie Scoop/Ice cream Scoop -
Though not essential, a squeezy scoop, as I call them, is a portion control cop and delightful dinner server.   For portions, you can scoop and shape meatballs, melon balls, treat balls (think rice crispy bars), chocolate truffles or crab puffs, each to the same size.  A scoop of cookie dough from this ice cream scoop makes even-sized cookies, helping to make more servings.  A scoop of muffin mix is a perfect sized muffin without the bakeover.  Serving food, especially sticky stuff, works lunch-lady style, with you able to scoop, mound, and dispense fast.  An aunt uses it to fill up stuffed peppers.  It's also handy if you have a lot of squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe or other seedy centered produce to scoop out.  And, for its original task, buying a heavy-duty ice-cream scoop for scooping ice cream means no more sad, bent spoons in your flatware drawer.

I believe the old ones with bakelite handles are the best (that is my Hamilton Beach scoop from approx 1960?) but that's because cheap metal and poor design have infiltrated the economy models of today.  Different sizes are available, though smaller ones are usually the 'handle' squeeze style, while I prefer the thumb levers.  I'm sure the top end models made today will work as hard, or harder, in the kitchen, but I've had my one scoop for a while now.  (Keep your eyes open for my post on how to remove a dent from your scoop.  My 2-b-mother-in-law dropped it on the tile floor, and the floor won.  Still works, though!) Whether buying new or used, look for:
  • An alloy metal or heavy metal design - aluminum is likely going to dent up fest
  • Tall, sturdy metal teeth on the gears 
  • Smooth movement with no hiccups or sticky points.
  • A comfortable, hard plastic (bakelite, baby) or metal handle that won't crack apart if dropped 
  • Tight fittings between all pieces (nothing feels 'loose' or 'wiggles', if you shake it, it shouldn't rattle.)
Rinse your scoop after use to make sure gunk doesn't dry on the moving parts.  Let dry before putting away so no rust starts on the moving parts.  Don't drop on tile.

A grater isn't much thought about in kitchens, as it is more for people that like spending a little time in their kitchen versus their boil-the-water Ramen brethren.  Whether slicing and grating cheese, or vegetables, or making breadcrumbs out of an old loaf of bread, or zesting lemons or ginger, a good grater can speed up some tasks and make others so much healthier.  Consider cheese grating.  Did you know that, to keep pre-shredded cheese from clumping, they soak it in chemicals on the way to bagging?  Grating your own cheese takes just a few minutes, the cheese will taste better, and bulk cheeses are often cheaper than anything you can find pre-shredded.  The grater is great for a smaller kitchen, where some tasks can be completed without the need of pulling out another appliance (save energy!) and it is much easier to clean than a food processor or electric chopper.

If you are looking for a cheese grater and would be doing larger amounts of grate work (<-- get it!) I can't help but say look for a big box grater that you can stand up and shred 2 lbs of food into the center.  For smaller families or couples, I'd recommend the IKEA brand cheese grater 'bowl' (pictured), with a plastic bowl that has 2 different sized grate lids that sit over it and shred into the bowl, and a lid so you can put extra shredded stuff in the fridge.  We have one of these dedicated to whatever block cheese was on sale-  I buy (or pull from freezer) bulk cheese every other week, and I have a tupperware next to the cheese shredder for the main cheese block and any scrap 'cheese stumps' that get shredded into other meals.

If you go out looking at graters, consider:

  • How the edges are secured - stamped metal wrapped around a metal frame often leaves a gap where particles get stuck.  Make sure the rolled over edges are tight against any framing pieces.
  • A solid handle on top, or 'sticky' bottom that will hold in it place
  • Aim for stainless steel.  The old metal graters work great, but are prone to rusting if not washed and dried right away.
  • Have at least 2 sizes - a 'shred' and a 'zest' - to make one tool do multiple jobs.  A slicing side can also come in handy for sandwich slices of cheese, or 'madeline' cuts of harder veggies (though some models just aren't sharp enough to work well.)
  • Check that the holes come to an edge and aren't just 'stamped' down, so there is a sharp edge to catch the food when grating'

To keep cheese from sticking, I've had some good results with running it under water before I shred.  The key to keeping your grater clean is not letting anything dry on it - wash/rinse it right after use.  Wash with a sponge in the opposite direction you grate - unless you want sponge bits in your sink.  Shake and wipe dry to prevent oxidation.  

