Gadget is used time and time again

Easily undervalued kitchen timer is definitely something today's cooks can count on

March 29, 2006|By REGINA SCHRAMBLING | REGINA SCHRAMBLING,LOS ANGELES TIMES

One of the most indispensable tools in my kitchen is the only one I was forbidden to use in restaurant school. And no, it's not a microwave.

It is the wondrous little gadget magnetized to my refrigerator that keeps my tea from turning bitter, my brownies from going dry, my pasta from boiling to limpness and my head from exploding when I am cooking more than one dish for a dinner party.

The manufacturer, Amco Houseworks, calls it a Magnetic Two Timer, but in the year it has been a forearm's length away from my stove, I have been nothing but faithful. However, I do want to share: I have given the timer to several friends and sent others straight to the Internet to order their own to change their lives.

And every one of them who adheres it to any metal surface in the kitchen inevitably comes away with a new understanding of how cooking is all in the timing. You can slapdash most dishes onto the table by hook and by clock, but a timer is the one implement that will separate the serenely accomplished cooks from the nervously struggling.

Timers are easily undervalued. Every kitchen has a clock, after all. But timing is an active verb, not a passive activity. It's too easy to look away when you put a sauce on to simmer and not remember the exact starting time, which, of course, makes it impossible to calculate the precise end.

Baking is the biggest incentive for owning a great timer. Out of sight, out of mind was a cliche undoubtedly born in a bakery. Pop a cake into the oven and it's easily forgotten. Baking is all about precision, with no way to adjust for little slips in measuring or mixing.

But many other types of cooking also benefit from mechanical timing. Unless you're Italian with the innate DNA to sense the precise instant when a strand of linguine has crossed over from starchy to al dente, you need a timer set to the exact minutes given on the package.

Eggs are also a delicate issue. A perfectly hard-cooked egg needs to simmer for exactly 11 minutes after the water it's immersed in comes to a boil. A two-minute egg is exactly that, while a frittata needs 15 minutes in the oven.

Almost anything cooked on the grill also needs to be timed, as does anything broiled, when a minute too long can turn dinner to charcoal. Poaching is done best with a timer - a chicken breast will turn to leather if given more than 10 minutes, as will salmon fillets.

And a box of rice should never be opened unless you have a timer, especially now that rice comes in so many varieties that cook in anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.

I also always set my timer when I'm sauteing wild mushrooms because I've found they need a minimum of 10 minutes of cooking to prevent headaches or stomachaches. And I definitely use a timer when cooking any type of fish.

It's actually in those last few minutes of adjustment in cooking fish that a timer is most vital. The clock is a good gauge for the first eight minutes for salmon or swordfish, but a jarring ring at one or two minutes - or, more important, 30 seconds - can save you and the fish.

A timer is as essential as the proper dish for a souffle, which is something that benefits from timing at every step, from the roux to the baking. And it is a necessity when blanching certain vegetables, particularly asparagus and brussels sprouts, the ones that go gray and wan in a matter of seconds.

Most important, you need a timer to make perfect tea. I use loose leaves from Darjeeling when I brew, and they can morph from sublime to bitter in a heartbeat.

For all those reasons, you could make the argument that any timer would do. But I have learned the long, hard way that my new favorite is the winner. In 20-some years of cooking for a living, I have owned myriad timers.

None has come anywhere closer to perfection than the one that I found in the back of a Martha Stewart catalog last year and that is now everywhere clever cookware is sold.

What attracted me was its retro look, because I have a restored 1929 kitchen with a 1950s stove.

The magnet that made it attachable to my refrigerator, right behind the stove, was a plus: I can reach around with one hand on a skillet going into the oven with seared grouper that needs exactly five minutes and still twist to the proper setting.

The other allure was the possibility of one gadget handling two dishes at once. This timer has a 60-minute dial and a 20-minute dial; the latter even marks off 15-second increments.

The Magnetic Two Timer is available from several Web sites. A countertop version is at al waysbrilliant.com, where it sells for $18.99 plus shipping.

Regina Schrambling wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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