In the quest for a home-cooked meal, people experiment with new recipes, kitchen chemistry, and advanced devices. Well, sometimes those devices are high-tech…and sometimes they’re just non-cooking appliances that clever humans have put to new uses. Here are a few surprising gadgets that, in a pinch, can cook real meals.
Coffee plays a key role in our breakfast routines. But the machine we use to brew it—specifically, a traditional coffee maker, not a French press or pour-over apparatus—can cook a lot more than caffeine.
How it works: To extract elixir from beans, a coffee maker heats water and runs it through grounds and into the pot. In the process, this device fills the basket at the top with steam, shoots boiling liquid into the carafe below, and heats the burner at the bottom. Each of these parts can cook food in different ways.
What to cook: In the basket that normally holds coffee gounds, you can steam fast-cooking vegetables like broccoli. Within the carafe, the hot water can boil eggs, poach a protein like fish, or cook a starch like couscous. And if you have a miniature frying pan, you can fry eggs on the burner at the bottom. For more detailed cooking instructions, check out this recipe from NPR.
Why bother: This method comes in handy when you’re stuck with a tiny home or office kitchenette, or you’re living in a place like a dorm or a hotel, where the rules prevent you from keeping a microwave or hot plate in your room. Most living spaces, no matter how cramped or rule-bound, still manage to accommodate a coffee pot. That means it may be your only option for whipping up home-cooked meals. Of course, if you do opt for this appliance, you should clean it thoroughly afterward.
When I first heard of cooking in a dishwasher, I cringed, imagining the bacteria-sprayed dishes that would result from putting raw fish in the same apparatus as dirty plates. But advocates of this method generally warn their pupils to avoid cross contamination: They either put the food in an otherwise-empty washer, or seal it in a waterproof envelope like a sealed jar or a vacuum bag.
How it works: To clean your grubby utensils, a dishwater shoots them with warm, soapy water, between 120°F and 150°F. Then it rinses them with more hot H2O. If you remove detergent from the equation, you have a machine that bathes your food in a constant wash of warm water.
What to cook: If you search for dishwasher cooking, you’ll definitely find recipes for poached salmon. But your dish-cleaning machine can handle any food that requires a long cook time at a relatively low temperature. Think of recipes you’d like to cook with a sous vide, and then toss them in your dishwasher instead.
Why bother: Devotees of this cooking style claim that a long poaching in a low-temperature dishwasher produces delicious results, such as perfectly creamy salmon. More skeptical critics agree that this method works for some things…but you should definitely experiment with various foods before tossing the contents of your next dinner party in the dishwasher. Whatever the meal tastes like, it has another advantage: If you’ve sealed your meal properly, you can run it through the washer with that load of dishes you had to clean anyway, saving energy and time.
The iron you’re supposed to be using to smooth out wrinkles can also toast bread and transform cold dairy into gooey cheese heaven. Just make sure to wrap your ingredients in aluminum foil before you toss them on the ironing board.
How it works: Most heat sources can cook food, and an iron is no exception. It warms up a smooth surface, much like a griddle, but because it’s handheld, it can also press the meal in question. This makes it ideal for improvised paninis.
What to cook: Although you can find iron-based recipes for all kinds of meals online, many of them either do not work or result in aluminum foil coated with congealed ingredients. Instead, stick to the classic iron-cooking option: grilled cheese and other toasted sandwiches, as well as sandwich-adjacent meals like quesadillas.
Why bother: This is one for the college dorm dwellers and amateur motel chefs. Anyone else should just heat their sandwiches with a toaster oven, stovetop, or panini press.
Carefully seal an uncooked meal in aluminum foil, making sure no liquids can leak out or contaminants can leak in. Then place it carefully under your car’s hood, make sure it’s secure and won’t start moving around, and go driving until your food is ready to eat.
How it works: As mentioned previously, you can cook food with any heat source. When you’re driving your car, its engine gets more than hot enough to cook a meal, especially if you place the food in a particularly warm area under the hood.
What to cook: Anything that can cook in a packet of aluminum foil should work. In general, cook times depend on mileage. Rather than stopping every few minutes to check the temperature, look up your foods online to get a ballpark cooking estimate. For example, according to this guide, “Assuming you’re driving 65 mph, chicken breasts should be ready after 60 miles. Sliced potatoes should be done after 55 miles (88.5 kilometers). And, if you just have a short trip ahead of you, shrimp will be ready to eat after 30 miles (48 kilometers) of driving.”
Why bother: When you’re on the road, you don’t exactly bring an oven with you. This method works if you want to cook a meal as you drive. However, it can also go wrong. If you don’t seal up your food properly, or the packet works its way loose and starts tumbling around, you could ruin your meal and damage your vehicle in one trip. To avoid those risks as much as possible, follow these guidelines and heed the safety precautions.