Prosumer Options: Knives and Gadgets

Restaurant-quality knives and small appliances may cost more than consumer-grade items, but they can be an affordable luxury. Which products pass the pro test?

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Professional baker Peggy Hambright recently purchased a house replete with pro-quality appliances, including a Viking range and Bosch dishwasher — but that didn't significantly improve her ability to cook chef-style meals for her husband and friends at home, she says.

"Even when we lived in an apartment with a 35-year-old stove and fridge, I already had the equipment that's important to me, like a good knife and my KitchenAid mixers," says Hambright, who is also a wedding cake designer and owner of Mag-Pies in Knoxville, Tenn.

Hambright's approach works just as well for those who don't own a single pro-quality appliance and have little prospect of getting one, whether the reason is budget, an immutable kitchen design or impending move. There are plenty of smaller gadgets and cookware pieces that will help you cook like a pro without breaking the bank or remodeling the kitchen, and they'll move with you when you go.

Hambright and other cooking experts share their ideas about the most useful pro gadgets for the home kitchen, how much is too much and which products won't add to your cooking experience.

KNIFE KNOW-HOW

Knives that cost $500? Hambright knows they exist, but "I don't believe in them," she says.

"I think you can do just as well with a mid-range steel knife, like a [Zwilling J.A.] Henckels, as long as you make friends with someone who knows how to sharpen knives," she says. "It really is more important to learn to sharpen or have it done professionally on a regular basis than it is to spend more. A lot of people are mistakenly buying new knives just because the old ones get dull."

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Chef Ming Tsai is a popular public television show host (Simply Ming) and owner of the Blue Ginger Restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., who swears by his Kyocera ceramic knives, even when he's cooking at home. They retail for around $50 and are renowned for staying sharp, but home cooks must keep in mind that they?re ceramic and can break so you have to handle them with care.

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Hambright's most treasured knife is a quirky one that her husband gave her, designed by celebrity chef Alton Brown of Food Network's Good Eats fame. It features a razor sharp blade, 33 layers of stainless steel and a 10-degree angled handle that prevents your knuckles from hitting the cutting board as you work. "It may sound silly, but I just love the way it feels in my hand," she says. "You do need to find a knife you can hold comfortably; otherwise, you're not going to want to use it."

PREP WITH THE BEST

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"I would never skimp on a KitchenAid mixer," says Hambright, who bakes even at home and uses her mixers primarily to beat batter and whip egg whites. "I have four ranging in age from one to 17 and they are machines absolutely built to last."

Hambright uses one of her mixers as a juicer and admires the many attachments that can enhance the machines, from food mills to sausage grinders. "But they cost hundreds of dollars, so you should really figure out whether you're going to use one of those attachments a lot, getting it down to how much it will cost per use, before making the added investment," she says.

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Another much ballyhooed "chef-style" prep item is the lavish butcher block or bamboo cutting boards, but Hambright doesn't see the point. "The dense plastic cutting boards are much more practical if you're really going to cook a lot, and you can clean them with bleach," she says.

NOW YOU'RE COOKING

Gas ranges with their high BTUs are the most sought-after appliances for avid home chefs, but if one's out of reach you might want to consider a single gas Bunsen burner with gas propane on the side, says Sue Adams, an interior designer with a flair for kitchens from Andover, Mass. "It's not a fine design element, but it can provide the high heat you want if you're a serious cook, particularly in an outdoor kitchen," she says.

If you've got a source of gas heat, even from a residential-style range, you can cook much more effectively if you invest in really good pots or pans, or even just one, says Eric Tanaka, executive chef for the posh Tom Douglas Restaurant Group in Seattle. "The thinner stainless steel or copper pans have hot spots, where a heavy enamel pot like an All-Clad spreads the heat evenly."

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Tanaka says that lots of manufacturers, from Viking to Creuset, "make a pretty nice pot." In general, thicker is better. "A thin pan will cool down quickly when you put a piece of cold fish in there, while the thicker metal will sear better because it won't let the pan cool off even as you add new ingredients."

Keep in mind, says Tanaka, who also cooks at home for his two children: "Heat is just heat — it can only reach your food through the pans."

Resources

KitchenAid mixers and attachments, www.kitchenaid.com

Kyocera Knives from Chef Ming Tsai, www.mingspantry.com

Kershaw Alton's Angles Knives from Alton Brown, store.foodnetwork.com

Viking, www.vikingrange.com

Le Creuset, www.lecreuset.com/

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