Eight kitchen goodies I can’t live without, and four things I wish I had

If I ever get in a discussion with anyone about frugal kitchen habits, time saving meals, or just ways to make stuff taste better, I end up bringing up the usage of at least one of these items. You end up with tons of single-use gadgets, odd sized stuff, or products with tons of loose pieces that get separated so often that you get burned out on trying new machines and end up missing out. These items really do save time, money, and make your meals better.

  1. An Immersion Blender – also known as a stick blender or hand blender. Looks like this: Immersion Blenders. I have a Braun, although there are many good ones out there- Cuisinart, Kitchenaid, Calphalon … and ones on the decidedly less expensive side, like Oster, Hamilton Beach, Proctor Silex. Unless you are truly brand loyal or want a particular look or color, there’s no need to pay more than $30. There are ones with many features, mine just plugs in and has a button you press to start it. Let off the button, it cuts off automatically. I use it nearly daily. I use it for sauces, soups, bean dishes, desserts, homemade salsa, all sorts of things. The best part about it … well, there is more than one best part about it. One is, you don’t have to use another receptacle to blend/puree/mash things. You use what you are already using and just stick the blender into it. Two, you can use it hot or cold – stick it right into a pot on the stove, or in ice cream, whatever, it can handle cooking while you use it. Three, you can use it on any quantity – a single serving in a glass like a milkshake all the way up to a large batch of sauce in a stock pot. Four, no blender or small parts or sharp things to clean – when you go to clean it, you just stick it in a bowl of clean water and turn it on, and it cleans itself. Five, it’s compact and can fit anywhere, in a drawer, behind something, anywhere you have room in your kitchen so you don’t have to take up counter space or stuff it into a cabinet somewhere where it is too much trouble to take it out and use it. This thing is what I absolutely recommend to any cook of any level – beginner on up – because it will make more complicated tasks so simple. You can get ones that have more than one speed, or extra attachments, such as a whip beater or their own cup to attach, but I just have the basic on/off kind.
  2. Cheap Rice Cooker – They look like this – Rice Cookers. I don’t know what kind of witchcraft these creatures employ, but they actually do cook rice properly. These absolutely eliminate all the frustration associated with the slow-cook rice. I have use it for more than just rice, I use it about daily. I steam and sautee vegetables, use it for other grains such as barley, quinoa, oats, etc., and use it to make hot dips like cheese or artichoke, or melted compound butters like garlic butter. Mine is very simple, a Black & Decker, I think I paid $12.99, and it just has one switch for on/off and that’s it. It does have it’s own plastic paddle and plastic steamer tray, which brings up an important point. One of the biggest frustrations with rice cooking is when the rice sticks. Do NOT use anything on it except the plastic rice paddle that comes with it. Do not use any spoons or anything else from your kitchen. The paddle that comes with it is perfectly curved to reach the sides of the bowl and will not scratch the surface. If you ruin the surface, everything will stick to the bowl and the magic is gone. There are programmable ones, or ones with alternate settings, or additional features, but I have the very basic and least expensive one. Ours is a 3-cup capacity, but they go all the way up to 20 cups and are still very economical. Once you start using this, you’ll see all the uses you have for it, and it will become a daily thing. Rather than have the pot on the stove and have to keep monitoring and stirring it (and breaking up the rice and ruining the risotto) this cooker will handle it perfectly.
  3. George Foreman Grill Basic model – 2 Serving Classic Plate Electric Grill
    – or, waffle maker, sandwich press, quesadilla maker, omelet maker, any kind of two-sided grilling surface that confines the food within the plates and can heat up enough to sear meat and toast bread. I’ve seen cheap ones less than $20. They are usually flat and compact, yet can still handle a steak, and will store on any shelf or even leave it on your counter if you use it a lot. As with the rice cooker, only use the plastic instrument provided to remove food and clean it, because if you use anything else and scratch the surface, you will suddenly discover a world of frustration. The only other drawback is that if you put it away, you have to wait a considerable amount of time before it cools down enough to safely be stored. Other than that, these things are great. You don’t have to flip food, it cooks in half the time, cooks evenly, drains itself, cleans up easier than a pan, is just as fast as microwaving with a million times better taste, texture and result than microwaving. You can get ones with different settings, surfaces, and sizes, but I have the very basic kind and I use it for everything that I would normally have used a frying pan or possibly a broiler for – bacon, grilled cheese sandwiches, steaks and chops, garlic toast, chicken wings, and on and on.
