My love for food gadgets began long before I even showed any interest in cooking.
When I was a kid, my favorite way to spend a weekend morning was watching infomercials on TV. My favorite was the almost feature length ad for the Magic Bullet.
In it, married couple Mike and Mimi invite a group of couple friends into their kitchen to show them the wonders of their blender system, and its ability to whip up smoothies, chop salsa and — apparently — rekindle marriages.
I loved commercials for everything from fancy soup ladles to the infamous slap chop. I even convinced my parents to buy me the Pasta Express, which was actually just a plastic tube that managed to turn spaghetti into a very chewy lump.
Today, home cooks have embraced the Air Fryer, Instant Pot, and Vitamix blender.
From avocado stoners to countertop composters, these devices can range from no-tech to high-tech; they can be highly specialized in one task or, like the Thermomix or Suvie, claim to be able to do everything. The tools promise to save us time, make us more conscious of sustainable or healthy eating, or simply produce the crispiest fried chicken.
Though they seem trendy now, cooking appliances aren’t new — just ask Corinne Mynatt.
The curator and author is the author of Tools for Food, a book that chronicles the origins of 250 essential food tools like peelers, bakeware, and mortars and pestles.
“I wanted to examine the design and cultural history of these tools from around the world and turn them into a beautiful book, a book that didn’t exist before,” she says.
Mynatt says most innovation in food tools has occurred in the last 200 years, led by the advent of the machine age, fairs like the 1852 Great Exhibition in London, and a general interest in mechanized technology. “That’s when you started seeing things like mechanized apple peelers and cherry corers,” adds Mynatt.
Today’s take on the London Exhibition could well be TikTok, with users posting videos about “life-changing” grocery gadgets commonly found on Amazon.
A recent scroll introduced me to a battery-powered vegetable peeler and a really hilarious three-pronged silicone vibrating tool that you put in a pan to stir it for you.
After centuries of innovation, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve reached a limit on how much more we can do. All of this borders on solution thinking – or solving non-existent cooking problems.
For every die-hard fan of this or that gadget, there is an equally passionate naysayer. Lara Buchar is an editor at Food Network Canada and has a strict rule about what makes it into her kitchen.
“I don’t buy anything that a good knife can do — like a garlic press, an apple corer, or an egg slicer.” Buchar says she’s owned all of the above at some point, but has found them gathering dust in her cupboards. “As I became a more accomplished home cook, I realized that less is more.”
This minimalist philosophy is something Mynatt reiterates: “I know I can do a lot with very few tools in my kitchen,” she says. But, she adds, the right, often low-tech, tools can actually enhance our sensory experience of food.
“I was at the grocery store the other day and I noticed all these pre-shelled nuts. I realized how much we lose if we don’t crack the shells ourselves.” A device that unleashes the rich, woody smell of a freshly bared walnut heart suddenly doesn’t seem so redundant.
“The impulse to want things better and faster is not really new,” says Buchar. Indeed, we’ve been treated to next-day deliveries and restaurant fare delivered to our door with a few taps on our smartphones.
And we want to own objects that work hard – because we do it. “The gadgets that seem to have captured our collective consciousness the most are the ones that allow us to multitask. We’re constantly expected to keep adding to our time, and I think these gadgets reflect that,” says Buchar.
Embracing certain kitchen appliances is also cultural. A rice cooker is essential for Buchar, who grew up in a Chinese household, while Mynatt recalls that her family in France loves their slow cooker. In warmer climates, plugging in a device is a preferred alternative to turning on a hot oven.
Also, certain tools make cooking more accessible for people with disabilities or chronic pain.
We’re all drawn to fads – Buchar admits to buying a toast stamp to engrave an Eiffel Tower on her bread – but ultimately your gadgets should reflect your approach to cooking.
“If you’re someone who bakes an apple pie every week, it might be worth owning an apple corer. If, like me, you bake an apple pie every year, one knife is enough,” says Buchar.
For my mother, cooking is a life’s work. It’s about making cooking as efficient and painless as possible. For me it is a creative exercise. I may be looking for gadgets and gizmos that claim to enhance the flavor of my dishes, or let me try advanced techniques.
The best tools for those who enjoy cooking are those that work in conjunction with practical kitchen time.
“While my whole chicken is fried until crispy, I can take my time preparing a leafy green salad, hand-mixing the dressing, and slicing a nice French baguette to serve,” Buchar says, adding that the delight cooking isn’t absent at the push of a button on her trusty air fryer, “but it certainly makes that joy more accessible.”