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



Dorot Frozen Herb Cubes

I’ve been using Dorot’s frozen garlic, basil, ginger, and cilantro cubes in my cooking for a little over a year, after discovering them in my local Trader Joe’s. Now I don’t need to keep buying a garlic bulb or piece of ginger root every other week, after the unused portion (which is most of it) has lost its freshness. The cubes are conveniently sized (example: one cube = one clove), already minced, and last forever in the freezer. And I can’t tell the difference in most recipes from fresh.

-- Loren Bast  

Dorot Frozen Herb Cubes
About $2 per 20-cube tray



Bodum French Press Coffee Maker

Cold brewing has recently become my preferred method for brewing my morning cup.

I love my coffee iced, but I never loved my typical approach: brew hot coffee, cool it, store it until I’m ready to drink. Half the time I forget to brew ahead and I end up drinking it hot.

Cold brewing coffee works like this: combine ground beans with room temperature (or cooler) water and let steep for 12 to 15 hours. That’s it.

I love the smoother flavor of cold brewed coffee. From what I’ve read, some folks consider the resulting coffee to be a concentrate in need of dilution. Not me. Maybe it’s the ice.

One of my favorite things about cold brewed coffee is it requires no special materials. There are cold brewing devices on the market from Toddy and Filtron, and maybe they deliver an even better cup, but I must confess I can’t imagine how. As long as you can soak ground beans in water, and give them a good 12 hours, you’re good to go. That makes a French Press, in my estimation, the perfect vehicle for cold brew. It’s how I do it, but by all means use whatever tool you prefer.

According to Wikipedia, cold brewed coffee seems sweeter due to lower acidity. “Because the coffee beans in cold-press coffee never come into contact with heated water, the process of leaching flavor from the beans produces a different chemical profile than conventional brewing methods.” That seems like maybe it would be easier on people with heartburn or sensitive stomachs. I have neither; I just like the way it tastes.

To be clear, the resulting cup of coffee looks just like any other hot-brewed cup. It’s not the color of tea, it’s not some strange brew, it’s a regular cup of coffee. It’s just not hot. And yes, I still have to plan ahead to make it the night before, but there are fewer steps so it seems easier.

I’ve read that you can cold brew your cup and then heat it, and that the resulting hot cup of smooth drinking coffee is outstanding. But I can’t personally attest to this; seems like in that case I’d just brew hot coffee in the first place. Cold brewing coffee is clearly perfect for those times when you prefer your coffee iced, which for me is about 360 days a year.

-- Bill Sawalich  

Bodum Chambord 8-cup French Press Coffee Maker
$34

Available from Amazon



Stainless Steel Steam Juicer

This is a lifetime piece of kitchen equipment, made in Finland of quality stainless steel. With almost no mess or work, it turns quantities of fresh fruit into clear, sterile, hot juice which you can then pipe directly into Mason jars, where it will self seal with no further processing.

Picture a multi-layer double-boiler sort of arrangement, the size of a big soup pot. All stacked up, it’s 16″ high, and about 12″ across. The lowest pan gets water in it, to boil for the steam. The topmost pan is a 10.5 quart colander basket, where you put the fruit; this has a lid. The middle pan looks like an angel-food-cake pan, with a conical hole in the center. This is where the juice collects.

In a brilliant move, they attached a hose to the lower part of the juice-collector pan. This has a spring clamp to close it off, which clamp also serves as a hook, to park it on one of the side handles when not in use.

This juicer is especially useful when you have a sudden supply of fruit, and don’t want to spend days making jelly or heating up your kitchen. Once the juice is canned, it will keep for years, and can be made into jelly at any future time. The fruit needs hardly any prepping: whole cherries, grapes, blackberries, quartered apples or nectarines. I’ve stacked fresh rhubarb in vertically, yielding something akin to lemon juice. When you’ve simmered the water for an hour or two, you end up with about five quarts of juice and, in the top basket, some pulpy mush for compost (or you can stop after about 2 quarts, like I did with nectarines, and have mush still useable in a cobbler). The tastiest juice I ever made was when I got a case of Bing cherry “seconds”: a tiny jar of the juice was like nectar to drink straight.

The 48-page booklet that comes with it tells how you can use it to cook meat, vegetables and anything else you might want to steam. I once easily made steamed broccoli for 40 people.

The Lehman’s catalogue sells this one for about $200, and a somewhat smaller Chinese version for $80. I got my Finnish one on Craigslist second hand. Amazon has it, too.

-- Lynn Nadeau  

[Above: a video of Virgina Wind demonstrating the steam juicer.]

Available from Amazon



Vintage French Fry Cutter

I picked up this handy little gadget at a garage sale this spring for a buck. As someone who loves homefries, I’ve longed after those big commercial french fry cutters, but couldn’t justify taking up that much space in my kitchen.

This cutter, made by Uebel Co. in the mid-1900s, is simple yet effective, made from an aluminum frame with comfortable grips and a crosshatch of sturdy wires. It takes up hardly any space, and cuts sturdy fries that are a nice size for frying or baking. It takes minimal effort to cut through the potato, especially if you first slice the bottom off the potato so it doesn’t roll around while you’re cutting it.

I haven’t seen these new anywhere, but they can be found on Etsy for under $10.

-- Abbie Stillie  

French Fry Cutter
Available on Etsy from about $5 to $12



Lansky Blade Medic

Sharpening serrated blades has always been a bit of a puzzle, but the Lansky Blade Medic makes the process simple. The tapered diamond sharpening stick will quickly sharpen nearly any size or shape serration, and the ceramic strip dresses them up. As the video shows a couple of swipes across the back of a serrated blade will remove the burr that sharpening the serrations creates.

-- Clarke Green  

Lansky PS-MED01 BladeMedic
$11

Available from Amazon