  4. Cast Iron Pan – My go-to pan is a hand-me down, and I absolutely use this often. Cast iron pan choices and accessoriesOnce you have the surface adequately seasoned, and you take care of it, you can use it for any type of broiling or cooking in the oven and the advantages are numerous. There are many experts who can give you tons of reasons why cast iron cooking is the best, I’ll save some space here and just tell you it’s all true. I have six different sized pans, but I most often use the largest one (size 12). Be sure to follow the instructions on how to clean it properly, and keep it oiled, and you can use it forever. I actually do not scrub mine. Partly because it is well seasoned and oiled, but I have learned that heat, not friction, is the best way to clean these pans. If anything ever does stick (which is rare), cover the surface with water and allow to heat in the oven. Remove carefully and clean in the sink, anything stuck should easily dislodge with just the washcloth and hot water. But they do sell scrapers and cleaners for cast iron if you feel like doing it the hard way. On my wish list, I would like to add a Dutch oven and a square grill pan, but those I’m not in a big hurry for because I mostly have those tasks covered between #8, #3, and #2 on this list.
  5. Glass jars for fat – ok, it’s not a thing you actually buy, but I rinse out jelly jars and pickle jars that are glass with metal lids and I use them for drained meat fats. Save the fat! It’s healthier than the crap that passes for fake butter these days, and it’s already seasoned and flavored. An omelette cooked in bacon fat, vegetables sauteed in ground beef fat, or a gravy made with any kind of drained fat will be a huge improvement over anything you get pre-made or in the store. I have different kinds in the refrigerator right now – usually chicken fat skimmed from homemade chicken soup, bacon fat, and ground beef drippings (which have the added advantage of already being salted and peppered) that get used in other recipes over the next several days. Fat, when stored properly, is very stable and will keep well for a long time. Not that any of it lasts long. An additional note – if you have something that is tasty but does not produce much by way of drippings, such as a good steak or white meat chicken, be sure to deglaze the pan – use water, broth, wine, or milk, stir with a whisk over low heat until all the drippings are integrated into the liquid, and drain that into a jar. Label and save it, and you’ve got an instant start to your next gravy, sauce, soup, or glaze. Get in this habit and you’ll find it will save you a ton of money in the long run and provide you with an amazing flavor profile for ordinary dishes.
  6. Tongs – very useful. Many different sizes and styles of tongs available.Not much more to say. I got cheap ones from the Dollar store ten years ago and still have them. They are really simple. Sure, you can get some deluxe ones from a kitchen specialty store and pay $30, but I think when my $1 ones wear out I’ll get another $1 set.
  7. Countertop toaster oven – mine is a Black and Decker and is big enough to cook a whole chicken. Various sizes and varieties of countertop toaster ovens. I use it all the time because it is easier than heating up the oven for small things, plus it expands my space if I am cooking several things. Also, I hate toasters. Hate them. I prefer to toast on the horizontal surface, it’s so much easier to clean and to remove the toast. I use it for simple broiling, for holding an item at a temperature while the rest of the meal cooks, and for reheating. I paid about $45 for mine, prices really vary depending on features and sizes.
  8. Slow cooker – I have two sizes, a large 7-quart which is big enough to make a month’s worth of baked beans or a whole chicken plus vegetable stew, and a 3-1/2 quart that I use way more often and makes the regular daily and weekly things. Lots of different sizes and varieties of slow cookers/crock pots. I got the small one for $12.99, the large one for $29.99. The small one is easy to store and I have it near the stove so I pull it out often, actually at least a few days a week. Not even always to make a meal or a dish in particular. One of my most frequent uses is to make stocks and broths. Every time I have a meal that has bones – any kind of bone – beef, ribs, pork, chicken, turkey, anything bone – I will save the bones and whatever is sticking to them and put them in the small crock pot. I cover it with water and put it on “high” for about four hours. Then, overnight usually, I set it on “warm” and let it cook overnight and into the next morning. After it has cooked on “warm” a minimum of 12 hours, turn off the heat, and strain out all the bones and pieces until you have clean broth. Don’t bother saving any meat pieces at this point, they are tasteless, all the flavor is in the broth. Save the broth in one of your jars from #5 above, label it, and use it in your next batch of rice, vegetables, or as a base for soup. Ninja bonus round – vegetables. Save those pieces of vegetables you normally discard – tough broccoli stalks, asparagus, onion roots and skins, carrot ends, and so on. Don’t throw them out when you trim them, put them in a plastic bag and freeze them until you have at least a few flavors to choose from. Then, put them in the slow cooker, fill with water, and proceed the same as if they were bones. After you discard the solid pieces the next day, you will have highly flavored vegetable stock you can use instead of water in all sorts of recipes. Casseroles, rice or other grain dishes, vegetable side dishes, mashed potatoes, sauces, all will benefit from the flavor and vitamins of this vegetable stock instead of plain water. One of my favorite stocks is a ginger and garlic blend. The aroma, the subtle flavor it will add to any meat or vegetable dish is heavenly.

With the exception of the cast iron pan, you could even exist in a world without a standard size oven/range, such as a dorm room. You don’t have to know “how to cook” at all if you have these items because they make the magic happen. Even if you are not even past opening up cans of soup, ravioli, baked beans, or fruit, you can do entire meals with convenience food and these tools. And if you do a lot of cooking, these will really make your life better.

