In Defense of Kitchen Gadgets

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A few weeks ago, I decided to out myself as the owner of a Thermomix, possibly the most hypertrophied kitchen gadget in existence.  It's essentially a combination food-processor and blender that also weighs your ingredients, and cooks them while stirring constantly.


It's a pretty amazing machine.  It produces the nicest steamed vegetables I've ever eaten, along with surprisingly good bread dough, divine smoothies, a dozen cloves of garlic peeled in a few seconds, chopped onions that haven't been reduced to ultra-fine sludge, and of course, it's real strength: absolutely perfect custards, sauces, and soups.

There is only one small catch with this object: it costs $1500 and is not even sold in the United States; you have to special order it from Canada.

I wanted to out myself before I put out the kitchen gift guide (going up later today!), but I was pretty sure I was going to take a lot of flak for owning this thing,   This was a sound guess.  "Why on earth would you need such a thing?" was the most common response, followed by "How can you justify spending so much money?" and a dozen or so sniffy variations on "real cooks don't use machines to do their cooking for them", often with the not-so-subtle implication that before I acquired the Thermomix, my culinary repertoire was probably limited to box cake mixes and casseroles involving tuna and cream cheese.

The short answer to the first two questions is that I don't need it, and indeed, it's hard to justify spending so much money on it.  It would have been much easier to justify, in fact, had I been the sort of person who uses box cake mixes and velveeta.  I already made very good bechamel and hollandaise (no brag: hollandaise has an entirely undeserved reputation as being super-hard, which is probably all for the best, since its real drawback is that it will make you super-fat if you discover how easy it is and start making it all the time.)  I am quite capable of whipping up creme anglaise, lemon curd, or tomato soup.  Why pay a machine to do it for me?

And the short answer to that is that I was slogging my way through a big freelance project on spec that turned out to take approximately 9 times longer than I'd anticipated, and involved much gnashing of teeth in getting it right.  By revision 83, I said to my husband, "If I ever finish this damn thing and get a check, I'm buying a freaking Thermomix."  I finished the damn thing.  They arranged for payment.  I bought the Thermomix.  In some sense it was found money--I'm not sure I would have made it to the finish line without the prospect of a ridiculous gadget.

But would I press it on friends as a must-have kitchen gadget?  No.  It's great.  But it is not necessary for anyone who already knows how to cook.

That said, I am genuinely glad I have it.  And as a sort of blanket response to all the "how could you's" and the "Why on earths", I decided to offer my defense of kitchen gadgetry.  With all the reverse kitchen snobs proclaiming that they don't need anything except a chef's knife, a wooden spoon, and a cast iron skillet, someone has to speak up for the joy of owning these marvelous machines.

There is, of course, the joy of acquisition.  And why give that short shrift?  The high may be temporary, but the same is true of climbing a mountain.  Why valorize one over the other?

After all, the new gadget represents hours, maybe years, of human ingenuity applied to the problem of making repetitive tasks easier, faster, safer, or more convenient.  Which basically sums up 90% of human progress since the industrial revolution, so don't give it short shrift.  We should enjoy these things--their sleek design, their nifty features.  I love machines of all types, from welding robots to 50-foot cranes, and when they are specially designed for my favorite room of the house, I love them even more.

Then there's the fact that gadgets, well, make it easier, faster, safer, or more convenient for me to produce meals.  Since we bought the Thermomix, I've been making tomato soup from scratch at least once a week rather than buying it in the box--cheaper, tastier, and customized to our tastes, it takes me only a few more minutes than heating it up.  I'll throw together chocolate soup or zabaglione for dessert because it literally takes me one minute to put the ingredients in the machine and start it up.  At Thanksgiving, the slow cooker handled our mashed potatoes, while the Thermomix handled creamed onions, cranberry sauce, and about a half-dozen other things.  Sure, I could have done these things on the stove, but the stove was pretty crowded, and I didn't have to watch the stuff in the gadgets.

