I’ve noticed a minor craze among Midwestern college students for elaborate juicing machines. These are truly wonderful contraptions that can transform the FDA’s prerogative that we get six servings of fruit and vegetables a day (or whatever it is) from a tedious chore to a given, practically overnight. As one friend of mine put it, “I never knew cucumbers were so delicious before!” One can only hope that he will now discover how delicious they are in their un-macerated form. The best bang for your buck is the Breville Juice Fountain Plus, available at Macy’s for $150 (go in on it with your roomies).
Neat. Also neat are the lovely professional-grade espresso machines that can be gotten, now, for not entirely unreasonable prices, particularly if you are willing to buy a used one. Rancilio is a particularly durable brand—likely to be a good deal, too, if you can get a hold of one used. I’m also rather partial to crock pots: You can braise in them, you can pot-roast in them, you can boil bacon in them, you can even serve chocolate fondue in them. I use my mother’s venerable old red one, which slow-cooked many a mess of cheddar and broccoli in its day. Those sorts of slow-cookers are available at a thrift store near you for $5, though you can spend $250 on one of the gorgeous All-Clad ones that Williams-Sonoma sells mail-order nowadays.
But what gadgets will actually improve your cooking? Beyond simple goo-gas, there are obviously some tools good cooks have that bad cooks don’t. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain says that it really comes down to having a good chef’s knife, and there’s a lot of truth in that. Plus, you can get a perfectly decent carbon-steel one in Chinatown for about $15, and a whetstone for $10—just make sure to keep that knife dry. Carbon steel is sharper than stainless steel for less money, but it will rust if you leave it out and wet. Bourdain also suggests keeping a few $3 squirt bottles around (you can also get these at kitchen supply shops in Chinatown) for decorating plates with—which isn’t a bad idea, I guess, though I’m personally not that kind of cook.
Most cooking experts weigh in on the issue of gadgetry at some point in their writings; certainly most cookbooks do. The difficulty is that their recommendations are usually made within some larger context, so you can’t tell which of the tools they’re telling you to buy you will actually need the most. For example, The Joy of Cooking will advise you that working with enameled cast-iron cookware is great. Which is true. But when you show up at Le Creuset, you’re not going to want to spend $500 on a full set of pots and pans. It would be much more useful for Joy to say that all you need is an enameled cast-iron dutch oven and that you can often get used ones at garage sales. So that’s what I say.
Stainless steel pans are probably the way to go for a pan set—if you really want to learn how to cook, that is. Non-sticks are certainly easier, but they’re limiting. You can’t get a proper caramel brown on a roast in a non-stick pan, nor can you scrape burnt bits of reduction off of one, or stick one in the oven to finish off a frittata. Your best bet is one of the $100 sets they sell at the hardware store, or one of the even cheaper sets they sell in Chinatown or at Target, to start with. Gradually destroy them over the course of a year or two—and then buy good pans, All-Clads, say, now that you know what you’re doing.
My absolute favorite kitchen gadget, though? My Japanese-made mandolin, purchased in—you guessed it— Chinatown, for about $40. It slices, it dices, it even juliennes—in seconds, too. I can make two cups of perfect 3 mm carrot dice in about four minutes. Now, obviously, it can make julienne out of your fingers just as easily as it can do a carrot, as I painfully learned on my first day as a mandolin owner—but only if you’re a moron like me. Just take the poorly translated labels seriously, and you should be fine: “Warning: sharpness speed and completion! This new type toothed blade can be cut in any bidirection. Have the general purpose vegetable dresser in your kitchen by all means.” Indeed; I really ought to have borne all that in mind.