Technology as Servant
The traditional home kitchen was always a busy place: hauling water, stacking wood, stoking the fire in the cookstove, fermenting, curing, preserving, chopping, grinding, pounding, puréeing and so much more! The amount of work that the pre-modern daily domestic routine required is as astonishing as its results were richly rewarding. This often grueling work, however, was only made possible because of integrated, multi-generational families or communities, or a ready supply of hired help, nearly all of the above drawn from the ranks of the feminine gender. In the modern world, such traditional support systems are, for various reasons, no longer available to most households. Many of us therefore compromise and turn to quick meals made from prepackaged and prepared ingredients, or choose to eat out.
Early in our marriage my wife and I read an excellent book extolling the great advantages of modern gadgets that now take the place of the army of household helpers, especially extended family or servants, that toiled day in and day out in earlier generations. In this column my wife and I will share some of our favorites from the fruits of modern technology, which serve us well in preparing traditional, nutrient-dense foods and meals at home.
The instant pot is an electric, programmable pressure cooker. After using the instant pot for just a few months we have come to love it for its ability to quickly and perfectly cook rice and other grains, beans and lentils, and meats and stews.
While some have expressed concern about the effect of pressure cooking on the nutritional value of foods, it appears that pressure cooking may at worst be equal to the effects of regular cooking. Possibly, it may result in better quality meals. What really affects food isn’t a small difference in the cooking temperature, but the amount of time that it is cooked. The longer food cooks, the more certain nutrients are degraded and the greater the increase in certain problematic compounds. Pressure cooking, by using a slight increase in cooking temperature (15 to 20 or so degrees), allows a significant decrease in cooking time.1 It is probably best, however, to include an overnight soaking stage when cooking beans in the instant pot.
Some studies have shown that pressure cooking retains far more of certain nutrients than almost every other method of preparation,2 though more research in this area would certainly be welcomed. Yet given current data, it seems that for busy families, breaking out an instant pot or similar device to save the day should cause no consternation on the part of the cook!
Until the addition of an instant pot, the crock pot was our go-to helper for a host of meals. We still use it frequently, especially on days when we are away from home and want to return to ready-to-eat food awaiting us. This marvelous machine also allows us to make stock safely overnight or reduce heat gain in the house by relocating our cooking appliance outside during Kentucky’s hot summers. Often when we are on the road as a family the versatile crock pot will join us on our trips.
A crock pot is also multi-talented. It will accommodate creating an entire meal or just a few additions or side dishes. It can even make yogurt or herbal tinctures. An endless array of recipes is available online, making learning to use a crock pot exceptionally easy. Coupled with low cost, the crock pot is well worth the investment in your kitchen.
HANDHELD IMMERSION BLENDER
After a few years of marriage, my wife commented on how this device above all other wired helpers had transformed her life. First and foremost, puréed soups, stews and similar dishes are nearly impossible to produce without a significant mess unless employing this device. Transferring exceptionally hot liquids from cooking pot to blender and back again can be a recipe for emergency room visits or a kitchen in sticky shambles from ceiling to floor. Second, the preparation of smoothies and many other blended mainstays of kid cuisine are made far simpler with a handheld immersion blender, and the added bonus with this method is that older children may safely prepare these treats themselves. Good models are impeccably easy to clean as well, especially compared to the cleanup required for most stand-up blenders or similar kitchen machines.
While significantly more expensive than run-of-the-mill models, a professional, commercial, or heavy-duty handheld blender is the way to go, especially if it will be required to endure arduous duties such as those in our household. Basic models will bog down or die under the stress of thick soups and semi-frozen smoothies rather quickly. Our current model is a Breville, which has held up admirably to the heavy use our household demands, but it does have one small drawback: its design will not allow blending inside wide-mouth Mason jars as will sleeker models.
