Editor's Note: This article was originally published in three parts; today, we've combined the independent posts into a single piece for ease of browsing.
Unitaskers—a term coined by Alton Brown to describe tools that are good at only one job—get a bad rap, and often deservedly so. In most kitchens, space is at a premium, so who has the countertop to devote to a gadget whose only purpose is to barf up cylindrical omelettes or turn a hot dog into hot dog coins?
But there are dumb unitaskers, and then there are the truly useful ones. The ones that perform a function that no multitasker can, or that save you time on mundane activities on a daily basis. Sure, in a tiny, galley-style New York kitchen, you might not want to give up the space needed for a popcorn maker, but if you've got a bit more room and really love popcorn, well, you just might.
Over the last year, our test kitchen editors have weighed in on some of the specialized tools they actually use—and use with enough frequency to justify their place in just about any serious cook's home. Today, we've replaced their individual posts with this single article, for a one-stop shop. Here's what Kenji, Stella, and Daniel have to say.
Last year, as an experiment, I decided to keep track of exactly how much I use all of my kitchen gadgets by placing a sheet of paper on the refrigerator with a pen next to it. Every time I used a tool, I added a tick. I kept track for three months, and the results were pretty surprising to me. Turns out, I use unitaskers a lot. In fact, I use many of the unitaskers I own more frequently than I use my multitaskers.
To me, given the space and the funds, that's reason enough to own them.
A Breville One-Touch Tea Maker
What it's for: Making a few cups of tea at a time.
Why I love it: Full disclosure: Breville sent this to me when it first came on the market a couple of years ago. I rolled my eyes, but thought, Maybe Adri, my tea-loving wife, will check it out? Not only did Adri love it, so do I. You pack loose-leaf tea or tea bags into a metal cage, fill the pot with water, then hit a couple of buttons. It heats the water to a specified temperature (depending on the type of tea you're brewing), then lowers the tea basket into the water and moves it up and down during the designated steeping period. It then pulls out the spent leaves so you don't accidentally over-steep. Perfect tea at the touch of a button.
People have no problem dropping a few hundred (or even a few thousand) bucks on automated coffee makers; why shouldn't tea drinkers get their own dedicated, ridiculously priced machine? Of all the tools in my kitchen, this one racked up the most ticks during that three-month period.
What else it's good for: Er...heating up boiling water. You know, for when you want to make...tea.
The Whirley Pop
What it's for: Making popcorn.
Why I love it: The Whirley Pop is the fastest, most convenient way to make popcorn, popping out cups of the stuff in under a minute, with virtually no un-popped kernels. It also produces fluffier popcorn than any other stovetop method (air poppers might have it beat in that department), and it's excellent for distributing toppings. You can read more about my love of the Whirley Pop right here.
What else it's good for: Taking up some cabinet space.
A Garlic Press
What it's for: Turning whole cloves of garlic into crushed garlic.
Why I love it: In a word, convenience. As Daniel has demonstrated, a garlic press is not the very best way to mince garlic if great flavor and minimal pungency are what you're after, but it's also not the demon that some folks have made it out to be. When I'm cooking with garlic, I'm pulling out the press nine times out of 10, because, even with the slightly fussy cleaning, it's still faster and easier than chopping fresh garlic on a board.
My favorite garlic press comes with a store-on-board cleaning tool, which makes it even more convenient.
What else it's good for: Some folks claim you can crush ginger or other aromatics with a garlic press. I've never had luck doing that and prefer a Microplane for such tasks.
A Pasta Machine
What it's for: Rolling out fresh pasta.
Why I love it: Fresh pasta is incredible, and, unless your rolling-pin skills are in the 99th percentile, there's no real way to get pasta dough thin enough without a fresh-pasta machine. I own and occasionally use a KitchenAid stand mixer attachment, but honestly, I find a clamp-on manual countertop model to be almost as easy to use (and far cheaper).
