(look away now if you are squeamish about getting your hands dirty)
A while ago, I went crashing up the garden steps with a bowl of water in my hands. Looking at my rather misshapen and quickly swelling wrist, it was obvious I needed to go to Accident & Emergency. When I got into Casualty, I asked them how quickly they could get me sorted, as I had to be back in the kitchen for 11am. I was working in a pub at the time, in addition to baking, and I had 20 people booked in for lunch!
It was incredibly fortunate that it was my left hand I damaged. Had it been my right, I’m sure I would have coped, but possibly not as well. I’d briefed my (then) 78-year-old ma, as I left for hospital, to get everything together and prep the veg so that as soon as I got back we could get to the pub. And somehow we managed to deliver that roast lunch.
Given my broken wrist, most people assumed I’d take the six healing weeks off work, and it wasn’t an altogether strange idea. Several years before, after a repair to my shoulder, I was making crumpets left-handed three days later.
But I soon I discovered that there were certain functions that I just could not do one handed – unscrewing jars, washing up, rolling pastry and so many other things. I couldn’t even get my hands into the mixture and hold onto the bowl.
It was many months before I regained full strength, although I was rolling pastry within six weeks of the accident – slightly lopsided, mind! But it made me realise how crucial hands are in the kitchen. And how I had never given any thought to how many functions I perform with them.
The most used, but underestimated, tool in the kitchen
Hands should be the numero uno tool in any kitchen. Many people list the equipment or ‘kit’ that you need, but rarely do they mention that you require your hands, preferably clean and in good working order.
My hands are pastry hands, according to my ma. They are constantly cold (and in theory this means I have a warm heart – obvs).
They’re used to rub the fat into the flour – although of late I tend to use the mixer for that particular operation (it is quicker). But when not in a hurry, it’s pleasant sometimes to go ‘old skool’ and get your hands in the bowl of flour. When I make crumble, rather than cutting the fat into the flour with a knife, I rub the butter through my hands to make breadcrumbs.
My hands are used as a scoop. Typically I am found up to my armpits in flour. I use them to heft out the quantity of flour that I need (when I can’t find my scoop). I might also be found using them to hurl the flour across the work surface for shaping dough or moulding pastry.
My paws also form scrapers, pulling bread dough off the side of the bowl.
I fill the palm of my hand to measure a tablespoon of salt, circa 15g. I can reduce it by half or create a teaspoon as required. They are used to add a pinch of something to a meal.
If, however, I am making bread where the measure is more precise, then I do get the scales out – with my hands. And I use them when making dough, to mix it up. I whisk yeast into water.
Fingers are used for separating eggs, catching the yolk in one’s fingertips, whilst the white drips through into an awaiting bowl. Or for straining fruit, with the juice trickling through fingers into a jug and the fruit being flung into a bowl.
I rip or tear ham to scatter into pie cases, I crumble cheese onto brioche and I use the heel of my hand to give puff pastry a good bash before rolling. Sausage meat is portioned into halves or quarters in a bowl.
I have to ask myself how chef Michael Caines manages with just one arm. The Irish chef James Sheridan says of Michael Caines: “The skill he possesses in his one arm is simply extraordinary.” Based on my experience with a broken wrist I’d say it must be!
You can see how valuable these tools are. I guess what I’m really saying is: try and look where you are going and avoid doing them unnecessary damage!