If I had to pick a kitchen tool I absolutely couldn’t live without, it wouldn’t be a hard contest. Hands down, I’d choose my cast iron skillet. I inherited the heavy black skillet from my mom, who got it from her mom, whose mom gave it to her. Over the years, I would wager that my skillet has made more cornbread than your local Cracker Barrel, and by now, it’s so seasoned that every loaf comes out perfectly crisp and flavorful.
There’s a lot to be said for today’s expensive, high-tech kitchen gadgets. We’ve got colorful avocado slicers, panini presses, vegetable steamers, and rice cookers, but many of these gadgets often break long before they should. And some, such as Teflon-coated cookware that uses chemical compounds to become “nonstick,” might even be leaching dangerous chemicals into our food.
Yes, some modern kitchen gadgets have made our lives a lot easier, but they probably can’t be passed down from generation to generation without a few broken plastic pieces along the way. Can you imagine your great-granddaughter cherishing and using your coffee maker or blender? Probably not.
I often think that the cooks from decades past had it best. They had quality tools that really worked, and since most of their tools were essential for every meal, everything in their kitchens was used. Back then, there were no fancy gadgets or pricey appliances that only served an occasional purpose. If a tool was lucky enough to grace a kitchen, you could be darn sure it was going to have multiple jobs to do, often for several meals a day.
As shopping on Amazon has become more popular, people have stocked up on gadgets, and today everything from an olive pitting tool and pizza stone, to a salt pig and lime juicer may be taking up space in your kitchen. It’s not hard to spend a small fortune on available gadgets, but they can occupy so much room in your pantry that there’s hardly enough left for kitchen essentials. Thankfully, there are a handful of old-time kitchen gadgets that can replace all the clutter, simplify your kitchen, and still help out with a number of tasks.
1. Cast Iron Skillets
Cast iron skillets or Dutch ovens (which are simply a deeper version of the skillet) have been around for thousands of years, and they truly can be used to cook almost anything – a cast iron skillet can replace a frying pan, saucepan, and even a griddle. All types of dishes – from a roast chicken to a peach cobbler – come out tasting great when a cast iron skillet is used, and when treated properly, they can last forever.
Here are some of the more common uses for cast iron skillets:
- Baking Sweet or Savory Breads. Cornbread is a southern staple, and it may quickly become your favorite side dish once you’ve tasted the crisp and flavorful crust created when a cast iron skillet is used. If cornbread isn’t your thing, many other thick bread dishes, including banana bread and fruit cobblers, come out perfectly when a cast iron skillet is used.
- Frying, Searing, and Reheating Meat and Vegetables. Cast iron doesn’t conduct heat quite as well as stainless steel or copper pots when used on the stovetop, so they might not be your first choice if you need to quickly boil water. With that said, they’re great at maintaining and withstanding very high temperatures. This makes them ideal for frying on the stovetop. You don’t have to worry about oil cooling down suddenly without your knowing it, and they’re so heavy, the likelihood of accidentally turning a vat of hot grease over on yourself is greatly reduced. Of course, you can’t go wrong with skillet-fried chicken, but you can also fry up burgers, chops, and even stir-fries with meat and vegetables.
- Cooking Eggs. Whether you like them sunny-side-up, scrambled, or over easy, a seasoned cast iron skillet’s natural non-stick abilities make the perfect egg, every time. When your egg is ready, just slide a spatula underneath, and it’s ready to eat.
- Reheating Leftover Meats. There’s nothing worse than tough microwaved meat. When you have a cut of meat with varying thicknesses, a microwave might pulverize some parts and leave others cold. Thankfully, reheating your meat in a cast iron skillet gets it warmed through every time, with a feel and taste that’s more like a freshly cooked meal.
- Dishes That Need Crisping or Broiling in the Oven. Some dishes, such as pan-fried chicken or fish, may start on the stovetop but then benefit greatly from a few minutes in the oven where they can develop a crispy skin or browned top. There’s no better place to complete a dish like that than in a cast iron skillet. Additionally, vegetables including potatoes, green beans, and carrots may also be parboiled in plain salt water and then finished or browned in a cast iron skillet with oil, herbs, and butter.
In order to get years of use out of your cast iron skillet, you must “season” it. To do this, you must coat your skillet in hot oil or animal fat and bake it for at least one hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. This “burns” the oil into the skillet and bakes a natural non-stick coating onto the bottom. The more you cook foods that contain oil, butter, or grease, the better the non-stick surface becomes over time. You may have noticed that older cast iron skillets have a very thick coating on the bottom from years of use.