What else it's good for: Hmm. Medieval-torture device for very small creatures, maybe?
A Nylon Omelette Fork
What it's for: Making French omelettes.
Why I love it: I know. It looks stupid. It seems like a waste. Why not just use a regular fork? I'll tell you why: A proper French omelette is most easily made in a nonstick pan, and doing it right requires constant and vigorous agitation with a fork. Do that with a regular metal fork and your nonstick pan will not be long for this world. Even omelette master Jacques Pépin has gone on record saying that he uses metal forks in nonstick pans only because he gets his pans replaced so frequently.
The nylon fork and spatula set from Calphalon has a stiff fork that works perfectly for agitating those eggs into creamy, tender curds, while babying your pan's surface like a newborn infant.
What else it's good for: I have not used it for a single other purpose, and the spatula half of the set is mostly useless as well.
A Yoshihiro Fish Scaler
What it's for: Removing the scales from fish.
Why I love it: This Japanese-style scaler is cheap, sturdy, and efficient. Scales slough off as you rub it across whole fish (which, by the way, I strongly recommend doing in the sink under running water, assuming you don't want to get scales all over your kitchen). If you buy your fish ready to cook, there's no need to own one, but if you fish at all, or don't quite trust your fishmonger (I don't) and prefer to get your fish au naturel, a scaler should be in your toolkit.
What else it's good for: Scratching really stubborn itches and leaving your skin raspy-feeling and fish-scented.
A Sushi Mat (Tatami)
What it's for: Making makizushi (rolled sushi).
Why I love it: A sushi mat (tatami in Japanese) is the only way to successfully make maki rolls, which means that if you ever host sushi parties, you'll need to have a few on hand. They consist of thin bamboo sticks knitted together with thread, so they're very flexible in one direction but rigid in the other. This makes forming tight, even rolls a simple task. They're dirt-cheap, and honestly, I've never really noticed a major difference between brands, so get whichever one strikes your fancy.
What else it's good for: Perhaps you could cut one up and use it as Japanese-style flooring in a dollhouse.
A Taco Shell Mold
What it's for: Making hard-shell tacos.
Why I love it: I've owned this taco shell mold for nearly 10 years now, and I can count the number of times I've used it on my fingers, but I wouldn't give it up for all the extra drawer space in the world.* If you ever plan on hosting a hard-shell-taco party—and, if my trend predictions are right, hard-shell tacos are going to make a major comeback in the next couple of years—having a mold to shape those freshly fried shells is essential. I like this single-shell model because I can use it to fry in my wok; the multi-shell models require a deeper vessel or a dedicated deep fryer, and the oven-baked versions don't come out as delicious. Frying many shells can get a little tedious this way, but you get good and fast with practice.
* This is an outright lie.
What else it's good for: Pinching cohabitants inappropriately.
A Fire Extinguisher
What it's for: ...putting out fires.
Why I love it: As someone who enjoys controlled application of flames, and living, I like that this device helps prevent uncontrolled application of flames, and death. In my home kitchen, I keep a model that I picked up at Home Depot, but you can order them online as well. Kitchen fire extinguishers are designed to work on multiple types of fires. (Note: Do not try to put a kitchen fire out with water! It will cause grease fires to spread and can result in electrical shorts.)
What else it's good for: Propelling yourself on a skateboard through the magic of conservation of momentum. Make sure you have a spare before you try this!
A Pizza Wheel
What it's for: Cutting pizza.
Why I love it: A regular knife does a poor job of cutting pizza, especially large, cheesy New York–style or pan pizzas. A large mezzaluna-style cutter does a better job, but even I find it hard to store them. A rolling pizza wheel zips through crust, cheese, and toppings, and can be thrown into a drawer for easy storage.
What else it's good for: I have used a pizza wheel to roughly chop crisp lettuces directly in a large salad bowl, but it's a stretch to recommend this technique as truly useful. I guess you could cut lavash and pita and other flatbreads with a pizza wheel.
