5 Offbeat Kitchen Things I Can’t Live Without

Essential and affordable

Happy family

I have a pretty functional kitchen at home, and I notice that I’m constantly reaching for 5 things that I don’t see very often in kitchens — home or otherwise. You might find some of these more commonly in the home kitchens of other countries, and some of them appear in every restaurant kitchen. All of them are indispensable to me now, and here they are!

  1. Sizzle Plates & Quarter-Sheet Pans

I’m counting these as one thing because I use them similarly. A sizzle plate, or sizzling platter, or very commonly just a “sizzle,” is a small oval plate, usually aluminum, with sloped edges and a flat bottom. They are just a few bucks at a restaurant supply store and are almost indestructible. Stop loading chopped ingredients onto your knife edge and taking them to your pan one precarious knife-full at a time: load them all on a sizzle and transport them all at once. Need to reheat that piece of meatloaf in the toaster oven? Sizzle. Defrosting a chicken breast in the fridge? Sizzle. Baking just two shortcakes? You get the picture. Not only are they cheap, they’re pretty indestructible — so you won’t hesitate to use and abuse them right away, and they’ll work hard for you.

A quarter-sheet is a rolled-rim baking sheet that’s 9” x 13”, which is half the size of a half-sheet, and — you guessed it — one-quarter the size of the full sheet tray used in bakeries. I am constantly reaching for these, too, for all the purposes mentioned above, as well as slightly larger projects. They’re great for making granita (they’re usually aluminum, too, and freeze very quickly), baking 6 or 8 cookies, or keeping mise-en-place organized. My biggest complaint with them is that I routinely go to grab one and ask, “Where are all my quarter-sheets!?” only to find that I’ve got them all in service already. Quarter-sheets are inexpensive items that do triple-duty.

2. Mortar & Pestle

I’ve always had small versions of this tool that barely contained whatever I was mortar-and-pestling at the time, be it garlic or spices or aioli or anything else. I decided to go big, and ordered (online) a big marble one, with a wooden pestle, from Italy. Now, as I sit at my desk writing this, I’m trying to remember the last time I bothered to use a knife to mince a clove of garlic — I rap them with the pestle to loosen the skin, then drop them in the mortar with a pinch of kosher salt. Quickly, I’ve got a mince or paste of garlic that appeared so easily it almost felt like cheating. And it definitely doesn’t stop there — it’s great for grinding spices fresh (which is scientifically proven to give you 8,042 times as much flavor as pre-ground), salad dressings (you only think you don’t like anchovy), harissa (that one gets its own article), and all manner of things.

The apex of this tool’s capability is pesto — and I will spoil this story for you right now: it took a LOT of elbow grease and patience, but was wholly worth it. (Pestare is the Italian verb for “to pound” / “to grind” — which gives both the tool and the sauce their names.) It took a while but my patience paid off and produced an absolutely ethereal, mousse-like pesto that no food processor could ever pretend to. An additional marvel of doing it this way was that as I pounded these stubborn basil leaves into a pulp, I started to understand why there are pine nuts in it, why there’s parmesan and pecorino (/ Grana Padano), why there’s garlic. The fragrances of all these ingredients rising up to meet me was an absolutely intoxicating experience. Plus, if you use a mortar and pestle for projects like this, you’ll be able to proudly say you have at least as much stamina as the average Italian grandmother… no mean feat.

3. Spice Grinder

I’ll admit it, sometimes I want my spices ground a little more finely than the old mortar and pestle produces easily, which is where a dedicated spice-grinder comes in handy. I love a small, electric, “blade” style coffee grinder for this task — and heck, if you already have one for coffee and are willing to commit to thoroughly wiping out things like ground chiles before tackling your morning joe, you can just use that. (Pro tip: “Accidentally” leave a little ground cardamom in there the next time you grind coffee. Boom.)

