Kitchen Basics: Tools of the Trade

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I get this question quite often: "What tools should I have in my kitchen?" The short answer is how ever many you need. The longer answer gets more complicated...

There are many gimmicky items out there that target the Home Cook -- machines that chop garlic for you, food processor type thing that you throw in all your ingredients for guacamole and with a couple of button pushes gives you guacamole, deep fryer boxes you plug into the wall. The list is endless. And frankly intimidating and confusing to the Home Cook. The truth is you don't need any of that bullshit, but rather should spend your time and money in honing in your skills in the kitchen. Much like school, you can't pay to have someone else do you work for you, or study for the test for you; you're gonna have to buckle down, figure it out, and in other words, do it yourself.

That said, you still need a few basic tools to help you along on your cooking journey. After about 10 years of cooking now (omg!) I've figured out what works and what doesn't, what you should invest your $300 in and what you shouldn't, and what's best to avoid all together. There are tools out there like the food processor that will do a number of tasks for you, so invest in a good one rather than four or five shittier items that won't do the job half as good as the processor. Similarly, a good quality sharp chef's knife will peel, chop, mince, spread, and otherwise perform any function in your kitchen. You're better off learning to use it properly rather than investing in 3 items that claim to cut up your garlic. For example, you can invest in an item that chops your garlic for you. Great. But what if you need it minced? That machine can't mince it for you -- it can only chop it -- so you have to invest in a mincer. Ok, but what if the recipe calls for the garlic to be smashed? Now your fucked. The chef's knife can perform all of those functions including turning that clove of garlic into a paste right on your cutting board. See what I mean about investing in high quality, multi-tasking tools? Forget the stupid gimmicky shit.

Here's a list I've compiled for some basic kitchen tools. Of course, this is not applicable to every single person in the world. If you do pasta on a regular basis for example, perhaps a classic hand-cranked pasta maker would be on your list. If you do a lot of Asian cuisine, a wok would be. So this list is for basic continental American cuisine. Use it and add to it to suite your cooking style.

1.  A Basic Set of Knives

[top: Santoku chef's knife; second: pairing knife; third: serrated tomato/cheese knife; bottom: boning knife]

By far, the most important tool in the the kitchen is a set of basic, quality-produced knives. Mine are Wusthof, one of the premier makers, but it doesn't have to be. You can have Henckle, or even market-purchased generic brands. What's important here is to make sure they are sharp, so invest in a knife sharper and get to know your local professional sharpener. He will save your life.

In terms of knives, in my opinion you need the following for basic functions:
  • Chef's Knife or Santoku
  • Pairing Knife
  • Serrated Knife
  • Boning Knife
The Chef's Knife or its Asian counterpart, the Santoku, will be your go-to, all-purpose knife. This knife will do 90% of your cooking and prep work. So you want it comfortable in your grip, appropriate to your size, and trusty. Since I'm a little smaller on the stature side, I prefer using a Santoku knife -- the grip is smaller for my smaller hands, it's light, and the blade is a little shorter. I also love a longer classic chef's knife, but honestly I personally use the Santoku every day. The Hubsters who's considerably larger than me prefers the chef's knife. The Chef/Santoku knives can come in different styles and finishes, so go to your local kitchen supply store like Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table and ask to hold and use each one. Pick the one that feels best for you, the one that "feels right" in your hand. You want it really comfortable. If you find you're struggling to use it, it's too big for you or too heavy. You want the knife to feel like an extension of your hand.

The pairing knife is used for smaller details and cutting up fruit. It's what you'll use to peel fruit by hand with a knife (or just use a vegetable peeler), what you'll use to cut fine thin strips of something, or segment an orange. The pairing knife will basically look like a mini-version of the chef or Santoku knife.

A serrated knife is a knife with ridges on the blade. It's invaluable in cutting bread. You can have a large bread slicing knife (which I also have but not pictured above) which is perfect for cutting bread loaves into even slices if that's your thing, or smaller ones as pictured above which are perfect for tomatoes! Tomatoes are characteristically a pain in the ass to cut, because they are often sold at the markets with an annoying waxing covering to help them stay preserved on the shelves. You'll find a straight bladed knife like a pairing or chef's knife will slide off of the tomato, unless super sharp. You can cut tomatoes quite easily using a serrated knife as shown above. Double duty for a smaller serrated knife is it can also cut cheeses extremely easily. In fact, the one pictured above is a combo cheese-tomato knife put out by Wustoff and is one of my most favorite knives ever. The serrated blade cuts through anything, and the tip can be used to pick up cheese slices and wedges.

