If you enjoy cooking OR if you have a compulsion to lay your hands on the latest gadgets before your friends do, you might find your kitchen cluttered with all kinds of junk you’ve used once and then never looked at again. Do you really need a banana slicer? Or an egg separator? Or a cupcake baker?
There are a few small appliances and tools, however, that are worth the investment in money and space because you can use them for more than one kind of task and they make your kitchen efforts more efficient and successful.
Meat thermometer. This one is a no-brainer. While you can use all kinds of old pitmaster tricks to test the doneness of your steak or brisket, the only way to be truly accurate is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. And while the older style that you insert in the meat periodically to check the temperature is fine, the most up-to-date versions are smart. They communicate via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi with an app on your phone that tells you in real time what the temperature is both inside the meat and inside the grill or oven. You don’t have to open the oven door or grill cover and let the heat out. You might be surprised to find that your oven temperature is off by 10 or 20 degrees or more, explaining why things take so much longer to cook, or worse, why your beautiful grass-fed rib roast is well done when you were shooting for medium rare. Meater makes a great thermometer. It’s expensive, but well worth the investment.
Immersion circulator. Originally designed for various industrial uses, the immersion circulator was embraced by fine dining chefs who saw its value in the kitchen for long-time-low-temperature cooking (LTLT), or sous vide (sooVEED). Immersion circulators used to be very expensive (and some still are), but the cost has come down so they’re affordable for home cooks. It’s a simple concept—the food goes into a zippered plastic bag and then into a water bath. The immersion circulator stirs the water and holds it at a specified precise temperature so that the food cooks slowly and evenly. Nothing overcooks because the food can’t get hotter than the temperature you’ve set.
This is especially handy for foods that are easy to overcook, like steaks. Sous vide eliminates the guesswork and will deliver a perfectly cooked medium rare steak from edge to edge. After the sous vide process is finished, just put the steak on a very hot grill or into a very hot skillet for the sear. You can even cook from frozen without thawing first.
Cooking sous vide does require some care, and you might need some extra equipment if you want to do it frequently. This guide from Kenji Lopez-Alt will help you get started.
Air fryer. These have been all the rage lately, and with good reason. An air fryer blows hot air all around your food (similar to a convection oven), allowing you to get a brown, crispy surface on everything from broccoli to stew meat and steak without using much, if any, oil and in a fraction of the time. Food cooks quickly, and with the various inserts that come with some of them, you can even bake bread or make kabobs. Air fryers come in dozens of sizes and models, ranging from a small, 2-quart countertop unit with a basket to an actual oven large enough to roast a chicken. Many are multi-function—they toast, roast, defrost, bake, and reheat. Depending on what you plan to do with it, the quantities you want to cook, and the versatility you need, you can spend as little as about $30 or as much as a couple hundred.
It takes a little practice to learn how to use an air fryer efficiently, but once you do, it will become a go-to for those quick weeknight meals or heating leftovers for lunch. Here’s everything you need to know to get started.
Instant Pot. Some people are probably old enough to remember Grandma cooking in the old-style pressure cooker with the valve on the top rattling and steam hissing out. They were a great tool, but could be tricky to use, and a teeny bit dangerous if you didn’t know what you were doing. But then along came the Instant Pot, a multicooker than serves as a pressure cooker, slow cooker, and even air fryer, in some models. Unlike the old stove-top pressure cookers, the Instant Pot is almost error-proof. You don’t have to stay near the kitchen to monitor it as it’s cooking (although we wouldn’t leave one completely unattended, as with any other kitchen appliance), and all you have to do is put the food in, put the cover on, and push a button.
The Instant Pot cooks things like beans fast with no soaking, and there are hundreds of cookbooks with recipes for everything from macaroni and cheese to beef stew and pineapple upside down cake. One particularly handy feature is that, unlike most slow cookers, you can sauté in the same pot before you put the top on and slow cook, making clean-up a breeze when you’re cooking chili, soups, and stews.
Depending on the type of cooking you do and the cabinet and counter space in your kitchen, you might decide some of these appliances aren’t for you. And you probably don’t need all of them. (But everyone who cooks meat needs a meat thermometer. Period.) But if you’re looking for more efficient, easy, and error-proof ways to get food on your table, check them out.