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Kitchen Appliance Secrets: Pro chefs share top year-round and holiday tips

Busy chefs at work in the restaurant kitchen

Combine the right appliances with some culinary knowledge, and you have the tools to take your meals from ordinary to memorable. And now that we’re into the biggest cooking season of the year, it’s time to step up your kitchen game. AHAM is here to help. We interviewed two seasoned professional chefs about how appliances help them get the job done in the kitchen. Here’s what they had to say about their favorite appliances, their advice to aspiring home chefs, cooking at the holidays and how they apply their pro cooking techniques at home.

Lance Nitahara
Lecturing Instructor, Culinary Institute of America.
Former winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped” and contestant on “The Iron Chef”; Certified Pastry Culinarian, Certified Hospitality Educator

Chef and instructor Lance Nitahara
Credit: Phil Mansfield, Culinary Institute of America

Appliances for Cooking Success
Stand mixer: A traditionalist may prefer knead by hand, but a mixer will help you get the same results. The mixer is also your ally for mashed side dishes.It’s hard to replace mixing doughs by hand, but I rarely do it anymore,” Nitahara said. “If I’m doing a pasta dough, I’ll put it in a mixer with a dough hook. It comes out more consistent. I’ll do it by hand if I have to, but I don’t have to if my stand mixer is right there.”

Food processor with attachments: Another time-saving must for the aspiring chef. It’s worth your time to read your operator’s manual and find out if you’re getting the most use out of your attachments. “The regular food processor with attachments for grating and mixing are essential,” Nitahara said. “If I have to grate a ton of cheese, I’m not going to do it by hand. After being in an industrial kitchen, there are certain things I won’t do by hand. I know the time investment. It won’t change the quality and it’s the same amount of cleanup.”

Oven and range: The heat distribution in your oven will affect how your dishes turn out. “Whether you’re going with gas, electric or propane, look for a stove that has a good convection fan,” Nitahara said. “You’re not paying that much more for it. It cooks so much more evenly. If I’m doing baked items—pastry or dough, or things that have to be browned on top like potatoes au gratin—the convection current of air evenly distributes the heat across the item. Because of the convection, you have a more even transfer of heat and you’re getting a faster cook time.” Don’t forget about ventilation. “You’ll need a good ventilation system if you’re doing a lot of meats and high-heat cooking. It’s absolutely important if you’re doing a lot of searing.”

Cook like a pro
Top skill for the budding chef:
Organization and knife skills. “One of the running problems most people in the U.S. have is space. If you aren’t organized, it’s going to be dreadful to prep or cook for a large number of people. The next would be knife skills. You need to learn how to cut things without cutting your hand off. Now, with technology and appliances, a lot of things get done for you.”

Holiday cooking: The holidays are about spending quality time with friends and family. But you’ll miss out on that if you’re stuck in the kitchen. That’s why you should do as much prep as you can in advance. And forget about all the tricks you may have heard to know when a turkey is done cooking, and invest in a digital meat thermometer. “Never use that plastic pop-up, and forget about time per pound,” Nitahara said. “Take the temperature of the turkey. It should be a minimum 165 in the thickest part of the breast. Make sure it’s thawed out. If you have a 25-pound turkey, you need to bring it into the fridge six days in advance.”

John Dion
Associate professor, culinary arts, Johnson & Wales University; Independent and collaborative foodservice and educational consultant

chefdion

Appliances for cooking success
Digital thermometer: Thinking of frying your turkey this Thanksgiving? You’ll want to have a good digital thermometer on hand. “I like them for their exactness,” Dion said. “They’re easy to read.” A fryer thermometer will help you keep the oil right around the 300 degrees necessary for a low, slow fry, Dion said.

Immersion blender: “I love my immersion blender,” Dion said. “It’s multi-purpose for your smoothies and fruit dishes, even making your own mayonnaise, aiolis and vinaigrettes.”

Oven: Dion is also a proponent of convection as a tool for more precise cooking. “You definitely have to have convection now,” he said. “It’s great to see more convection ovens coming out. Ideally, it’s best if the fan is variable and you can adjust the speed.” However, if you have spices to toast, save them for a conventional oven where they won’t be blown around by the fan.

Range: More burners can be a blessing on a busy day in the kitchen. “In my last house, I had a 36-inch, six-burner range, which was wonderful.” If you can, consider adding an induction cooktop to your center island. “What I like about induction cooking is there’s no flame, so you’re keeping the surface area cool,” Dion said. “It’s going to be more efficient than gas, and I can be precise. If I want to melt chocolate, I can set it at 78-79 degrees. It’s more about the precision temperature than anything else.” Of course, if you use induction cooking, you’ll need cookware made from cast iron or another magnetic material. Don’t skimp, Dion advises. “I have restaurant quality pots and pans,” he said. “You’ll get better heat distribution. The cheaper ones get too hot and the handles start to smoke up.”

