Kitchen Tools for the Modern Cook

There are several old-school as well as innovative gadgets on the market that can be invaluable in your kitchen


C
ooking pizza is an art when you’re using the Roccbox, the first portable oven that can cook pizza, among other things, using either propane gas or wood. One caveat: the pizza must be constantly rotated with a pizza peel, a thin wooden or metal tool used by chefs for pizza and other baked goods.

The result is an intricate dance, one that pizza enthusiast Brendan Cooke, of Wilmington, has mastered during the cold winter months. Since the Roccbox can produce temperatures of 900 degrees or more, his box sits on stilts outside his patio, just high enough so the opening reaches his back-porch window.

“I should get a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant for this setup,” he laughs.

The Roccbox is just one of several new and old-school appliances and gadgets that can spice up your kitchen, your cooking and, perhaps, your life. Here’s a rundown:

Roccbox Pizza Maker

The Roccbox rose to fame in 2016 when it totaled more than $1.2 million in sales in just 45 days on Indiegogo. Cooke received his Roccbox from his mother as a holiday gift and has become an expert pizza-maker.

When he’s not making pizza he’s the executive director of OperaDelaware, so it wasn’t long before his work and leisure came together. When I contacted him for this article, he had already planned a pizza party for his colleagues to celebrate the singers who had come to perform at the next day’s “Opera Uncorked with Swigg” performance. The party afforded me a front-row seat to Cooke’s expertise with the Roccbox.

Cooke has pizza-making down to a science. He’s got his mozzarella and parmesan cheese pre-measured in FoodSaver bags, sauce pre-measured in glass bowls, dough balls in air-tight trays, and finally, his mise-en-place set so he can “talk to people while cooking.”

Once the pizzas are prepped and ready for the oven, Cooke squats down to window level so that he has access to the mouth of the Roccbox. Then, gently, he slides in the pizza, then rotates it for 60 to 90 seconds.

Pizza from the Roccbox is not run-of-the-mill. The extremely high temperatures result in a light and airy, yet chewy, crust with toppings that are slightly tinged by the heat. I credit Cooke for getting the topping-to-crust ratio just right.

At $600, the Roccbox may be cost-prohibitive for most chefs, but there are less expensive outdoor oven alternatives such as the Uuni 3 and the Blackstone. You can also opt to cook your pizza in the oven on a baking stone, which is easier, but doesn’t provide the same taste or quality.

Roccbox is available at Gozney.com and at Williams-Sonoma.

“Cheetah-spotted” bananas are key to using the Yonanas Classic. Photo by Matt Urban

‘Nice’ Cream

I bought my first Yonanas Classic at Costco; it was a life- and calorie-saver at a time when I was cutting back on desserts. Yonanas is a compact countertop gadget, the size of a small coffee machine, designed to crush frozen fruit into soft-serve “nice” cream. It’s easier to use than an ice cream machine—which requires freezing the canister in advance—because all you need are frozen, overripe “cheetah-spotted” bananas, according to the instructions.

The manufacturer recommends waiting a couple of seconds until the bananas are slightly thawed before sending them down the chute. The magical mixture that emerges is a beautiful blend of creamy, guilt-free soft-serve made with nothing but bananas. My personal favorite blend is powdered-peanut-butter-dipped bananas with frozen mixed berries or PB&J Yonanas.

For those worried about a strong “banana” flavor, I promise that it’s subtle once you’ve added other fruit. And if not, the Yonanas website has a section dedicated to non-banana recipes (think fruit sorbet). Pro tip: clean the chute and crusher right after making it.

Yonanas Classic ($49.99) and Elite ($119.99) are available at Yonanas.com.

The Not-so-Instant Instant Pot

I was hesitant to buy the Instant Pot after it grew in popularity when it debuted on Amazon Prime Day in 2016. The multicooker seemed too good to be true. How could it magically cook 10 different dishes from soup, beans, cake, meat and yogurt—all in one appliance?

In most instances, yes, you can make dozens of different types of food in the Instant Pot. But take it from David Stotz, my friend and amateur cook, “The ‘Instant’ in ‘Instant Pot’ is a bit of a misnomer. While things cook quickly in a pressure cooker, the heating element in the Instant Pot is fairly weak, so it takes a while for everything in the pot to heat up before it’s able to seal and build pressure.”

That means a recipe with a cook time of 20 minutes will actually take 35-45 minutes. The cook time refers only to the time once the Instant Pot reaches low or high pressure, depending on the recipe.

Despite this negative, the Instant Pot has become so useful that I use it two or three times a week. As long you’re comfortable setting up your mise-en-place ahead of time, cutting and measuring the vegetables and meat, you’re more than halfway finished making dinner.

Instant Pot is fully automated, so once your recipe is done cooking the unit will either automatically shut off or revert to the keep-warm setting. As the TV infomercial spokesperson and Ronco founder Ron Popeil once said, “Set it and forget it.”