Finally, a Home Cook should really invest in a good boning knife. Boning knives look similar to a chef's knife, but are thinner and longer in the blade -- about 1/3 of the width of a chef's knife blade actually -- and are designed to fit in crevices and slide around cartilage and bones easily. They are essential for cleaning up raw meats, like chicken breasts or pork tenderloins or even beef  to remove cartilage or unwanted fat. The knife is thin and pierced at the tip to really be able to give you the ability to work different angles. They are great for fish filleting as well.

Here's a tutorial from Chef Jean Pierre that explains perfectly why these knives are important:

2. Measuring Cups and Spoons
Now that you have something to cut your food with, the next most important thing is having something to measure the food with. You must invest in a good set of measuring cups and spoons. This is right behind having a good set of knives in your kitchen. You want your measuring cups to come in 1- 1/2 - 1/3 - 1/4 measurements, and your spoons to include 1 Tbsp - 1 tsp - 1/2 tsp - 1/4 tsp. They are often sold in sets. I know many of us grew up with our parents using the glass Pyrex measuring cup to measuring things out, even flour and other try ingredients. Those are "ok" but tricky -- to properly measure with those cups, you need to fill them and then move yourself down to their level to see if you've got it right. When you're looking down from above them, your view point will be off and it might look like you have less in there than you really do; when you look from a down-to-up perspective it will look like more. So you'll really need to be right at eye-level to use those correctly.

This is too much effort. So use the damn measuring cups that you can just throw into a vat of flour, level off with your finger or knife, and dump right into your recipe.

 3. Whisks
[left: standard whisk perfect for making omelets; middle: stirring whisk for cake batters; right: small whisk perfect for making vinaigrettes]

Another hugely important tool in the kitchen is a good whisk. In fact, I'd venture to say you need a couple of different sizes and capabilities. The whisk will enable you to add air to your dish, so when preparing say an omelet, the fluffiness is going to come from the air your pushing into the beaten egg mixture. The whisk acts like 4-5 forks working together at the same time. If you'll notice the way it's designed, you have these wire loops all interchanging with each other. This enables the wires to not only pick up the batter, but to hold it in the air so the batter can catch air when you bring it down.

The whisk is also great for stirring, which is invaluable when you have a batter that needs to be well mixed but not overworked, like cake or pancake batter. The second whisk pictured in the middle above is an example of this. Notice how it has considerably less wires than the ones flanking it -- this whisk is perfect for mixing a batter quickly and efficiently without over-mixing it. I can literally mix a pancake batter in 3 turns with this tool, which yield fluffy and tender pancakes, not hockey pucks.

I like have my two sizes for the regular or standard whisk -- the larger one for when I'm working with large batters like pumpkin pie or a big bowl of beaten eggs for frittata; and the smaller one for smaller incorporation like making vinaigrettes. The little one is an exact copy of the larger one, only smaller to work out smaller bowls. The whisk should match the size of the bowl you're working with for optimum success.

4. The Wooden Spoon (enchanted if you wish!)

Another equally important tool in the kitchen is a spoon. You need something sturdy and reliable to stir sauces, stews, soups, sauteing vegetables, and various other food preparations. I like using wooden spoons. Some people out there would have you use plastic ones because wood can retain some bacteria -- this is bullshit. If you properly clean your spoons with soap and water then you're fine. I find they are much more reliable than plastic, don't melt if left on the side of the pot (plastic will melt and you'll be left with a fabulous indentation on your handle!), and it gives you the sturdiness you'll need to scrape up bottoms of pans for those brown bits. You can use any size you like, but I like this standard 3 inch head spoon with a medium-long handle for most of my cooking. You'd want to have some spoons with longer handles though as well to work with those larger and deeper pots; the smaller handles will disappear into the liquids!

5. Spatulas!

Now that we've covered the essentials for the kitchen, we can get to the Stuff You Should Have but don't necessarily need. Spatulas are one of those things. They're great if you work with lots of batters, so if you're into baking you should probably invest in a couple. Their grip is amazing -- the rubber flat head grips on one side to the batter and on the other side to the bowl and creates a total separation. In short, they're really great to get out every last inch of batter from a bowl and into another container. They work best with liquids or wet things, but can also be used to mix salads or fold in other ingredients. They are a key if you work with cream a lot and like to make your own whipping cream.

They come in a variety of sizes as you can see above. The size is mostly for how much volume you're working with, so say a batch of big brownie batter would work best with the large spatula. They're fun to use to decorate your kitchen as well, as they come in a range of colors and sometimes even themed. I recommend having a medium-sized one and smaller one in your kitchen arsenal at least.

