Friday, January 28, 2011

Investing in good kitchen tools has some delicious rewards

As a child, I remember restaurant pizza being expensive and a rare treat for my family. Store-bought pizza was pricey, too, and it didn’t taste that good. And then there was the homemade variety: hamburger pizza made on a giant, blackened cookie sheet and always a little too doughy for my taste.

These days, it’s easy to get a decent pizza at a reasonable price, but I’ve found it more difficult to prepare pizza at home that excites my family— in the same ways that store-bought or restaurant pizza might, at least. In fact, until quite recently, I’ve had moments of “homemade pizza anxiety,” because my pizza doesn’t behave precisely as it should. It sticks to the pan, or won’t slide onto the pan, gets too puffy, or browns too quickly on top, leaving me with the kind of too-doughy crust I don’t like.

Convinced that pizza should never make me crabby, I decided to invest in some tools that will help me make truly good pizzas at home. First, I bought two baking stones and some cornmeal. The idea is that you preheat the baking stones to 500 degrees; then slide the prepared pizzas onto them. The stone meeting the crust is supposed to be a little bit of magic—that is, if you can manage to slide a 12-inch pizza onto a crazy hot piece of ceramic.

As you might have guessed, this process did not work as well as I hoped. I tried sliding the pizza from the back of a cookie sheet onto the hot stones, and I also tried not preheating the stones as suggested. More than once, I dropped my pizza on the oven rack or sent a shower of cornmeal into the bottom of my stove, or ended up with subpar pizza.

My mother, having observed—and sympathized—with my frustration, gave me what is known as pizza peel, the flat shovel-like object used in pizzerias. The result has been nothing short of a miracle, as it relates to the quality of pizza we’re eating. This homemade pizza is better (and far cheaper) than what we can eat out or buy at the store. Plus, we’re happily trying different kinds of toppings: spinach and goat cheese, caramelized onion and fresh mozzarella, and chicken apple sausage with feta.

The lesson, as it relates to finances, is that it pays to invest in good-quality kitchen tools that you will actually use. I got my pizza stones on sale for $10 each, and I’m guessing that the cost of the pizza peel was about $20. With $40 worth of appropriate tools, I can make meals that fit our budget and our lifestyle.

On the other hand, a kitchen full of unused—even wacky—gadgets is money sitting on your shelves. This means that as interesting as an automatic peppermill with a light might be (yes, such a product does exist), if you don’t need to light up your salad while you’re grinding pepper on it, then you shouldn’t buy it.

The only way to know what tools you need is to be honest about how you use your kitchen. Start with a kitchen inventory and pull out anything you haven’t used in more than a year; sell or donate those items. Then, consider which tools you believe indispensable to the way you live. For our family who eats pizza at least once a week, we’ve already gotten our money’s worth out of the pizza-making equipment. Over time, we’ll save ourselves hundreds of dollars we might have spent buying pizza, without depriving ourselves of the pleasure of a dinnertime favorite.

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