The Essential Kitchen: Cook's Tools
Tools For a City Cook's Kitchen
You can make most meals with only a good knife, a wooden spoon and a set of tongs. But there are about 30 other tools that should be in most cooks' kitchens. After that it's up to you to resist the lure of the kitchen gadget. As with pots, pans and knives, buy the best quality you can afford, especially for the basics, and you'll have them forever.
- Tongs: Mine are about 12" long and can be used either fully opened or locked into a mostly-closed position. If I could only have one kitchen tool (other than my chef's knife), this would be it
- Wooden spoons and spatulas: Have as many as you have room for and try not to wash them in the dishwasher as they'll deteriorate faster
- Wooden juice reamer: One of my most favorite kitchen tools, a reamer makes it as easy to produce fresh citrus juice by hand as it is to open a bottle or carton and the difference in your flavors will be notable. You'll be surprised how often you'll use this
- Spatula: Metal for metal pans and plastic-coated or wood for non-stick
- Whisks: Smaller ones (4"-6") are useful for salad dressings; bigger ones (8"-12") for sauces, puddings, puréed vegetables, and whisking eggs
- Ladle: to add stock to risotto, to serve soups, to baste a roast, to transfer hot vegetables to a food processor
- Metal spoons with long handles: One with no holes, one with
- Silicone spatulas: To scrape the sides of bowls and pans and any other container
- Pasta spoon: Usually plastic, this is a long-handled spoon with teeth to stir pastas like spaghetti when cooking
- Rasper (also called a microplane): For grating cheese or chocolate or nutmeg
- Ice cream scoop: Get the kind with a spring action and you can use it also for making meat balls and other kinds of mounds
- Spider: Used in Asian and Italian cooking, this is essentially a sieve on a handle
- Vegetable peeler
- Can opener: Mechanical or electric.
Tip: I love my Zyliss mechanical can opener. I've had it forever and I am happy to know that even with a power outage, I can open a can of tuna.
- Bottle opener: Also known as a church key
- Pliers: Yes, just like the one you may already have in your toolkit
Tip: Instead of a fancy fish boning tool, pliers do a far better job; plus you can use them to fix things around the apartment.
- Melon baller: You can also use this to core pears and apples, cut the seeds out of the length of a cucumber, or, yes create bite-sizes pieces of melon
- Scissors: I also listed this with knives as it's actually part of cutlery
- Sieves: One about 6-8" diameter for washing vegetables, berries, etc.; another about 3" diameter to strain lemon juice, rinse capers, and other small work
- Little bowls: 4-8 4 oz. Pyrex or other glass small work bowls for mise en place
- 2 cup glass measuring cup: Pyrex is best because it can take all temperatures and the sides show both metric and US measures
- Measuring cups: 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 1 cup
- Metal measuring spoons: 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, 1 tablespoon
- Work bowls: Ceramic, glass or metal, in sizes ranging from 2 qt. to 8 qt.
- Pepper mill: Get a good one that lets you adjust the milling as fine or coarse as you like it
- Salt cellar: This is simply a small bowl or glass/ceramic box to hold salt; plain or pretty is up to you
- Instant thermometer: I don't think you can successfully cook a roast without this. On my short list for a tool I can't cook without
- Colander: Get one as large as you can easily store; used for draining pasta, pots of cooked vegetables, washing fruit, holding cleaned shrimp, and much more
- Salad spinner: Most people I know eat salad almost every day. This handy tool uses centrifugal force to get excess water off salad greens, essential if you want the dressing to adhere to them. The alternative is to use handfuls of paper towels to dry each lettuce leaf and who needs to do that.
- Food scale: Get one that either has its own ingredient bowl or else a small platform on which you can put your own container
- Butcher twine: Heavy-duty cotton string used for tying the legs of a whole chicken or turkey, to tie up a roast, to hold a bunch of asparagus together, to tie a cheesecloth square of herbs together; just make sure the string is 100% cotton or else it will melt when heated
- Parchment paper: Coated with silicone so it won't burn at high temperatures, this paper can create an envelope in which to steam fish, line a sheet pan when roasting vegetables, or even make a little pastry bag, and much more; once you start using it, you'll use it often; usually sold in a decent supermarket alongside waxed paper (which is not the same thing) and aluminum foil
These are utensils and tools that are either personal favorites, are needed for certain types of cooking, or are otherwise idiosyncratic to you. But resist stocking up on gadgets you'll rarely use: you'll only fill up precious drawer space.
- Garlic press: Favorite of some cooks and scorned by others
Tip: Marcella Hazan told me that a garlic press only smashes the garlic, releasing its oil and eliminating the surfaces that are needed to brown the garlic. Instead of using a press, practice your knife skills so as to get a very fine mince and you'll get a better flavor.
- Box grater: For larger grates of cheese, to remove tomato pulp from its skin, to grate cucumbers for dill and yogurt sauces, other uses that a rasper just can't do
- Wine, Champagne stoppers
- Bulb baster: For turkeys, other roasts; also useful in making tart tatin to pull up the caramel from the bottom of the pan when cooking apples
- Oven thermometer: If you have any doubt about how accurate your oven is (most are not -- mine, for instance, consistently runs 25 degrees hot), an oven thermometer, which is usually less than $10, will let you know for sure
- Candy/deep fry thermometer: Clamps on to the side of a pan so you can monitor hot liquids; this is essential if you're going to make anything with a sugar syrup or deep fry in hot oil
- Rolling pin: I love my heavy wooden one that I just rub with a little flour to make non-stick but some of the new silicone ones are getting popular. Regardless which you choose, get one with some weight to help you do the work
- Pastry brush: To add an egg wash, brush off crumbs, excess flour or corn meal, to brush melted butter or oil on roasting poultry, to add an herbed oil to fish. It doesn't have to be fancy and an inexpensive paint brush works perfectly
Tip: The new silicone brushes will last longer and clean more easily but the bristles aren't as fine as those made of nylon or boar so if you're primarily going to use it for baking, opt for a paint brush instead.
- Mandoline: Made and sold at all price points, these are noted for their very, very sharp blades. A food processor may serve most slicing purposes beyond what you want to do with a knife. But for some recipes, like making pommes anna made with paper-thin sliced potatoes, a mandoline is the champion
- Mortar and pestle: To grind dry spices; cooks who often grind their own may want to instead invest in an electric coffee grinder that is used just for this purpose
- Cheesecloth: A very versatile item to have on hand. Cut it into small squares that you can fill with herbs and spices and tie with a piece of butcher's twine to make your own bouquet garni (instead of buying an over-priced and probably old pre-made ones). In larger pieces it's great for draping on a roasting turkey to help hold the basting liquid
Baking Tools and Electric Appliances
These are separate categories that need their own attention that we'll address separately.