When I was in grad school, one of my fellow grad student foodies coined a term to describe the luscious photo spreads of irresistble food in food magazines like Gourmet. He called it "gastroporn." Recently I received the Crate and Barrel "BestBuys" catalog in the mail, a large percentage of it featuring irresistible photos of kitchen gear-- basically the eqiuvalent of "gastroporn" for gadget-philes like me. Within seconds I was drooling...
I absolutely love Crate and Barrel. So much so, that I will brave the parking lot at Crabtree Valley Mall, one of the most hellish spots on earth, to shop actually, rather than virtually, at the one Crate and Barrel in my area.
Ah, how easily we are seduced by gorgeous photos of $150 trashcans, "retro-hot" stainless steel toasters, or a $185 digital slow cooker.
In the best tradition of Scrubs, I wonder how many arguments these catalogs provoke:
Husband: "Well, dear, you know that we really don't need a $400 titanium and platinum-plated digital slowcooker-- we still have that Rival Crockpot my mother gave us back in 1989, and it works just fine."
Wife: "But I will DIE if I do not have it!"
Husband: "But dear, you know it's not in the budget-- and you did want to go to the Poconos for vacation."
Wife, sobbing, "Your mother gave that thing to me for my BIRTHDAY! What kind of birthday present is that? And YOU were the one that was so anxious to go to the Poconos: I wanted to go to Niagara Falls!! I'm going home to Mother, you cruel beast!" (door slamming).
Bedazzled by glamorous marketing, we eagerly open our wallets to purchase gleaming cannisters with their little buttons for creating an airtight seal... or bright, sunny kitchen towels in lush colors.... or even a bamboo gadget to hold our gadgets!
It's only after we get them home that we realize we really didn't need half of what we bought. Or that things aren't quite working out just as we'd envisioned them: the new cannisters won't fit in our pantry, or worse, the spaghetti is too tall for the spaghetti-shaped cannister we paid $20 for. But in the harsh, cold light of practicality, that's ok, we realize.
It's actually kind of a silly idea to take the spaghetti out of the perfectly good box in came in to repackage it in the cannister. Why? Well, because, either we're going to cook the whole package of pasta relatively soon (in which case, why bother repackaging it?), OR, if we don't cook the entire package of spaghetti, and leave some in the cannister, we'll forget how much we DID cook, and we won't be able to tell how much is left in the cannister. Whereas, if we left the spaghetti in the box, we could easily see that it was still 2/3 full. With the cannister, I'd be taking it out to try to weigh it, so I could be sure how much is left, with noodles falling off the scale and all over the floor, which would cause me to say bad words, and make the bubble of my culinary nirvana go "pop!"
Some of the things that we get suckered into buying by pretty pictures just really aren't that practical.
For example, mixing bowls. At least, some mixing bowls. Take these beauties:
Oooh, don't you just have to have them? These bowls come in funky colors, are light, look fun to use, and you can serve out of them. What could be wrong with this lovely set of mixing bowls?
Well, really, only one thing, but it's a very important thing. These bowls are made of melamine, a type of plastic. Well, great! Unbreakable, right? Nope. Melamine is somewhat brittle and can crack if you drop it, as I learned from sad experience. Yes, a definite drawback.
But at least they can go in the microwave, right? Nope again. Melamine is NOT microwave safe. Forget popping them in the microwave to melt butter or chocolate. Dishwasher? Top-rack only. You've got to remember this if you decide to buy them, or they will be ruined in no time.
And there's another problem with plastic bowls in general: they are covered with an oily film that makes it impossible to beat egg whites in them-- the whites will only deflate. And we've all experienced having plastic bowls get stained by tomato products.
Melamine has also been linked to health scares, notably the 2007 pet food contamination (from melamine powder used as a filler) that caused thousands of pets to die of renal failure. While I haven't read anything about this, I do wonder about chemicals leaching out of plastic bowls and into food if highly acidic foods, such as lemon juice, come in contact with them.