Although the coating your skillet gets may seem permanent, over time it can be worn away or inadvertently scrubbed clean if you’re not careful. Never clean your skillet with detergent or scrub with steel wool or other abrasives. Instead, wipe it clean with a wet paper towel, or use plain running water to clean any excess food. When you’re done, always dry your skillet thoroughly – it can rust if left in water. If possible avoid cooking overly acidic foods in your skillet, such as tomatoes or other vinegar-based items, as the acid in these foods can also erode the coating. You can kill any bacteria that may be lurking on your skillet by drying it over a flame on your range and heating it to a high temperature.
Cast iron skillets were around long before we had to worry about chemicals from Teflon (including polytetrafluoroetheylene) scraping off into our food. Although some modern cookware may say “nonstick,” and it may do its job in preventing your food from clinging to the bottom of the pan, it’s most likely a chemical compound that’s working the magic, not all-natural grease that’s been burned in over time.
And the health benefits don’t end there. Cast iron is actually recommended for vegetarians as a way to increase iron in their diets. When a piece of cookware can offer so many health benefits, you’ve got to take advantage of it.
Even if you are tempted by the convenience of buying a modern, lightweight non-stick pan, remember that cast iron skillets, when treated right, last forever and are often safer than their modern counterparts. My cornbread skillet has to be at least 80 years old, and it’s still in perfect condition.
Cost: $10 to $150, depending on brand. The oldest cast iron skillet manufacturer in the U.S., Lodge, sells its standard 15 ¼ inch skillet for $69.95.
2. Mason Jars
If you’ve ever done any canning (a great DIY project), you know firsthand the utility of Mason jars. Certainly, the jars are ideal for canning homemade jams and pickled vegetables, but they have myriad additional uses and are great for other tasks around the kitchen.
Some of the additional uses of Mason jars include the following:
- Storing Food. Although many people use plastic containers to store leftovers, sometimes food is too hot to be poured directly from the stovetop into a flimsy plastic container. Glass jars, on the other hand, are made to have boiling liquid poured into them, and they are great for holding piping hot spaghetti sauce, soups, and stews. Unless you happen to drop one of your jars and break it, they’re pretty much indestructible. Plastic containers, on the other hand, might leach chemicals into your food, especially as they’re reused over time and the plastic begins to break down. Use your Mason jars to replace Tupperware, Ziploc bags, and other means of kitchen storage.
- Taking Food on the Go. Although some people might argue that Mason jars are too heavy to carry to work with you in a brown bag lunch, they’re sturdy, and they can hold a ton of food. Have you ever tried packing a salad in a Mason jar? It’s so easy, convenient, and delicious. Once you prep your ingredients, it takes just a few minutes to create a week’s worth of healthy lunches. Also, bringing food to work in a Mason jar has a positive environmental impact – each time you do it, that’s one less plastic bag or container being thrown away.
- Storing Ingredients. The look of any pantry can be improved when Mason jars are used to store ingredient staples, such as sugar, oatmeal, baking soda, or flour. After all, why have an ugly box of half-opened baking soda lingering in your cabinet when you can pop the leftovers into a cute (and cheap) Mason jar? If you’re big on presentation, plastic containers aren’t the best choice for a clean-looking kitchen, as they can stain, hold odor, and warp. Glass, on the other hand, can take a beating in the dishwasher and never lose its shape. In addition to looking adorable on your shelves, Mason jars can save you money over time – they seal tightly enough that your ingredients won’t be exposed to the open air, keeping your goods fresher for longer. They’re also great when shopping at stores for bulk goods. Some even let you weigh your jars on the way in, pack them full of the items you’re looking for, and pay for what you fill up in bulk on the way out.
- Preserving Fresh Food and Reducing Food Waste. The thought of preserving farm-fresh berries into the winter months is what leads a lot of people into canning. How many times have you bought gorgeous organic vegetables and fruit at the farmers’ market, only to let those items go bad in your refrigerator a few weeks later? Canning is truly the best (and most fun) way to preserve your fresh foods and get the most out of your new kitchen staple, the ever-purposeful Mason jar.
- Other Uses. Mason jars can be used as drinking glasses, vases for flowers, or for virtually any occasion where a container is required for pencils, spices, candles, potpourri – you name it. Add those to the list of ways to recycle and reuse household items.
Cost: A set of 12 pint-size Mason jars sells for$8.69; quart-size, $10.39 (from multiple sellers).
3. Mortar and Pestle
The mortar and pestle just might be one of the oldest kitchen gadgets we have, apart from spoons and bowls. It has been used for more than 4,000 years, and is still as handy as ever.
There’s no motor involved, and no plastic parts to break or lose – you simply need a little elbow grease to move the pestle (the club-shaped tool) in a circular motion around in the basin of the mortar, or bowl. The grinding motion of the pestle against the mortar can puree a variety of foods and herbs. No blender needed.
