Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mark Bittman's Inessentials

There's no doubt in my mind that Mark Bittman knows his audience -which must be full of guilt ridden yuppies and wannabe chefs who are too busy and too broke to pull it off.
Okay, okay I know I sound snarky. I shouldn't be because I actually liked his piece in the Times which is about how you don't have to spend a fortune on equipment to cook like most pros. (I'm not talking Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz here.)
Anyone who has cooked in a restaurant knows that most of us use really cheap pots and pans and yes, even knives. But I wonder about some of the items in a list of what he calls "The Inessentials"

Here is his list. My comments are in Italics. The Bittman article is HERE.

YOU can live without these 10 kitchen items:

BREAD MACHINE You can buy mediocre bread easily enough, or make the real thing without much practice.
I could not agree more. Bread machines are stupid.

MICROWAVE If you do a lot of reheating or fast (and damaging) defrosting, you may want one. But essential? No. And think about that counter space!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I'd give up my cutting board (which I made myself, by the way) before I'd lose my microwave. It is extremely useful for bringing things up to temp quickly, and I use it a lot to heat up a dish that may have sat off the fire for too long before service. And can anyone tell me a better way to reheat coffee?

STAND MIXER Unless you’re a baking fanatic, it takes up too much room to justify it. A good whisk or a crummy handheld mixer will do fine.

If a baking fanatic is someone who likes to make bread once a month than perhaps he's right. But kneading bread by hand is really boring unless you smoke pot -I don't anymore.

BONING/FILLETING KNIVES Really? You’re a butcher now? Or a fishmonger? If so, go ahead, by all means. But I haven’t used my boning knife in years. (It’s pretty, though.)

He's right. No one really needs more than a chef's knife and a bread knife.

WOK Counterproductive without a good wok station equipped with a high-B.T.U. burner. (There’s a nice setup at Bowery Restaurant Supply for $1,400 if you have the cash and the space.)

He's right, wok = waste. There are few things that you do in a wok that you cannot do in a saute pan.

STOCKPOT The pot you use for boiling pasta will suffice, until you start making gallons of stock at a time.

Right again. But I'm beginning to wonder why I care.

PRESSURE COOKER It’s useful, but do you need one? No.

Weird comment coming from the man who became famous for his rapid minimalist approach to cooking. I don't own one of course, but I'm a slow food guy (and a member of Slow Food)

ANYTHING MADE OF COPPER More trouble than it’s worth, unless you have a pine-paneled wall you want to decorate.

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. Most of my pots and pans are copper. I don't mind cleaning them, they preform beautifully and they are so well made that I know I'm never going to have to replace them. But I suppose they aren't essential. So okay, he's right.

RICE COOKER Yes, if you eat rice twice daily. Otherwise, no.

What's a rice cooker? LOL

COUNTERTOP CONVECTION OVEN, ROTISSERIE, OR “ROASTER” Only if you’re a sucker for late-night cooking infomercials.

Now how is Ron Popeil going to afford to retire if people stop buying counter top ovens? Shame on you Mark Bittman!

Lastly I, del Grosso, would like to add something to the list: food processor. No one who knows how to use a knife, a meat grinder or a blender really needs one of these things. Most food processors are very blunt instruments that tear food to shreds, suck for purees and take up too much room. The commercial types are great for making forcemeat but they are pretty pricey.

Here's a funny story; slightly off topic.

In 1984 I was charged with supervising a new extern from the CIA in the restaurant where I was working as lead line cook. The extern was a really nice fellow and very eager and earnest but unfortunately, legally blind.
One morning I asked the extern to get a bucket of peeled shallots from the walk-in and chop them in the Robot Coupe (food processor) for lunch service. In the meantime, I said, I was going to go up to the bar and call in some orders for meat and produce. About ten minutes pass and the extern comes up to the bar to ask me something so I ask him about the shallots.

"They aren't done yet" he says. Bam! I hang up the phone and I'm like. "Are you nuts? They're going to stink! You're not making puree! Jesus Christ do you know how long it took to peel those things?"

So I storm back to the kitchen with him trailing behind me looking like he's going to cry and what the hell do I find?

The shallots whirling around in the ice cream machine.


Don Luis said...

I completely disagree about the food processor. How do I make bread crumbs without one? I take pan de agua, rip it into little pieces, put it in the food processor, and viola: bread crumbs.

Scott said...


Microwave - Mark's kids must be grown!

Stand Mixer - I agree, but don't underestimate the attachments. Meat grinder/sausage stuffer anyone?

My boning knife works really well for getting off silverskin, or the rind off mangoes?

Wok- I have a stove with one burner with high BTU output, and it works well on my Turkey Fryer rig, but that's just me.

Stockpot - I make lots of Stock.

Pressure Cooker - if only for cooking beans, and Jacques Pepin's marvelous Short Ribs.

Copper - Nyet

Rice Cooker - yes. Billions of asians can't be wrong, and why can I bone out a chicken, but can't cook rice! (Except when I do it as pasta)

I leave the countertop convevection oven to my Mom. It keeps her address book upright!

Scott said...

OOPS - I agree with Bob, not Mark on the Stand Mixer issue.

Faith said...

I use the hell out of my wok. But then, it's an electric wok and I live in South Texas where we don't like to use the stove 9 months out of the year. It heats up quickly and cools down quickly so I do LOTS of stir-fry in the summer.

kristin said...

