A More Inspiring Kitchen For 2018
I know quite a few people who hate to cook, so take-out or pizza delivery are a regular staple of their diet. I’m not judging, I love both of those to a serious fault. But a kitchen that inspires can make meal preparation easier and more enjoyable. If you have resolutions for the new year that involve food or dieting, some of these ideas will keep you on track. If you already love to cook, and you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, these will add to that enjoyment.
People told me that quality knives made all the difference in food preparation. I assumed it was a sales pitch. I was dead wrong. Five Christmases ago my wife bought me three Wusthof knives to cover the bases. I have used them every day since and I can tell you that they made all the difference.
If my daughter wants an apple cut insanely thin, it’s not a problem. If I overcook the steak, I can cut it into thinner pieces to make it easier to eat without fighting it. I also don’t have to dread cooking things like Acorn Squash anymore. Sharp knives make quick work of everything.
But what happens when they get dull? I’ll let you know when that happens. I’ve used mine daily for five years, and I’ve sharpened them once. But don’t follow my lead here. Keep your knives sharp. A dull knife is often attributed to using more force, which then lands you in the hospital.
Of the three I own, my favorite is the Wusthof 8″ Cook’s Knife. It has the perfect amount of blade and weight for the things I often hate to cut. Even carving the turkey on Thanksgiving is painless. You don’t even have to put force behind the knife, it cuts.
I raved about these knives so much that my parents bought the whole set for their kitchen.
Instant Pot Pressure Cooker
When my mother-in-law got an Instant Pot for us I didn’t understand what I was looking at. I already had a slow-cooker, why did I need this thing which looked like a bomb or time traveling device? Was she hinting at something?
The thing might as well travel through time. Or at least transport food from the future when it would have finished in my slow-cooker. You can cook a whole pot of Chili in 40 minutes, and people swear it was on to cook all day. Chicken soup from scratch is about the same. I have even cooked a full roast with potatoes and carrots in about 30 minutes. The roast was perfect. The potatoes were at that pre-falling-apart stage, and the carrots were tender.
If there is such a thing as magic, you can dissect this thing to find its source. But be careful, this is a pressurized cooking thing. It made me nervous at first, because explosions aren’t covered in my insurance. But you get used to it, and you learn to be safe.
KitchenAid Stand Mixer
When I lived in Costa Rica my host mother introduced me to stand mixers. (She had gone to culinary school to learn how to make cakes. She is the best cake-maker I have ever known.) There was a temptation to write, “if you don’t like to bake that you can skip this item.” But don’t. If you bake at all, even through gritted-teeth, the stand mixer is your ally. It takes almost all the pain of baking away. Breads, cookies, cakes, whatever it is.
I crack the eggs, add the other ingredients into the bowl while it churns away. Then I put that mixture into an oven-safe pan and bake. Done. Yes, you still might have a billion measuring spoons to clean if you bake from scratch. I can’t help you there. But you didn’t have to hold a mixer while it spins away for ten minutes. And since it started mixing early into the process you’ll get better-blended results.
I don’t say this to brag, but people love the consistency of my Tres Leches cakes. (My host mother’s recipe. She’s amazing.) I follow the same process with boxed-cake mixes and still get compliments. The consistency is only possible because of the stand mixer that sits on my counter. I have nothing to brag about.
I wouldn’t bake at all if I didn’t have a stand mixer.
Plus, you can buy all kinds of attachments for it. In theory, the more of those you have the less likely it just sits around and takes up counter or cabinet space.
Cast Iron Skillets
If you have never cooked on a cast iron skillet, you’re missing out. You may not decide you want to cook everything on it, but there are some things you should. I have four cast iron skillets, one extra-large, two a little smaller, and then a tiny skillet. I rarely use the tiny skillet.
Why do I love Cast Iron Skillets?
Since they’re so thick they heat up evenly, and a little slower than the thinner skillets. Because of that I can trust them not to char my food on a whim. I can also crank the heat on them without worrying that I’ll warp the pan. (Although if you leave them on a high heat with nothing in them they do still ruin. So don’t do that.)
If I’m cooking a steak I can do a 2 minute sear on each side and then pop the whole skillet straight into the oven. That lets it finish cooking off the direct heat. I can even start a dish in the back yard on the grill and move it into the oven in the house if I run out of charcoal. Not like I’d ever let that happen or anything.
Cast Iron skillets are so versatile I almost don’t use anything else. But make sure you read about how to care for them before you get started. It’s not as bad as a Chihuahua, but it’s more involved than a Styrofoam cup.
If you are looking to buy a Cast Iron Skillet, this Epicurious article might help you find the best option for you.
French Press Coffee Maker
I don’t care if you call me a coffee snob. Okay, I do care, but hear me out. (I promise, I’m not picky unless I make it myself.) My wife used to work at a big retail coffee store, you have heard of it. Never-mind that. But because of that, she got an insane deal on this nice coffee maker. It could launch someone into orbit. It’s that fancy.
