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Sorting Kitchen Must-Haves from Must-Avoids

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By Lou Carlozo, Green Dad columnist for dealnews

The conundrum with living in a society dominated by consumerism and convenience is that on the one hand, we can easily talk ourselves into the things we want if they’re cheap.

On the other hand — and any impulse shopper knows this — the things we want aren’t necessarily the things we need. And nowhere is that maxim, and the waste of money and energy associated with it, more apparent than with kitchen appliances.

Take bread makers, for example. I’m a garage sale junkie, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to blowouts this season and seen bread makers. It’s always the same: The bread makers look like they’ve been used just once. You might as well just call them bread wasters, given how much "dough" was spent on them. Many of these models probably retailed for about $100 new, and now are junk for $10.

This week, Green Dad delves into the world of kitchen appliances, and tries to sort out the bargains from the busts, the must-haves from the money traps.

One thing I can promise: No recommendations for bread makers are forthcoming, which makes an ideal segue into my first appliance tip.

1) No so-called bargain is a bargain if you don’t use the thing.

While this may seem obvious, so is the idea of keeping credit card spending to amounts lower than what we can pay off monthly — yet how many of us disregard this wisdom on the way to the cash register? Just as you should keep grocery purchases limited to what’s on the list you make beforehand, don’t shop for appliances based on price alone. Base your purchase on what you’ll use week in and week out, not impulse. Thus follows the second rule…

2) No indulgence is a waste if you use the appliance!

A good many of you might consider an espresso maker a waste of money, especially if you own a coffee maker already. But my wife is a coffee snob, and she simply can’t do without a daily double shot from our Krups il Primo. That model has since been succeeded by the fabulous Steam Espresso Machine, available for $60. Given all the use we get out of it — and the big bucks we save on Starbucks trips — the Krups costs us pennies a day to operate, and has saved us hundreds of dollars a year.

3) Take steps toward essential prep.

Consider those items that make a consistent difference in streamlining meal prep. My research shows that the experts consistently recommend an essential along the lines of the Cuisinart DLC-2AFR Mini-Prep food processor. You’ll see it for up to $40 new, but we found refurbished models for $18 (plus $7.56 shipping) at newegg.com. It makes pesto, grinds cheese, chops onions and comes with a dishwasher-safe 3-cup bowl.

4) Consider the mighty toaster oven.

I love that for all our digital sophistication with smartphones and such, we still can’t improve all that much on the basic technology of the toaster, which traces its roots to the World War I era. I don’t care how fancy your microwave is and how much of that funny gray stuff they put on microwave meal packs; it will never get your bread all crunchy and crisp like a toaster does. And since pizza slices and pop-up toasters don’t get along too well, the toaster oven represents one of those "must-have" appliances that I mentioned earlier. Here’s a great deal on an item that makes maximal use of minimal counter space: a Black & Decker 4-slice toaster oven for $20 plus free shipping. I can taste those blueberry bagels now.

5) Some of the most useful kitchen appliances require zero electricity.

I wouldn’t blame you if the words "kitchen appliance" bring to mind something with a big old plug sticking out of it. But some of the best kitchen appliances around, as well as the cheapest, have no electrical parts. One example: the Oxo Good Grips hand can opener.

Here’s another: I just snagged a Bodum French coffee press, and my wife Amy has nothing but raves about how great the flavor is that comes from it. Nor does the device need fancy filters or powered pumps. We found the Bodum 1923-16 Chambord (a 3-cup press that holds 12 oz. of joe) for $21 at Wasserstrom.com, close to one-third off the list price.

6) Some of the least useful kitchen appliances have a snack-food bias.

If you buy a popcorn maker, what you have is a bulky, tub-like cylinder that won’t necessarily outperform your microwave or stovetop. And while ice cream makers might sound like fun, think of all the labor involved — and how impatient your kids (well, mine anyway) will get when they really want a tub of Breyers. Skip waffle makers, too, unless you’re such a waffle fanatic that you’ll get near daily use out of one.

7) When in doubt, go back to the basics.

Even if your budget and counter space are unlimited, but even so, there’s no need for cluttering up your kitchen and your credit card bill. Better yet, go the opposite direction of the popcorn maker and ask yourself what will have the most uses in the most applications. While you’ll want a French press if you’re a coffee fiend, the most versatile appliances can tackle many jobs for main dishes, desserts and more. KitchenAid makes an outstanding mixer; its Artisan Series mixer sells for $250 at most retailers. Yes, that’s much more than the prices for the above-listed items, but this kitchen gem boasts such high quality and sleek aesthetics, it’s hard to pass up, especially if you’ll use a mixer often.

8) Rugged is always better.

Because small kitchen appliances are small, the chances of teeny weeny handles and parts breaking increase exponentially. So repeat after me: Never confuse cheap with cheapo. A great many appliances made overseas might have a great price tag, but wherever possible, check the buttons, knobs and handles to make sure they feel rugged enough to take the constant use and stress of meal preparation. Heavier is almost always better, and metal gearing for mixers and food processors will last longer. Plastic will snap easier or can change its shape in conditions of extreme heat.

9) Great appliances make cleanup easy, too.

The ideal small appliance should save you time all the way around, and that includes cleanup. One reason I prefer hand-cranked can openers is that you can stick them in the dishwasher; ever try cleaning an electric can opener blade with a sponge? The best appliances will often have parts that are dishwasher safe, easy to take apart and equally easy to reassemble.

Here’s a deal on an item that qualifies: a Cuisinart 11-cup Pro Custom Food Processor for $90, shipping included. It won’t make your dinner for you or your family, but it’s as close as you’re going to get without surrendering to takeout.


Lou Carlozo is dealnews' new Green Dad columnist. He was most recently the managing editor of WalletPop.com and, before that, a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter— @LouCarlozo63. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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3 comments
RAVmom
The Kitchen Aid mixer is a must have for any well-equipped frugal kitchen. I've had mine for about 25 years and I can't even imagine the amount of money I've saved using it to make homemade pizza dough, bread, cinnamon rolls, etc.
 I also agree that the investment in quality products will be worth it in the long run. I also use All Clad cookware, but I'm lucky to live near their manufacturing facility and have purchased my collection for half-price or better at their semi-annual Seconds Sale.Gadgets are money wasters. Save your money and counter/cupboard space and only invest in the most basic, but useful equipment. 

And I inherited my grandmother's seasoned iron frying pan when she passed away. No substitute for one of those.
Adamh
I agree with preachy re: cookware and cutlery.  Buy your equipment at a restaurant supply house.  The equipment will be workhorse strong and relatively inexpensive.  The information that you can get at those supply houses is helpful, too.

Right now I prefer Mercer cutlery - it is what the cooking school students purchase. 

Everyone should have a seasoned iron fry pan.

If you ever get to Paris and you enjoy your time in the kitchen, purchase copper ware there.  It inexpensive and you will leave it to someone in your will.  (Heavy, though, so purchase it on your last day).
preachy
Good article, thanks!  I agree with all the points above.  In addition, may I suggest one item that is indispensible in my kitchen?  This is not a pitch, but dang, the Magic Bullet is awesome!  It works just like Mick and Mimi suggest, and is easy to clean.  I use it nearly every day for some task or another.  For $35 (eBay), it was a great investment.

Also, I might add that it is foolish to skimp on cookware and cutlery.  I use All-Clad and Shun.  Both are very pricy, but with the proper care will last a lifetime.
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