Refrigerator: Organization is an indispensable skill for cooking success, and your refrigerator can help you stay on track. “I look for height, plenty of adaptable shelf space, and compartments,” Dion said. “I’m partial to double doors so you’re not opening the whole thing at once.”

Cook like a pro
How to choose appliances: Look for quality and durability. “In homes, you don’t beat them up like you do in a restaurant, but they should be able to take a beating,” Dion said. “Look for good craftsmanship. Pay a little more and get a better quality product.”

Top skill for the budding chef: Knife skills and staying on schedule. “You have to know how to cut,” Dion said. “We don’t teach speed, but we teach to work like you don’t have enough time.

Holiday cooking: Don’t think of a holiday meal as a one-day cooking project. It isn’t something you should expect to knock out in a few hours, so start in advance. “Prep, prep, prep,” Dion said. “Start a couple of days ahead of time.” Cut the vegetables you can in advance and prepare the dining area. “Know how long it takes something to cook,” Dion said. “If you put your turkey in the oven two hours before your guests show up, you’re not having turkey.”

Easy oven and range-cleaning tips

Even the most dedicated neat freak might cringe at the thought of cleaning their oven. But putting it off can make cooking more challenging.

Turkey for Thanksgiving Day in the oven

Over time, residue from cooking and spills can build up and become a drag on oven and range performance. And the “leftovers” that build up on the bottom and sides of your oven can also make the food you prepare taste different. (We’re guessing neither you nor your guests would appreciate the subtle flavors of the charred residue of several meals in their entree or dessert, but we could be wrong!)

Grease and grime can clog the burner and affect performance. Sugary spills on glass cooktops with traditional elements can damage the glass.

Fall behind on cleaning, and before you know it, your range looks like this.

A very very dirty kitchen!

Instead of waiting until it’s unavoidable, clean your oven and range after every use. That may sound like a lot, but it’s the difference between a guaranteed quick and easy job and one that could require significantly more time and elbow grease. Make cleaning a regular part of your cooking and baking.

Clean every part of your range. That means the oven walls, glass cooktop, burners, finish, and knobs. Each is made from different materials and therefore may require a different approach. Your appliance’s manufacturer will be able to provide instructions for each.

What to use: This is where it gets tricky. Appliance manufacturers test many cleaners on their ovens and ranges, but it’s impossible to test all of the options that are on the market. Your oven’s use and care manual may have some suggestions, as will the labels of the specific cleaners. You can’t go wrong, however, with warm soap and water or a white vinegar and water solution, which are unlikely to damage any finish. Avoid cleaners with abrasive qualities, as these could scratch the oven’s finish. Some manufacturers recommend carefully using a razor blade to clean stubborn dirt from oven glass.

Technique: Again, consult your appliance’s use and care manual for specific instructions. Avoid steel wool and similar products, which can damage the finish. Go with the grain (not in a circular motion) to avoid scratching, particularly if your oven has a stainless steel finish. Wait until the oven cools before you begin cleaning to avoid burning yourself. That could take a while, so be patient.

Self-cleaning: Many ovens offer self-cleaning features. Traditional self-cleaning means the oven will heat to an extremely high temperature—as high as 900 degrees—while the residue is burned off. You will not be able to open the oven during a self-cleaning cycle. Oven racks and all pans should be removed during the cycle. After the cycle is complete and the oven cools, you should be able to easily wipe out the ashes. Many manufacturers are now offering a steam cleaning option as well. These models heat water to a boiling point and utilize steam to soften anything in the oven for easy cleaning.

What’s your best oven and range-cleaning advice?

No “nukes”: How to use your microwave oven for real cooking

Using microwave oven
Microwave ovens are in about 90 percent of American households. They’re great time savers and are regularly used to warm up leftovers, heat that morning cup of tea or defrost the evening’s main course. That’s their role in many homes. Their cooking capabilities, however, go well beyond reheating and defrosting. And if you take the time to learn, they’ll take your cooking to new levels of convenience.

We recently chatted with microwave cooking expert Jennipher Marshall-Jenkinson, chair of the United Kingdom-based Microwave Technologies Association and author of Microwave Magic: The Heart of 21st Century Cooking, to pick her brain on a microwave’s role in producing a home-cooked meal. Just as with using a range or oven, there’s a method to microwave cooking, she said. The trouble is that many simply focus on cooking time, not technique.

“The most important thing about basic cooking in the microwave is understanding what you’re doing,” Marshall-Jenkinson said. “You have to understand and think about the cooking technique behind it. You don’t cook everything in the microwave oven. You don’t make roast potatoes or put a crispy edge on your chicken. But anything with its own moisture cooks perfectly. It’s the perfect environment for saving time, energy and nutrients. In minutes, you can have a proper meal.”

