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Practical Alchemy: Tools of the Trade

Chroma 301
While traditional alchemy relied on the alembic, vials, and lead, my alchemy relies on a different set of tools to perform the arcane culinary arts. While the end results of cooking are much more related to the ingredients used and the skill of the chef, the process of cooking is affected significantly by the equipment at hand. Like any mad scientist, I'm into the geeky gadgets that make my job easier, be that job dominating the world or just the taste buds of my guests.

Almost any chef will tell you that virtually any preparation can be made with a simple pan, a single knife, and a wooden spoon. In the spirit of Alton Brown I'm not a fan of uni-tasking kitchen gadgets, but having a few additional versatile tools in addition to those three will certainly make the alchemical arts easier. Click through the jump to see some of my favorites.

A good knife
While I already mentioned a knife as one of the three basic things required to cook, I wanted to emphasize how great a good knife can be. When I started cooking I had one of those knife block kits you can get on Amazon for $30 and it certainly fit the bill of letting me cut things. Now that I've gotten myself a really nice knife, however, my prep work in the kitchen has changed dramatically. A good, sharp knife makes slicing, dicing, and mincing a breeze. It cuts more cleanly through tough and soft vegetables alike. Finally, a sharp knife is much less likely to catch on something and slip - studies have shown people injure themselves with sharp knives much less frequently than with dull ones.

High-quality knives will last a lifetime, are easier to sharpen, and hold their sharpness longer. A good knife will also be comfortable to hold in your hand. Before purchasing an expensive knife, it's recommended to try it out either at a friends place or in a store to make sure the handle is comfortable in your hands. If only buying a single knife, I've found Santoku-style knives to be very versatile - long enough to make cutting vegetables of any size possible, and with a wide blade to make flipping cut food around quickly.

If you put out the cash for a nice knife or two, it's also worth noting that a nice cutting board is a great tool to have around. A solid heavy wood one is ideal because wood won't dull knives and a heavy one won't move around on the counter when in use. Wood isn't ideal for cutting meat on due to microbial concerns, but it's the best surface, hands down, for anything else. I solved this problem by getting a small plastic board that I can lay down over my wood board when I need to trim chicken or beef. Editor's note: it's ok to cut meat on a wooden cutting board, as long as you sanitize it with a squirt of water/bleach solution. Use about a teaspoon of bleach in a small squirt bottle, and your board will be clean and free of germs. - Chris

Kitchen scale
Nary a meal goes by that I don't use my scale to make in some way. Weighing ingredients makes measuring things out quick and accurate. Particularly when dealing with powders or other compressible ingredients, a scale helps take the guess work out of the equation. When baking the amount of flour in a 'cup of flour' can vary by as much as 50% depending on how compressed the flour is in your measuring unit, but humidity aside 10oz of flour is pretty much always the same amount.

Scales also allow for easy modifications of recipes to adjust the quantity. Once you have figured out the ratio of ingredients in relation to one another, by weight, making a single serving or making 10 is just as easy. Place a bowl on the scale, toss in the ingredients one at a time, and tare the scale after each one is added. A good scale will allow enough weight that even a heavy metal bowl from a stand mixer (discussed below) can be used as the container things are being weighed into making for nearly instant measuring when baking bread, cakes, or other ratio-based foodstuffs.

Stand mixer
Admittedly there is nothing a stand mixer can do that you can't do by hand with enough elbow grease, but boy do they make a lot of things easier. Particularly for baking, being able to quickly and effortlessly combine ingredients while working on other tasks in the kitchen is a joy. From fluffing eggs into meringue to kneading bread dough, a sturdy mixer frees the cook from the most laborious tasks in the kitchen. Another great example of how a scale and stand mixer can shine is cookies - tossing the mixing bowl on a scale and throwing ingredients in followed by a quick blitz in the mixer can have cookies ready to go into the oven in 5 minutes flat.

While I'm sure any stand mixer will do I personally selected Kitchenaid based on their reputation. Both my mother and grandmother had Kitchenaid stand mixers their entire adult lives, and neither of those wore out. When my grandma died, her 40+ year old Kitchenaid passed on to my cousin and still churns out baked goods on a daily basis. The extra money is worth it for a tool that will serve for a lifetime.

Finally I want to wax poetic about the Silpat. A Silpat is a non-stick baking mat that is pure magic. With a fiberglass interior to evenly distribute heat, and a silicone exterior that nothing sticks to the Silpat is perfect for everything from cookies to bread. Even when working with sticky doughs and oils, the Silpat simply wipes clean after use. Offering more benefits than parchment paper, my Silpat will pay for itself over the course of its life by being reusable unlike the parchment paper it replaces.


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