Over time I got tired of the coffee I was drinking from it. It tasted terrible for some reason, not like what I was drinking from the stores or even at the houses of my friends. It didn’t help that we went back to Costa Rica for some time where Coffee is serious stuff. While we were there, I picked up a Costa Rican coffee brewer, which is a bag you put coffee in and pour water over it. The coffee is fantastic, but it’s a bit maintenance heavy. And you can’t brew a lot of coffee at once without some effort.
So when we were at a local coffee shop they were offering coffee made from a French Press. If you’ve never seen one, a French Press is a cylinder you put coffee into, and then pour water over it. When it’s done brewing, you push a plunger down on the top and pour. It’s dead-simple and makes more coffee. Problem solved.
Brewing coffee in a French Press tastes a bit like the Costa Rican method. It holds onto the richness of the coffee bean. If you figure out the ratio of coffee grounds to water you can make the same cup of coffee over and over. So it’s science.
Be careful, you can end up with a lot of sediment in the bottom of your cup which will make it taste iffy over time. In 2019 I’ll most-likely recommend a different coffee gadget, but this year, it’s a French Press. But don’t buy it for someone as a gift.
As a side note: Lately I’ve been using the Costa Rican coffee maker as a second step to the french press. That seems to clarify the tone of the coffee a bit and keeps it from getting a murky taste.
A Slow Cooker
A slow cooker is of no help on days when you have 20 minutes to prepare dinner before getting your kid to Karate. But they are amazing on “Karate days” when you remembered that you own a slow cooker earlier that day. So I guess the key to using a slow cooker is to remember that you have one ahead of time.
There was a time when I wanted an army of slow cookers to cook a few items at once. Or to prep breakfast for the next day while the one holding dinner finished. (Someone should do a research study about slow cookers and patient/impatient people.)
What I love about slow cookers is that you can prep a meal the day before, or in the morning, and it will be ready when you are. Assuming your electricity stays on while it’s cooking.
In many ways, I find cooking with the slow cooker is easier than using a stove. But it doesn’t cook everything a stove and oven can. Things like soup and stews are obvious wins for a slow cooker. I even cook pulled pork in a slow cooker and it’s incredible. (There are five ingredients, and the fifth is “the ability to wait for it”.) I don’t remember how the roast I cooked that one time turned out though, I’ve been using the instant pot for that.
But while I know there are dishes like bacon and cheese quiche in a slow cooker, I can’t imagine cooking eggs in a slow cooker otherwise. It feels like if it’s not quiche it’s going to end badly. I also can’t imagine a steak in a slow cooker, though ham sounds perfect.
There are a billion recipes out there for slow cookers. The hard part is still going to be figuring out what to cook in the first place.
A Soda Maker
Anyone who has been around soda makers probably eye-rolled me after reading the headline. You can guess that these machines make soda/pop/fizzy drinks/carbonated beverages/pretend Coke. But how will this inspire you? With ease, assuming you like carbonated drinks. One of my character flaws is how much I love things like Mt. Dew, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Fanta… you get the idea. I like almost every non-diet/artificially sweetened soda option out there. Because of that, I drink them far too much.
No Shocker Here, Sodas Aren’t “Health Food”.
Considering that one can of soda per day can mean more than 15 lbs of weight per year that’s a serious habit. 15 lbs! If you break down the 150 calories from an average can of soda, that’s over 9 tsp (or 3 tbsp) of sugar in one 12 ounce drink.
This is where a soda maker helps out.
I’ll say this, Sodastream brand syrups taste odd. I don’t love them. They’re also pricey. There’s only about one flavor that I almost like. And remember, I love a whole lot of carbonated drinks. I’ve not ventured out of the Sodastream flavors. Well, except one time. I bought this off-brand syrup. It was even worse.
But think outside the box with me for a second.
In Costa Rica they sell “Refrescos”, they’re life-changing. They put fruit and sugar in water. It’s like semi-healthy Kool-Aid. (The less added sugar the better it is for you. Many of the Costa Rican varieties dump in the sugar.) But they make them out of watermelon, blackberry, even tamarind.
So what I do is chop fruit and put it in a glass. Then I add just enough sugar to balance against the fruit and carbonation. The blend is like a carbonated fruit drink, which is of course already a thing. (Limeade anyone?) You can do that with lemons, too, for a fancy lemonade. I don’t recommend orange. It will not make Fanta. It tastes strange to me in the worst way, like drinking orange peel. Watermelon + lime is awesome. Apple is terrible because of the fiber-like apple grit. I even made a cayenne pepper ginger ale that I loved. You’ll likely need to experiment a bit to see what you like.
For me, the benefit of a soda maker is threefold. First, I can cut down my soda calorie intake. Second, I save money by not buying my weight in soda each week. Third, I can serve whatever soda I want at that very moment. If one person wants strawberry soda and another lime + watermelon, it’s no problem because you just mix the fruit and water.
