Recently, I asked the homesteaders who read my blog, “What is the next tool you plan to purchase?” Almost half listed kitchen tools. No doubt about it, because homesteaders produce large quantities of food, kitchen tools are just as important to them as farming implements.
Most cooks have an ample supply of gadgets to perform various tasks. Items like knives, thermometers and wooden spoons find themselves in kitchens on and off the homestead. But homesteading homemakers need a set of tools unlike many others. These tools are needed to process the large quantities of food that homesteading brings to the kitchen.
However, homemakers new to homesteading often don’t know where to begin. Grandma’s pressure canner blew up, and a new meat grinder costs $400. How do you know the equipment you want is safe to use and necessary enough to warrant the financial investment?
Let’s take a look at six highly desired kitchen tools on the homestead.
The pressure canner
In order to kill botulism spores when canning low-acid foods, the contents of the jars must reach 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Since boiling water only reaches 212 degrees, no matter how long you boil it, a pressure canner is essential to safely preserve foods like green beans, meat or potatoes. Many homemakers are afraid of them, though, because of the horror stories they’ve heard from their elders.
“There is a big trend moving back toward canning,” says Chaya Foedus, owner of Pantry Paratus, a self-sufficiency store that supports consumers in the art of food preservation. “I think Internet technology is helping folks rediscover and learn that canning can be done safely.”
Modern pressure canners are nothing like your granny’s. They now have dial gauges to show when the pressure approaches an unsafe range, and more than one pressure release valve so that one allows steam to escape if the other becomes clogged. In addition, the modern range delivers a more consistent heat and is safer to use for canning than our forebears’ woodstoves.
The grain mill
Once you begin baking your own bread, you may want to add a grain mill to the kitchen counter. Grinding your own grain produces a superior product with more nutrients than the flour that’s been sitting on the grocer’s shelf.
Grain mills come in two basic types: the electric mill and the hand-cranked variety. The Wondermill or Nutrimill are examples of electric burst mills. They produce flour from grain in a matter of seconds. For the homemaker without a lot of time on her hands, this is a great option. However, you cannot use oily grains like corn or coffee beans in a burst mill. Also, a burst mill only produces flour. If you want grits or cracked grains for hot breakfast cereals, you will need a burr mill.
Country Living and GrainMaker are two examples of hand-cranked burr mills. Don’t let their construction fool you. With a little ingenuity, these types of mills can be attached to a motor for easier use, making it possible for you to grind any type of grain, whether you have electricity or not. Some hand-cranked varieties like the GrainMaker can even be adapted to a bicycle for larger volumes and easier people-powered use.
Nothing beats drying your foods for convenience and saving space, but not all food dehydrators are created equal. According to Foedus, dehydrators with an element in the bottom and a stack of trays you rotate throughout the day are a dime a dozen.
She explained that the tray closest to the element gets dry, but when you rotate it to the top, the fan blows the moisture from the bottom trays back up through the unit onto the driest tray at the top. This makes it difficult for even drying, and it prolongs the drying time.
“The back-to-front, square unit is the preferable design,” she says. This shape holds more food, as well. “We chose the rectangular Excalibur,” says Tessa Zundel of Utah, “because you can fit a lot more into that area than you can into a circle. Geometry doesn’t lie.”
You don’t need to rotate the trays with the Excalibur, as it has an adjustable thermostat and a timer. No matter which brand you choose, these are the types of options you will want to compare.
The vacuum sealer
I first saw a vacuum sealer in operation at a hog butchering day. While I struggled to stuff chops into zipper-lock bags, the gal working next to me had all her meat packaged, in coolers, and was heading home before I could catch her name.
“Wow,” I thought, “Do I need one of those?” It depends on who you ask.
Zundel said if she had to ditch one appliance, it would be the vacuum sealer. “I’m trying to use plastic less and less,” she says. “So, the fact that my sealer uses plastic bags is less appealing.”
Jo Rellime of Ohio says she couldn’t live without her vacuum sealer, and she doesn’t even use plastic. Using a special attachment, she vacuum seals foods she dehydrates herself and staples she buys in bulk in canning jars.
