Bialetti Stovetop Percolator

I originally bought this classic Italian coffee maker for camping, but the coffee was so good I use it every day. It is so simple to use and the result is superb. I prefer French roast coffee in this coffee maker. It comes in 1,3,6,9 and 12 cup versions. The 6 cup version gives you enough coffee for a good mug of strong/bold coffee. It is very sturdy and well made in Italy. It does require hand washing and not dishwasher safe, but the simple process of pouring water in the well and putting the coffee in the filter cup and screwing it together and putting on a stove, makes enjoying the end result a rewarding experience.

-- Angus Miller  

Bialetti Moka Express 6-Cup Stovetop Percolator
$28

Available from Amazon



Refillable K-Cup For Keurig K-Cup Brewers

We love the convenience of a Keurig, but aren’t crazy about continually buying pre-filled K-cups. So, we purchased the stainless steel, refillable Ekobrew k-cup. Comes with a metal hinge so it won’t break after being heated and cooled over and over. And, it allows us to buy a pound of coffee of our choice and use it in the Keurig. Also, it’s much better from an environmental perspective in that we aren’t throwing away all those once used k-cups.

-- Tom Eggert  

Ekobrew Cup, Refillable K-Cup For Keurig K-Cup Brewers
$15

Available from Amazon



Stainless Steel Flexible Paring Knives

I inherited a paring knife, shown rightmost in the photo, with an unusually thin, narrow, flexible, 2.5-inch blade. It’s excellent for removing labels from cans before putting them into a recycling dumpster. (I’ve heard that recycling organizations prefer that these labels be removed.) Its flexible tip bends in under the lower edge of the label at a shallower angle than other knives. This, plus its thinness and narrowness, keeps the label’s tear-line from ripping all the way up to the tip while the knife is removing the label. Thus, it is rarely necessary to have to dig the knife in under the label a second time (to restart a rip).

Another advantage is that less force is needed to do the job than what the thicker, wider, stiffer blade of an ordinary paring knife (leftmost in the photo) requires. The latter mostly tears the label with or near its tip, rather than slicing it further down its blade. This extra force means that the blade will sometimes slip and skid along the can, which is irritating and discouraging.

In order to gift my sister with a similar one, I searched online and discovered the inexpensive ($1 each) item shown second from left. It is is superior to an ordinary paring knife, but it isn’t ideal “out of the box,” because its tip is so sharp that it digs into the can, and because its blade widens too suddenly near the tip, tearing the label too soon. So I spent a minute on my bench grinder and rounded over the tip and ground back the surge in the blade, with the result shown in the third photo from the left.

Finally, I put an inch of the blade into a vise and bent it to about a 10-degree angle. This allows it to slide under the label at the start without having to hold the knife at an awkward angle. (You should try to slide the bent tip under the label all the way to the top, at which point it should pop loose, rather than trying to tear the label near the tip.)

You can grind and bend the other three knives similarly, and gift your friends and relatives with them.

-- Roger Knights  

Stainless Steel Flexible Paring/Garnishing Knives – 6 Inch
$6 / 4 knives

Available from Amazon



Swing-A-Way Can Opener

It seems so simple and obvious. And I recall when just about every household had one of these somewhere in the kitchen. But now they are rather hard to find. But I still have not found a better or neater way to open cans. Mounts on the wall, the magnet catches the lid. Swings out of the way so you don’t bump into it. Even if you don’t eat much canned food, everyone opens a can now and then. It worked for your granny, it will work for you.

-- John Coate  

Swing-A-Way Can Opener
$10

Available from Amazon



Grill Daddy Pro Grill Brush

I’ve been using this all summer to clean my outdoor grill. It is by far the best tool I’ve discovered for cleaning the actual grill surface—the steel bristles do an excellent job scraping the grill, the double-handed body makes it easy to apply some extra muscle to the process—and the use of the heat from the grill and the steam created by the water that is released through the brush itself both cleans and seems to sterilize the surface.

The best part is that you can clean the grill surface immediately after you are done using the grill—no waiting for it to cool down, forcing you to come back to it later. Using the grill is so much more convenient because you heat it, use it, clean it, and close it up until the next time. Efficient and effective.
I wish the reservoir held a bit more water, but other than that, no complaints or suggestions for improvement.