6. Frosting Spatula

This is a frosting spatula. The curved handle and flat head makes for easy and even frosting, so if you like to bake cakes, cupcakes, make pies, or other baking then this might be a tool you'd want to invest in. The shape makes for an easy grip and maximum control to even out a larger section of frosting at one time. They come from large (best for cakes) to small (best for cupcakes), so depending on your frequency of baking I'd say get the small one and/or both. 

7. Fish Spatula 

While we're on the topic of spatulas, I thought I'd mention this fish spatula. If you cook a lot of fish, then this is a great tool to have especially if you're a fan of pan-frying the fish. The blade is very thin and pliable, so it gives a lot when you apply pressure. This helps you not break your fish when you lift it or turn it. When you use a stiffer spatula then you run the risk of forcing the fish onto the spatula; here the fish spatula is lighter and gives more so it works around the fish instead of making the fish work around the spatula.

If you're a fan of blackened salmon or catfish, like to pan-fry fish like salmon, halibut, roughly, catfish, or cod then this is the tool for you. You'll be able to preserve that whole fillet without having it flake off on you. Especially good on the grill when working with very delicate white fish like halibut or sea bass that come apart easily.

8. Wire Basket aka "Spider"

If you fry this is a must have. The wire basket at the head is intertwined with a pattern much like a spider's web, hence its nickname, "The Spider." The wooden handle is also key as it won't react with oil while deep-frying as much as metal (and can't use plastic ever! it will melt!), and won't heat up on you while cooking either like a metal handle would. If you fry a lot and make things like fried shrimp, doughnuts, fried eggs, or anything that would call to be deep fried, then you need this tool.

Some people will invest in a portable plug-in deep fryer that's temperature controlled and you can set the oil to stay at a certain temp. They're great, I hope to invest in one eventually, but they do take up space and can get expensive. If you don't fry that often but would like to make the occasional coconut shrimp or homemade doughnut, then all you need is a good steel pot, peanut oil, and this spider to perfectly fry foods.

Spiders also work well when steaming vegetables as they can grab about 3 cups full of veggies with one scoop. They're not expensive so I'd invest in one to have around.

9. Zesters v Graters
[left: grater by Microplane; right: zester by Microplane]

The box grater is great, especially for grating carrots or cheese blocks. But now that most cheeses are pre-shredded or grated anyway, and you can buy veggies the same, and if not your food processor can do it in literally 10 seconds, the box grater has become a little archaic. More important than the grater, however, is the zester! 

A hand-held zester is a fantastic tool to have in your kitchen. It's super sharp but a hell of a lot safer than that silly box grater. It can zest any citrus fruit for you for baking and vinaigrette, and even finey grate cheese for you. And a handheld grater like shown above can get you perfectly grated Parmesan cheese from that imported wedge you bought a few days ago. Throw away that canister of processed "parmesan cheese" found in the spaghetti aisle and go the route of the grater! 

10.  Thermometers
[left: candy/deep fry thermometer; right: oven-proof meat thermometer]
I think everyone should have thermometers in their kitchen. Pictured above are two kinds for two different functions. The one on the left that's longer is called a candy thermometer. This one is digital and you can set your desired temperature so it beeps when the stuff you're cooking reaches that temperature. Or, you can just read it outright. This one also can be used for deep frying as well, and I like it because it can easily clip to the side of your pot when cooking and just stay there. It's not dishwasher safe, but the entire thing wipes off very easily with sop and water. If you like making marshmallows, pralines, caramel, candies, sugars, or other confections, then this is a good thing to have. Same thing if you like to deep fry. I personally have learned to gage by eye when the oil is right for frying, but some recipes are adamant about a specific temperature so it's good to have.

The other thermometer is a meat thermometer and invaluable if you like to make roasts. The one I have is oven-proof so I can stick it into the thing I'm roasting before it goes into the oven, and then just read it while it's cooking instead of piercing it constantly. It's great to have for roasted chicken, turkey, beef, prime rib, and pork if you like those items. It will guarantee you will get the perfectly cooked meat, never underdone or overdone.

11. Strainers aka "Wire Baskets" 
[top: large wire-mesh strainer; bottom: fine strainer]
A few different-sized strainers are also great to have in the kitchen. I keep a larger one (top) for things like straining boiled vegetables and for baking. Often cake recipes will ask you to put dry ingredients through a strainer to remove balls for fluffier cakes and any rocks (yes, sometimes they have rocks) so this is what I'll use. It's also great to use when straining homemade broths to remove any bigger pieces. The smaller one is great for dusting so like if a recipe calls for a dusting of powdered sugar, I'll use the little one. Or, if a recipe calls for a fine strain I'll run it through this second smaller one. There are a few on the market but I like a larger strainer and a finer one as pictured above -- they will both get you through all your cooking needs.

