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Nine Kitchen Gadgets That Have Changed the Way We Cook

I’m a food culture junkie. I have a permanent stack of cooking magazines under my coffee table, a season recording of Top Chef set up on my DVR, and I visit the grocery store at least three times a week. With so much of my brainpower focused on all things food, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of buzz around new food technology. Sure, we’re still largely making the same things in the kitchen, but—thanks to gadgets like induction ranges, silicone pans, and fancy fruit and veggie slicers—nowadays we can cook our dinner, lower our utility bills, and be done with all of it by the time our favorite shows come on. After checking out a bunch of these items and chatting with food industry experts, I devised a list of what I see as the new kitchen standbys. Whether you’re a traditionalist or a gadget junkie like me, it’s hard to deny that we’ve come a long way since sliced bread.

1. Professional grade stovetops
European and commercial kitchens have been using this type of range for a while now, and they’ve recently begun gaining popularity in homes across the U.S. What makes these ranges so cool is that they offer a high degree of temperature control, don’t emit a ton of excess heat (so your kitchen won’t turn into a sauna while you’re grilling burgers), and are extremely energy efficient. Plus, they’re super easy to clean. Traditionally gas, newer ranges come in electric and induction. “They’re great for people who don’t have the option of gas, but are looking for that energy efficiency and control,” says Jane Crump, public relations manager at the Viking Range Corporation. Plus, the heat stays really focused on the pot or pan you’re heating—not the rest of the stovetop. This means if you spill a little while you’re sautéing, it’s simple to quickly swipe it up without getting burned or worrying about scraping it off after it hardens.

2. Easier (and fancier) peelers and slicers
“The mandolin makes slicing a lot easier,” says Lindsay Pendleton, a prep cook at a Berkeley-based catering company. “Once you get used to it, you can slice things super thin and fast.” Originally from Japan, the mandolin consists of a small board with a razor and gap on one end of it. A separate piece has a grip for your hand on one side, and divots on the other that latch onto whatever you’re slicing, like an onion. You slide it back and forth on the board and—voila!—perfect, identical slices fall through the gap. Some even let you set the desired thickness of your slices. I’ll take that over hand chopping any day. Another of my favorite alternatives to the old cutting-board-and-knife routine is the apple accessory, which peels, cores, and slices apples into a fancy corkscrew shape—all with the simple turning of one lever. I made an apple pie out of my fancy corkscrew apples, and it looked like something purchased from a gourmet bakery.

3. Steam ovens
These combine the healthful aspects of steaming and the speed of stovetop cooking. “It’ll give you the juicy, flavorful meats and veggies you’d usually get from steaming, but a whole lot faster,” says Crump. You won’t need the usual steaming devices—pan, lid, steamer, etc.—and the oven-produced result has much more flavor than you would get from a traditional, dry-heat cooking. Leaner meats come out juicier, since the steam keeps them moist and packed with their original vitamins (which are sometimes lost in traditional cooking techniques). And, on top of healthiness and flavor, a steam-cooked meal is done quicker since the steam circulates around all sides of whatever’s in there.

4. Hands-free sink control
While this does sound like a great tool for playing tricks on dinner guests (and it probably is), the hands-free sink has some more useful applications, too. According to the American Society of Microbiology, there have been approximately 9,000 deaths and 81 million illnesses from food-borne bacteria since 1992 due to improper hand washing. A ton of germ transfer goes down in the sink area. Sure, we all wash our hands after handling raw meat, but you have to turn on the faucet first to do so. This means that the faucet becomes a bacteria hotspot. Pedal Valves Inc., a Louisiana-based water conservation company, has devised what I think is a pretty genius way to stop the contamination—with their foot-pedal faucet control valve, providing safe, hands-free sink control. All you do is press down on the pedal with your food and the sink is turned on.

5. Beyond the microwave
Traditional microwaves—while they do warm up leftovers quickly—have a lot of frustrating limitations. Off the top of my head, I picture trying to make s’mores and getting rubbery marshmallows, reheating chicken and having it come out dry and flavorless, and taking out a bowl of soup that’s piping hot on top and cold in the middle. Not so with new convection microwave ovens. “You end up with a much better finished product with the same speed of the microwave,” says Crump. It does this by evenly distributing the air around whatever you’re zapping, just like the convection feature in your big oven would do.

6. Digital timers and thermometers
We’re not talking your old-fashioned twist-and-ding kitchen timer. The latest in timing and temperature technology gives cooks much more freedom and awareness over what is cooking. Fancy new features let you connect one end of a wire to, say, a turkey and keep the digital face of it outside, so you don’t have to open and close the oven to check the time and temperature of the meat. Another great device is the two-part timer, which lets you carry around the thermometer/timer with you, so you can just pull it out of your pocket to see how done that meat is, even if you’re on the other side of the house.

7. Nonstick baking pads
I came across these in a cookie-baking class a few years ago. I immediately bought a few and have been grateful for them ever since. They’re reusable silicone pads that lay across baking sheets, eliminating need for nonstick spray, parchment paper, buttering, and flouring. Nothing sticks to them. Ever. So you can bake a batch of cookies, remove them, and put more dough right onto the sheet, without any in-between-batch cleaning, scrubbing, and drying. I just store them right along with my baking sheets.

8. Silicone
From muffin paper to casserole dishes, silicone has taken the cooking and baking world by storm over the past few years. And it’s easy to see why—almost nothing sticks to it (eliminating the need for cooking spray, butter, or flour), it’s stain and odor resistant, dishwasher-safe, is super easy to press out even the most delicate cupcakes, and is much easier to clean and store than traditional glass and metal tins and dishes. Plus, it’s environmentally (and bank account) friendly to stop buying all those muffin papers and cooking sprays.

9. High powered mixers
You know what I’m talking about—the colorful mixers that decorate the window of just about every cooking supply store you pass these days. “We use really big versions of these in the prep kitchen,” says Pendleton. Originally, these high-powered mixers were found only in commercial kitchens, but more and more, home cooks have been foregoing their handheld mixers for the power and freedom of freestanding mixers. On top of adding a fun splash of color and style to your kitchen, they often have ten-plus speeds, let you roam around the kitchen for the next ingredient while they’re mixing away, and have attachments that let you whisk, beat, knead, and even make pasta and prevent splatter. Now if they could only clean themselves.

Whether it’s speed, flavor, saving money, or making your kitchen a little more earth-friendly, there’s probably a gadget out there that can help you meet that goal. And if you’re fine just the way you are? The basics of good food remain. “Really, all the technology’s great,” says Pendleton. “But I’d still say the best things to have are great knives, quality pots and pans, and a source of heat.”