A Waiter's Corkscrew
What it's for: Opening wine and beer bottles. Or does that count as two tasks? Let's just go with "opening bottles," in that case.
Why I love it: I've owned many models of corkscrew over the years, but a good old folding waiter's corkscrew is still my favorite for ease of use, ease of storage, and longevity. A good one will have a two-level lever system to make pulling out even tough corks a snap, along with a beer bottle opener and a foil cutter. This might be the only unitasker that I not only own, but in fact own multiple copies of. Adri and I have a drawer section full of corkscrews. Why? How much time have you wasted seeking out the one communal corkscrew at a party or barbecue? That's why.
What else it's good for: If history is any indication, corkscrews are extremely good for getting lost at parties.
Just because many unitaskers are utterly ridiculous doesn't mean that every unitasker is. Some are truly useful—essential, even. Here are some of my favorites, not including the ones Kenji has already listed.
A Porcelain or Ceramic Ginger Grater
What it's for: Grating fresh ginger, obviously.
Why I love it: Grating ginger is a minor pain in the ass—rub it on a Microplane and the grater's holes quickly become clogged with the ginger's long, tough fibers, making the tool increasingly less effective and more difficult to clean. A porcelain or ceramic grater, on the other hand, has tiny little pointy teeth that do a miraculous job of rapidly reducing the ginger to a purée, while separating out those annoying fibers. When you're all done, it's a lot easier to clean, too. I love this ceramic one from Kyocera, which has a moat around the grating surface to catch all the ginger purée and its juices, plus a rubberized base that helps it stick firmly to your countertop. They claim it's good for grating nutmeg and cheese as well, but personally, I use a Microplane or box grater for those.
What else it's good for: Scratching itches.
A Salad Spinner
What it's for: Does this really require explanation? Okay, just in case: It uses centrifugal force to drive water off washed lettuce, herbs, and other leafy vegetables...because nobody likes a watery salad.
Why I love it: It should go without saying that you should wash your vegetables before eating them raw—a surprising number of cases of food poisoning come from tainted uncooked vegetables. But once washed, of course, they're dripping wet, which can ruin salads, make minced herbs clump, et cetera. A salad spinner is the fastest, most efficient way to dry your greens off and get them ready for serving. Plus, the strainer basket works as a built-in colander, which means you can wash your greens right in the spinner itself. This model from Zyliss came out on top in our rigorous equipment tests.
What else it's good for: An amusement park ride for hamsters.**
** Do not, under any circumstances, put a living creature in a salad spinner. We joke, but we are not sociopaths. Right?
What it's for: It's a Japanese lid!
Why I love it: I can't remember how I first got my rubber otoshibuta, but for the longest time, I had no idea what it was. Eventually, some Serious Eats readers helped identify it for me, and I've used it a ton ever since. An otoshibuta is, in essence, a lid; the original ones are made of wood. But it's not just any lid: It's submergible. That means you can set an otoshibuta directly on the surface of the food you're cooking, which is handy for simmered foods and pickles that require keeping everything covered in liquid. Since they're not made of metal and fit a variety of diameters, they're also really handy as bowl covers when you're reheating food in the microwave.
What else it's good for: The world's most frustrating game of Frisbee.
A Salt Cellar or Salt Pig
What it's for: Keeping your salt within easy reach at all times.
Why I love it: There's hardly a recipe I make that doesn't require salt, often added repeatedly throughout the cooking process. Salt needs to be one of the most accessible ingredients in your kitchen, and a big salt cellar or salt pig is just what you need for that—not a shaker, not a grinder, and not a box in a cabinet. You can read my full case for why everyone should have one, which includes a few other product suggestions, plus some really inexpensive ideas if you don't want to spend much for what is, at its heart, just a container.
What else it's good for: Killing a whole bunch of bacteria (salt is magic like that).
