VALUE IS a relative concept. Just ask the folks at Lehman Brothers. But when it comes to ingredients and kitchen tools that beckon to the enthusiastic home cook, it's important to the bottom line -- in this case, a great meal -- to take a look at what's really worth your hard-earned cash -- and what isn't.
We scrutinized our kitchens and the merchandise. Our thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdicts on a couple of dozen popular or hyped cooking items follow. No apologies -- we're opinionated. Some gadgets and goodies are grossly overvalued, others just don't get their due. We considered cost, efficacy and practicality -- as well as the happiness factor. Because for a true chocoholic, a 3.5-ounce bar of Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72% cacao really is worth $6.
Obviously, a lot of this is open for discussion, even heated debate. Is a 1-ounce tin of Spanish saffron really worth $199? How about a $60 Rachael Ray fondue pot?
With apologies to Socrates: The unexamined kitchen cabinet is not worth opening. And it's certainly not worth filling up with even more stuff. Page 4
Mortar and pestle. When it comes to kitchen tools, I'm a big fan of the simpler the better. And you can't get much simpler than a mortar and pestle. Basically nothing more than two rocks that you use to grind food, it hasn't really been improved since the Stone Age. But when something is perfect, why mess with it? You can spend $100 on a French marble one from an antique store, or you can pick up one made of granite at a Thai grocery store for less than $25. While you're shopping, pick up a wooden pestle as well -- those granite ones get really heavy when you're stirring in oil a drop at a time for aioli.
Good corkscrew. Don't laugh. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to take a good bottle of wine to someone's house and find that the only corkscrew they've got is one of those $1.99 drugstore ones with solid screws that are good only for splitting corks. Come on, spend an extra couple of bucks and get one with a hollow auger (it will look like a corkscrew rather than a sheet metal screw). You can find them for around $10 and you won't believe the difference.
Instant-read thermometer. I have worked with chefs who have been cooking so long that they can tell within 5 degrees the temperature of a roast just by giving it a good squeeze. For the rest of us, there's no excuse not to have an instant-read thermometer. A perfectly good one costs less than $15 and you'll never serve bloody chicken again.
Good dried pasta. Cheaping out on spaghetti, rigatoni and penne is false economy when you can find terrific brands such as Latini, Rustichella d'Abruzzo and Maestri selling for only a couple of bucks a box more than the industrial stuff. The differences between brands may be hard to appreciate when you're tasting the noodles by themselves, but taste them with a sauce and you'll be blown away by how much clearer and more defined the flavor is.
Small kitchen scale. In a perfect world, we would measure all of our ingredients by weight. That's obvious for baking, where the way you scoop flour into a measuring cup can make as much as a 20% difference in quantity. But it's also true for other kinds of cooking. Measuring by weight opens up the hidden ratios of cooking in a way that volume measuring can't (in fact, my friend Michael Ruhlman is writing a book on that subject). For example, a classic mirepoix has equal weights of chopped carrots and celery and twice as much onion. That ratio doesn't show up in cup measurements. You can find a really good digital electronic kitchen scale for less than $30. The two things to look for are a capacity of at least 10 pounds and a "tare" feature that helps those of us who are not mathematically inclined to allow for the weight of bowls, etc.
Heavy-duty roasting pan. Especially with the holidays staring us in the face, this is one of the best investments you can make. And it is a bit of an investment -- a good roaster will probably cost in the neighborhood of $150. But if you're going to splurge on a good pan, this is one of the places to do it. Look for pans with low sides that allow air circulation. Avoid lighter pans, which may be cheaper, but won't brown the meat well, and nonstick pans, which may seem convenient, but don't caramelize the pan juices.
Not worth it
Expensive red wine vinegar. One of the great puzzles in food marketing is why no company has stepped up to make a great-tasting red wine vinegar. It's not like it's cloning wild mushrooms or something. In fact, just about any idiot can make it at home quite easily. I'm a prime example. I have kept a big jug going on my counter for more than 15 years. A couple of occasional bottles of sturdy $5.99 red wine and dregs from dinner parties are all that is required to keep me in clean, fruity, complex vinegar whenever I want it.