So what can you make with the Instant Pot? “Chicken seems to work better than red meat,” says Stotz, who by day works at a local museum in AV and media. “Red meat has a lot of collagen, which only breaks down after cooking for a long time, so it’s not conducive to quick cooking.”

I’ve mainly used the Instant Pot for fast and easy dinners, including an Indian potato and chickpea curry and various combinations of soup and stews.

When I have more time, I try more intensive recipes, like the famous Philadelphia roast pork sandwich. I modified a Bon Appétit slow-cooked recipe where instead I pressure-cooked the pork shoulder for an hour-and-a-half. Once the roast was done, I removed the meat and reduced the cooking juices directly in the Instant Pot, making it a one-pot recipe. As Out & About’s Director of Publications Jim Miller can attest, this recipe is pretty darn close to the original. Find the recipe at bonappetit.com/recipe/slow-cooker-roast-pork-sandwiches.

Instant Pot, $64.95 to $179.95, is available in-store at various retailers and at InstantPot.com.

Cast Iron Maiden

Cast iron pans are back in vogue with home chefs, and for good reason. They are the workhorses of the kitchen; there’s no other pan that can do half as much as these iron maidens.

Cast iron pans may remind some of outdoor camping, maybe even your grandmother’s kitchen, which only lends them more credibility. They are great at retaining heat, and are, if cared for properly, nonstick and heat resistant, so they can be easily transferred from stove to oven for baking or roasting.

What’s more, every time you use a cast iron pan it will develop a beautiful patina or seasoning that will allow foods to release naturally from the pan, rather than chemically like other nonstick pans.

The non-stick quality is the greatest advantage of cast iron, but it takes patience and elbow grease to maintain it. And though you may have heard horror stories about cleaning cast iron pans, all you need to do is clean it immediately after use, using a tiny bit of soap and a scrubber that is heat resistant (search online for a nylon brush or chainmail scrubber).

And think of these pans as a long-term investment. Take good care of your pans now and they will last a lifetime.

Cast iron pans come in several sizes, from Dutch ovens to 10-inch skillets. They even come in fun shapes like the ebelskiver pan. Ebelskivers are fluffy, spherical Danish pancakes filled with fruit jam, cheese or whatever you like. The batter is poured directly into the well-oiled cast iron pan, which has cupped indentations. Other cultures have similar dishes, like the Japanese takoyaki, typically filled with diced octopus, and the Thai Khanom Krok or coconut rice pancakes.

Cast iron pan by Lodge vary in sizes and price. See Lodgemfg.com.

Sous Vide or ‘Under Vacuum’

Sous vide’s promise is a foolproof method for perfectly cooked food, whether it’s eggs, meat, poultry or other fare. It’s as simple as preheating a water bath and tossing in the food in sealed plastic bags or even mason jars.

The ability to sous vide at home became possible only a couple of years ago. You can thank the late French Chef Joël Robuchon and then American Chef Thomas Keller for using the technique in their kitchens.

“With typical cooking methods, I always find it difficult to cook things perfectly, even to the correct temperature, without devoting all of my attention to that one thing,” says Stotz.

Not only does sous vide allow you the freedom to mingle with friends and family instead of slaving over a hot stove, it also alleviates any anxiety about overcooking your protein.

Once the food is done taking its warm bath, most foods like eggs and vegetables can be enjoyed straightaway. Meats, on the other hand, will benefit from a quick sear in your cast iron pan to get that perfectly caramelized finish. As Stotz mentions, “Meat comes out looking pale and grayish, so the time in the pan is needed to create the Maillard (browning) reaction.”

Two of the highest rated devices currently on the market are Anova Precision Cooker ($129 to $159) and the Joule Sous Vide by ChefSteps ($179 to $199).

The moka pot is a personal espresso machine. Photo by Matt Urban.

The Mighty Moka Pot

A stovetop device, the moka pot is an inexpensive alternative to the home espresso machine. While the stovetop version won’t have the exact texture and flavor produced by a commercial machine, why pay thousands for a machine that will eventually gather dust on your countertop when you can have a more economical shot and a new morning tradition?

In my last semester of grad school, I lived in Italy in a beautiful fifth-floor apartment I rented through Airbnb. After giving me a quick tour of the new apartment, the landlord showed me how to use the mighty moka pot. It was so well-used that it didn’t have a handle (probably melted from being too close to the open flame) and it was covered in coffee stains on the outside and inside. I learned later that moka pots don’t need to be meticulously washed like other coffee appliances. A simple rinse with warm water after each batch is sufficient, which is why there will always be a coffee stain in my pot.

Look for old-school brands like Bialetti and Alessi, both of which have been producing moka pots since the early 20th century.

Moka pots are available at most retailers and online.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.