Here are some common uses for mortars and pestles:
- Grinding Herbs and Spices. When freshly crushed, herbs taste far better than the stuff you buy at the grocery store. Many recipes call specifically for freshly crushed herbs because crushing them can better infuse dishes and release more flavor into your meals. It only takes a couple of seconds to crush fresh rosemary, garlic, basil, thyme, and countless other herbs. As an added flavor bonus – and to help hasten the grinding process – throw in some sea salt, which helps crush the herbs as they grind.
- Flavoring Oils. You may have tried flavored olive oil in a restaurant before, but did you know it’s very easy to make yourself? Simply grind your herbs and spices (like red pepper flakes, oregano, dill, and many others) and cook them with the oil in a saucepan over medium heat for about five minutes. Let the oil cool, re-bottle it, and store it in the fridge. It should keep for about one month, and it’s perfect as a dipping sauce for breads or for flavoring dishes.
- Pulverizing Nuts. If you’re looking for large quantities of nut flour for baking a loaf of bread, an electronic food processor is your best bet – but if you’re looking for small batches of crushed nuts to sprinkle on the top of a cake or casserole, or for use in a cheese ball or dressing, then a handful of nuts crushed in a mortar and pestle is the perfect option. You can easily crush walnuts, cashews, almonds, peanuts, and others to whatever consistency you please.
- Grinding Medicine for People and Pets. The mortar and pestle is often used to crush medicine for people (or pets) who can’t swallow large pills. Many people gag at the thought of taking a large pill such as an antibiotic or vitamin, and some people just don’t have the capacity to swallow even a small pill. Once crushed, the medicine can be mixed into a drink or taken as a powder. Make certain to consult your doctor before making any adjustments to how you take prescription drugs, and be careful not to leave too much of the drug behind in the mortar bowl. Many animals simply won’t take their medicine no matter how hard you try to pry open their mouths, so mixing their doses in with their food is essential.
- Grinding Olive Paste. If you’ve ever enjoyed an olive tapenade or spread, you know the beauty and flavor of crushed olives. Simply halve and pit your olives and slowly grind them into a paste that’s the consistency you desire. You can add salt, pepper, or other herbs to taste, or enjoy the mixture plain. It’s perfect when used in a dish, as a dip, or as a spread in place of mayonnaise or mustard.
- Making Mustard. Mustard is a simple recipe: ground mustard seeds, salt, and water. That’s it. Yes, you can buy bottles of prepared mustard at the store, but making mustard yourself is surprisingly easy and delicious. Simply use your mortar and pestle to grind the mustard seeds, then sprinkle in your salt and add water until you arrive at the consistency you like. If kept refrigerated, it can last up to a year.
- Making Ready-To-Use Herb Portions. If you don’t feel like getting out your mortar and pestle every time you cook, find some time when you can grind a large batch of your favorite herb, and freeze it into small batches, either in an ice cube tray or in small plastic baggies. The next time you want freshly crushed herbs for a recipe, all you need to do is just pop a bag or cube out of your freezer and start cooking.
There are truly endless uses for this tool, which many professional cooks consider to be the most underutilized tool in the kitchen. Of course you don’t have to be a culinary genius whipping up something elaborate to make use of your mortar and pestle. It may be that the sea salt, pepper, or sugar you purchased is too coarse a grain, and you’d like to grind it up a bit finer. Instead of throwing it out or making do with something that’s not ideal, get out your mortar and pestle and grind it until you’re satisfied.
You may find that your mortar and pestle is better than a food processor or blender for grinding small batches of herbs, nuts, and spices, although you may still need those electronic appliances in your kitchen for bigger batches or for liquid-based fare.
Mortar and pestle sizes vary, but generally fall into the following categories:
- Large. These mortar and pestles are around 12 inches in diameter and are perfect for making guacamole to feed a crowd, or for grinding large batches of herbs and nuts. This large one retails at Sur La Table for $179.95.
- Medium. Medium mortar and pestles are around five inches in diameter and are great for making olive paste or small batches of mustard, garlic, and herbs. Expect to pay around $40 for one this size.
- Small. Some mortar and pestles, such as this $15 option that’s just three inches in diameter, are quite small, and are best suited for grinding very small batches of herbs when you need to lightly season a dish, or for grinding a single pill or vitamin.
Cost: $15 to $180 or more depending on size and brand.
Each of these tools contributes to a better environment and even better personal health. Plus, they all serve so many purposes. With just three devices, you can cover such important kitchen needs as cooking, storage, and grinding. Not only are these tools incredibly useful, they’re all aesthetically pleasing, good for the environment, and durable. Add them to your kitchen arsenal, and don’t automatically go for the cheapest options – you want these great tools to last a long time and give you and your family many meals.
What are your favorite versatile kitchen gadgets?