Updated on 03.07.13

The War on Unitaskers

Trent Hamm

One of my favorite television series is Good Eats, a food science program hosted by Alton Brown that still sometimes runs on repeats on Food Network and Cooking Channel. The series could probably best be described as being like Mr. Wizard, except with an adult target audience and with a focus on the exploration of food science.

Anyway, I mention Good Eats here because it introduced me to the idea of “unitaskers.” A “unitasker” is something you own that does only one specific thing. It might do that one specific thing very, very well, but it is incredibly difficult to find other tasks for that device. This is particularly true if there are other items that could already handle the task being described here.

My favorite example of this is a device a friend showed me once – a corn kernel remover. It’s a device that makes it easy to remove corn kernels from an ear of corn. This is a task that 99% of the world executes with ease by using an ordinary kitchen knife, one that can also be used for dozens of other tasks.

For more examples, take these highly specific kitchen gadgets, each of which are definitely unitaskers (and, yes, the infamous corn kernel remover is on this list). A corn dog maker? A banana slicer? A cake pop maker? A hot dog toaster? Seriously?

Unitaskers are a waste of money. There are extremely few of them that do a task that can’t be easily executed by another item, an item that can actually accomplish multiple things.

Instead, I try very hard to seek out devices I consider to be the “opposite” of unitaskers. Multitasking items are ones that you can pull out to take on many, many different tasks. For me, I find myself using some of my key multitaskers so often that I become really skilled at using them, meaning I can often finish a task far faster with a multitasker than with a unitasker designed for that task.

The best part? A good, sturdy, reliable multitasker costs far, far less than several one-task items, and it takes up far less space, too.

Here are some examples I swear by.

A well-made chef’s knife handles 90% of our kitchen cutting. I don’t think we’ve used anything for cutting other than a paring knife, a bread knife, a disc slicer, and this chef’s knife ever in our kitchen. Why have a big knife block?

A medium-sized enameled cast iron pot cooks almost everything. We use ours daily (or close to it). We scramble eggs, cook soups and stews, boil pasta, let bread dough rise… all of these things work perfectly in an enameled cast iron pot.

A coffee bean grinder grinds coffee beans, of course, but it also grinds nuts and dried herbs incredibly well. We also use ours to turn stale bread into bread crumbs, small amounts of whole grains into flour, and granular sugar into powdered sugar.

You can easily go outside of the kitchen, too.

A spray bottle with vinegar works as a cleaner for almost everything. It can help you wipe down the table, clear out drains, clean off computer keyboards and mice, wash windows, and on and on and on. There’s no need for most of the specialized cleaners people buy.

Clothespins keep clothes on the laundry line, but they also hold tablecloths in place, hold nails in place while hammering them (so you don’t hammer your fingers), hold bread bags and other such bags closed, and they even function to help keep documents together in my office. You don’t need specialized pins for these things when you have a bag of clothespins around.

A baster helps during turkey season, but you can also use it to water plants, dispense an appropriate amount of oil in dishes, and even use the bulb to remove egg yolks when you just need the whites (if you’re un-adept at keeping the yolks in the shell when cracking them, like I am). You don’t need specialized items for any of these tasks.

Be very careful about spending your money on items that just do one thing. You’ll often find that you don’t do that one thing as often as you think. Instead, look for tools that solve that single problem, but also address other needs you have around the house. You’ll buy fewer things, have less clutter, and spend less money.

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