GRAIN MILL/FLAKER MILL
If you are going to make bread, pancakes, oatmeal, and similar dishes on a consistent basis, few items are as appreciated as a grain mill. Whole grains, once milled, quickly degrade nutritionally. Fragile fats oxidize, some vitamins and other nutrients degrade and even disappear. A grain mill allows you to maximize the nutritional value of this food group by processing the grains just when you need them, while also saving significant money. Most of our friends who invested in grains mills recouped the cost in three to six months of making not only bread, but crackers, muffins, and many other generally more expensive items. Organic grains run between thirty to eighty cents a pound when purchased in bulk.
We have enjoyed our Family Grain Mill now for nearly a decade and had to replace the milling head only one time in spite of some seasons of extremely heavy use. There are many good models of grain mills to choose from, so do your homework, ask around or, if possible, go visit friends who have one and try it out a few times to find one that works best for you.
With a large family, chopping, slicing and grating can be a real chore and time consumer. “Carrots Vichy” for six with enough for leftovers represents at least four pounds of carrots for our clan. Sweet potato fries require the frenzied slicing of about five or more pounds of sweet potatoes. A high-quality food processor makes bigger meals or batch cooking such as these dishes a breeze and helps prevent repetitive motion injury or insanity for mom, dad and kids.
There is probably a wider array of options under the rubric of “food processor” than any of the other kitchen helpers mentioned in this column. Read consumer reviews to help you decide which model will work best for you and your crew.
This and the following appliances our family could live without yet we dearly love them nonetheless. The toaster oven is our replacement for a microwave and sometimes also for our regular oven. If you keep your eyes peeled, models often go on clearance sale after Christmas for as little as ten to twenty-five dollars online. A toaster oven allows us to cook or reheat small to medium-sized foods and meals, and during the very hot Kentucky summers we can even relocate it outside to help keep the house cooler. We generally expect approximately three or so years of service out of these machines before they take a one-way trip to our local metal recycling facility. We prefer models that have the convection and speed options, as they cook and reheat more evenly and efficiently than other types.
We have one inside and one outside, but that is partly because of the buying club we manage and partly because of the bounty from our farm. While some people prefer upright freezer models since they are much easier to keep organized (though my wife contends that there are many upright freezers that rival the potential for disorder of chest versions when in the wrong hands), they generally cost two to three times more per month in energy usage and are far more likely to be left or pushed open accidentally by shifting contents or small fingers. Generally, they also have a higher base cost for the same storage space.
For us, the much likely loss of multiple hundreds of dollars and energy savings makes up for the occasional rooting mess a chest freezer can present. Thankfully, manufacturers have improved the organizational options for their interiors, adding multiple levels of movable baskets and divider systems to many models. If you want a size recommendation, start with a fifteen cubic foot model. This is plenty of room for bulk quantities of pastured beef, pastured chickens, some frozen vegetables and more. Realize that if you are participating in the real food economy, in the fall you will most likely be stocking up on certain larger volume items to tide you over until spring. A chest freezer is an important tool to make this both possible and affordable.
While we do far less baking these days than we did in the early days of our marriage, we still find a stand mixer a handy appliance to keep around. There is no better way to throw together a batch of cookies or cupcakes and it greatly simplifies the process of making homemade bread. We have enjoyed our Bosch Compact for many years. We have also heard great things about Kitchen Aid models that have heavy duty motors. Friends who bake large quantities of bread swear by the Bosch Universal, which is a larger model of the mixer we use and love.
With a relatively small number of kitchen tools and appliances we have been able to prepare food for our growing family that is nutritious, delicious and loved by all. Furthermore, we have been able to avoid convenience foods and have diminished the “need” to eat out. Oh, and one last mechanical servant that is helpful to have around when preparing all this nutritious food is a dishwasher!
2. www.nestleprofessional.com/united-states/en/documents/nutripro/2808_nutripro_2_cooking_meth.pdf and http://www.hippressurecooking.com/3-pressure-cooker-nutrition-myths-that-just-wont-go-away-tillnow/
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2016