Measuring temperature in a kitchen is important to ensure that food is cooked as desired and is handled and served in a safe manner. Using visual indicators to judge temperature is an inherantly unreliable method which can result in food being under or over ccoked with dangerous or unpleasant results.
Thermometers are a critical food safety tool in commercial kitchens with multiple purposes including ensuring food is cooked to safe temperatures , food is stored at cool enough temperatures, and that dishes and utensils are washed at high enough tempertures.
In some instances such as tempering chocolate where temperature needs to be accurate within a degree or two a thermometer is a very valuable tool which makes life easier and helps ensure success.
There are many different types of thermometers which are used in cooking and the general types are described here.
Candy / Fat Thermometer
Fridge or Freezer Thermometer
Digital Probe thermometer
Disposable temperature indicators
Pop up temperature indicators
With many ingredients measured by weight kitchen scales are an essential tool in any kitchen to ensure accuracy when creating recipes and recreating great food from recipes. Scales come in 3 broad styles each of which have their own pro's and con's.
If you are looking for unerring accuracy, speed and functionality then electronic scales are the right choice; When selecting electronic scales make sure that they can weigh as much as much as you need with the accuracy you need, also make sure that they can easily be switched between metric and imperial measurement systems so you can use recipes from other countries. It is not uncommon for scales to be able measure up to 11lb (5 kilograms) or more with 0.05 oz (1 gram) accuracy. Electronic scales almost always have the "tare" feature which allows you to easily zero them with a bowl or other ingredients already on them so you can easily measure new ingredients as if adding from a zero base, do not buy a set without this feature.
If you want a retro look along with the convenience of ease of use then spring scales may be the right choice for you. These scales rely on a spring stretching or compressing in proportion to the amount of weight placed on them and are fine for rough measurements but are not typically very precise. Some Spring scales come with a tare function which allows you to zero out the scale and measure only what is added . Spring scales can look great on your bench but be prepared for a large price tag if you need high accuracy.
If you are looking for for accurate scales which will work reliably without batteries and look great sitting on your bench then balance scales are worth considering, especially if you are not in a rush. These scales work by placing ingredients on one side of the scale and balancing against known weights which are added to the other end of a horizontal bar. Weights can be purchased in metric and imperial sets allowing measurements to be made in both systems.
Why steaming cooks quicker than baking
Have you ever noticed that if you put your hand into an oven which is heated to 212°F (100°C) it doesn't burn immediately but if you put your hand in the steam which is escaping from a kettle at the same temperature it scalds almost straight away? This happens because the energy which was used to vaporise water into steam in the first place is transferred into your skin when the steam condenses and this is many times more energy than air in the oven heated to the same temperature can transfer.
The same principle applies when steaming food, but rather than cooking your hand the additional energy transferred results in the food cooking quicker.
Why a pressure cooker cooks even quicker than steaming
A pressure cooker is essentially a pot which is used to cook food, but rather than allowing steam from boiling water to escape the pot is sealed so that the steam is contained resulting in an increase in pressure inside the pot. This increase in pressure results in the boiling point of water increasing and more energy being transferred into the food, resulting in an even greater reduction in cooking time.
The reduction in cooking time using a pressure cooker can range anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3rds of normal cooking time making it ideal for cooking tasty stews and similar dishes in much shorter timeframes.
Benefits of pressure cooking
As well as the obvious benefit of reducing cooking time, pressure cooking forces steam into food and prevents moisture and nutrients being lost to evaporation resulting in moist, flavour infused, nutrient rich dishes. Pressure cooking also uses much less water than boiling or traditional steaming methods and the flavour rich cooking water can be retained for use in stocks, soups or other dishes if you are not using them immediately.
Using a pressure cooker at high altitude improves cooking times even more as it is able to offset the reduced atmospheric pressure which would otherwise result in water and other fluids boiling at lower than normal temperatures. If for example you are cooking in Santa Fe new Mexico which is more than 7000 feet or 2000 metres above sea level water boils at around 199°F or 92°C which in cooking terms is considered a braising temperature not a boiling temperature so food needs to be boiled longer in order to cook it.
Types of pressure cookers
There are many different designs of pressure cookers but at the end of the day they are all at their essence a sealed pot which is used to cook food using steam and boiling liquid which is able to be heated to higher than normal temperature due to increased pressure.
Broadly I categorise pressure cookers into two types stovetop , and electric. Both have pro's and con's and at the end of the day it is up to your personal preference as to which one you choose. If you have plenty of money and lots of space there is nothing stopping you hving both.
Stovetop Pressure Cookers
Stovetop Pressure cookers are a simple robust sealed pot which generally reach higher temperatures and pressures ( up to 15 PSI) than their electric counterparts. If you wan't a cooker that cooks larger quantities of food quickly and efficiently and will give you decades of trouble free service then a good quality stovetop cooker is probably your best choice. These units are designed to sit on a regular stovetop are simple in their operation but do require supervision to regulate temperature whilst cooking and are definitely not a set and forget kitchen equipment.
If you buy a good Stovetop pressure cooker it will be manufactured from high quality stainless steel and as a result will have the advantage of doubling as a large non pressurised pot which can be used to brown food or reduce cooking liquids before the lid is put on or after it is removed.
In short a good quality stovetop cookers is likely to last a lifetime, and will be generally quicker to use than an electric unit.
Electric Pressure Cookers
Electric pressure cookers work on the same principle as their stovetop counterparts but have the advantage of built in electronics which can carefully control temperature and pressure in the cooker eliminating the requirement for constant supervision. These units generally cook at lower pressures and temperatures so take a little longer to cook than stovetop units.