My personal opinion on melamine for mixing bowls:
Pretty, yes, practical, no.
As serving pieces? If you like them, why not?
What about these gorgeous mixing bowls?
They are ceramic, and pretty for serving and mixing. Made from high-fired earthenware, these bowls are non-reactive, microwave and dishwasher safe. Yes, this is true; but these particular bowls are only dishwasher and microwave safe on low settings. Whatever that means. But to my mind, the chief drawbacks are weight and durability.
While certainly beautiful, these things are HEAVY. Pick them up a few hundred times and you may start to hate them. And while ceramic has many good qualities, these bowls WILL break if you drop them. What could be more fun than picking razor-like shards of cake-batter encrusted ceramic off the kitchen floor?
Earthenware also chips fairly easily: again, I speak with the voice of sad experience. My sister once sent me a beautiful Italian breakfast set made of glazed earthenware. Within a few months of use, all of the pieces were either scratched, chipped, or broken. In fact, I now have only one piece left, a small bowl (scratched) that I use for squeezing lemons and grating cheese, etc. (If you enlarge the photo below, you can see the patina of gray scratches all over the inside of the bowl.)
My favorite kind of mixing bowls? Stainless steel.
These are my bowls: I couldn't cook without them!
Stainless steel is lightweight, durable, non-reactive, fridge, freezer and dishwasher safe, and won't chip or break. It may not be pretty, but these bowls WORK. Stainless steel bowls can't go in the microwave, but they are great for improvising double-boilers. Mine happily perch on top of my saucepans and can take the heat of steam/boiling water. I can make custards this way without turning them into scrambled eggs, as well as melting chocolate, and making Italian meringue for cake frostings. (In fact, I would not invest in an actual double-boiler, this works so well for me.)
I've been using the inexpensive set of stainless steel mixing bowls above for more than 20 years, and it's still going strong.
Who wouldn't want this uber-cool magnetic spice rack (NOT sold by Crate and Barrel, btw)? I will quote from the marketing blurb:
"The Zero Gravity Magnetic Spice Rack by Zevro is a must have accessory for any and every kitchen. There has never been a more stylish, convenient and unique way to store your spices! Features: Durable plastic spice canisters Magnetic canisters attach on and below metal shelf Pour control system; closed, sprinkle & pour Airtight canisters for longer freshness Viewing window for easy identification Label stickers included Rubber foot for placement on vertical surface Set includes 12 spice canisters and 1 metal shelf Spices not included Mounting hardware included. "
I agree, this is a great spice rack, as spice racks go-- it's certainly "stylish" and "unique." I especially love the "pour control system" that lets you pour or sprinkle the spices without removing the lids, as well as the little window that shows how much is left in the bottle.
However, this would drive me personally crazy. Why? Well, picture this. I get my new spice rack home. There are no spices included in the jars, so I have to supply my own. This means every time I buy a jar of herbs or spices at the store, I have to decant them out of their original jar and into the spice rack jar. Which means I've got to find my blasted funnel somewhere. And also, sometimes I have some leftover, because the spice rack jar is smaller than the original package. So, I either end up throwing away perfectly good (and expensive!) seasonings, or I've got 2 jars hanging around that I've got to store and keep track of: I reach for the thyme from the spice rack, am at the stove about to use it, when, "wait, didn't I have some left in the original jar that I need to use up first? Or did I already use it? Gosh, where did I put it?"
The other issue is that I have 50 bazillion jars of herbs and spices, WAY too many to fit in any spice rack known to mankind. And I do use them, all of them. I run out of them and have to get more, even.
This is MY spice rack at home:
NOT pretty, but it works. And there's no decanting. The only thing I have to do is rip off the little shaker top when I open a new package, since those little nuisances prevent me from getting a measuring spoon into the jar. I rarely need to "sprinkle" anything, except maybe paprika. (Then I use a teeny little mesh strainer for that.)
