Tools of the trade
Blame an industry that bestows competence through consumption for the state of so many American kitchens — stuffed with superfluous accoutrements.
Eager participants, family and friends who know I love cooking try their mightiest to fill my cupboards and drawers with gadgets and vessels aimed at my favorite pastime. The recent move to a kitchen with less storage space required a look at what’s really necessary — and confirmed what I’ve suspected all along about cooking essentials.
My conclusions mostly align with the advice of culinary professionals I’ve consulted over the years. There’s always room, of course, for a cook’s pet tool or appliance. Streamlining one’s budget and time commitment to cooking, however, is borne out in these kitchen basics.
A good knife: I don’t know anyone who prepares fresh foods without an all-purpose knife for slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing — essentially carving out a dish from whole ingredients. My constant kitchen companion for the past seven years is an 8-inch Miyabi chef’s knife. I selected the Japanese-made, “santoku”-style blade at a cookware store for the way it felt in my hand. The brand, according to most experts, isn’t the most important feature of a knife. It should comfortably fit a cook’s grip, which is why purveyors of high-quality knives provide space for test-driving them. Locally, The Culinarium in Ashland and The Kitchen Company in Grants Pass can assist cutlery purchases.
I recently lavished some love on my knife with a date for sharpening at Medford’s Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market. Look for Paul Sarganis’ Valley Mobile Sharpening Service near the market’s information booth. To an 8-inch chef’s knife, add a serviceable serrated knife and a paring knife. Always handwash knives and don’t leave them soaking in a sink full of water.
Cutting board: A good knife needs a good cutting board. I like the newer composite boards, among which Epicurean is a popular brand. Made from wood fibers and phenolic resins, composite is incredibly durable, easier to clean than wood and doesn’t score as deeply, in my experience, as plastic.
Bamboo is another popular option, not least because it’s lightweight and resists microbial growth. Oiling keeps both bamboo and wood from drying out, worsened in a dishwasher. Most experts cite plastic cutting boards for prepping meat because they can be sanitized in a dishwasher. I prefer to scrub my composite and bamboo boards with kosher salt and a cut lemon, rinse in hot water, then spray them with bleach solution diluted to food-service standards for sanitizing.
Rimmed baking sheet: So-called “sheetpan suppers” have endeared these pans to a new audience of cooks in the past few years. Among the most affordable equipment in any kitchen, sheet pans can be used for just about anything that goes in an oven. Don’t waste money on air-insulated, nonstick pans. Just buy a few simple pans and keep one sacred to baking cookies while others can roast meat and vegetables on a single surface. I recently picked up a set of two Nordic Ware pans, made in the USA, for less than $15 at Costco.
Saucepan: There’s no denying that a saucepan is essential, whether you’re simmering a cream sauce or ramen noodles. And a set of good-quality stainless steel pans will last a cook’s lifetime. I’ve been using the same Tools of the Trade since I left home for college. If you pick only one, make it a 3-quart, which is the most versatile size.
Strainer: A saucepan stops short without one of these. Beyond draining pasta and rinsing lentils, I use mine to refine homemade stock, sauces and preserves. If you have room for just one, choose fine-mesh, stainless steel, which costs only about $10.
Skillet: A strong preference for cast iron pervaded my previous column. New cast iron, however, takes years to develop a seasoning that makes it nonstick. But estate sales, garage sales, flea markets and online retailers can be good sources of vintage cast iron still in its prime. If you’re the impatient type or have a glass-top range, choose a good-quality, 12-inch nonstick skillet and prolong its life by handwashing and using only silicone and wooden utensils on its surface.
Utensils: Speaking of utensils, I couldn’t function as a cook without my silicone spatulas and wooden spoons. One goes in the dishwasher; one doesn’t, but they occupy places of equal importance. For stirring items in cast-iron pans, I love tried-and-true wooden spoons. Inexpensive, they’ll last for years if handwashed and air-dried. For effortless handling and easy cleanup, I love silicone spatulas formed from one solid piece of material, rather than a silicone head on a wooden handle. A stirrer, scooper and scraper all in one, these spatulas will get into tight spaces that resist wooden spoons, as well as metal and plastic utensils.
Locking tongs: Another tool that goes from stove to serving dishes and back again, heavy-duty locking tongs are my go-to for transferring long pasta strands from boiling water into a skillet of sauce. They grasp slippery hunks of roasted and braised meats, pluck battered and fried foods from hot oil and flip seared steaks with a flick of the wrist. No matter how elegant a salad fork and spoon look on the table, tongs just do the job better. The locking ring makes them easy to store in a drawer or utensil jar.
Digital instant-read thermometer: Whether cooking in the oven, hot oil or on the grill, an instant-read thermometer safeguards your efforts — and your diners’ health. Just as measuring tools take the guesswork out of baking, a thermometer reassures the cook that chicken is done all the way through, and expensive steaks or chops won’t suffer from overcooking. There’s no excuse not to have one when a decent model costs $20 or less.
Measuring cups and spoons: For baking and more, these prove their worth, no matter the price tag, which isn’t much. Spend a bit more for stainless steel with measurements stamped into the material. Cheap plastic models will last a couple of years, but eventually the numbers rub off. And stainless steel is easier to clean and looks nicer longer. For liquid measurements, the standby Pyrex 1-cup glass model is the most user-friendly.
Mixing bowls: The most user-friendly mixing bowls, according to avid cooks, are metal. They’re lightweight and easier to handle than glass. Metal transfers heat quickly, so these work better atop boiling water for melting chocolate. They cool foods more quickly, too, when set over an ice-water bath. I have too many glass mixing bowls, which look nice as serving pieces. But I couldn’t part with the metal ones when I moved.
Whisk: A good one doesn’t just stir and mix. I use mine to cut butter into brown sugar and flour, instead of a pastry cutter, because it’s that robust. If you choose only one, make it beefy with a thick handle and tight wires.
Shears: Hefty shears can cut through chicken bones. No mere scissors, they’ll perform that function, too. But mine have a bottle opener embedded in the handles that I also use to unscrew the bolt on my pepper grinder. So buy shears manufactured for kitchens, not for craft tables.
Microplane: Spawned from woodcrafting, this tool has attained a cultish following in kitchens around the world. This glorified grater has almost made a classic citrus zester irrelevant when it also can reduce everything from fresh ginger and garlic to hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, into feather-fine shavings. Once you use one, you never want to go without again.
Vegetable peeler: A paring knife will accomplish much of a vegetable peeler’s workload, but better models also can produce ribbons of carrots, cucumber and zucchini for salads and noodle substitutes.
There’s no substitute for quality cookware. But quality doesn’t always go hand in hand with high cost. Many of these items have popped up in my Christmas stocking over the years. While the strainer sees daily use, the creme brûlée torch hasn’t been ignited once. And as far as mango pitters, pineapple corers and avocado peelers go, if you have extra space in your drawers, they should be easy to locate at any minimalist cook’s yard sale.
Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at email@example.com.