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Thanksgiving's tools of the cooking trade

Published Sep. 4, 2005

(ran SPTP, NP editions)

Humans differ from other animals in two respects, according to famous French eater Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: fear of the future and desire for fermented beverages. Add to that the usual definition of man as a tool-using animal (discounting for the moment able apes and unhandy husbands) and you have a recipe for the holidays.

The Chicago Tribune's food writers share their favorite kitchen tools and how they can ease the burden of roasting, mashing and serving what for many cooks is a once-a-year marathon.

Some you already will have on hand; others you might have thrown away last year when they let you down for the last time. We describe what makes a good example worth seeking out and keeping in service. A well-made tool will brighten future holidays, too, as any monkey with a corkscrew could tell you.

Roast reality

More than any other piece of equipment used to prepare the holiday feast, the roasting pan is the one that carries the day. Cooks call on a sturdy pan to support the weight of a Thanksgiving turkey, a prime rib of beef for Christmas, or a roast chicken for a Hanukkah dinner _ and those are just some of the uses.

You can see why a good roasting pan is a worthy investment. Those lightweight disposable foil pans sold at the supermarket? Save them for the baked stuffing or a casserole. For the holiday centerpiece dish, a heavy pan is in order, one that can stand up to long cooking and the secondary assignment of gravymaking, once the meat is removed and the pan of drippings is placed on the stovetop.

The All-Clad LTD non-stick roasting set, with dimensions of 16 by 13 inches, fits the bill. With a heavy aluminum core and anodized aluminum exterior, the pan conducts heat well and holds a large turkey or roast without crowding. Solid, upright handles are easy to grip and the nonstick surface and roasting rack make cleanup easy.

Look for the set at Williams-Sonoma and many other kitchenware stores, with a price of about $200.


New, improved basting

For a tool so simple, a bulb baster can spew out a lot of disappointment. The bulb can part company with its tube or fail to hold on to the liquid it just sucked up, leaving a trail of dribbles across the stove and holiday apparel. Left on the stovetop during all the confusion, it can roll under a pan, eventually alerting the cook with the seasonal aroma of melting plastic. Even if it does its job _ by squirting pan juices over the roasting turkey or transferring them to a measuring cup _ a baster is a pain to wash.

OXO and other firms have been tweaking the design, though. Flat sides on the OXO bulb eliminate rolling, and it is easily detached for cleaning with the included brush. The plastic tube can endure more heat than can the garden-variety versions, though direct flame will still ruin it. Most important: Liquids don't start running back out right after you've sucked them up with this one. (KitchenAid makes a similar item, but the round bulb is roll-prone.)

Oneida, Amco, Norpro make basters with tubes of steel (try to melt that!) as well as scary screw-on needles for injecting marinades. Worried about marring your roaster's nonstick coating? Amco sells a steel tube with a nylon tip.

All of these cost $8 to $15, though you can pay up to $20 for those made by cutlery expert Hoffritz.


Instant help

I remember, way back when, the first time I used an instant-read thermometer. I think it was a roast chicken. I stuck the thermometer into the "thickest portion of the thigh," as the recipe suggested. But then something interrupted. A phone call? My daughter pulling at me with a question? I don't remember, but I shoved the chicken back in the oven and forgot about it. The next time I looked, the plastic cover on the thermometer dial had melted, freezing the dial hand at a perpetual 130 degrees.

You have to be careful with an instant-read, but its versatility and quick response more than make up for potential meltdown. These thermometers are more useful than the old-fashioned meat thermometer, which had one purpose and took many minutes to register the temperature. An instant-read, though not exactly instant, takes only a few seconds, and it's useful in all kinds of cooking.

Look for one with a long probe (for large turkeys, especially). Many cooks swear by the simplest versions with a dial, but experts say the digital thermometers are more accurate. But the digital also requires replacing a battery from time to time.

Cook's Catalogue, a guide to kitchen equipment, recommends Cooper, Polder, Acu-Rite and Taylor brands. I like the Taylor Digital Pocket Thermometer for $15. It comes with a handy holder that clips onto a pocket or apron.


Rally 'round the ricer

I didn't appreciate the tool inherited from my grandmother until a few years ago _ when I had to prepare my favorite Thanksgiving dessert in a friend's kitchen without it. That afternoon, after my two sweet potato pies had filled the room with the familiar aroma of crust, cooked potatoes, butter and spice, I sliced one, only to find a stringy filling that did not stand up to my grandmother's melt-in-your-mouth version.

My grandmother was convinced that forcing quartered or halved cooked potatoes through the tiny holes of a ricer made smoother purees than those produced by mashing, beating, whipping or grinding potatoes through a food mill. The ricer also is perfect for making silky-smooth mashed potatoes.

What about peeling? Some cooks maintain there's no need to peel cooked white or sweet potatoes before pressing them through the hand-operated press, but my grandmother never took the chance of a stray peel making its way into her fine purees. I maintain her tradition of gently rubbing tender cooked potatoes with the dull side of a silver knife to remove all traces of potato jackets before ricing. I like the Endurance model for $24.95 from Sur La Table catalog because it's larger than most and makes quick work turning out smooth purees.


The carving edge

In the rapidly dimming past, when families sat down to a formally choreographed Thanksgiving meal, sons and sons-in-law would nervously follow the father's every move and stroke as he carved the turkey. One day it would be their turn.

When my turn did come, I developed a dodge. I carried the cooked turkey, displayed on a beautifully garnished tray, around the dining table so everyone could see it, then retreated to the kitchen to cut, hack and do whatever else was necessary to produce a portion of turkey for each diner.

The other approach was to arm myself with a carving knife and fork and learn to use them. That I did and here's some of what I learned.

Whether you buy a matched set for ceremonial moments like this or use a workaday pair of tools is up to you. The knife should have a blade at least 8 inches long that can take an edge when sharpened, and a pointed tip to make it easier to cut meat around the bones. It should be thinner than a chef's knife and somewhat more flexible. The handle can be wood, bone or stainless steel. The fork will be large and two-pronged. The prongs may be straight, which allows cutting very thin slices, or curved, which holds the meat more firmly or _ the best choice for turkey _ only gently curved. Wusthof-Trident makes a sturdy set. Look for it at department stores or specialty kitchen shops for about $180.

There's a third essential element to carving successfully. It is a large cutting board, preferably wooden, with channels or cups to catch juices before they run off the work surface. Do not try to carve on a platter, but keep one close at hand to receive the slices as you cut them.


Crust SOS

Pies, especially holiday stalwarts like pecan and pumpkin, seem to conduct a tortoise-and-hare race as soon as they're put in the oven _ and the crust invariably is done before the filling. Covering a pie's edges with aluminum foil is a fail-safe way to avoid a burnt crust, but with the turkey, sides, breads, beverages and guests who show up early, hostesses have better things to do than play tear-and-crimp over recalcitrant pies.

Pie-crust savers come to the rescue. These inexpensive and reusable aluminum gadgets fit over eager crusts.

Single, one-piece rounds _ easy to use though designed only for 8- to 10-inch pans _ are sold at department and kitchen stores for less than $5. One that we've tested with good results is the BetaBake Pie Saver; a package of three costs $3 plus $5 shipping: Call toll-free 1-888-783-2253 or visit www. to order.