The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities might as well have been a Dickensinian prophecy for the 21st century at-home cook for whom there is no better and yet more confusing time. You can build a giant cupcake to be topped by home-made ice cream, all paired with your own soda or beer that you've brewed. This wide scope of available gadgetry and tools is just one aspect of a consumer reality creating anxiety in consumers, as psychologist Barry Schwartz warns in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. So when Kris Morningstar of Ray's and Stark Bar shared that a cake tester works double — sometimes triple — time for him and his crew, it seemed practical to have him elaborate on his kitchen must-haves.
The Southern California native has been praised for his farm-to-table approach and creative nod to the omnivore diet in various stints at restaurants across town. If anyone can tap into resources for use past its prescribed purpose, it would be him. Case in point: Morningstar uses the aforementioned cake tester to measure the doneness of everything from fish to beets and sunchokes.
“All of our cooks have [a cake tester] either in their salt — they have them poking out of their salt — or in their chef coat jacket. At my house, it's in my little salt bin so that it's always easy to grab,” Morningstar says.
Kris Morningstar: It doesn't always have to be expensive. A good pan — whether it's a cast iron pan or two. A couple of stainless [steel] pans. That's a big one. I'm shocked at how many restaurant kitchens I walk into and I see aluminum pans. They're not good for cooking.
Squid Ink: Why is aluminum not good for cooking?
KM: One of the main things is that it can tint out the food in that it doesn't heat evenly. You're not going to get an even cook on it. Let's say you're making mac n'cheese and you have a bechamel sauce. As you whisk the aluminum, your sauce will often gray out and that's from the reaction that the dairy is having with the aluminum.
On cake testers:
KM: One of the least expensive things you could possible get is a cake tester. It is one of our most indispensable tools. It's basically a thin piece of metal slightly thinner than a paper clip — if the paper clip was open and extended exactly straight. It has a little handle on it. They're usually a dollar, maybe four dollars if you buy an OXO one or something like that. When we stick it into the vegetable, it does a very thin line so that it doesn't damage the vegetable. You can feel the structure of it. So if you put it in, you [can] feel a duh-duh-duh like braille almost as you go in or if it goes in completely smooth. You can tell if a beet or potato is cooked in its center. It's a really great way to go inside objects without leaving a lot of mark to them and make sure they've been cooked properly.
We also use it for testing temperatures in meats. Thermometers can become uncalibrated. It takes a bit of understanding on how to use [a cake tester as thermometer] right. Your body temperature is at a 100 degrees [Fahrenheit]. If you put it into a piece of meat and then touch it to your skin and if it feels even-keeled, then you know the meat is at 100 degrees. You become accustomed to what mid-rare and medium feels like. It [has] become much more accurate to us than using a thermometer, because thermometers can become uncalibrated very quickly whereas your body temperature is a general consistent 98, 100 [degrees].
SI: Using a cake tester as a thermometer requires more experience though.
KM: It takes a little bit more skill, but it can be used with cooking vegetables and potatoes. Even with fish. The cell walls of the fish — you know, where the flakes are — break down as it cooks so when you put in a cake tester through that thin ribbon will be gone when it goes in smooth. Often times, that means the fish is done.
KM: A good blender is an important one. A lot of blenders don't get things as creamy and smooth as they should. Usually it has to do with how much torque you have, like how hard it's pulling on it. It's not inexpensive, but certainly the premier blender is the Vitamix. I don't know if every home cook on a budget is going to get it. But once you have it, you don't ever want anything else. You just want to make sure your soups and purées are getting smooth.On microplane graters:
KM: We use the fine one for a lot of stuff. If we're making pastas and we're grating parmesan, we do it very fine so that it emulsifies evenly. When you use a bigger grate of the cheese and you try to put it into a sauce, it becomes stringy. If you grate it really fine, it tends to get creamier.
We will microplane garlic rather than finely chopping it. It's faster and even. We do it with ginger too. Sometimes if we make a ranch dressing, we'll grate our onion. Even with truffles. I know a lot of people like truffle shavers. Microplanes open up a lot more surface area on the truffle and actually gives you more flavor and aroma release when you microplane it.
On not using tongs:
KM: I know a lot of people use tongs at home. There's probably some really good chefs in town who have tongs in their kitchens. We find that tongs tend to crush food, so we don't actually use it as much. They usually squeeze and break food, especially proteins. I had the use of tongs beaten out of me a long time ago, so I don't think I've touched tongs for seven years, maybe eight years.
We use spoons and spatulas. We use a fish spatula — sometimes they are called slotted turners — for everything. They can range from $8-40. They usually have a three rivet handle with a full tang. They're usually offset slightly, narrower at the handle. They've got space for the oil to drip off. I use it for all my meats, proteins — whether it's meat or fish, what not. If we're doing pasta and it's a ravioli, it will be ladled or spooned out. If it's spaghetti, we use a turning fork to turn it on a spoon and put it on a plate neatly.