Above photo, left to right: portion scoop measures perfect amount of cookie dough;
sturdy storage bins (a/k/a Cambros) are use for storing everything from dry goods to liquids;
use plastic squeeze bottles for quick, precise delivery of sauces and oils.
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At The Splendid Table, we're all about the stocking stuffers and holiday gifts for foodies. We wanted to know what sorts of useful, yet inexpensive gifts we should suggest for our fans, so we turned to the experts. Lisa McManus is the head of ingredient and equipment testing for America's Test Kitchen. She tells Managing Producer Sally Swift about some of her favorite kitchen tools for home cooks, many of which take a cue from restaurant kitchens.
Sally Swift: I want to talk to you about professional tools that cooks use in the kitchen. For example, a microplane comes to mind. It was a woodworking tool originally, but it turned into something that is in every single person's kitchen; there's nothing better for grating cheese or zest. What else have you seen that's making its way out of the professional kitchen into the home kitchen?
Lisa McManus: We think about this all the time in the test kitchen, because we try to make home cooks' lives easier. We look around and say, “What are all the restaurant chefs using? Is there anything there that's adaptable?” We have found some things that we really like.
One of them is a plastic squeeze bottle. It seems simple, but they help you squirt oil or other sauces quickly and precisely. You can use it for decanting a little bit of oil; it’s quicker than pouring out of the big bottle that's drippy. We don't recommend buying massive quantities of things like olive oil, but you can transfer a small amount to a squeeze bottle for quick use and keep the rest of it away from heat, light, and air – all of which are things that make good olive oil start losing its flavor.
SS: That's a great idea and an inexpensive stocking stuffer. What else have you been thinking about?
LM: When you say inexpensive, that's the point. We know restaurants are not going to spend a ton of money on equipment for daily cooking. Everything needs to be durable and modestly priced.
Another thing we love is called a bench scraper. It looks like a little rectangle of metal with a handle running along down one side. Professional bakers use them to divide doughs and transfer rolled-out pie crusts or pastries. But we use them in different ways. Let’s say you're chopping a lot of vegetables, and you want to transfer them to a bowl or a pan.
SS: Instead of wrecking the edge of your knife --
LM: Exactly, you want to keep it as sharp as possible. A bench scraper is a nice, flat surface. You can use it to pick up a lot of things and transfer them very quickly. You can clear scraps or scrape up sticky dough remnants that would otherwise gum up a sponge. Our favorite is the Dexter-Russell 6” Dough Cutter/Scraper (Sani-Safe Series); it is about 10 to 15 bucks and lasts forever.
Another thing that we really love – and we've talked about this before – is a portion scoop. It's great for portioning.
SS: You are the queen of the portion scoop! [Laughs]
LM: It's a great thing! And our favorite is about $15 from OXO. It's super comfortable, easy, and makes everything go faster. And that’s one of the keys to restaurant work. They want to do a lot of things quickly, efficiently, and be easy to clean up and use that tool again and again.
We also love something called – well, restaurant people call it – a Cambro. That's actually the name of the foodservice company that makes these bins that are used for everything.
SS: It's a storage bin?
LM: It's a storage bin – a plastic container with a lid. It's kind of like Tupperware on steroids. They’re huge, sturdy, and we stock the kitchen with everything from 4- to 22-quart sizes. But I think a 4- to 6-quart size is a good size for home use. We store flour, rice, beans and all kinds of things in them. They're clear and have volume markings on the outside. They're nice and wide at the top so you can dip and scoop with a measuring cup to get a good level measure.
SS: What about those slicers called mandolines? Do you think that that's a great thing for a home cook?
LM: I've tested them a couple of times and the first time we did lots of those big restaurant ones that are a couple hundred dollars and have 50,000 blades and I was like, “No one's going to really use this. It's too much of a project.” We found a few that were simple, inexpensive, and did a couple things well. When you're doing giant batches of slicing, you want it to be all the same size. A mandolin is a great way to go. We wanted something small, easily stored, and easily cleaned. We found a few winners that fit that bill and made sense for people at home.
Swissmar Borner V-Slicer Plus Mandoline
Mandolines: Highly Recommended by America’s Test Kitchen