One thing I’ve found it particularly useful for is blending spices together. I have a lot of go-to seasoning mixes — remember the old “poultry seasoning” you used to find at the supermarket? (For all I know, it’s still there.) I created my own blend and ground it up from whole; it’s significantly more flavorful and economical. In formulating my own blend, I started by noting how much of each ground spice (and dried herb) I wanted. Then, I figured out how much of each whole spice (or herb) I needed to create the right blend. (Item №5 on this list is especially useful for this.) Same goes for taco seasoning, rib rub, garam masala. A tip I picked up from a podcast, with the inimitable and sublime Samin Nosrat, was to grind up nutritional yeast (being extra careful not to breathe any of it in, as it grinds extremely fine!) and sprinkle it on popcorn. Divine!

4. Donabe

This is a very simple and amazing pot that is ubiquitous in Japan, and not often seen here. A donabe is a clay pot (that’s the direct translation, actually) with a lid. It’s specially made to withstand the direct heat of a gas burner, and in Japan, they’re commonly used both in the kitchen and on the table for dishes like nabemono and shabu-shabu. That’s great, of course — but I don’t make those dishes every day and you don’t, either. So what do we use it for?

The type of donabe I got is technically a gohan nabe, a rice pot, and mine is a double-lidded version specifically made for cooking rice. I used to dread cooking rice, but not anymore. This thing cannot fail. Even when I’ve had the burner too high, and burned the bottom, somehow that burned flavor doesn’t permeate the rice like it does in any other pot. Usually, I get a beautiful, crisp layer on the bottom which I can either leave there or incorporate (vote: always incorporate).

I fell in love with my donabe on its rice-cooking ability alone, but it was when I started to use it for other things that I realized we could have an even longer-term relationship. First of all, you don’t need to use both lids (or maybe either lid), if you’re not cooking rice. The first time I made beans in this pot… well, put it this way, when’s the last time a pot of beans gave you genuine glee? I felt like a kid. This was just too good to be true. I soaked dried beans in my donabe overnight. The next morning, after seasoning the beans and adding some garlic and dried chiles, I set the pot over the tiniest flame for a few hours, adding a sprinkle of water here and there. Awesome, perfect, deeply flavored beans.These beans had soul. You’re probably skeptical; I might have been, too: I mean, it’s beans, right? Well, once you’ve tried them this way, it adds a new dimension. I’ve also used my donabe for slow-simmered soups, where it excelled as well. This fall, I’ve got big plans for it: shabu-shabu.

I love my little rice-cooking donabe so much that when I was fortunate enough to find myself in Osaka’s marvelous kitchenwares district early this year, I found its big brother and shipped it home on the slow boat. Life changer!

5. Scale

It’s probably the baker in me, but my kitchen life would not work without my scale. I once had a hard time with my boss, when I worked at a fancy kitchen equipment store, teaching classes. From working in restaurant kitchens, I was used to separating eggs by breaking them into my hand, retaining the yolk, and letting the white run through. Same goes for small amounts of lemon juice. My then-boss reminded me (more kindly than I deserved) that I was there to sell tools like egg separators and lemon juicers. Of course. My instinct, though, was to save dishes. The way I see it, I’m going to wash my hands anyway, so why should I get dishes dirty when I don’t have to?

What does all this have to do with a scale? Simply put, a scale saves time and it saves dishes, and it helps me be accurate to boot. I use it every time I bake, which is somewhat common knowledge at this point, but I find myself using it for cooking, too. When I’m doing a barbecue sauce and it calls for things like 1 cup of ketchup, ¼ cup mustard, and ½ cup molasses… who wants to wash all those dishes? Once you’ve done it once, and measured the weights of those things and written them down somewhere, a scale is your best friend every time.

If you want to bake, even occasionally, I think a scale is really worth it — my favorite is available online and is reasonably priced, has a great warranty, which is the only function of the scale I don’t ever need to use.

These are my favorite less common kitchen things. What are yours?

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