Although we've gotten most of our kitchen toys when we had money to burn, and not as investments, they've paid for themselves many times over. I've compiled a list of the things we've frequently referred to as “the best investment ever”. They're in the order that, if starting from scratch, I would buy them now.
Chest Freezer (Cost: $120)
We couldn't do a lot of what we do – once-a-month shopping trips, making 30 pounds of bratwursts, etc. - without a chest freezer to store all the extra food in. I love, love, love my freezer. If I could figure out a good organizational system for it, I'd love it even more.
Food Saver (Cost: $80 + cost of bags)
Meat is always cheaper in huge family packs; this helps us repackage them into more reasonable sizes. It also comes in handy for a lot of our made-at-home products. We tend to go all out with projects – making 30 pounds of bratwurst at a time, or making 100+ egg rolls – which means we need a way to store all of our treats. The food saver is a lot easier, and more efficient, than wrapping with plastic wrap or foil, or using Tupperware after Tupperware.
Crock pot Cost: ($30)
By now, everyone knows of the joys of crock pot cooking – just throw a bunch of ingredients in early on, and come back a few hours later to a nice dinner. We use ours mainly to make stock, though. Buying chicken and turkey whole is much cheaper than buying cut-up, and we use the bones to make stock. Our freezer almost always has over a gallon of various stocks in it, to later use in risotto or soup. Making risotto is a great way to not get tired of eating rice as often as we do.
Kitchenaid mixer (Cost: $250-$400)
This was a birthday present from Randy seven or so years ago, and it pains me to put it so far down on the list because I adore it. However, it's the most expensive thing on the list, and is – in many cases – more of a convenience than a necessity. I use it for everything I bake, because it gets me to the good part (eating cookie dough!) much more quickly. It even makes kneading bread - my least favorite part of bread-making - a breeze. Without the mixer, I'm fine kneading for a minute or two, but all recipes call for 7-10 minutes, which I don't have the patience for! With the dough hook, I just set the timer and check a few times to make sure I don't need to add more flour. This makes it much more likely that I will bake something. While baking frenzies come and go, we haven't bought bread for months, thanks to our ample freezer space.
The best thing about the Kitchenaid, though, is the zillions of attachments you can get for it.
Kitchenaid Attachments Cost: ($40-$150)
Although it made sense at the time, to get a Kitchenaid, I don't know that I would buy one right now if all I used it for was baking. Yes, it makes it easier, but tight budgets and paying for convenience don't work well together. With the added benefit of the attachments, though, its well worth saving up and investing in one. Even if that does mean you'll always have “just one more” attachment you want to buy.
We use the meat grinder attachment most frequently; for some reason, ground beef is often more expensive than other cuts of beef. We go to WinCo (in my opinion, the best grocery store for those on a budget, hands-down) and get whatever meat is cheapest, and grind it up if a recipe calls for it. Some meats are ridiculously cheaper this way - ground turkey can run $4/lb, but a whole turkey is rarely more than $1/lb - and it lets us have a bit more freedom in our recipe choices; if you buy ground meat, you can't turn it into a roast, but it works well the other way around! The sausage stuffer is also getting good use – sausage casings are cheap, and it's easy to turn a big chunk-o-pork or a turkey into bratwursts. This summer, we plan on branching out to more complicated sausages (salami, kielbasa) and filling our freezer! If I didn't have a Kitchenaid, I would get a meat grinder/sausage stuffer independently.
We also have the pasta roller, which is handy, although we only use it intermittently; fresh pasta is good, but it's also really cheap to buy in bulk. I usually use it if I want to make ravioli or experiment with a new type of pasta.
The slicer/shredder is basically a salad shooter on overdrive. I mainly use it to make hash browns on the weekend. They come out much better when I use the shredder as opposed to the hand grater. We don't make salads often enough to utilize it as much as it could be. However, since I'm married to a hash brown junkie, it's worth it.
There are tons more attachments available that I don't have but lust after: grain mill, pasta extruder (to make macaroni and other tube-y pastas), ice cream maker and more. Some would make sense on a cost-saving measure, but mostly, they're fun kitchen gadgets. Please feel free to give me any of them!
Meat slicer (Cost: Getting married)
This was a wedding present from my sister and brother-in-law and it makes me wish Randy and I had gotten married years ago. We use it constantly – sometimes for meat, yes, but mostly for cheese and bread. I can slice bread as well as any four-year-old, but it is nice to have regular, even slices. Slicing cheese to deli-thin makes it last longer (my cheese-slicing skills are on par with my bread-slicing skills), and we can make lunch meat for less than half the cost of buying it at the deli.
Barbecue with smoke box attachment (Cost: $100)
This was quite a bit cheaper and harder to find than I anticipated; it seems that most people prefer gas grills (or at least that's what the stores think, because good luck finding a regular charcoal grill). We found it shoved on a shelf in a back corner of Lowe's a few years ago. We haven't used it as much as it deserves, because at our old place, it required schlepping everything downstairs (and back up afterward); here, we have no stairs and it's already getting more use. Randy even snow-b-qued this year (check one thing off his New Year's list!) It's good for making ribs, and the smoke box (which was $30 or so of the total cost) makes it easy to replenish the coals without losing the heat. I'm still working on regulating the temperature for low-n-slow cooking.
Espresso Machine (Cost: $60)
I love, love, love mochas. I hate, hate, hate that they cost $4 or more. As with most things, it's much cheaper to make your own. It doesn't take long for this to pay for itself, since a can of espresso is only $7 and makes dozens of drinks. Costco helps out with the mega-sized Hershey syrup/pump combo, and you're in business. I like the ability to make my drink the exact way I like it, too...way overly caffeinated! The only downside is that it only makes one at a time and it takes a little bit of time. If other people are over, it can become a chore to make everyone a drink.
Dehydrator (Cost: $40-$100)
I'm a bit of a texture wuss, so I hate the cheap-o red delicious apples. I love dried fruit, however, and it's a lot cheaper to buy red delicious apples and dehydrate them than it is to buy dried apples. The dehydrator also comes in handy because we only go grocery shopping once a month, and we tend to load up on fruit. When the fruit starts getting past the stage where we want to eat it, we slice it up and throw it on the dehydrator.
Little Chief Smoker (Cost: Awesome parents!)
This doesn't really count as an investment on our part, because Randy's parents bought it for him for his birthday this year. However, given the amount of use we plan on getting out of it, I'm going to count it. Look for lots of posts on jerkies, smoked fish, and smoked sausages. Yum!