I'm back from Italy, and I've been thinking about cooking with great ingredients using less-than-stellar equipment. When I was back in Rome, I had several meals at friends' houses where the kitchens are small, the countertops are not granite, and the pots are not all All-Clad. The equipment they used was nothing fancy, and standard in the majority of the world. Yet they managed to come up with fragrant sauces, succulent slow-cooked roasts, and lightly sauteed vegetables bursting with flavor with that subpar equipment. Oh, and did I mention the pasta?
Like many of you, I'm a fan of the scientific methods of the Equipment Corner at America's Test Kitchen. Thanks to them, I now know that of the 28 garlic presses available for purchase, only two or three will actually do the job consistently, self-clean, and have a hinge that won't break in three months — wish I'd read that before I bought the first six. But in the US, have we taken reliance on the latest, greatest equipment too far?
Consider our oven at home in San Francisco: 12 years old, brand-less, seals poorly, and cooks unevenly. I put a pizza stone in it to stabilize the heat, but still I have to rotate baked goods for even cooking. I also invested in a good oven thermometer to monitor the temperature (this is a must, even for really good ranges — don't rely on what the handle says). In this dented white pile o' tin, I've managed over the years to cook endless amounts of muffins, breads, focaccias, cookies, pizzas, braised meats, roasts, and most other items that require diffused heat. I'm sure that with a better oven, things would be easier, but it still gets the job done. And let me tell you: The flavor has not been wanting. (Many of you who've tried my foccacia at Cook Here and Now dinners can vouch for that.) I count on the love I have for food and sharing it, experience with local ingredients, and knowledge of where and when to find the best produce to make up for our rickety old equipment.
Too much technical information and emphasis on really high-end tools can be paralyzing. Same with all these cooking shows where elaborate meals requiring 4 skilled Santoku-wielding prep cooks are presented to a chops-licking hungry audience that applauds on cue. Then when you make the dish at home you think: how come I can't julienne like that? And where is my applause?! We can't always take our cue from professional chefs. Most of us have somewhat limited time and budgets, and limited space in our apartment kitchens for the latest appliances — let alone room for a studio audience.
Some people come back to their homes equipped with the latest and greatest, yet buy their ingredients from the local chain store, even when farmers' markets or a CSA are an option. They store their groceries for a week in those marvelous Sub-Zero fridges, and most of their recipes come out... well...
I'm no technophobe (hello, I'm a blogger) but like many home chefs I swear by my most tried-and-true equipment. Teflon pans come and go in our house, but nothing makes cornbread like a cast-iron skillet. Let me tell you, Kitchen Aid mixers are built like tanks: mine has walked right off our too-narrow counter many times and has the scrapes to prove it, but it hasn't let me down yet. Knives that need constant sharpening, pots that burn anything unless you constantly stir, ranges without convection, plastic wrap that does not seal perfectly can still deliver what we so fondly desire. Again and again.
So be fearless: Pick a handful of recipes and master them with what ever tools you have handy. An upgrade here and there can be necessary, but don't let product-peer-pressure stop you. Practice the recipe, using the freshest ingredients you can find, and make it yours.