The way America cooked changed a lot this year. We've been through ingredient shortages, purchasing limits, viral recipes and, likely, a lot of takeout. But along the way, several tools and appliances have made being in the kitchen a lot more tolerable this year — in some cases, even indulgent.
Here is our list of MVP kitchen tools that guided the way we ate and drank in 2020.
I'm one of the many Americans who used their extra time at home during the pandemic to hone my bread baking skills. According to data from King Arthur Flour, in the first nine months of 2020, the company sold more than 111 million pounds of flour, accounting for more than a 50% increase from 2019.
Kneading dough is an integral part of bread baking; it helps cross-link proteins to create a strong gluten network, which helps loaves expand without bursting. And while doing it by hand can be a really satisfying process, I love that the dough hook on my standing mixer helps me form a smooth, compact dough ball in closer to eight minutes, as opposed to 20. This year, it kept me baking more often — and, since practice makes perfect, I've noticed a difference in my skill level from March to now.
I've been eager to share the immersion blender gospel with anyone who will listen. You can do so much with one without schlepping out or dirtying up a heavy mixer — which you're probably already using for bread; see above. Like what? Well, I'm glad you asked.
During the pandemic, I've used my immersion blender to emulsify homemade mayonnaise and blitz together dips for my snack plates, to create single-serving smoothies and milkshakes, to pulse vegetables into creamy soups and pasta sauces. (This fall, I practically lived on this pumpkin sage pasta, where I subbed in cubed and pureed butternut squash for the canned pumpkin.)
What I most appreciated about the immersion blender is that, during a period of time when I thought I would scream if I saw another dirty dish in the sink, I was able to create quick, healthy meals without creating too much mess. That felt like a luxury in itself.
"Like many people, what I've actually learned from this pandemic is to cherish those creature comforts of home, to really prioritize those little things that make being stuck at home all day every day a lot more bearable," Salon's Amanda Marcotte wrote in September. "It's why there's been a rush on skin care products, sweat pants, and bidets during this pandemic."
For her, that comfort was her Sodastream. She grew accustomed to the company's Diet Dr. Pepper knock-off and their pink grapefruit soda — and was confronted with her "naked need for fizzy drinks in a time of great suffering and pain" amid a pandemic shortage of CO2 canisters. You can read all about it here.
Speaking of creature comforts, I've written how this was the year that I promised myself I would get better at making good at-home coffee. I talked with the pros, I bought better beans, I added muddled berries and bitters to my cold brew.
This was also the year that I bought myself a French press, at the urging of Ren Doughty, the outreach and customer support coordinator at Batdorf & Bronson Roasters (and at-home coffee enthusiast). There are a lot of benefits to the French press method. A big one is the texture or mouthfeel of your coffee will actually be different — velvety and more sumptuous — because the oils from the coffee are preserved in the brewing process. More broadly, a French press is great to experiment with because it really puts the person in charge of the final product instead of a machine.
Then, a couple months ago, my boyfriend's parents sent us a really nice countertop espresso machine with an integrated milk frother. Now, more often than not, I start my mornings with a cappuccino with frothy oat milk. It feels deeply indulgent.
For Salon contributor Michelle Eighenheer, her upgrade from a stovetop to a countertop electric kettle was one of her favorite trade-offs, in a year of admittedly terrible trade-offs otherwise.
"I don't just flip the switch each morning to heat water for a cup of tea, it also comes in handy while cooking with several pans and am unwilling or just too impatient to put on water to boil in a new pot," she said. "It only shaves a few minutes off the task of boiling water, but somehow it's still gratifying each time I use it."
Finally, this was the year that I finally invested in a good Dutch oven — just in time for Braising Season™. I've already used it to make Chris Shepherd's Vietnamese braised turkey necks, from his book "Cook Like a Local," for Thanksgiving, and an embarrassing amount of ragout. This was the year that I also found out, thanks to J. Kenji López-Alt, that it was an essential tool for making a better loaf of bread in your home kitchen.