If you have bench space to spare ,don't need to cook large quantities and wan't a pressure cooker that you can leave to do its thing without supervision then a good quality electric cooker is probably your best choice.
How and when to use a pressure cooker
Pressure cookers are a great cooking tool to use when you want to create a tasty one pot dish quickly and efficiently. You will have no problems finding recipes for your favourite , stew , braise, or curry which can be cooked in a fraction of the. Dishes that can normally be cooked in under half an hour probably won't gain much from pressure cooking as it can take 20 minutes or more to bring the cooker up to pressure and cool it down again.
Always refer to manufacturers operating instructions if you are unsure how to operate a pressure cooker especially if you are using an electric pressure cooker. Although good quality modern pressure cookers are built to high safety standards misoperation or the use of poor qualty units can result in injury.
Referring to manufacturers operating instructions is particularlt important when familiarising yourself with the operation of electric pressure cookers as it will vary from cooker to cooker.
For stovetop cookers the basic steps for use are as follows:
- If required Heat the pot without the lid on and brown any food that requires browning in oil.
- Prepare and add any other required ingredients to the pot.
- Add water and other liquids as called for by recipe. Alway ensure that there is enough liquid in the cooker to prevent it from boiling dry and do not fill the pot above the maximum recommended by the manufacturer ( usually 2/3 full ).
- Seal the lid following the manufacturers instructions.
- Heat the pot over a high heat until desired steam pressure is reached.
- Cook for time called for by your recipe, adjusting temperature in order to maintain required pressure.
- Allow pressure to reduce by cooling the pot or vent pressure by following manufacturers instructions.
- Open the pressure cooker being careful not to burn yourself.
- Do any final required food preperation
- Serve and enjoy.
A good cooks knife is one of the most essential tools in the kitchen and having good knife skills will improve your cooking and make your life easier. Before you start learning how to use a knife it is important to know what the parts are which comprise a good knife. Knives come in many different designs but can generally be divided into two broad categories, European ( German or French ) and Japanese; religious wars have been waged over which is best but both have their pro's and con's and at the end of the day the style of knife you select comes down to personal preference .. My view is that a well made knife, whatever its style, is a thing of beauty so choose one that is comfortable and balances well in your hand and that you like using.
The picture above shows my trusty workhorse, the Wusthof Ikon 20cm (8") cook's knife with the key components labelled.
The blade of your knife is the the carefully crafted steel which does the cutting for you. European blades are generally thicker and heavier than Japanese knives, have a more distinctive belly curve and a wider blade angle. Meanwhile Japanese knives are generally manufactured from harder steel, have a straighter belly, and have a narrower blade angle. If you wan't a lower maintenance, robust workhorse which is plenty sharp enough for the vast majority of tasks then I would recommend a Euro blade , If you wan't a razor sharp blade which is a bit higher maintenance and excels at fine slicing then Japanese is probably the right choice
If you simply can't choose you can always get both .. You will soon work out which one you reach for instinctively.
This is the cutting edge of the blade and is essentially what makes it sharp. I could go into a complex discussion about different edge types and their advantages an disadvantage but the reality is that the vast majority of cooks knives are ground to a symetrical bevel or V-edge. European knives are generally ground at between 20 - 22 degrees on each side giving a good level of sharpness with some resilience to accidental abuse whilst Japanese knives are often ground between 10 - 15 degrees giving a much sharper but somewhat more fragile blade.
This is where the spine meets the tip of the knife and forms a point and can be used for piercing.
This is the forward section of the blade which also forms a part of the point. The tip is used for delicate , detailed cutting.
The heel is the thickest part at the rear of the blade immediately in front of the handle/bolster. This section can be used for less delicate more robust cutting which requires a little more force.
The spine runs along the full length of the back of the blade and provides the knife blade with its rigidness. European knives tend to have a thicker blade resulting in a heavier more rigid knife.
A bolster is the raised bit of metal that sits between the back of the blade and the handle , the bolster is designed to provide strength, assist with balancing the knife and to provide some protection from the blade if your fingers slip. Knives are available with full, partial or no bolster at all. The knife in the photograph above has a partial bolster which provides the benefits of having a bolster whilst allowing the full length of the blade to be sharpened. On Knives with a full bolster the bolster goes from the spine to the cutting edge and over time will prevent the last few millimetres of the edge from being sharpened and can eventually (after many years of obsessive sharpening ) result in a "birds beak" at the back of the blade.
Selecting a knife with a well made handle that fits comfortably in your hand and allows good control over the blade with a relaxed grip is very important as you are likely to be spnding many hours using it. The size of the handle that feels comfortable for you will depend largely on your hand size but you need to be sure to select a knife style that allows enough room for your knuckles between the chopping surface and the handle.
Scales are the material which sandwich the tang of the knife and are shaped to form a handle which should fitt comfortably in your hand. Scale are often made of wood or synthetic materials. Synthetic materials are common and easier to care for and clean than wood but I prefer the look and feel of a wooden handle. The handle on the knife in the picture is made of African Grenadill wood which is very dense and water resistant.
The butt is the rear end of a cooks knife and depending on the design may or may not serve as an "end cap" which assists with physically securing the scales which make up the handle. Attempts to hold the knife behind this point are likely to result in the knife being dropped.
Rivets are generally cylindrical studs which go through the rear of a knife , firmly securing the scales to the tang to form the handle. RIvets should sit flush with the handle so as not to protrude and cause discomfort to the user.
Good quality knives will extend the metal which forms the blade into a tang which continues into the handle of the knife. Knives which are intended for kitchen use should have a tang which extends the entire length of the handle to ensure strength and balance.
This is my favorite tool in the kitchen behind my Wusthoff Ikon knives. I have the KM80 Kitchen machine which is a high quality stand mixer and a lot more.