Back in the early '60s when Julia Child et al told an eager new world about French cooking, one of the more shocking pieces of advice passed along to incipient chefs was the following, in French of course: "il faut mettre la main a la pa te." Which means that if you want good pastry you need to get your hands into the dough.
For post-industrial revolution Americans, the idea of getting your hands into anything you're going to eat later is heretical. The mess! The germs! And if you use your mains to knead the pa te', what are you going to do with all that machinery?
In fact, hands are a cook's best friends. No machinery is as sensitive or as efficient.
Professional chefs use their hands for a few things that wimpy home cooks would never consider, usually because some old and mean but also legendary teacher told them they had to. For instance, pastry chefs often test boiling sugar solutions by sticking their hands in ice water, then into the boiling sugar (yes, it's true) to grab a bit between the fingers, then quickly back into the ice water. The fingers can then tell instantly to what stage the sugar has been cooked.
Then there was the extraordinary exhibition of bravado at the hands -- literally -- of chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who during one cooking demonstration pulled the charring sweet potato gratin out of the oven with his bare hands rather than rummage around the kitchen for the pot holders.
While these are two examples of unreconstructed macho not necessarily applicable to home cooking, there are some other professional techniques that are applicable. If you have a lot of eggs to separate, for instance, try pouring the whole egg into one hand, then passing the yolk gently from hand to hand and letting the white drop between the fingers into the waiting bowl. It's much faster than using the broken egg shell and safer too, since your hands are much less likely to break the yolk. Professionals also prefer to salt by hand instead of with a salt shaker. Feeling the salt between the fingers gives a much more accurate idea of amounts than trying to guess how much is falling from the shaker.
For measuring specific amounts of dry ingredients, the hands are again preferable for certain things. Anybody who has been cooking for a while knows by instinct how much a tablespoon is. If you doubt this, pour what you think is a tablespoon of salt into one palm, then measure the same salt in a measuring spoon. Unless you are interested in measuring to the last grain, which is difficult even with a measuring spoon, the palm is much faster and just as accurate.
Various parts of the hand also make the best thermometer. The classic way of determining if a cre me anglaise is just under the boiling point and therefore sufficiently cooked is to stick a finger into it. If it feels just too hot to be comfortable, the custard is finished. Liquids to be mixed with yeast usually need to be about 105 degrees, which, since body temperature is 98.6 degrees, will feel just warm to the top of the hand. Even the instant-read thermometers are slower to register than the hand.
The fingers make a good meat thermometer, too. While they don't actually test temperature, they can gauge doneness very accurately. A well-done roast feels exactly like the pad of flesh between your thumb and forefinger when your hand is in a tight fist. A very rare roast feels like the same area of the hand when the muscles are completely loose. Medium feels like that area when the hand is in a fist but not tightened. A meat thermometer also measures differently if it happens to be resting against bone or tough gristle, which will render its reading meaningless. This can't happen with the hand test.
Even if you choose to forego the pleasure of discharging random anxieties by beating up on bread or pasta dough and instead do the job with a machine, only your hands are capable of telling you when the machine has kneaded the dough enough. For that reason most cooks give their doughs a final minute or two of hand kneading. And some cooks -- of a more classical bent -- insist on doing everything by hand. The classical way of mixing bread, pastry or pasta dough is by hand. The flour is spread in a ring on the counter, the liquid ingredients poured into the middle. The liquid ingredients are mixed and flour is gradually drawn into the center where it mixes with the liquid. Although this is tedious, if you, like most people, have left yourself 30 seconds to do what requires 10 minutes, there is no better way to learn how doughs behave.
The French admonition to "mettre la main a la pa te" often refers to pa te brise'e, a fine pie crust dough. After the butter has been mixed with the dry ingredients, a final spreading and flattening of the dough is done with the heel of the hand, to make sure the butter is evenly distributed.
Some professionals use their hands to fold genoise or other cake batters, too. For genoise, which usually requires the addition of melted butter at the end, there is no better instrument than the hand for lifting melted butter from the bottom of the bowl and making sure it gets folded into the batter. The technique is identical to that used with a rubber spatula, only your hand is the spatula.
Tossing salads is also best done without extra instruments. There is no set of salad spoons extant that can toss a salad as thoroughly or as gently as the hands. No spoon can tell when the last bit of roquefort is off the bottom of the bowl or the last sliver of scallion mixed in. Some uninhibited cooks toss pasta with their hands, too.
"I take the pasta bowl to a part of the kitchen where no one can see me," says one expert cook, "and I mix away."
Implying, of course, that the best part of using your hands as kitchen equipment is that it's fun.