You can make rice in a standard 2 quart sauce pan with some chicken stock and rice. Rice cookers are pointless. As for a boning and filet knife, well I wasn't going to get a boning knife but because of the nice people at MAC, I got one for free. I had ordered my knives, including a filet, and got a call from the guy out in California. He said there was a discount, but since I paid by check he would throw the boning knife and the cheese knife in for free. This was AFTER I told him I was not a professional, just a lowly home cook. I will always do business with MAC. Good knives do make all the difference.

tscape said...

I like my wok. I'm quite happy with it. I think I'll keep it.

I can make rice on the stove just fine, but it does require me to pay a bit more attention. With a rice cooker, in the immortal sing-songy words of Ron Popeil, you can set it and forget it. So for that alone, it can be handy, although I agree it is not essential if your rice turns out fine on the stove. And I know enough people who are not good rice makers that I'd assume that they'd disagree on the rice cooker not being good to have.

Ed said...

Yeah, there's alot more you can do with a wok than just stir fry but you are right you need a high BTU ring. I use mine to steam and do all sorts of stuff and often use it instead of a frying pan. It is difficult to fry the same way in a standard pan. If your knife is that good you could get rid of the meat grinder.

Ed said...

Sorry, I should add that I can think of many better ways to reheat coffee than a microwave - how about a pan. i managed to reheat and defrost for 15 years without a microwave. Why did we buy one? The physio told my wife to to heat up a wheat pack with. I reckon we use it once a week if that and it takes up a lot of space.

Sorcha said...

That there is some ice cream I'll pass on, thanks.

steven said...

Oh heck, I have TWO stand mixers and a Lodge cast iron wok I can't live without. Let's see, I need the stock pot cos I do make tons of stock and I have a pressure canner for the tomatoes in the summer and for canning the stock as well. Bread machine? Never.Rice cooker? Nope. The microwave is a counter eater, but it reheats the coffee,makes great cashew brittle and (guilty shortcut secret) ganache. The boning knife gets used when someone brings me a chunk of deer.

Shallots in the ice cream maker! Fantastic.

Don Luis said...

After thinking about this for a couple of days, I think I am officially offended.

I like Mark Bittman's book, How to Cook Everything. I don't think I'm a yuppie, I'm certainly not guilt ridden, and I'm no wannabe chef. I may well be too broke to pull it off. If anything, I'm downwardly mobile.

I have lots of All-Clad, KitchenAid, Calphalon, and Cuisinart products (most purchased when, I guess, I was a yuppie), and lots of cheap stuff as well. It all has its place. I'm not happy about the stuff that was left off by the two of you:

stick blender
box grater
sheet pan
baking dish

I don't smoke pot anymore either, but I knead my bread by hand. I'm not bored by it, and I think it gives me a better feel for the food.

I have a boning knife. I can't imagine taking apart a pork shoulder for sausage without one.

I've had cheap pans: they suck.

My oldest pans are Revere Ware that my wife got as a dowry present 30 years ago (a different suitor). I still use them, along with an equally old set of Chicago Cutlery, although my favorite knife right now is a Tramontina (think cheap). It fits my Jimmy-Dean pork sausage hand (phrase stolen from Batali) better than my expensive German knives.

I collected my food gear over 30 years. At $3,000 (let's be generous), that's $100 per year. I spend more on beer.

By the way, I love your site: it makes me think.

Bob del Grosso said...

Don Luis

I'm trying to have some fun and don't take this kind of thing very seriously.
Truthfully, I think that whatever you think is essential is essential. There is now one size fits all. I mean is you really want to talk essential then all you need to cook is a pot or a stick, your hans and a fire.
Thanks for the kind words and please feel free to take me to task whenever you are so moved.
It makes me think!

bob dG

Don Luis said...

And thank you for the kind words: we curmudgeons don't get enough of them.

gina said...

Late to post - but for those of us who don't go through formal training - any suggestions on how to acquire said knife skills? I've just tuned up the old clunky germans and got them nice and sharp - and invested in one purty global chef's knife. Now, if only my onion slices were all the same size...

Bob del Grosso said...

I can't think of any sources for knife skill training at the moment. However I think you can go pretty far towards developing a sense of precision by practicing on an onion.
Onions are cheap, and if you mess them up you can always hack 'em to pieces and use them sweat them down into pulp so no one will be aware of your sin.
Try this.
Cut off the stem and root end.
Peel off the skin.
Turn the onion onto one of the cut surfaces.
Place the fingers of whatever hand you don't cut with on the top of the onion. Now curl those fingers under so the nails are perpendicular to the surface of your cutting board (straight up and down).
Make the blade of the knife parallel to your fingernails and slice the onion in half.
Next take one half of the onion and lay the newly cut surface down on the board.
Place your fingers about 1/4 inch from the root or stem end and curl them again so the nails are perpendicular to the board. Place the side if the blade against the fingernails and cut through the onion.
Each time you cut, make sure that the blade goes straight down. Don't let it wobble and you will get an even cut with no waves.
For the next cut, put your fingers another 1/4 inch from the new cut and repeat making sure to curl your fingertips under. This step will do two things: protect your fingertips from being cut off and will create a guide for the knife so the cut is even.
Now go on and cut as many onions as you can afford to use. Cut 5 pounds, twenty pounds if you can.
Knife skills are all about control and precision and the only way to get that is through practice and repetition.

gina said...


Gratinee anyone?

Thanks, Bob.

Don Luis said...

I know it's not particularly chic to point to the Food Network, but I've found the advice here to be pretty sound (I've only looked at the print versions; the video versions are Windows only).