-- Ray Tetz  

Grill Daddy Pro Grill Brush
$20

Available from Amazon



Presto Power Pop Microwave Corn Popper

I do love popcorn, but usually don’t like to pop commercial microwave bags in the office. Although their contents are delicious when popped, commercial microwave bags release a cloud of buttery esters into the local environment for all to smell. They have a TON of added fat and salt, and one has no control over the contents.

There’s also a great deal of debate over the safety and stability of polyunsaturated fats in high-heat cooking, and corn popping is a very high-heat process.

Hot-air poppers aren’t suitable for an office environment, and anyway I haven’t found one that doesn’t eventually make the popped corn taste like it came out of a hair dryer.

I have used the Presto Power Pop corn popper for at least a decade, and found it to be an excellent solution to light snacking in the office. It doesn’t smell strongly of anything but the corn, and that can be controlled by keeping the lid on until I’m back at my cube. I can control the amount of salt or oil I use, if any. It acts as a serving bowl for the popcorn, and is easy to keep clean once emptied. It does an excellent job of popping most of the corn, even in lower-power microwaves. It typically will pop a batch in under two minutes, not three to four like commercial bags. (Which makes one wonder how much of the mass inside commercial bags is popcorn, and how much is just colored fat.)

Its construction is fairly simple: a bowl, a detachable base with a metal reflector disc inside it, and a paper/foil heater cup. The cups are replaceable, but last a long time for me. I’m just finishing my first 8-pack of them after 10+ years. Granted, using oil in the popper will make them deteriorate more quickly. Also, as microwaves have increased in power over the years, I notice the cups burn more quickly. Replacements are available in many big box stores and at Amazon.

About Corn Popping:

Use fresh popcorn, and keep it hydrated so it pops well. Every few weeks, if your bag of popcorn lasts that long, open the bag and sprinkle maybe a half teaspoon of water into it. Close the bag, turn/roll it over a few times to distribute the water, and then let it sit. You don’t want a lot of water: just enough to keep the corn from drying out, not enough to make it germinate.

The best salt to use is superfine salt, like the movie theaters use. There’s something about that initial super-salty hit from extra-fine salt, that quickly fades into the mellow sweetness of popped corn. That salt/sweet balancing act is a visceral trigger that has kept us coming back for more for centuries.

Don’t get the popcorn salt with yellow coloring, it’s just dye. Easiest and cheapest is to make your own fine salt in a coffee or spice grinder.

Salt doesn’t often stick well without a little oil. Very, very little oil is actually needed. So I made a recipe:

Popcorn Salt/Oil Mix

~1 Tbsp. Table Salt
~1 tsp. Oil (Coconut oil preferred, it’s most stable long-term and at high heat)
Coffee/Spice Grinder

Put a few teaspoons of regular salt into the coffee grinder. Grind it for a few seconds until it is a fine powder. Repeat until you have a tablespoon or so. In a very small container (1 oz.), put the salt and about a teaspoon of oil on top. Let it soak in. If it’s coconut oil, it’s OK if it’s solid; it will soak in.

What you’re looking for is a dry crumble of salt/oil. Use ¼ teaspoon for a batch of popcorn. Just place it on top of the corn; the popping action will distribute it fairly well.

-- Bill Fleet  

[The Nordic Ware Microwave Corn Popper, which we reviewed in 2008, gets equally high ratings on Amazon. It is less expensive than the Presto Pop, and doesn't require replacement cups like the Presto Pop, but other online reviewers complain that the Nordic leaves a lot of unpopped kernels. - Mark]

Presto PowerPop Microwave Multi-Popper
$16

Available from Amazon



BlueStar Range

When we remodeled our kitchen we were shocked at the prices for professional quality cooking ranges. The elite brands like Viking or Wolf were in the $7,000 range for a 6-burner. Worse, their recent reputations for quality, service and dependability were in decline. (No appliance is without horror stories; missing were sufficient new testimonials about great satisfaction to counterbalance accounts of the awful; the higher the premium, the higher the ratio should be.) In the hunt for an alternative pro quality stove, we settled on a BlueStar stove, which was significantly cheaper yet had great user reviews and a big enthusiastic following online. BlueStar is a newcomer with several advantages for us.