12.  Lobster Crackers

If you eat a lot of shellfish then this is a great tool to have. The lobster crackers can crack lobster and crab quite easily. Some people won't prepare those shellfish at home because they are afraid of how to eat them; using these makes cracking crab or lobster super easy.

13. Citrus Squeezer 

One of my favorite tools in the kitchen is this citrus squeezer. This one is set for lemons and limes (yellow for lemon, green for limes) and you simply cut the lemon or lime in half, place it inside the holder, and push the level down and it will juice it for you and catch all the seeds. Pop the juiced lemon out, replace with another, and repeat! Some daunting dishes like key lime pie that require the juicing of those tiny limes can be tedious if using the old fashioned hand one where you press down with your palm and turn the lemon or lime around on the ribbed dome. This is much faster. I clocked once that I juiced 10 lemons for lemonade in 10 seconds!

14. Cocktail Time! The Zester and Melon-Baller
If you like making cocktails especially fruit martinis, then you need these two tools. The one on the left is called a zester. It can actually zest two ways for you: the middle hook will give you a nice, thick zest which is perfect to achieve that lemon or lime "twist," and the top holes will give you super thin strips that are nice to garnish dishes with.

The melon-baller is so named because you can scoop out balls out of melon. So watermelon, cantaloupe, Israeli melon, etc. for a fun-shaped salad. But the tool is quite versatile and I find myself using it very often. First, it's a super easy apple-corer. Cut your apple in half straight down the middle, remove the stem and bottom sprouts, then take out all the seeds in one clean swoop with a quick twist of the wrist using this melon baller! Making apple martinis? Scoop out a ball of apple instead of the predictable thin slice. Serving cranberry sauce for dinner from the can? Scoop it out using the baller instead for little balls of jelly goodness. You can even use it as a mini-ice cream scooper for sorbets and ice creams. I highly recommend investing in one and playing around with the possibilities!

15. The Food Processor

And then the heavens parted and God said: "let them have a food processor!"

I love my food processor. It's one of those truly must-have tools in the kitchen. They are expensive but worth the investment. You can chop and shred things in large amounts in literally 3 seconds. If you like making cole slaw from scratch, this is your machine -- shred those carrots, cabbage, onions, and even broccoli in seconds. You can emulsify large quantities of dressing -- pour all your ingredients in the bowl, mix to combine, then drizzle in your olive oil from the feeder tube. If you like making pureed dips like smoked salmon spread, hummus, babaganouj, eggplant caponata, cheese dip, etc. -- this will do it all for you in one bowl, in seconds.

And you can even make pastry dough in here! Oh yes, I said it. Place your flour, butter, salt, etc. in, pulse, then add the ice water through the feeder and you've got a ball of dough with all the hard work done for you.

I'm not one for gimicky shit but this is a wonderful tool that truly can do so many things for you. They are expensive, so I'd advise to save and splurge. It will last you for years and years if cleaned and maintained properly. Choose a size that's big enough for the kind of things you make. I like making pastry dough and gougeres in mine, and sometimes even puree soup in it so I have the super large one myself. 

And last, but certainly not least....
16.  The Standing Mixer

"Aaaaaahhhh, ah ah ah aaaaaaahhhhhh....." 

By far, the best kitchen machine ever invented. This guy makes it all for you. If you bake or make bread,  you need one. Period. End of discussion. I make my cakes, cupcakes, crumbles, scones, breads, etc. in this thing and it's always perfect. I even make my marshmallows in it. And frosting for cakes. And even flavored whipped creams. They are expensive -- usually running around $300 -- but extremely useful in the kitchen and for life. And they me in lots of cool colors now too! And even clear glass bowls! I'm eyeing one of those now... (hint, hint to The Hubsters)

Well, those are my basic tools in my kitchen. There are plenty more and other cool tools to use that I'll blog in the future, but if you asked which ones to register for on your registry, I'd say the ones above to get you nice and prepared for basic cooking and baking.


Christa Jeanne said...

Thank you for writing this, Mish!!! I've seen my stepmom's spider and wondered what it did for years, silly as that might sound. My knives are in dreadful shape, so I appreciate the great info. Well done!

And yes, I can't imagine how I ever lived without my food processor!!! Best money I've spent in a while. My standing mixer was inherited from my stepmom's mom - it's probably as old as I am but does a great job!

Anonymous said...

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