Alton Brown famously disdains spending money on "unitaskers" and other kitchen gadgets, when you can just as easily (and far more cheaply) get by with what's around the house. Here's what happened when I asked about his favourite hacks.
Tell me about your favourite home kitchen hacks.
I don't set out to devise hacks every year. I'm lazy—that's where they come from in the first place. I'm also cheap—that's where the other half comes from. I use almost everything in my kitchen at home.
For instance, I use a coffee grinder to make rice flour for tempura, because why buy bags of it when I only need it five times a year? I toast pine nuts in an air-blow popcorn machine. I am really bad about burning pinenuts on the stove. I also dry out herbs in the air popper.
I own a panini press, but do I make panini? No, but I do make a butterflied Cornish hen in 12 minutes, two of them in fact. They come out nice and crispy, with enough fat left over to throw in a handful of spinach.
Those don't seem like big deals—they're not really clever, at least not to me.
They actually are really clever. What about non-kitchen gadgets? Which do you put to use in the kitchen?
I use heating pads to raise dough on, or to incubate yogurt with—that's an ordinary item that you don't see in the kitchen. I have used a hair dryer to the bottom of my charcoal grill to turbo charge the Weber.
Whoa. Is there a danger in doing that?
Is there a danger? What do you think? Of course there is. Hell yes, there is. You could burn down the house and the whole neighbourhood if you're not paying attention. I only do that on concrete in the driveway because it's freaking hot.
Do you wear your big fireman gloves?
The big silver gloves? They're for changing nuclear fuel rods in a power plant or something. Of course I wear them. I even melted a pair of those before—messing with something I shouldn't have been messing with, but that's apropos of nothing.
Would you care to elaborate on that?
No, I shouldn't.
I do like to have liquid nitrogen around, for when we suddenly come into large amounts of fruit. I have a source at a medical supply company. I can instantly make ice cream—just crank up the stand mixer, puree some fruit, pour in a liter of liquid nitrogen and in 30 seconds you have some ice cream. Depending on the sugar level, sometimes it takes up to a minute.
When I get a really ripe watermelon, I sometimes puncture the skin with a drill bit and drain the juice. I will stick that into a mixer for 30 seconds with liquid nitrogen for instant sorbet. But nitrogen displaces oxygen in air, and the human body is not programmed to send messages to the brain when it's getting too much nitrogen. So I do this in a relatively ventilated place.
Sometimes I smash up some dry ice with a hammer, throw it in a cooler with some blueberries, and shake the cooler around until the berries sound like marbles. Open the spigot outside to let the sublimated CO2 run out. It quick-freezes the berries for storage. The faster they freeze, the smaller the ice crystals that form, the less mushy they are when they thaw. I love blueberries in the winter, but I'm not going to buy them shipped in from Chile. I buy a lot in the summer and freeze them, but I don't freeze them in regular temperatures because it takes too long.
These all seem extremely useful, but none of them are too elaborate.
As far as grand hacks, I'm not going to do them if they cost a lot or take me a lot of time. I'm not going to come up with an idea if it takes me an hour at hardware store and hours to build at home. Sure, I'll make an air cannon to shoot potatoes out of PVC but that's ballistics, that's fun. Cooking's not so fun that I want to spend that much time doing it.
Alton Brown is celebrating his 10th year of Good Eats, commemorating that with a live taping in Atlanta this week and the launch of his cookbook all-around kitchen sourcebook Good Eats: The Early Years, covering recipes and tips from the first 80 or so episodes. You probably realised by now—perhaps disappointedly—that the alligator isn't part of a kitchen hack. It's actually a shot from his Feasting on Asphalt River Run series.
Taste Test is our week-long tribute to the leaps that occur when technology meets cuisine, spanning everything from the historic breakthroughs that made food tastier and safer to the Earl-Grey-friendly replicators we impatiently await in the future.