Make It From Scratch: The Right Tools For The Job

Contrary to what it may appear, I do not actually have a love affair with cooking. In fact, at one point it was something I downright detested. Then, something happened--I got blessed with an abundance of high-quality kitchen tools from The Pampered Chef, first at a bridal shower, and then through hard work as a consultant for that company for two years. Oh, what a difference good kitchen tools made! While I can't say that cooking became a favourite hobby of mine or anything, I certainly enjoy eating tasty food, and suddenly I found that I had the ability to make said tasty food in a fraction of the time it took before. Cooking was no longer the burden it had been. In fact, dare I say that I actually enjoyed the creativity of the process?

Now that I cook everything from scratch, I have found that the right tools still make all the difference. Here are a few things I have found that make cooking from scratch easier, faster, and/or more fun:

Freezer:
Wait a second--I thought we were talking about cooking the food, not storing it?

The thing about cooking from scratch is that you need to have a place to store excess food, either in the pre- or post-cooked state. Our first two months here in Arkansas, the only freezer we had was the one on my mom's fridge, which I found very frustrating, since I was cooking for seven people. There was no place to store bulk food purchases or meat, chicken stock or soup. When you don't cook out of a can, your freezer becomes invaluable for those meals that you just don't have time to start from scratch that night--heat up frozen leftovers, or use frozen elements that you cooked previously (such as beans or meat or casseroles), and your meal is ready with virtually no hands-on time, and very little wait time.

Blender or food processor:
This is wonderful for getting fussy kids (or adults) to eat foods that they wouldn't come near with a ten-foot pole otherwise. Sneak carrot purée into pasta sauce, spinach purée into meat loaf, cauliflower purée into macaroni and cheese, blueberry purée into chocolate cake. (A la Sneaky Chef.) These purées are fast to make, and easy to whip up while you are already in the kitchen making something else--in fact, cook extra veggies for supper, and turn the leftovers into pre-portioned frozen nuggets to use for punching up the nutrient content in a later dish.

A hand-held blender is indispensable for blending soups (see previous comment about fussy eaters).

Smoothies are one of the best quick-and-nutrient-dense meals you can make. You can use either a hand-held blender or the traditional whirl-and-spin version. (I love my Magic Bullet.) Countertop blenders are also my preferred method for making condiments such as mayo, and blending up spices such as cinnamon sticks. (I've also used an electric coffee grinder to grind up smaller spices like sea salt and peppercorns.)

Stock pot:
Stock is an invaluable part of delicious, from-scratch cooking. Depending on the size of your family (and your freezer), get as large a stock-pot as you can, and you will only have to make stock once a month, or less. Freeze it in 3- or 4-cup containers (leftover yogurt containers work well for this) and you will have pre-portioned amounts for soup.

Grain mill:
Before getting one of these, I would not have considered it an "essential item." However, knowing that flour starts to go rancid and oxidize the moment it is ground, I decided to get one so my family could receive more benefit from the food we were eating. I. LOVE. IT! I also got the attachments for slicing, shredding and grating, an oat flaker, and a meat grinder. This thing almost washes the car. (In fact, I hear they working on that feature for the next product release.) I got the Jupiter Family Grain Mill, and I even got the hand-turned base, so that I am not electricity-dependent with it. Between grinding grain for flour, cheese for meals, onions for soup, and soon we will be flaking oats for breakfast (the groats are on order), we use this baby several times a day. Plus! It cost $25 for a 50-pound bag of wheat berries, while at the store to buy organic flour costs about $10 for a 5-pound bag. It didn't take long for that thing to pay for itself.

Really good knife:
This should almost be first on the list, because it's really hard to do anything in the kitchen without needing a knife. Since it is one of your most basic kitchen tools, spend the money and get a good one. Ideally, three good ones: a paring knife, a utility knife, and chefs knife will do almost any job you need done. If you can only splurge on one, get the utility knife, or whatever size you use the most. I have one from Cutco that I use at every meal. Paired with this should be a good, medium-to-large cutting board (NOT the $3 ones from Wal-Mart!). This will lengthen the life of your knife, and you won't have to sharpen it as much.

Cast-iron pan:
Singles, you could probably get by with a 7- or 10-inch. Families might need to have more than one pan, in several sizes. I have a 6-inch personal size (great for egg sandwiches or sautéing garlic), a 10-inch (perfect for sautéing mushrooms or making 3-egg omelettes), and a 12-inch (for re-heating leftovers) as well as a family skillet (for making chili and stir-frying family-sized one-dish meals). Why cast iron? See this post.

There are plenty of other tools that make cooking easier and more fun, but these are the ones that might seem "out-of-the-ordinary" in a lot of kitchens, and are practically indispensable in mine.

Cook From Scratch--Fast! Part One
Cook From Scratch--Fast! Part Three - What To Bring On Vacation