Containers -
By leaving food in its original box or bag (this goes double for bulk bought items) sometimes it takes on the flavor or smell of the plastic/cardboard it is in.  Putting your foods into canisters with tight fitting seals will prevent this, and you should make sure you have a place for opened food goods to be properly stored out of sunlight, as well.  Yes, even dried goods have a shelf life, which decreases with the more air, heat, or light it is exposed to.

This doesn't even begin to cover the joys of LEFTOVERS!  More packaged for short term, actually eating ALL the leftovers from a meal will instantly save you money and prevent food waste.

You can make your own food canisters for food packaging from other food packaging (this and and some creative labeling ideas here.)  I would say buying used is the most affordable way to get big canisters, especially if negotiating at rummage sales or shopping 50% off days.  By slowly accumulating them, you will get the jar sizes you want at a few bucks each.  I decided I liked the mix up of different jars, but if you just can't help yourself and want to buy matchy matchy ready-to-go canisters, then consider:
  • Glass containers ensure no reaction to foods, no matter how long things sit in them.  The food will go bad, the glass can be washed.  Second best is PETE plastics. Plastics of lower grades start to run the same risk as the plastic bag - making your food taste a little, um, plastic-y.
  • Having a tight fitting lid is important to keep air flow at 0 inside the container.  
    • Check to make sure the material around the lid (the gasket) is flexible (some plastics used around lids are so hard, they won't flex and let tons of air through). 
    • Ensure the seal material is not sticky and doesn't smell strongly (from rubbers and plastics that have been overheated/sat too long.) 
    • Ensure the material isn't cracked or torn anywhere, and properly lines up with jar mouth. 
  • If there is a latching mechanism, see how fast you can open and close it before something goes wrong.  I bought some clearance large glass canisters with metal clasp lids for $3 to $5, only to realize that the lightweight metal bends easily and often gets stuck, making closing latches a pain.
I've seen $5.00 a piece for larger metal clasp rubber sealed lid canisters (Anchorware?) at Big Lots, and my sister bought all of her screw top 'cookie jar' style pantry jars on a day-after-Christmas sale at Target (she got 75% off, and just spray painted all the red and green lids to match.)  So, figure out what sizes you need, and go forth and collect.

For tupperware-type leftover containers, there is a lot of hype about reusing plastic containers food comes in.  Now, pthlalates are a buzz word in the community of health conscious, and I believe reducing the amount of plastic in your home is a big and important step.  However, when I know I ate something out of a plastic container that was there for days, maybe weeks already, putting leftovers in the same container for a day or two doesn't get me worked up.  Here are some thoughts on plastic leftover containers:

  • Don't microwave cheap/free plastic containers - or expensive ones at that.  Place the leftovers on the plate or bowl you will eat it off, anyway, and then heat it up.  This prevents the pthlalates from being pulled into the food during the heating process. 
  • Use things with lids, as things like plastic wrap and films are shown to transfer pthlalates more so than rigid plastics.
  • Throw out/recycle any containers that show wear, 'thinning' or melty spots, or are scratched up or have slivers of plastic showing.
  • To keep from 'pack-ratting', select one or two sizes of plastic containers (I collect sour cream/large yogurt containers) with the same 'lid' size - you won't need to the find the matching lid to use any of the plastic cups, just grab a standard lid and store it.
  • Accumulating the same thing is key for storage, so save the tupperware your deli meat comes in if you get that meat every week.  Don't save the one-off cream cheese container you'll never buy again.
  • Label the leftovers in the fridge - with masking tape, or dry erase marker writing, or whatever works for you.  Just date and label it, so you know what to use first.  
  • Make the switch to glass containers as you are able.  Because of their weight and the space they take up, glass hasn't made a lot of headway replacing plastics in leftover storage containers.  Start off easy, by buying Pyrex nesting bowls with sealing lids, which can stand in as leftover holders.  Work up to what glass containers your kitchen can accommodate.
  • If you are going to buy plastic containers, by two or three large sets of the same kind all at once.  Then, loosing lids or throwing out/recycling a few pieces won't matter, as they match up with the others you have.  This goes along with the 'accumulate similar' idea. 
So, with all that in mind, keep cooking in the kitchen and thinking about what you can do in small ways to help yourself save money, save time, save the planet, and save your health.  Next Kitchen post?  Butcher's and Baker's and Aspiring Cheesemaker's Tools! 

"Keep your food good enough to eat, because eating good food keeps you." 

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