So how does one progress beyond popcorn, break free of frozen meals and harness the real cooking power of a microwave? Marshall-Jenkinson has some advice:

Get to know your oven: Microwave cooking is a skill, and it’s going to take time and practice to perfect. Marshall-Jenkinson recommends starting with vegetables to set benchmarks for how long it takes to cook certain portions. She’s also a big fan of microwaving all types of sauces. “If you follow the instructions, those are guaranteed to be successful.” In addition, all microwaves aren’t created equal. They vary in size and wattage, both of which have impact cooking times. Knowing your wattage will help you get a sense of your oven’s capabilities.

Watch your turns: Many microwaves have turntables to rotate food and help it cook more evenly. If yours doesn’t, you’ll likely have to manually turn the dish at 90-degree angles and stir the food during cooking.

Put a lid on it: Microwaves cook foods in their own moisture, and a lid or cover will help it retain that moisture to improve cooking. “If it’s allowed to evaporate, you won’t end up with cooked food whatsoever,” Marshall-Jenkinson said.

Make use of different power settings: Many microwave users simply default to full power for everything they cook. That’s a bad move and can result in poor quality cooking. Find out what’s best for the dish you’re preparing. “I would never cook a cake or baked sponge pudding on full power,” Marshall-Jenkinson said. “I would cook that on a medium-power setting. That means the heat developed within the dish as it’s cooking has a chance to even out before you put another burst of energy in there.” Remember, you’re cooking, not just heating. “You can make a great casserole by bringing it to a boil on high and reducing the power to 10 percent and cooking at 10 percent for an hour and a half.”

Be adventuresome: Don’t be afraid to experiment with your microwave. Search out recipes and cooking techniques. “It’s there to make your life easier. Use it instead of just heating up a cup of coffee in it.”

Now that you know the basics, what should be your first microwave-prepared meal? “Any dish that is cooked for your family or makes your life easier,” Marshall-Jenkinson suggest. She’s a fan of the microwave’s ability to quickly produce baked treats. “I’m a cake lover myself,” she said. “A lovely sponge cake is going to take 3-4 minutes in comparison to 25 minutes.”

Ready to give microwave cooking a shot? This recipe for microwave mac and cheese cups (with a gluten-free option included) from MOMables will help you prepare a quick, tasty meal for the kids:

Ingredients:

1/3 cup pasta, uncooked

1/2 cup + 1/8 cup water

1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

2 teaspoons milk

Instructions

  1. Add pasta and water into large soup bowl or mug
  2. For regular noodles: Microwave for 6 minutes. Stop and stir at the 2 ½ minute mark, then stir every 45 seconds to 1 minute thereafter.
  3. For gluten-free noodles (corn-based pasta), microwave for 5 minutes. Stop and stir at the 2 ½ minute mark, then stir every 45 seconds to 1 minute thereafter.
  4. After the microwaving is complete, add in the cheese. Stir.
  5. Microwave again for 25 seconds.
  6. Add the milk, stir and serve.

What’s your favorite microwave recipe?

Cooking in your dishwasher: A bad idea

Pretty, young woman in her modern and well equiped kitchen putting cups into the dishwasher - an appliance that helps her keep the home tidy

A number of cooking and lifestyle blogs have reported on the novelty of using a dishwasher to cook food. Recipes might include salmon, eggs, chicken and other foods. It’s a unique concept that most people probably haven’t considered. It’s also a bad idea, and appliance manufacturers don’t recommend it.

Many of the articles tout the alleged energy savings, ease of cleanup and unique cooking approach as reasons to try dishwasher cooking. But there has been little said about the risks, and there are many, including:

Harmful bacteria: Would you like a side of E. coli or salmonella bacteria with your dishwasher-cooked meal? Probably not. But that’s what you might end up with. Many factors, including water supply, determine how hot it gets in a dishwasher during a cycle. That means it may not reach the 140-degree minimum cooking temperature the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends to kill potentially harmful microorganisms. You could end up giving harmful bacteria an environment they can thrive in, as they tend to multiply at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Contamination: Regardless of how food is sealed, even a tiny opening will allow spray from the dishwasher and possibly detergent to reach the food. Like dishes, food can move during a cycle, and that movement may cause punctures or tears in water-tight wrapping.

Fire: Food could become dislodged during the wash cycle and end up on the dishwasher’s heating element, potentially causing a fire.

It’s a waste of energy: While dishwashers have reduced their water use more than 41 percent since 2005, they still require about five gallons of water per cycle to effectively clean dishes.

Appliances are designed to perform specific tasks quickly and efficiently. So, take the advice of the people who make the dishwashers, and leave the cooking to ranges and ovens.