An Oyster Knife
What it's for: Shucking oysters.
Why I love it: An oyster is a stubborn bivalve, and opening one is not easy. Sure, you could make like a bird and try flying high into the air and dropping the oyster on the rocks below to crack its thick shell, but I think an oyster knife makes it easier. The thing is, you really do need to use an oyster knife, which is specially designed to wedge into the oyster's hinge, pop it open, and cut its strong adductor muscle. These knives come in a variety of designs, some with longer blades, some with shorter, some straight, some curved. My personal favorite is the Duxbury oyster knife made by R. Murphy Knives, but you may find another one more comfortable and effective. And if you need a primer on how to shuck an oyster, we've got you covered with a guide and video here.
What else it's good for: Opening mail.
A Bag Sealer
What it's for: Resealing plastic food bags.
Why I love it: I took a trip to Japan back in January, and, while there, I wandered into one of their dollar stores. Japanese dollar stores are waaaaaay better than their American counterparts—like health care and toilets, they're one of those things that are just done better there. One of the items I grabbed while there was a cheap little bag resealer. It has a wire heating element that gets just hot enough to fuse the opening in a bag of potato chips, frozen vegetables, or crackers, and I can't believe how much I love using it. I know what you're all saying: What's wrong with a rubber band? But rubber bands break, and...I don't know, they're just not as good. What can I say? I like hermetically sealing things.
What else it's good for: Lighting a joint. Just kidding, that doesn't work—I tried.
A Milk Frother
What it's for: Frothing milk for iced and hot cappuccinos and lattes.
Why I love it: Many of the milk frothers out there do a poor job of emulating the thick, creamy foam produced by a good espresso machine's steaming wand, over-aerating the milk to the point where it gets a light sudsy texture. I've always been very pleased with Nespresso's frother on this front. It whisks the milk just like a lot of other frothers, but manages to get much closer to the ideal cappuccino-foam consistency I'm looking for. Plus, it has a nonstick interior that makes it easy to clean, and a hot/cold setting so you can choose between hot drinks and iced ones. (Pro tip: If your milk doesn't froth, it's the milk that's the problem, not the machine.)
What else it's good for: Matcha lattes. Just add matcha powder to the frother with milk, and boom.
A Drying Mat and Rack
What they're for: Drying dishes after washing them.
Why I love them: A lot of dish racks are overcomplicated, oversize behemoths that claim precious counter space and never give it up. They're really not necessary. A good dish mat, combined with a small rack, is more than adequate for most after-meal cleanup. This mat is made from absorbent microfibers that dry quickly after being dripped on, while the rack can hold dishes, cutting boards, and trays vertically for efficient drying. The best part is that the mat can be folded up and stashed away, and the rack can easily slide into a cabinet, meaning you don't have to relinquish that counter space forever.
What else they're good for: Your record collection after it's gotten soaked in a heavy rain.
What they're for: Precision tong work.
Why I love them: You could argue that these aren't really a unitasker, given that you can stir, grab, and more with them. At their core, though, cooking chopsticks are just like tongs, except with way more precision thanks to their delicate, narrow form. They're extra long—which keeps your hand farther away from the heat than normal chopsticks you'd use for eating—and a string keeps the pair connected, so you're never left searching for one while your food threatens to burn. I always keep a pair in my utensil crock by the stove, alongside spatulas, metal locking tongs, and large spoons. With some practice, you can even learn to use them instead of the more traditional fork when making a French omelette.
What else they're good for: Nunchucks. Duh.
Like most folks with a background in the restaurant industry, Kenji and Daniel included, I can't abide a unitasker. In professional kitchens, storage space is at a premium and conditions are harsh, which means that anything extraneous, fussy, or fragile gets the boot—a mentality that carries over to our home kitchens. While my own kitchen is a small and spartan place, you'll still find in it some highly specialized tools that I cannot do without. If you do much baking at home, I think you'll find these one-hit wonders will earn their keep.