First, its large open burners produce really high BTUs. I had hacked our previous stove to increase the heat by drilling larger orifices in the brass gas jets, but Blue Star’s high-heat burners came already engineered for a maximum flame of 22,000 BTUs. (Typical high burners are only 15K.) It could also simmer great. Second, the circular burner design features a ring which can easily lift out so that a wok (which needs super high heat) can seat perfectly near the jets. Third, the dials are analog, no fancy electronics to fail. Fourth, the cast iron grate above the burners forms a single uninterrupted plane so pots can be slid around easily, like a second work surface. Lastly, you have a choice of 200 custom colors for the stove. We went with a yellow to brighten up the kitchen. We’ve been using the BlueStar for a year and a half and really love the craftsmanship and intelligent placement of knobs, trays, switches. It’s super easy to keep clean as well.

There are plenty of far less expensive stoves that cook food. We’d been using one of those for years. In aiming for a life-time purchase of a high performing stove, with great user design, we found BlueStar offered the most for less compared to other high-end stove brands.

-- KK  

BlueStar
Prices vary depending on model



Tattler Reusable Jar Lids

For years I’ve loved GlassLock Containers [reviewed on Cool Tools] because they seal water-tight. I also love that they are glass (no chemical leaching, microwaveable).

But they are relatively expensive — $45 for 9 containers. When I pack some lunches, my wife doesn’t have enough for leftovers. Since they come in different sizes, I’m always looking for the right lid.

The Tattler Reusable lids work better for my lunches. $7 for the lids and $20 for a dozen widemouth pint jars. Now I’ve got a dozen smallish water-tight containers with interchangeable lids. Widemouth pint jars are freezeable so I can freeze if I need to. If I was motivated, I could also these for canning or pressure canning. (Mmm, Chili.) Since widemouth jars are pretty pervasive, it’s easy to find smaller or bigger jars.

-- Jonathan Ploudre  

[I use widemouth canning jars to store nuts and seeds for snacking. Plastic lids are more convenient than 2-piece canning jar lids for this purpose. - Mark]

Tattler Reusable Wide Mouth Canning Lids & Rubber Rings
12 for $7

Available from Amazon



Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art

I’ve had this cookbook for well over a decade. I love Japanese cuisine, and whenever I make a Japanese meal, this book is my go-to source for recipes, tips, and guidance. It’s a superb basic cookbook, as good in its own way as the Joy of Cooking (better in fact, because you’re not always flipping between recipes!). It has that same approach, an encyclopedic breaking down of the absolute basics in ingredients, techniques, and tools. Whether you simply want to make dash broth, or create an elaborate dish like sukiyaki or sushi, this book will walk you through the basic steps involved.

I own the older edition, but there is a newer one with more color plates and a fancy new forward. Either one will teach you everything you need to know in order to tackle Japanese cooking.

-- Amy Thomson  

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art
By Shizuo Tsuji
2012, 508 pages
$33

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Another difference, and one that Westerners accept more easily, is the Japanese way of eating, with chopsticks, the solid bits of food from a soup bowl, and then drinking the liquid from it. Like the other habits, this one is practical and simple– as is the custom of holding the bowl near one’s chin, or using it as a catchall when transferring food to one’s mouth after dipping it in the little bowls of sauces that are part of many meals.

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Seafood is also washed thoroughly before it is served raw. Water is plentiful in Japan and we use a lot of it, especially when preparing raw fish. We have a sort of jingle, which liberally translates,”if it’s fish, wash it twice, wash it thrice.” Foreigners in Japan timidly trying their first piece of raw fish are usually very surprised when they find it does not taste at all fishy.

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Kleen King Stainless Steel & Copper Cleaner

I clean the dishes in my house, and usually the toughest thing for me to clean is our copper-bottomed stainless steel pots and pans. Oil scorches onto the sides, and since we have an electric stove, the copper discolors annoyingly quickly due to resting right on the coil burners. Once, I overheated a 12″ pan for so long that the copper bottom actually turned grey.

But I wasn’t worried. I have Kleen King. This stuff is amazing. It’s got the same consistency as other powder cleaners, and it but it takes crust and discoloration off copper and stainless steel like a dream. It requires a little bit of water, and only the tiniest bit of elbow grease (as in, it’s necessary to move it around on the surface; you can’t just leave it there). I’ve rescued my own mistakes more times than I can count, and amazed new roommates by saving pots and pans they had left for dead.

They’ve also got versions for aluminum and enameled pots, though I’ve never used them.

-- Eain Bankins  

Kleen King
$6 / 14 ounces

Available from Amazon