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10 Kitchen Tools to Help You Cook Like a Pro

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Infomercials may promise that space-age technology and three payments of $39.95 are all you need to become a master in the kitchen, but luckily, that's not the case. For professional chefs, quality and simplicity often trump flash when it comes to kitchen tools. If you've already got the basics, a few new items can make cooking dinner a little bit easier and tastier. In our quest to find the right gear to elevate our culinary efforts, mental_floss chatted with Jill Santopietro, a cooking instructor and recipe developer who has tested recipes for superstar chefs like Michael Pollen, April Bloomfield, and Alex Guarnaschelli. She acknowledges that while there’s no replacing years of hard practice, investing in a good set of tools can make life in the kitchen easier. “It's like driving a Nissan versus a Maserati,” says Santopietro. “Having better tools makes cooking a more enjoyable experience … it makes it fun.” 

Santopietro shared some of her most beloved pieces equipment that she uses in her kitchen at home. Even if these tools make you feel like Julia Child, the skills required to use them unfortunately aren't included. 

1. WOODEN SPOON

Wood has the benefit of being strong and yielding at the same time. Wooden spoons can be used to stir thick mixtures without scratching the bottoms of your pots and pans, and the material isn’t as easily affected by high heat as metal or plastic, which means you don’t have to worry about it melting or getting super hot to the touch. Santopietro prefers spoons with a square edge so she can easily scrape caramelized bits of food from the bottom of her pans. Wood also has a nice feel in your hands, and using it makes you feel like a classically trained French chef even when you have no idea what you’re doing. Buy at Amazon

2. VITAMIX BLENDER

While many great tools are simple, a little innovation never hurt, either. If you're looking to invest in a fancier piece of gear, a good blender should rank high on your list of splurges. Cheap blenders are easy to come by, but a quality model can revolutionize your cooking life for years to come. Santopietro owns a Vitamix, which is powerful enough to blend sticky dough, nuts, and whole fruits and vegetables. The 2-horsepower device moves so quickly that it can puree your soup and use friction to heat it up at the same time. Santopietro uses hers to make pestos, aioli, and even baby food.  Buy at Amazon

3. SPIDER

Though it doesn’t sound like something you’d want in your kitchen, the spider is embraced by chefs all around the world as an essential cooking tool. Traditionally used in Asian cooking, this skimming utensil uses a wire-mesh basket to retrieve things like fried dumplings, vegetables, and pasta from hot oil or water. Its wide, shallow shape makes it gentle on delicate foods like ravioli and poached eggs, and the long bamboo handle keeps chefs far removed from any spitting-hot oil. The mesh is also fine enough to catch small bits of food like puffed grains.  Buy at Amazon

4. MISONO KNIFE

For professionals, the importance of a good knife in the kitchen can’t be overstated. Not only does it make the cooking process easier, it makes it safer as well. Cooks tend to press down with more force when cutting with a dull knife, which can lead to slippage and injury. A well-maintained, quality knife saves a lot of pain and frustration in the long run.

Santopietro uses a Misono knife which is made from super-sharp stainless steel that’s been forged by hand. The factory is based in the Seki, a Japanese city with a 750 year legacy of crafting knives.  Buy at Amazon

5. PEPPER MILL

A pepper mill is an essential tool for any serious home cook. Freshly ground pepper lends dishes a distinctive texture and spice that the pre-ground stuff just can't replicate. Santopietro recommends keeping a large pepper mill at home. That way you can grind to your heart’s content without having to refill it as often. Buy at Amazon

6. OXO PRECISION TONGS

For some home cooks, cooking with big, clumsy tongs is an unavoidable part of daily life, but it doesn't have to be. Santopietro opts for OXO precision tongs, which are precise enough to lift a single strand of spaghetti from a pot of boiling water. They’re also great for handling bacon, thinly-sliced vegetables, and hard-boiled eggs. Buy at Amazon

7. CAST IRON SKILLET

While it may be low-tech, the cast iron skillet is another tool that most professionals swear by. A cast iron skillet will last a lifetime with proper care, and the more you use it the more it develops layers of flavor-imparting seasoning. Cast iron is durable enough to get "screaming hot" which makes it the ideal choice for searing steaks or pan-frying vegetables. It also distributes heat evenly, which is important when cooking meat. After using your skillet to make dinner, you can fill it with cake batter and toss it in the oven to make dessert. That makes every other pan in your arsenal look lame in comparison. Buy at Amazon

8. SHARPENING STONE

If you decide to follow Santopietro’s suggestion to invest in a good kitchen knife, a sharpening stone should be your next purchase. You can pay to get your knives sharpened by a professional, but Santopietro does the majority of her sharpening herself at home. As long as you use proper technique, doing your own sharpening saves you money in the long run, and you’ll never have an excuse to let your knives get dull. Buy at Amazon

9. WOODEN CUTTING BOARD

Nothing compares to the look and feel of a quality wooden cutting board. The sturdy-yet-soft surface is easier on a knife’s edge and results in cleaner cuts. Santopietro uses a plastic cutting board for things like chicken that might contain harmful bacteria, but wood is a great choice for firm veggies and cheeses.  Buy at Amazon

10. DIGITAL THERMOMETER 

For some recipes, a few degrees one way or the other can make or break the whole dish. An instant-read thermometer determines the temperature of what you’re cooking in just a few seconds, which could mean the difference between luscious liquid caramel and a pot of burnt sugar and cream.  Buy From King Arthur Flour
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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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