Kitchen confidence: Simple tools make a difference

Clay Kallam

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"Meat" thermometers can make any cook betterClay Kallam

First, I’m not a chef. I’m a cook. (And it should be pretty obvious as well that I’m not a photographer.)

By “cook,” I mean someone who goes into the kitchen and tries to make a good meal. A chef, on the other hand, is a serious craftsperson who occasionally can aspire to art.

So this is not about becoming a chef, or doing anything more than upgrading the food that comes off the stove or out of the oven so that you and your family enjoy it more. But really, isn’t that enough? Aren’t good meals, in a very real sense, their own reward?

For years, I existed in a kind of culinary dogmatic slumber, just going over the same ground in the same way, but then one day, for no apparent reason, I decided to get a meat thermometer. No, it wasn’t one of those that has a little dial on top that you just stick in the food – this one got good on-line reviews for tracking the temperature of meals as they cooked. And it changed everything.

Step 1: Get a meat thermometer. No, get two.

The meat thermometers above are of two kinds. The first is made up of three pieces -- the probe, the thermometer and the remote – and it was the first one I bought. Mainly, I wanted it for meat (hence the name) but I quickly found its value extended way beyond baking chicken.

For example, baked potatoes. I had never been able to figure out when a baked potato was done until I cut it open – and then it was too late. If it was hard as a rock, you could throw it in the microwave for a minute, but that too was guesswork. One day, though, I looked on the Internet and found that a perfectly cooked baked potato was at 210 degrees Farenheit.

Now, the “meat” thermometer goes in, and not only can I tell when the potatoes are ready, I have a pretty good idea of how much longer it will take, thus making it a lot easier to have everything ready at the same time. (And that’s still the hardest thing for me. Getting the veggies, meat and starch to all share the same finish line is a nightly challenge.)

Another unintended consequence: Did you know that reheated food should reach around 140 degrees to both be hot and not dry out? With the thermometer in hand, it’s easy to hit the number every time.

That other meat thermometer is an “instant read” option, which is perfect for stovetop cooking (sauces especially) or checking the meat on the grill. You can use the other one, but if you cover the grill, you tend to pull the probe out of the meat or otherwise knock it around, so I like the instant read.

And of course the remote is great. You can be watching TV and keep track of your food without staring at the stove (like they do on Great British Bakers) and hoping for the best.

Step 2: Buy a mini-food processor.

I am not good at chopping. And it’s boring.

I watch the pros go at it on TV now and again, and they chop like robots. I chop like someone who’s mainly concerned with not cutting off a finger.

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(Clay Kallam)

But with mini-food processor taking up minimal space on the counter while I’m prepping, chopping onions (or anything) is no longer a chore. Just toss them into the little machine, fiddle with it until it starts, and 10 seconds later, your onions are ready for the sauce.

So with a mini-food processor, you don’t have to haul out that monster at the back of the cabinet and you can chop up several ingredients in a matter of minutes, making the process not only quicker, but less annoying – and less likely to add blood to the recipe.

Step 3: Sign up for America’s Test Kitchen

Don’t bother with the magazine, and you don’t even need to ever watch the show – just use their recipes. They produce consistently excellent dishes, are simply and carefully explained, and many even have accompanying videos.

From baked chicken to stews to cakes and frosting, the America’s Test Kitchen recipes are the best I have found. They’re a little pricey, I concede, but they also give me confidence to try new things. I know that if I do it just the way they say to do it the first time, it will come out just fine; and then the second time, I can add bacon or more red pepper or whatever to make it more the way I like it.

Now I have added other gadgets over time, and all can make a difference, but there’s no need to go overboard to get better. Cooking for folks like us, after all, isn’t exactly quantum mechanics – it’s just using whatever time is available to put good meals on the table. And taking these three steps will make that process not only more consistent, but easier as well.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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