The other option is to ditch sugar completely and mix in honey. That even makes this an option for someone on the Paleo diet. You should probably not try maple syrup as a sweetener unless you’re making some kind of odd pancake soda. Don’t do that.
You may be asking why you would get an expensive-ish gadget instead of buying bottles of club soda. Good question! First, I tend to open a bottle and use half of it. The rest goes flat and is most-often wasted. Second, by not using plastic bottles in the first place it means manufacturers aren’t producing bottles for one more person. So at least it feels like it’s Earth-friendly. For all I know, the process of making a soda machine could involve burning tires and siphoning oil reserves from pristine wilderness. So don’t take my word on that one, it’s just a feeling.
You might think that custom pottery is going to be overly-expensive. But it’s not that much more than generic department store stuff. (Although thrift stores are still way cheaper.) You do need some workhorse coffee mugs and plates for everyday use. Custom pottery in the kitchen makes the environment much more pleasant. It might even inspire you to plate your meals better for Instagram. If you can put the dishes on display without putting it at risk, that’s even better.
My favorite item in our collection is a large bowl from Paint Creek Pottery in Michigan. You can find them at local Michigan events. Places like the Tulip Festival and the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Take a look at their Facebook page for details.
We also have a set of mugs we bought at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival. Mine has a cork top and holds enough coffee to make me seriously jittery. There’s something pleasant about drinking from well-made, hand-crafted pottery.
If you’re not in a location where people sell pottery. Like if you’re colonizing Mars, there are shed-loads on Etsy. I rather like this greenish-blueish mug from TranquilPottery.
Don’t like greenish-blueish? Try these turquoise espresso cups by NoraPotteryArt.
All set on mugs? Check out these beautiful and simple white plates from DianeZiegler.
If you’re good with having them shipped from Ukraine, this set by JeramicaCeramics is beautiful.
The internet is amazing, and it has changed cooking for the better. But it might not be helpful if you don’t know what you want to cook in the first place. You might have a frozen pizza for emergencies, but why not save that for a real emergency? (Like, “Oh no, we have to be at Soccer practice in 45 minutes!”)
Before the internet, people had piles of cookbooks. Mostly from family. Not all of them were good, which is why everyone dreaded meatloaf night.
With a few quality cookbooks on hand, you can get inspired without waiting for browser load times and sifting through piles of “Cream Corn #7” recipes. And if the idea of a recipe in the book sounds off, or you’re missing an ingredient, you can let Google help from there.
Never underestimate the inspiration that comes from flipping through a well-presented cookbook. Need a place to start? Try these:
Paleo Slow Cooker Cookbook: 250 Amazing Paleo Diet Recipes
“The recipes are very tempting and varied. I enjoy the ease of fixing the ingredients in the slow cooker and continuing with my day then sitting with the family to eat instead of slaving over a hot stove or oven.”
Tasty Latest and Greatest: Everything You Want to Cook Right Now (An Official Tasty Cookbook)
“I LOVE this cookbook. I have already made 4 things out of this book and my family has loved them! It is a great cook book that you have most of the items in your pantry. Some cookbooks you have to go out and buy a whole bunch of things to make a recipe. This is not that kind of book! So glad I ordered it. Can not wait for ore cook books!”
“Hello Popes! This cookbook is totally fun, giving 500 years of recipes from the Vatican, and who can beat that?
The Kindle edition is a little disappointing (well mine), because the illustrations are small.
Still, it is a fascinating history of the Vatican with their recipes, some of which are stellar. Always good to see good history with good recipes, haha.”
While gadgets are cool, the only things you really need are ingredients and ways to prepare them. Having amazing herbs readily available is a great thing. I don’t know how many times pulling a few fresh basil leaves from the plant has made a dish work out so much better.
Keeping fresh herbs works best in a well-lit kitchen.
Herbs in Mason Jars
One straightforward way to do this is to reuse jars as growing containers. You can decorate them any number of ways, so it doesn’t have to look like you’re hoarding your recycling.
Before you go out and buy a bunch of plants, just remember that you have to get the root ball past the lip of the jar. So this works well for smaller plants or plants grown from seeds. Or do whatever you want if you collect gallon pickle jars.
A lot of herbs go under-watered. I’m guilty there, too. One way to fight that is to put them in containers that water them automatically. (Well, kinda. If you let the water drain out of the jar, it can’t help you there!)
Traditional (or non-traditional) Plant Pots
DIY-looking things can feel out of place in some kitchens. But that doesn’t mean you can’t grow herbs. You can find pots for your plants in whatever style you need.
We love these wooden pots from Waldmade, on Etsy. They would be perfect for someone who prefers natural beauty, or who may not care for typical ceramic or terracotta plant pots.
Wherever you find your inspiration, we hope that 2018 is your most creative year yet.