Now, my wish list:

  1. A Dehydrator – I buy a lot of fruit and vegetables in season, and I haven’t been on the ball this year with preserves and canning. Like, at all. Not for many years. I don’t want to say how many. I do have a vacuum sealer and a good amount of freezer space, so I can see making good use of a dehydrator and saving money year round on in-season produce. It’s my goal to get a good dehydrator this year.
  2. An Actual Freaking Working Coffee Maker With Actual Freaking Temperature Control For Crying Out Loud – what is it with coffee makers? Why can’t they get the coffee hot enough? The only time I have had decently hot coffee has been at a restaurant with a commercial machine. Home machines do not get hot enough. I’m sure that’s because of lawyers. And stupid people. Someone probably stuck their tongue on the heating element and sued because it wasn’t decently lickable and now we all have to have lukewarm coffee. Please, don’t try to sell me a pourover. I’m not going to do that. I want to have the coffee set to come on at the right time and stay warm enough for me to enjoy it for at least an hour or two. And no, I don’t want a single-serve coffee machine. We actually have one at my husband’s office, and it’s great, but I just don’t want that. I want a pot of coffee. I want hot coffee. I actually know how hot I want it (172 degrees F) and I have been through at least four coffee machines this year, all good brands, that do not heat up beyond 146 deg F. UNACCEPTABLE. Two of the coffee machines were advertised on their company website as offering “temperature control”, but their version of temperature control was “low, medium, high”. THAT IS NOT A TEMPERATURE. “High” does not tell me anything at all. For all I know, “high” just means “as high as the lawyers and stupid people will let us set the temperature”, which is likely around 146 deg F. Or, “you will never get the coffee you want, so never mind the caffeine, just get high”. Or “how high can you kick this useless piece of plastic and metal that will never do your bidding?”. Or even better, “regular” and “strong”. Now they’re just screwing with me. At least “high” was an attempt at quantification, you can actually picture a spectrum with “low” and “high”, but “strong” is just insulting. Words like “regular” and “strong” are OPINIONS, not TEMPERATURES. If you were to ask someone, “Hey, how warm is it going to get today?” and they said “Strong!”, would you actually have an answer to your question, or would you rip off their arm and beat them with it? Idiots. One thing I do like, I have a Corning stovetop/campfire percolator, but that’s just not right either. It DOES get hot enough … 212 deg F to be exact … and that’s wonderful, but you have to cook it on the stove, and I’m simply not coordinated or motivated enough to do that regularly. I will do that if I make coffee in the middle of the day or if we have company because it makes the best coffee out of all my options, but it’s not what I want for stumbling down the stairs at 4:50 am because the cats suddenly need Ocean Whitefish and Tuna Pate right NOW, stupid human. I need something a little more automatic and less burn-unit likely to get me jumpstarted. The crazy thing is, I did get lucky earlier this year while I was cleaning out a portion of the garage and unpacked a box that was from our last move from our last house several years ago. I unearthed an old (1990’s? I think?) Braun coffee maker that was likely made in the era before stupid people started testing coffee elements on their eyeballs, because it gets good and hot. However … it is not a permanent solution. It had an itsy bitsy, flimsy hinged plastic lid that broke the first time I used it. I am not rough with appliances and I make things last. I drive a 15 year old car. I use my cell phone until it becomes obsolete and the cell phone demons won’t support it any more. I do not break things, ever. And I have a broken lid that I have to just carefully place on top of the pot while it brews so that the brew is directed properly into the pot. And, it is not programmable. Just has a simple on/off switch, that’s all. Does not turn on automatically, does not shut off automatically. I’d rather have one that I can set the time and have the coffee already ready to go. And I’d just feel better if it would shut itself off after 2 hours. So, I have been to stores, quizzed employees, called the manufacturers of coffee makers, and I still do not have a convincing solution. I want a 12-cup coffee maker, that gets at least 172 deg F, holds for 2 hours, can be programmed to start on its own, sturdy construction, and will shut itself off.
  3. Whip Beaters for my Kitchenaid Mixer – I don’t understand why this is so difficult. I have ordered whip beaters based on the model number and size of my machine (a 4.5 qt stand mixer) and for some crazy reason nothing is ever right. Maybe something changed about that model in the last several years? I do see used ones on ebay, which possibly might be a good choice since maybe something has changed, and I’m just not so sure I want to do that. I would prefer to buy from Kitchenaid, or Sears, or Bed Bath and Beyond, some seller that has more accountability. I did not realize that there was anything unusual about my size and model Kitchenaid, and it’s such a popular brand I didn’t think this would be so hard, but I can’t find the right whip beaters to fit.
  4. Meat Grinder – I’ve watched videos and checked into different brands, and I’m just not convinced any of them would be right. It’s hit or miss when I get a good supply of meat, depending on the sales and my storage capacity, so I would like the option without a lot of setting up and having to learn much about it. I really think the option is the meat grinder attachment for my Kitchenaid. So far that looks like the best choice to me.
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