Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bad Kitchen Equipment

Most kitchen gadgets are just that: gadgets. They're trivial little gewgaws that promise to do something special or trim a corner or just make your life easier in some way. They're usually highly specialized, like a melon baller or an olive pitter or a garlic peeler. In the end, most aren't terribly useful and don't do anything that you couldn't accomplish with basic tools such as a knife and spoon. But they are fairly harmless, since they don't actively hinder your efforts to do something in the kitchen. They just get pushed to the back of the drawer where they quietly gather dust.

Then there is bad kitchen equipment. These are varieties of common kitchen tools that perform (or, at least, are supposed to perform) a standard function in the kitchen. And they do it so poorly that they actually hamper your work and make the cooking process unpleasant. Unlike gadgets, these are core tools that you must use again and again or shell out money replace them with proper versions.

Most bad kitchen equipment, I am convinced, is designed by and for people who don't cook. There can be no other explanation for how supposedly-useful things could be designed so poorly. Take glass cutting boards, for example. I can see their appeal: they seem so sanitary. Glass isn't easily stained, and even the stickiest food can be scrubbed right off. And, since they are clear, you can tell when you've gotten every last shred of crud off of them, and once washed they are gleaming and spotless. It's the perfect thing for a world that is panicked about bacteria and the "hidden killers in the kitchen".

There's only one problem: chopping anything on a glass cutting board is an excruciating, ear-grating, mind-maddening nightmare. Unlike wooden or synthetic boards, glass does not give at all under a knife, so the blade just tick-tick-ticks along the surface with a sound not unlike nails on a chalkboard. Glass boards are slick, too, so vegetables tend to slide around like crazy and you're always one slip away from a serious laceration.

There seems to be some debate over the relative merits of wooden vs. plastic in terms of bacterial safety, but glass rarely enters into the discussion--if only, perhaps, because even an aesthetics-free organization like the Food and Drug Administration could not make a straightfaced recommendation that a cook use glass instead of wood or plastic.

I can go either way on plastic vs. wood. Personally, I prefer a good heavy wooden cutting board for aesthetic reasons: it just feels nicer to me when chopping, and I hate the way a plastic board gets scarred up with repeated use. But I can see why people would prefer plastic, particularly since you can just throw it in the dishwasher and not worry about ruining it. But, I see no way that anyone who actually cooks (that is, anyone who needs to dice a carrot or slice an onion every once in a while) could stand to use a glass cutting board.

Yet I seem to come across them all the time--at friends' house, relatives' houses, and especially in rented beach houses. They are passable if you need to, for example, cut a lime into eighths for a margartia or Corona bottle (explaining perhaps their presence in rented beach houses), but anything beyond five or six knife strokes sends me into a fit (and my wife, too, who is by now thoroughly sick of hearing me complain about glass cutting boards at rented beach houses).

I think the health issue factors into it: glass seems cleaner, so many people buy that. Also, it seems that if you want to buy decorative cutting boards then glass is the way to go. You can get all sorts of glass boards painted with scenes of homey looking fruit and cheese displays--perfect for a house that probably rarely if ever sees fresh fruit or actual wheels of cheese because, after all, where would you cut them? Not on that glass cutting board. It would drive you mental.

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