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The tool trade

The tool trade

INEXPENSIVE COOKWARE | Skip costly gadgets and invest in hardware staples for the kitchen

November 7, 2007

Is your kitchen equipped for the busiest cooking season of the year? It's time to take inventory and tool up for the holidays.

But before you head out to the nearest Fancy Cookware Boutique, stop at your local hardware store.

Most hardware stores carry a good range of housewares, including items that can be tough to find elsewhere, such as old-fashioned graniteware pans, cheesecloth and canning jars (good for all kinds of storage uses, not just canning).

Even better, though, they stock a wide range of well-made but inexpensive tools that, with a little creativity, you can put to use instead of costly utensils intended for kitchen use.

We went browsing at TrueValue, Ace Hardware and The Home Depot and compared what we found there to Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table and Crate&Barrel.

"I just sold a wood rasp for a cheese grater!" exclaimed Jim Kallas at Zimmermann TrueValue in Buffalo Grove, when we explained our mission.

This, in fact, turns out to be one of the few areas where there's not much difference. Microplane's line of culinary graters are just as good and no more costly than the stainless steel woodworking tools they're modeled on, although you may find a larger selection of sizes and shapes in the hardware store. Less expensive brands are available and can work well too, but be aware that tools not made of stainless steel will need special care to keep them from rusting.

In other areas, though, the hardware store blows over the cookware shop.

Go for brawny

The 1990s vogue for creme brulee turned the blowtorch into a must-have kitchen tool. Forget those wimpy little butane culinary torches and pick up a brawny BernzOMatic. The hardware-store propane torch costs about a quarter of the price, is just as easy to use and lasts longer without a refill -- not to mention being so much more awesome in the kitchen.

Uses aren't limited to caramel-topped custard. Try the creme brulee treatment on your breakfast oatmeal or slices of fresh fruit, such as pineapple. Brown the swirls on meringue-topped pie or baked Alaska. Toast marshmallows. Spike a bell pepper on a long fork and flame off its skin. Caramelize the glaze on a ham.

British chef Heston Blumenthal uses a torch to sear the outside of a roast before cooking it at very low temperature for 20 hours.

Slow cooking in clay pots goes in and out

of fashion. The age-old technique of baking in unglazed terra cotta, typically soaked in water and placed into a cold oven, creates moist and flavorful roasts. Clay pots also turn out excellent bread.

But the pots are easily broken and they absorb flavors, so you're advised to keep different pots for different kinds of foods or strong seasonings. At roughly $40 for a smallish Romertopf, the best-known brand, that can add up.

An unglazed clay flowerpot and its saucer will work just as well. An 8-inch-diameter pot, with a matching 10-inch saucer, big enough to roast a small chicken, runs about $8.

Food Network chef Alton Brown roasts chickens this way, placing the bird on the saucer and inverting the pot over it. Famously, Brown also has built a smoker out of a large clay flowerpot and a hot plate. Even larger pots, paired with a paving brick, can be used to construct an outdoor, charcoal-fired baking oven.

Another Brown trick from hardware store items is a food dehydrator made from furnace filters (not the fiberglass type!) bungee-corded to a box fan. He also advocates items such as mortar trowels as pie cutters, C-clamps as nutcrackers and various kinds of putty knives (plastic ones cost less than a dollar) as dough scrapers.

Brush up

While we're thinking about baking, 2-inch hardwood dowels make excellent rolling pins of a style much advocated in France. Longer, thinner dowels are typically employed by folks making homemade phyllo.

A metal carpenter's rule, about $3, makes a handy kitchen tool for measuring pastry, gauging the thickness of fish or steaks and other such tasks.

Over in the paint aisle, natural-bristle brushes cost under a dollar, while almost identical brushes sold as pastry brushes cost $6. Use paintbrushes for buttering dough and baking pans, anointing meats with barbecue sauce and brushing stray crumbs off the counter. At this price, you can afford to toss them in the dishwasher for cleaning and throw them away when they get worn or stained.

We have also heard of using a spray-paint gun to apply even coats of confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder or clarified butter to desserts, although the tool needs careful cleaning. And lidded tin paint pails, sold empty, make great canisters.

If you bake pie shells blind for later filling, you need something to weight down the crust. A container of ceramic pie weights runs about $13, and if you drop them they roll all over the floor. Ten feet or so of metal chain at under 50 cents a foot will weight your crusts just as well and be easier to keep track of.

Many bread bakers and pizza makers know that cheap, unglazed quarry tiles do the same job as baking stones for a fraction of the price. For serious baking, we also like leather welder's gloves better than cumbersome cotton oven mitts at about the same price.

Even a drill will do

Ever needed to cut the end off a ham bone that didn't fit in your roasting pan? A $5 hacksaw will do the job. And a stainless-steel keyhole saw, about $6, can do just about anything an expensive serrated knife can do. A utility cutter (a k a tin snips) makes short work of cutting through small bones and tendons, just like costly kitchen shears.

Other useful hardware-store items include cotton knit painter's rags, great for drying stemware and all kinds of mopping up chores (cheaper than dishtowels and nicer than tearing up old undershirts); PVC pipe, cut in rings, for molding food into neat round shapes, and long-nose pliers for pulling out fish bones.

Finally, we don't actually recommend this -- but, in a pinch, you can use an electric drill as a mixer. Just fit a beater or whisk into the chuck and hit the trigger.

We discovered this when our mixer died one day in the middle of beating a dozen egg whites. Handheld mixers are lighter, easier to use and cheaper than drills but if you need a drill anyway, it can get you out of a jam.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.

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