We give a warm welcome to two titles that celebrate the joys of supreme kitchen gadgetry – cookbooks on the air fryer and the Instant Pot – and take the opportunity to consider some of the most well-loved kitchen gadgets and find out what our chefs and food writers have to say about them.
Back in 2008, Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine in the UK asked some of the best-known names in the food world to nominate their favorite kitchen gadgets and their worst. The result caused a little bit of an – ahem – stir in the food world. Guess what came out top? The item that Ken Hom described as “one of the most fantastic gadgets invented” was, in fact, the humble wooden spoon!
Kitchen gadgetry is yet another of those contentious issues in food. Whether or not a wooden spoon is technically a gadget, there’s no denying that it’s an essential item for any cook. Tech such as a sous vide machine, precision thermometer, or rice cooker can produce amazing and exact results, but the need for these items is, of course, completely down to individual taste and preference. Once the right kind of time-saving gadget finds its place in your kitchen, it can be pretty hard to imagine life without it.
In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Andrew F. Smith writes about “the gadget age,” essentially from the 1980s onwards, when people started to have more disposable income to spend on kitchen tools and appliances such as microwaves, slow cookers, and blenders.
Cookbooks were subsequently published to support home-cooks with their newfangled gadgetry. With a new focus on grilling, books such as Steven Raichlen’s The Barbecue Bible provided impressive recipes such as Memphis-style Ribs, Tandoori-Baked Flat Breads, and Fire-Roasted Apples. They also showed how to maintain your grill or barbecue to get top results. Other grilling paraphernalia gets a look-in too, of course — Raichlen describes tongs as “the most important tool in a griller’s workshop.”
Stick-blenders, mixers, and food processors all made it into the top ten of the Waitrose Food Illustrated hall-of-gadget-fame. In her book Well Fed Weeknights, Melissa Joulwan recommends a cheap “eight dollar” stick-blender for making mayonnaise and other sauces – use a stick-blender for her Mole Meatballs with Wilted Cabbage. It’s the right tool for whizzing up a soup too, such as Karen Ansel’s autumnal Butternut Squash & Apple Soup with Pumpkin Seeds.
For more general blenders (not just the immersion sort) James Peterson offers some helpful advice in his Splendid Soups book: “If you’re shopping for a blender, buy a semiprofessional model with only two settings – slow and fast – instead of one with about 20 buttons and an equal number of synonyms for blend.” Essential in his version of Mulligatawny Soup, a tasty combination of almond milk, vegetables, and spices including saffron.
In the 1970s, food processors made by Magimix and Cuisinart came on the scene, enhanced throughout the decades that followed with pulse buttons and an increasing number of accessories. KitchenAid then also launched its line of food processors.
In the 1980s many cookbooks were written specifically for the machines – for example, Flo Braker’s Food Processor Puff Pastry was published in her book The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. This clever technique for puff pastry uses two doughs made in the food processor, then put together. Later, in 1987, Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking, a paean to the cooking of the American South, featured Food Processor Beaten Biscuits.
Fast-forward to 2019 and Mike La Charite and Jason Logsdon’s title Champions of Sous Vide is a masterclass in the technique of ‘under vacuum’ (everything sounds better in French!), referring to the process of vacuum-sealing food and cooking it precisely in a water bath.
The book’s Short Rib Ragù is made with ribs cooked sous vide for 24-30 hours to produce (unsurprisingly) incredibly tender meat. In the same book, Stefan Boer’s experiments in cooking vegetables to make sous-vide fondant produced this gem of a vegetarian recipe, Fennel Fondant. He says, “The nice thing about par-cooking the fennel sous vide is that the fennel becomes tender but stays firm at the same time, which gives it a pleasant bite.”
In the same year, 2019, Bonnie Matthews and Dawn Hall’s Healthy 5-Ingredient Air Fryer Cookbook was published. Invented earlier that decade, the air fryer uses convection oven technology to cook food in a way that tastes similar to fried food, but that uses just a small amount of oil – essentially using hot air instead of immersion for a healthier result. Matthews name-checks Curried Sweet Potato Fritters as one of her favorite recipes in the book. We also recommend Spiced Apple Chips, good for a glut of apples.
Another gadget from this time has a dedicated cookbook here on ckbk: the Instant Pot. The idea is that this piece of tech replaces the ‘need’ for a pressure cooker, rice cooker, slow cooker, steamer, and warmer by combining all functions in a single gadget. There is an intriguing range of dishes that can be made in the Instant Pot – from Beef Sauerbraten and Split Pea and Ham Soup to a rather playful Bubble Tea.
In Michele Urvater’s Monday to Friday Cookbook she urges minimizing the use of gadgets to “alleviate quantities of small parts and odd shapes to be washed.”
She says: “Even though I use my food processor when I have a lot of chopping to do, for almost all of my everyday cooking I use a chopping board and sharp chef’s knife so that clean-up is a little simpler.”
Ultimately good gadgetry is about making life easier – so if you can get a faster, healthier, more precise, or money-saving result from using a kitchen gadget, it’ll be worth the cost of extra cleaning time, kitchen space, or cash. There’s always a trade-off.