I hereby cast my vote for the single greatest new simple kitchen tool to be introduced, for use in the home kitchen, in the last quarter century. My vote goes to the Microplane grater/zester/shredder, which is actually more like a family of tools – anyone who is familiar with a Microplane will know how much better these devices do their job than the myriad of other kitchen tools used previously. Simply stated, a Microplane is a simplistic but amazingly effective tool for a multitude of kitchen jobs – but the story behind how it managed to get there is filled with unlikely twists and turns.
Perhaps you already know of the Microplane – maybe even have one, or several – but I’ll bet you don’t know how this tool came into being, or why it is so much better at what it does than are those old fashioned graters, zesters, and shredders we all used to use? I also bet you might guess that I’m going to tell you – and lots more in fact, even how it got that strange name, Microplane.
In 1985, Richard Grace, was just a guy with a degree in Industrial Engineering whose company, Grace Manufacturing, was making contract parts for the printer industry – the process required using ferric chloride to etch metal bands, which just incidentally created razor sharp edges in the etched parts. As the technology of the printer industry moved forward, the need for the etched metal bands slipped into obsolescence, and Grace was left rethinking what he could use the equipment in his factory for. It didn’t take long before he had it – the etching process would create holes in the metal with razor sharp edges, perfect for the job of quickly removing surface wood, just as a metal plane or rasp would, only better! Almost overnight, Richard Grace had found a new product niche in the wood-working shop, and his Microplane began selling like hotcakes.
The wood-working tools Grace was creating fit roughly into the family of ‘surform’ (surface forming) tools – and the first time Grace recalls hearing how some cooks were using the Microplane in the kitchen, he remembers thinking it was similar to those cooks who used butane torches on creme brulee – he thought of the Microplane in the kitchen as rather silly, and it quickly passed from his mind. But with time, more and more professional chefs were talking up their own use of the Microplane, and Grace was literally forced to begin thinking of developing the tool specifically for the kitchen.
First, it would need a handle -the woodworking Microplane was intended to be mounted on a hacksaw frame- and all kinds of new shapes would be necessary to meet the special needs of the kitchen. It didn’t take long for the popularity of the kitchen Microplane to explode, and Richard Grace was left among the most shocked witnesses. Today, his factory employs more than 300 -of course in Mexico- and the potential uses of the tool continue to emerge – there even is a new line of Microplanes for use in general medicine and the hospital operating room, as well as in foot care to remove dry and calloused skin – the potential uses seem endless.
Most interesting to me is the fact that Microplanes have never been, in all their popularity, an expensive kitchen tool. I think part of that fact may be that the original woodworking Microplane was itself an inexpensive tool – and if those developed for the kitchen became significantly more expensive than those in the wood shop, it wouldn’t have taken long for cooks to simply trot over to Home Depot for their Microplanes – wrap a little masking tape around one end and, viola, you have a kitchen Microplane, with a completely new spare waiting under wraps, in case the old section wears out.
Which raises another question – how long will a Microplane last? My oldest Microplane has yet to give any indication that it is the least bit more worn out than the day I first used it. Now, this may be my imagination, or it actually could be that a Microplane is SO sharp when new that as it slowly dulls, we users hardly notice any change, since it continues to do a superb job – especially compared to the way our old graters used to quickly dull.
Yes folks – You know me as a cynic and a critic, whose first impulse is to look hard and long for all that may be wrong with something new. This is an attitude well chiseled into my psyche by years and years of absolute crap heaped upon us by all the world’s developing countries – and all the while, our own leaders of industry have cheerfully led the dismantling of our own domestic industrial complex, all in the interest of ‘low price’ and the necessary erosion of quality. And then one buys their first Microplane.
OK, so it’s made in Mexico! It’s still a high quality piece of work. Can you argue with that? And yes, it’s made in Mexico. For god’s sake, these days that’s practically the U.S. And I believe that when we financially support the wages of a worker in Mexico, we support the U.S. as well. (I am one who also believes that the so called ‘border dispute’ will only end when the U.S./Mexican border functions in similar fashion to the U.S./Canadian border!)
Politics aside, my point is that given the quality of the tool, a Microplane is an extremely cost-effective kitchen device – whatever task you put it to, the Microplane will do it better than whatever tool you used previously. The small holed one will lay out a broken ribbon of thin hard grated cheese with 5 times the surface exposed than an ordinary grater – thus, increased flavor as well. OTOH, the large holed Microplane will handle soft cheeses as nothing previously was able. And if it’s a lemon that needs zesting, a small holed Microplane lightly pulled over the surface of the fruit, magically removes only the oil rich yellow, without even a hint of white pith, an evil that has plagued kitcheneers forever. Have you got a hunk of pink Himalayan salt? Use your Microplane on it. And finally, the smallest of the kitchen Microplanes is absolutely perfect for grating a fresh nutmeg to a fine dust – right down to nothing. I love it!
So, there it is – if I were the giver of awards for these kind of things, and who says I can’t be?, I’d reward Microplane with the award for the best new simple kitchen tool of the last quarter century. For the life of me, I can’t think of anything that could beat it! Can you?