Plugged into my Kitchen

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
Need a scary story for your next campout? Try this: Once upon a time, a mercifully long time ago, kitchens were horrifyingly empty. Their counters held knives, bowls, and spoons, but where were the mixers, toasters, food processors, microwaves, coffee machines? Oh, my child, it was a sad, desolate time.
Today, though, there are still periodic cries for “back to basics” cooking. In the world of food writing, there always seem to be a few authors determined to make the rest feel guilty, showing the superiority of their purist methods of cooking, in which they’ve unplugged their kitchens.
I am not one of these writers.

I did, however, leave cooking school 10 years ago feeling rather superior, even though I’d not actually worked in a restaurant kitchen. After all, I was now battle-scarred by stirring two thick, steaming, spitting pots of polenta for a solid hour to serve 75 people — at the same time, one spoon in each hand. I’d tempered pounds of chocolate and made dozens upon dozens of perfectly dipped candies. And use a thermometer to test for the hard-crack stage of cooked sugar? Oh please! I’d learned to do it with my bare hand. (Hey, if you soak your hand in ice water until it’s numb, it’s easy. Really.)
And yet … I knew, even then, the wimp that lived inside of me. I love gadgets — especially really big ones, like my mixer. Unplug my kitchen? Given that what I really crave is an 8-quart mixer and a professional chocolate-tempering machine, going unplugged is highly unlikely.
And for the most part, it just doesn’t sound so grand. Although I own a food mill and use it in spurts, I get a bigger thrill out of watching the blender grind something to smithereens. And sure, I can grate cheese on my box grater, but why? The processor does it lickety-split. And for cutting butter into flour, the processor beats my speed every time.
The unplugged camp talks of getting in touch with your food, of taking the time to lovingly caress each veggie with your knife blade. But how many home cooks even know how to hold a knife these days? And often the main complaint seems to be how much there is to wash after using a processor or mixer. But isn’t that why we own dishwashers (or, failing that, husbands)?
I do see some exceptions to machine mania. If you’re just learning how to cook, stay away from machines as much as possible. When I teach a 6-week bread class, we do everything by hand for the first five weeks. And I do mean by hand: I prefer that students not even use a spoon for stirring their doughs. The fastest way to learn how to make good bread is to get your hands in the bowl, feeling the way the dough changes and develops, and learning to tell with your eyes closed when it’s kneaded enough. Once it’s second nature, though, why not let a mixer do it for you, if need be?
If I’m making a special bread, I want to do it by hand (or if I’ve had a really bad day and need to beat my tensions into some dough). But this requires hauling out my bread board, getting flour clouds all around my kitchen, and generally making a mess (I try hard, but I’ve never been an especially neat cook). So if all I’m doing is making loaves of sandwich bread to get us through the next few weeks, I’m perfectly happy to leave the mess behind and let the mixer take over, with frequent stops to check the dough’s consistency. I do draw the line at bread machines; at least with my mixer I can maintain a pretense that I’m doing the work.
And if you’re just starting out, learning the basics of knife skills is also crucial. Although a processor can make quick work of an onion, it won’t create even vaguely uniform pieces unless you process the onion to bits and risk liquefying it. For everyday home cooking, you might decide this doesn’t matter (as I often do, since I dislike smelling onion and garlic on my fingers for days afterward). But you still need those knife skills for so many things a processor just isn’t good at, such as mincing herbs and carving a chicken.
The microwave also falls into the category of exceptions: It’s great for heating some leftovers, but mostly it’s the biggest butter-melter a kitchen could have. Not that I’m knocking this: I melt or soften butter in my microwave enough to push those buttons in my sleep. And I recently learned that nuts actually toast fairly well in a microwave. Real cooking, though, just doesn’t happen in this box.
If I could keep just one machine, I’d choose my stand mixer. As a baker, I’d find this hard to live without (if I considered myself a cook first and baker second, I might choose a processor instead). My KitchenAid has never failed to impress me. Besides bread, cakes, and cookies, I use it for wonderful pie dough and perfect buttercreams that I just couldn’t do with a hand mixer.
I would have a hard time giving up my Cuisinarts, though. Until recently I owned three, from a mini food processor that broke after 10 years of hard living right next to my hot stove, to a caterer’s model that helps me make huge batches of scones, cutting in stick upon stick of butter with ease. I love it for purees, for grating carrots for carrot cake, for reducing my end-of-summer armloads of basil into pesto. Yes, I know pesto is better beaten with a mortar and pestle — but my heart sinks and my arm aches at the sight of a sinkful of basil waiting to be pounded.
Ultimately, that’s why I can’t be a snob about machines. Nostalgia for a quiet kitchen, in which I’m at one with my ingredients, is a lovely thing, but it’s just not realistic for everyday life. I’m a proud cooking-school graduate, but I also say my motto loud and proud: Better living through machines.

First published in the Independent Weekly, March 5, 2003

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