Both women use a FoodSaver Vacuum Sealing System.
If you prefer to shop around, Foedus recommends you look for a product designed to protect the motor from moisture, as that is the most common cause of malfunction in these machines.
Likewise, if you find one secondhand, test the motor before purchasing.
The meat grinder
At the same hog butchering event, I saw a commercial-grade meat grinder in action. Several families were processing hogs that day, and the grinder was in use nonstop. Karen Beachy of Virginia uses a Cabela’s commercial-grade food grinder with various attachments purchased separately to make applesauce and hamburger patties, and to stuff sausage.
“When we butcher our chickens,” she says, “we grind all the scraps and bones in it to make our dog food. If anyone is doing homesteading in a big way, I strongly recommend this type of machine.” But according to Feodus, if you just want to grind meat, there is no need to spend $400.
“It is a major score to find an old Enterprise grinder/chopper at an estate sale,” Foedus says. “If you find one, you found a gold mine.” Why? After more than 100 years of manufacturing food grinders, Enterprise is still in business as Chop-Rite Two.
The company manufactures its cast-iron, hand-cranked grinders using the original design, and still sells parts for them. Don’t let the hand-crank part scare you: Some well-built hand-cranked models can be adapted for motorization, just do your homework on the specific model first. Hand-crank grinding deer meat, with the cartilage and sinew, is quite a chore, and the same goes for a lot of other meats.
I bought my first Bosch mixer about 25 years ago, used, from an ad in the newspaper. After a couple of years, it started squealing. A local appliance repairman told me the bearings were bad and to use it until it stopped. So I did, then I scrapped it. Now I know you can purchase the bearing assembly for that Bosch model for $25.
By purchasing optional attachments to some mixers, you can replace other appliances in your kitchen. The Bosch has a blender, food processor, meat grinder, citrus juicer, and berry press attachments. The KitchenAid mixer has attachments for making pasta and ice cream, and for grinding grains. It can also grind your meat, juice your oranges and vegetables, and grate your cheese or carrots. What more could a homemaker ask for?
I have purchased three Bosch mixers secondhand that worked perfectly fine. Before purchasing any used mixer, run it and listen to the motor. Ask the seller if he’ll give you a couple days to try it, then take it home and knead dough in it. Kneading dough is the hardest action on the motor, and if it’s going to balk, that will be the time.
Understanding what a tool can and cannot do, having a thorough knowledge of its parts and safety features, and knowing what to look for in a used appliance will help you make the decisions you need to make before purchasing anything for your homestead kitchen. If you don’t feel safe operating any of these tools, ask a friend or neighbor to come over and walk you through the process the first couple of times.
There is nothing like the satisfaction of having your shelves and freezers full of your homestead bounty.
How to Purchase Used Kitchen Appliances
Rebecca Davis, extension agent with the Family and Consumer Sciences division of the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Blacksburg, says the first step to buying a used kitchen appliance is to familiarize yourself with its parts.
“If you don’t know the parts,” she says, “you don’t know what’s missing or needs replaced.” Here are a few more things to consider.
1. Ask to try out the equipment before purchasing, or ask about a return policy.
2. Find out if replacement parts are available. Then, if you find a canner without a pressure plug, you will know if you can purchase a new one.
3. If the owner’s manual is missing, see if you can get a replacement from the manufacturer or print one off the Internet.
4. If possible, ask the previous owner how she used it, how often, and for how long.
5. Look for dents, cracks and rust. If you find any damage on the appliance, determine if it’s worth replacing the damaged part(s).
6. If you are buying a used pressure canner, take it straight to your local extension office to have it inspected and to have the gauge tested.
Take a look at these strange kitchen tools: Two Kitchen Mysteries Solved.
Carol J. Alexander is the author of Homestead Cooking with Carol: Bountiful Make-ahead Meals. She purchased her latest Bosch Universal mixer for $2 at a thrift store and uses it on a regular basis to knead bread dough.