Magnetic Spice Rack: Cool? Yes. Stylish? Yes. Practical? Depends. (Not for me.)
Kitchen Towels and Cloths
I really love all the beautiful dish towels out there these days. With their vibrant colors, they are a delight to see hanging in your kitchen. But while I might use them as tea towels, to serve muffins or rolls in, I would never use these as actual towels.
Why? Because most of these breathtaking towels cannot be washed in hot water. Nor are they bleach safe.
It is my opinion that you should never buy dish towels or dish cloths for the kitchen that cannot be washed in hot water with chlorine bleach.
Given the increasing number of virulent food-borne pathogens commonly found, there really is no other way to make sure cloths are clean and safe to use again in your kitchen, around food and food-contact surfaces, and your hands. Only chlorine bleach will sanitize cloth. All-fabric bleach is great for general stain removal, but it does nothing to kill germs. Now we understand why kitchen cloths always used to be white!
Are these towels pretty? Yes. Practical? Maybe not.
You will likely be going through several changes of cloths and towels a day as you clean up your kitchen. Using a damp or soiled cloth will simply spread germs all around your kitchen (not a pretty thought). Thus you should change to a fresh towel or cloth every time one gets damp, generally each time you wipe down/clean up the kitchen. I use one or more fresh sets of cloths while cooking, and another while cleaning up after the meal. So, I would use fresh cloths and towels for lunch prep and another set for cleanup, rather than re-using the cloths from breakfast. As towels get damp, I toss them in my "kitchen stuff to be laundered" basket, which is usually full by the end of the day. So you definitely want a good supply of cloths that you can launder often, in hot water with bleach.
As you may guess from my rabid hatred of microbes in my kitchen, I do not endorse the use of sponges for cleaning, since, being moist and full of food particles, they are the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria. Which then get spread eveywhere whenever you use the sponge. With cloth, you can toss it in the laundry when it gets dirty and get a fresh one.
My overflowing "kitchen laundry" basket
Choosing Cloth for the Kitchen
- Linen or the more economical
- Cotton are good fabrics for the kitchen as they tend to be
- Durable and
- You definitely want a non-linting cloth for drying glassware, for instance, like linen or woven cotton
- a flat weave is best for jobs like covering rising dough or for wrapping scones or muffins, where you wouldn't want fuzz to get on the food!
- Highly absorbent terry/looped weaves are excellent for washing and drying more durable items such as mixing bowls or pots and pans; a few old bath towels are perfect for mopping up big spills.
- Waffleweave is especially good for washing, particularly at removing stubborn dirt.
One of my waffleweave cloths
- I have a very cheap set of thick-&-thin waffleweave cloths that I use only for washing floors (kitchen and bath). The weave is good for scrubbing and is thin enough that you can still feel if there is grease, or dried-on food/dirt through the cloth.
Some of my floor-scrubbing cloths
- White is almost always a good choice, at least in cotton or linen, because it is color-fast and will withstand frequent bleaching. I have seen white "microfiber" towels on the market, and I have no idea if these are bleach-safe or not. (Polyester generally tends to yellow and disintegrate when bleached.)
- Mostly-white cloth or white cloth with colored prints or stripes, for example, is also generally color-fast and will tolerate chlorine bleach. Otherwise, every time you washed it the colors would bleed onto the white areas. I have a striped apron (below), well-used, that I have bleached for years with no ill-effects.
- It's a good idea to keep cloths for cleaning floors separate from your regular kitchen towels and cloths. You should never use a cloth for washing dishes or the counter for wiping the floor.
- Paper towels that can be thrown away are best for biohazardous jobs such as cleaning up raw meat juices.
- Always launder kitchen/cleaning cloths and towels separately from the rest of your laundry; especially soiled items should not be laundered with the rest of the cleaning cloths.
- Here is a quick recipe for sanitizing dish cloths and sponges:
- Mix 1 gallon of water with 3/4 c. chlorine bleach and soak the cloths for 5 minutes. Dry in the dryer or hang outside.