The kitchen is an important room in our homes: a place of joy, solace and comfort. Yes, it can be chaotic from time to time, but more often than not, what we find there is peace in the form of the food we cook, the ingredients we cook it with, and the equipment we use. Managing Producer Sally Swift talked with Tucker Shaw, of America’s Test Kitchen, to find out some of his thoughts on taking care of the things that take care of you in the kitchen. In the comment section below, tell us know what you love most about your kitchen, and what tips you have for keeping things and comfortable and delicious.
Sally Swift: We have been thinking about what it is to take care of yourself. One of the things that I kept thinking about when I was thinking about talking to you is the rituals that we have in the kitchen, what makes you feel like you're in control in the kitchen, and what makes you feel like you're taking care of yourself. One thing that I'm going to use as an example is, for me, I am settled and happy and feel taken care of when I wake up in the morning and I have put out a clean dish towel for me to use. It's such a small thing, but it makes such a difference to me. Do you have things like that that you think about in the kitchen?
Tucker Shaw: That's a really good question, and I love your example because it really represents a moment of intention, a result that you have in your mind when you put out that dish towel. It sounds like a small thing, but if it makes you feel better when you wake up in the morning, I say go for it. I've been thinking about ideas that may take a little more effort. My top tip for taking better care of yourself in the kitchen is to re-evaluate your spice rack. Get rid of anything that is even remotely old and refresh it, because there is no way to make the results of your cooking more flavorful and exciting than if you use fresh spice.
(Photo: America's Test Kitchen)
SS: Spices go old way quicker than I think we want to admit.
TS: It's true. When you buy them at the grocery store, although you can often get a pretty good product, you're buying a set amount. Honestly, there's no way you're going to use that entire bottle of ground clove before it's gone sour, so I think the best move is to find a specialty spice shop in your area. Failing that, look for grocery stores that cater to Latin American ingredients, or Middle Eastern ingredients, or so forth, maybe South Asian, because you will find, generally, smaller batches available to you, and also just better quality. And refresh them often.
SS: If you're going to cook, you might as well really cook, right?
TS: Go for it. You put in the effort, you want it to taste good.
SS: What else do you have?
TS: This one is a little bit more indulgent, because I am slightly obsessed with butter. I mean, I just can't get enough of butter. The thing about butter is there is a huge variation in quality, even of the stuff that you buy at the grocery stores. So, for a little sort of gift to yourself, next time you're at the grocery store, buy a higher-quality butter. What I'm talking about is a European-style or cultured butter. You can find these, often in the little island in the grocery store that has the specialty cheeses or meats and things like that; that's usually where it's merchandised. It will generally have a higher fat content and may have a slightly tangier flavor, but when you slather it onto a piece of toast or a muffin in the morning, or a dinner roll at night, you will not believe how much better it is. Honestly, if you're going to eat butter, you might as well eat good butter. It's going to cost you a few bucks more, but it's worth it.
SS: That's a good tip, too. Anything around equipment or tools?
TS: Yeah, and this one is really personal to me because I just did this. I have been frustrated with the kind of lackluster performance of my nonstick skillet recently. I realized that I probably had it for four or five years, and honestly, nonstick surfaces really don't last forever. You can't look at this as you would like a cast-iron skillet or something like that. You've got to replace your non-stick skillet every year, maybe two years – depending on how heavily you use it – if you want the best performance. Our tasting and testing group chastised me for hanging onto my old one for so long – because I'm such a cheapskate – they said to go out and buy their new favorite, a 12-inch nonstick skillet by OXO Good Grips. Honestly, Sally, it has changed everything about my evening routine. I barely have to clean it anymore. It's completely worth it. Do it every year or two.
SS: I hate that they are disposable, but they really are. That coating goes because most of us aren't very careful when we work with our nonstick skillets. We overheat and scratch them up, right?
TS: We do. And there's really no way to fix it yourself. You've just got to bite the bullet.
SS: Anything else?
TS: Here's another one that goes into the self-indulgent category. You've heard this before, but I just want to reemphasize it for everybody: Build a relationship with somebody at a local wine shop. I'm telling you it will change your mind about how thoughtfully you consume wine; it will expand your knowledge and understanding of what wine can offer. I look at wine shops as kind of like libraries, in the sense that when you walk into a public library there's no way that you know the collection as well as the librarians there. So, you need to make the most of that library, you've got to have a little consultation. Same goes for the wine shop – especially small, local wine shops. The people who are working there will almost certainly have tasted everything on the shelves. They probably kept notes and they can help you make a decision. Of course, they can steer you wrong – that’s the gamble – but honestly, how bad could it be? It's wine. You're going to drink it.
SS: Do you have any thoughts about recipes or cooking for yourself?
TS: This one is a little bittersweet on my side. My grandmother died about two years ago. She lived a very long and full life. Before she died she entrusted me with her box of recipes. They weren't all her own original recipes. They were sometimes scrawled down on a notecard, borrowed from a neighbor, occasionally even clipped off the back of a cereal box or something like that. Going through those old recipes brought back a lot of memories; it also opened my eyes about some mysteries about her kind of cooking behaviors and the foods and ways that she cooked. The best was when she'd have an index card that said something like “Mrs. Johnson's Mocha Brownies” and then Gram's little notation would be like, “They were so-so.” Really honest. Cooking these recipes are not nearly as well-communicated as most recipes that you'll find in magazines or cookbooks and so forth. They're really sort of like, “Cook until done” and that kind of thing. It can also be a gamble, but it's so worth taking. Honestly, if you're able to create something that gets you close – even if it doesn't match what your beloved family member was able to achieve – it really feels good.
SS: Tucker, I love that one. You know what? That's your grandmother taking care of you.
TS: I think about her every day.
SS: I love that. Thanks, Tucker.
TS: Thank you, Sally.
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The Splendid Table frequently visits with the test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen to discuss a wide range of topics including recipes, ingredients, techniques and kitchen equipment.
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.