Kitchen Gadgets and Appliances--Good or Evil?

Photo: Plan 59

So if I were a hard-working, knowledgeable, helpful health blogger, this post would be a pre-holiday round-up of great kitchen-related products. That way, you could find cool things to buy your loved ones, which, in turn, would encourage them to do more healthy home-cooking and less scarfing up big-ass buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But that would require a lot of thought and research! And I'm afraid I'm all tired out from reading 70,000 tweets a day and catching up on past episodes of Glee baking whole grain cookies and hand-crafting unique holiday gifts from recycled natural materials.

So instead, I thought I'd offer some opinions and observations about kitchen items. Because doesn't it seem like for every practical, time-saving, well-engineered tool or appliance in the kitchen, there's another silly, frustrating, or just plain evil one taking up valuable space? Whether you get them as gifts or accidentally purchase them, it can take a while before you can justify tossing them in the garbage or the Goodwill pile. Meanwhile, you've got to maneuver around them or figure out a way to use them anyway despite their impracticality.

Finally figured out a use for that Dial-o-Matic Slicer!
(Photo: The_bosshog)

And some of the most practical items you own may have annoying features that drive you crazy. Anyone else have opinions about kitchen stuff and how it works, or is it just me?

Things I hate:

1. Microwave ovens that keep nagging you when your food is done.

Regular ovens, which will actually burn your food if you don't remember to rescue it when it's done, do not default to a mode that beeps loudly at you to remind you to take things out. You have to set a timer if you want it to yell at you. So why do microwave ovens, which shut off automatically and will not hurt food left sitting inside it, have such a freakin' complex about hanging out for a minute or two with food left in there? What's the problem, microwave? Why do you give a damn if my plate of leftovers sits innocently behind your glass door for a couple of minutes while I get myself a beverage?

Plus, if you're busy with other things, the stupid microwave will keep on beeping periodically to make sure you don't completely forget to eat the food you've just heated. Does this happen to other people a lot? For me: taking out the recycling on a Sunday night--that's something I might forget to do. But remembering to eat a meal I just finished heating? Um, not a big problem!

And of course the most infuriating thing is that many cheaper microwaves (including the one we own) will not allow you to mute the stupid beeping or even turn down the volume. Great for early risers like me who want to heat things up while others are sleeping! Beep beep beep beeeeep!

2. Blenders that Won't Blend. Or Pour.

I never used to have an opinion about blenders until I became addicted to morning smoothies. But now I've discovered that not all blenders are created equal. (Equally? Damn, now both ways sounds wrong).

So anyway, which one of these two blenders would you guess works better: the shiny industrial-looking Cuisinart we bought my mother-in-law for Christmas a year ago?

Or the vintage Sears "solid state Insta-Blend" model that we are using while we're housesitting at a friends house?

Given the design elements, like the fonts, colors, and the fake woodgrain stick-on label (click on the picture to enlarge, if you care) we're thinking this thing is probably not a recent model. But heck, it's Sears--never known for its cutting-edge aesthetics.

And yes, as you've probably guessed: the homely and probably ancient Sears Insta-Blend kicked the hoity-toity Cuisinart's gleaming silver ass.

The Cuisinart can barely blend an overripe banana. Throw anything frozen in there? It freaks out and shrieks like a two year old having a tantrum. It makes these horrible "I can't take this much longer" sounds, like I've thrown a few screwdrivers and wrenches in there for kicks along with the spinach and mango chunks. Plus, when it does manage to finally chop up something up down at the bottom of the container? It figures its job is done. It's not interested in anything that happens more than an inch above the blades. So it doesn't create that efficient swirly blender-vortex that normally pulls stuff from the top of the container down into the grindy part. This thing just sits there grinding up the same couple inches of liquid until you either stop and stir, or throw the whole damn thing out the window.

Oh, and check out the Cuisinarts' non-functional spout! The pouring end is flat except for a miniscule decorative doohickey that serves to split the flow of smoothie into two streams, neither of which directs the liquid where you're trying to pour it.

In contrast, the vintage Sears Insta-Blend comes in a practical shape for pouring:

Even better? When you throw a bunch of food into it, fresh or frozen? The Insta-Blend actually blends all the items together! Amazing.

Sticky Non-Stick Pans

Even if you manage to buy a brand that's non-toxic, it sure seems like the "non-stick" feature has been oversold. Sure, stuff doesn't stick for a while, but after a few years? Seems like the non-stick cookware is just as clingy as the other stuff.

Fancy Food Processors

This is my own particular neurosis, because I know other people use these and love them and I'm just too lazy to learn to use one properly. The Lobster drags ours out every now and then, and she swears it saves all kinds of time. But (1) the sharp blades scare me; (2) it seems to take forever to gather everything up, pre-slice things so they fit in there and clean up later without accidentally amputating a digit; and (3) whatever blade I've used makes the onions so wet and mushy they taste boiled even if you saute them. (Choose another blade? That would require thought, experimentation and more cleaning!)

I'm sure most of you love your food processors but tend to opt for knife or blender.

Evil Plastics Everywhere!

So a while back I wrote about the possible dangers of endocrine-disrupting BPA's and other toxic substances found food containers and kitchenware. And as a result, I've started using more glass and ceramics, and avoiding certain canned goods and plastic containers. But holy cow, once you start looking around the kitchen... plastic is everywhere! What about the coffee maker that's had hot liquid running through it for years now? The old tupperware? The plastic mixing bowls? And so much of the food straight from the grocery store comes in some sort of container that now seems suspect. I try to remember which of the little recycling numbers are good and which mean trouble, but lots of our old kitchenware doesn't have numbers on it. Yikes!

So enough complaining for now.

Some Kitchen Things I Love:

My Big Ass Coffee Cup:

Yeah, I know, portion control theory advocates small containers, but we're talking COFFEE here. And I happen to take mine with a ton of heated nonfat milk. A friend of mine used to work at a certain ubiquitous coffee franchise, and brought me several of these giganto 20 ounce mugs which I treasure, even as I feel slightly embarrassed for advertising a big corporate chain I don't tend to patronize myself. But now they don't even make these mugs anymore! Just a smaller version. I even take one with me when I travel, because I'm freakishly attached to my morning coffee ritual. Breaking it up into several tiny mugs just won't do.

A Good Garlic Press

Garlic presses, like potato peelers, cheese graters, and pizza-cutters, are the sort of item that can be incredibly useful or not depending on how well-made they are. Many brands of these things do not work all that well, so when you find a good one, you can become very passionate about it. I had a couple of crappy garlic presses before my current one that wouldn't smush the garlic reliably unless I peeled the clove first, but this one mashes on through the peel like it's nothing. I heart you, garlic press!

Salad Spinner

I will try not to notice for the moment that the thing is plastic, and just hope it is a good kind of plastic. Because between toxic pesticide residue (non-organic) or gritty dirt and the occasional small slug (organic) you gotta wash your lettuce. I never think ahead, and I hate soggy salad! Plus, I love the whole pumping whirring ritual.

Toaster Oven

I love the way these take almost no time to preheat, and on summer days, don't turn the whole kitchen hot like a regular oven can. Also, the "bake" element and the "broil" element are both right there on either side of the food, so if I'm lazy I can sometimes skip flipping something over by first baking, then broiling.

The only thing toaster ovens don't do very well? Make toast. Go figure.

So I'm hoping some of you also have opinions about kitchen items? Any favorites? Any gadgets or features that try your patience?

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