With summer weddings and bridal showers upon us, there’s a familiar refrain in houseware departments: “What the heck is that?”


Here are 10 items that are nice to have and shouldn’t gather dust in your kitchen drawer.

What’s long, skinny and red all over? No, it’s not a bad joke from a bubble-gum wrapper. It’s a common description of a shrimp deveiner.

That’s just one of the many items that stump consumers when they look over racks and rows of kitchen gadgets in housewares and gourmet stores.

Specialty seafood gadgets that range in style from molded plastic to sleek metal often evoke scrunched-up noses or wide-eyed looks as shoppers try to discern their purpose, says Marty Halle, manager of a Williams-Sonoma store in Winter Park, Fla.

As spring and summer wedding planning gets under way, with gift registry and showers soon to follow, there’s a familiar refrain in the housewares department:

“What the heck is that?”

The number of kitchen gadgets sold each year is not a big slice of pie, but it’s a significant sliver. “Kitchen tools and accessories accounted for 8.9 percent of total U.S. retail housewares sales in 2004,” said Debbie Teschke, media-relations manager for the International Housewares Association. “Total housewares sales were $65.2 billion.”

At Williams-Sonoma and other specialty stores, such as Crate & Barrel, staff members coach couples who fill out registries to help them obtain items that suit their culinary lifestyles. But there are always those gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives who can tell a butter curler from a produce scraper at 50 paces. Both would be nice to have -if you only knew what they were.

Here are 10 items that should help you succeed in the kitchen:

1. Hand-held grater: Models range from short and squat to long and slender. Each can tackle everything from hard cheeses to the fine zest of citrus.

2. Balloon whisk: Looped wires form a three-dimensional teardrop that can whip volume into heavy cream, eggs and other liquids. Whisks are most often made of stainless-steel or tinned-steel, but soft, non-scratching silicone varieties are available. The latter have heavier loops so they don’t incorporate air into mixtures as easily as stainless-steel models.

3. Silicone pastry brush: If your basting brush leaves pesky bristles on barbecued chicken, you’ll love new wobbly silicone tools made by Le Creuset and others. Their flexible bristles are heat-resistant to 800 F, do not absorb odors or shed, are stain-resistant and are dishwasher-safe.

4. Jumbo high-heat spatulas: Don’t make melted spatula a secret ingredient. Cooking has gone high-style with bold colors that can take the heat – up to 800 F. Silicone also retains its shape and won’t scratch your cookware.

5. Offset spatula: The tool has a stiff metal blade that angles up where it meets the handle – hence the description “offset.” It is used to spread frosting on cakes and batter in jellyroll pans, and it wiggles under pancakes on crowded griddles. Its thin blade also slips easily under stubborn cookies and biscuits on baking sheets.

6. Asian wire skimmer: OK, at first glance this looks like something Uncle Albert hastily cobbled together in the garage, but it has beautiful form and function in the kitchen. It’s one part spatula and one part strainer – ideal for lifting and draining foods from hot oil, soup, stock and boiling water. Its long, natural-bamboo handle stays cool.

7. Produce scraper: From Chefmate, these tools come in sets of three shapes that can be used to scrape baked potatoes (for making twice-baked potatoes) and other fruits (especially kiwis) and vegetables. The gadgets are part of a growing category of tools that remove the flesh from mangoes and avocados as well.

8. Shrimp deveiner: Running the pointed end along the back of shrimp and pulling removes the black vein from raw shrimp. Other variations remove the shell as well.

9. Flat whisk: A flat whisk, sometimes referred to as a roux whisk, is a cousin of the balloon whisk and has the loops arranged in a flat successive pattern. It blends gravies and sauces cooked in shallow pans.

10. Corn tongs: Not just any tong will do when corn is being cooked. Kuhn Rikon has crafted a long-handled tool that lets cooks safely retrieve hot cobs from deep pots and wide grill grates. If you think this is too specialized, consider that these tongs can pick up almost anything: kebabs and hot dogs, too.

More great gizmos

Some kitchen tools and gizmos are more versatile than others. Here are a few that I find useful in the Orlando Sentinel test kitchen.

Coffee-bean grinders: OK, because electricity is involved, this is really on the edge of gadgetry. But it’s such a great tool. If you get two as wedding gifts, keep both. Whirl coffee beans to make your perfect brew in one, and designate the other for whole-seed spices. Whole seeds last longer than ground spices, and just a few pulses pulverize what you need for recipes. The grinder also works like a food processor when creating spice blends.

Spaghetti server: It looks like a strange claw, and that’s why it works so well. Sold in wood, nylon and stainless-steel models, this toothy server grabs at least a serving of pasta or noodles in one swoop. It also serves as a colander of sorts because the cooking liquid drains back into the pan. It’s great for serving slaws, too.

Slotted spatulas: Slotted spoons have been around for quite a while, but these high-heat tools (up to 800 F) drain and aerate as you gently stir or fold.

Container graters: Graters attached to containers not only keep the countertop neat, they measure while you work. Increments are noted along the side, so you can give your hands a rest once you’ve obtained what you’ll need.

Dough and batter scoops: They look like tiny ice-cream scoops, but they are actually made for stiff batters (biscuits) and doughs (cookies). As with ice-cream scoops, a thin blade pushes all the contents out when the handles are squeezed. Chilled, these tools can be used to make mini sorbet balls for great-looking desserts. The handles don’t give you enough flexibility for the tool to be a good melon-baller.