A good kitchen gadget lowers the marginal cost, in time or money, of producing good food.  More than occasionally, they also produce better food than you can do unassisted.  Toasters make better toast than your oven does.  Food processors make better pie crust than tediously fooling with two forks or a pastry blender while your fat gets warm.   Genoise can fail on even the most expert cook, but the Thermomix method is basically foolproof--and produces a product just as good as the old hand method.

And while I occasionally feel the pull of those loving evocations of laborious kitchen prep, it never lasts much beyond chopping that first onion.  I don't find it uplifting to spend half an hour prepping vegetables; I find it tedious.  What I like about cooking is the planning, the tweaking, and the eating, not the labor of stirring at a hot stove, or the beautiful geometry of reducing carrots to an even dice. And no, it's not that I don't know how to do those things--it would be ore interesting if I did.

If you really think that laborious food prep is that elevating, you should go back to the methods of your grandmother.  Buy whole nuts and crack them by hand, picking out the meats and hoping you don't accidentally get a bit of shell.  Throw out the powdered gelatin and use calf's foot jelly.  Make your own confectioner's sugar with a food grinder or a rolling pin.  Pluck your own chickens.  Render your own lard.

If you think that doing these things would be ridiculous--which it would--then why is it ridiculous to have a machine chop your onions or make your bechamel?  There's no particular reason to assume that we have reached some sort of technological plateau where the things that we happen to do by hand right now represent the best possible methods for accomplishing those tasks.

In other words, the "one knife, one pan", "I don't need kitchen gadgets" snobs aren't a better, purer sort of cook; they're just ignoring most of the contents of their kitchen.  How many of them cook over an open fire, rather than using one of those high-faluting fancy stoves with their automatic temperature regulation and their electric lights?  Why are they storing all their food in a cold box rather than shopping for each day, the way people do in India?  Who needs a special pot for coffee when your great grandparents just boiled it up in a saucepan and settled the grinds by dropping eggshells into the resulting brew? Why own a blender instead of putting the food through a grinder and then a chinois? Wouldn't the dishes get cleaner if you boiled up water and washed them by hand?  And hey, what's that toaster doing there?

As far as I am concerned, there are some good reasons not to buy kitchen gadgets.  But "Real cooks do it by hand" is not among them.  

Okay, so what are the reasons?

1.  The gadget costs money.  Often a very good reason to stay with the old method.  No one should buy a pricey kitchen gadget--or for that matter, a lemon reamer--until they have first saved 15% of their annual income.

2.  The gadget takes up space.  Kitchen storage is limited, and a gadget that is sitting in your basement is probably not a gadget that is adding a ton of value to your life.

3.  You won't use it very much.  A special case of either #1 or #2.   Juicers, dehydrators, pasta machines, rotisserie ovens, cupcake makers, hot dog steamers, cotton candy machines . . . the list of things one could occasionally use is potentially endless.  Your budget and cabinets are not.

4.  You will use it too often.  A friend very sensibly passed up a soft serve ice cream machine on the grounds that she didn't *want* to weight 800 pounds.

5.  It doesn't do as good a job as the by-hand method.  Bread machines fall into this category, in my opinion.  So do cupcake makers--I don't have any recipes that produce exactly six small cupcakes.

On the other hand, one of my twitter correspondents says she longs for a cupcake maker, and who am I to gainsay her?  A "good job" is a relative value judgement, not an absolute. 

6.  It does the same job as a more flexible machine.  Some people say they just use their bread machine to knead dough--but a Kitchenaid stand mixer does at least as well, and does other things besides.

7.  Another machine does the same thing and costs less.  How much better is an All-Clad Slow Cooker than a Crock-Pot?  As far as I can tell, the main difference is that the All-Clad is prettier.  And a gadget has to be really ugly before I'll drop a few hundred dollars just to upgrade its appearance.

8. You don't like learning to use gadgets.  De gustibus non est disputandum.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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