A Docking Tool
What it's for: Providing steam vents so doughs lie flat.
Why I love it: Sure, you could stab your raw pizza dough a thousand times with a fork. Or you could just give it a quick pass with a docking tool, perforating the whole thing quickly, evenly, and perfectly.
The docking tool is also my favorite way to dress up cookie and cracker doughs, as the uniformly spaced polka dots add an undeniably professional touch to treats like chocolate-filled shortbread cookies, DIY Wheat Thins, chocolate digestive biscuits, and the homemade graham crackers in my cookbook.
What else it's good for: Therapeutic back massage.
A Fluted Pastry Wheel
What it's for: Cutting dough into pretty shapes.
What else it's good for: Making miniature tire tracks in a diorama.
A Cake Stand
What it's for: Giving your cakes the royal treatment.
Why I love it: You can get a fancy glass and marble cake stand like mine, or pick up some vintage number at the thrift store, but whichever you choose, a rad cake stand will make any layer cake look like a work of art (and make any occasion feel special).
What else it's good for: Presenting an extra-fancy cheese plate.
A 1/2-Inch Piping Tip
What it's for: Piping stuff.
Why I love it: Forget trying to wrangle a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off. Even if you don't do a ton of fancy baking, a half-inch piping tip and a disposable pastry bag will seriously step up your pastry game and improve life in the kitchen tremendously when you're making filled cookies, profiteroles, birthday cakes, and more.
What else it's good for: Cutting out the world's tiniest cookies.
A #40 Cookie Scoop
What it's for: Scoopin' stuff.
Why I love it: For portioning out cookies and muffins, I'm all about a good scoop—individually scaling several dozen blobs of dough is not my idea of a good time. You can make the case for having an assortment of sizes, but if I could have only one, it would be the #40 cookie scoop.
It's the perfect size for most drop cookies, and a natural for ice cream, too. I also reach for it whenever I make Daniel's stupendously juicy meatballs, as I like the slightly smaller portion size.
What else it's good for: Dishin' out cafeteria-style balls of mashed potatoes.
An Oven Thermometer
What it's for: Keeping your oven honest.
Why I love it: If you've ever noticed that a recipe's suggested bake time never quite applies to you, chances are your oven's out of whack. It's a matter of not just timing, but consistency, too. When ovens run too hot, cookies burn, cakes turn gummy along the bottom, and flaky pastries melt too fast, losing their delicate layers. In cool ovens, cookies turn out thin and pale, cakes develop a wet crumb, and flaky pastries melt too slowly, producing a mealy crust. With a reliable oven thermometer, you can rule out these problems from the start.
What else it's good for: Looking like a total pro in the kitchen.
The Perfect Ruler
What it's for: Measuring stuff.
Why I love it: I've been baking professionally my entire adult life, but I still use a ruler whenever I pick up a rolling pin. Of course, not just any ruler will do; those designed for drafting often start with a small gap that renders them useless for baking. My favorite ruler has measurements that start from the very edge, so it can be stood upright to measure the thickness of any dough.
What else it's good for: Measuring contests.
A Stainless Steel Sieve
What it's for: Sifting and straining.
Why I love it: A sieve is an essential kitchen tool, so it's not truly fair to call it a unitasker. A good sieve makes it to my list if only because it utterly slaughters the one unitasker I really can't stand: hand-cranked flour sifters. They're bulky, slow, tricky to clean, inefficient at their assigned job, and useless for anything else.
Meanwhile, a nonreactive stainless steel sieve can strain custards, fruit syrups, and other liquid-y projects that a stupid hand-crank sifter could never manage, while making short work of clumpy ingredients, like flour, cocoa, and powdered sugar. Plus, it can be cleaned with a quick rinse—no nooks and crannies or moving parts to contend with.
What else it's good for: Decorating tiramisu.
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