A funny thing happens when you write a food blog: people get the impression that you know how to cook. Because, like so many of us these days, my friends & family are scattered far and wide, I do a fair bit of traveling to keep in touch with my nearest and dearest. And because I write about food a couple of times a week, most of these folks have figured it out: I cook. Quite a bit, actually. Invariably, when I visit a friend’s house these days, I get a cheerful, “Oh, great! You can cook for us!” (Although just as often, I will admit, I offer first: because, hey, what do you know? I like to cook. And it’s just possible that I’m a nice person, who is more than happy to offer up a home-cooked meal in exchange for the hospitality of friends. But if you tell anyone, I’ll deny it with my last breath.)
The upshot being: I’ve cooked in a lot of places, a lot of different kitchens, and a lot of fun times. Three in the morning post-soccer-and-bar-crawl pasta? I’m your girl. Veggie frittata on safari in Mapungubwe National Park? Been there, done that. Grilled chicken and fire-roasted potatoes on top of Mount Bigelow? Check. All this is to say, I’m not some kitchen wuss. I can make a meal under nearly any circumstances: after all, if worst comes to worst, all you really need is fire and a stick. But, more challenging kitchen adventures aside, most of my away-from-home cooking happens in kitchens: the home kitchens of my Mom, Tai’s family, or our friends.
Most of these kitchens lay in the vast middle ground between titanium-pot-over-open-fire and fully-equipped dream kitchen. Some of my friends don’t cook at all; some of them cook dinner every night. Some I would classify as adventurous home cooks, the kind of people willing to tackle homemade croissants or a complicated Thai curry; some consider it a roaring success to get a dinner on the table that the kids will actually eat. What all of these kitchens have in common, however, is this: something is missing. Something that I’ve come to rely on every day in my own cooking; something that, without which, I have to step back and think about how to proceed; something that I am tempted to whip out to the nearest kitchen store and pick up, or better yet, something that I actually do.
So, this is my list. It’s not a The One & Only Kitchen Tool You Ever Need!! list. It’s not the Top 10 Essential Kitchen Tools list. It’s not even the My Favorite Kitchen Tools list. These are the tools that I use every day, that are exceptionally good at performing their given task, yet are rarely, if ever, found in a “regular” kitchen. Chances are, you have a couple of these: maybe you have a Dutch oven that you love, a huge cutting board that you use every day, a gorgeous cast iron skillet that was your grandmother’s. Chances are good, though, that you don’t have all of these: and I’m here to tell you, if you spend time in the kitchen, they are all worth having.
I’m not really a “Buy this kitchen gadget, now!” kind of girl. I’m much too Yankee for that, and I derive a perverse sense of pride from MacGyvering together a solution to the problem of not-the-right-gear. I am, however, a big fan of The Right Tool For The Right Job, especially when it makes my life in the kitchen easier, more efficient, more productive, and fun. So I guess this is my Tools That You’ll Wonder How You Ever Lived Without list. I had fun putting it together: I hope you have fun reading it through. And I wonder: what tools do you wonder how you ever lived without? I’d love to know.
It’s happened more times than I can count: I’m in a friend’s kitchen, standing over a butternut squash, or a watermelon, or a stack of tomatoes & onions. “Where do you keep your knives?”, I ask. My friend pulls open a kitchen drawer and apologetically hands me a dinky little knife; invariably it’s either a dinner table steak knife (like the one in the middle above) or one of those indestructible bamboo prep knives we all bought in the 90’s. “Sorry, but it’s the only one that’s sharp,” she says.
It’s just possible that we are a wee bit knife-obsessed at my house; but what do you expect from a culinary school grad and an adventurous home cook? And yes, I realize that decent knives are expensive. My point is, you don’t have to have a dozen good knives; you don’t even have to have two. One, just one good-sized (8 – 10 inch), sharp chef’s knife is all you need. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will improve your cooking experience more than a really good, really sharp knife. Want to feel like a bad-ass kitchen ninja? Get yourself a bad-ass kitchen ninja knife.
Once you have your bad-ass ninja knife, you need a way to keep it sharp. How many ninjas have you seen with a knife so dull they have to saw through an orange? That’s right: none. The best way to keep your knives sharp, in my opinion, is to have them professionally sharpened a couple of times a year. In between sharpenings, get used to using a honing steel, every time you use your knife. You only need a couple of passes, knife over steel, on each side, each time you use the knife, to ensure that little dings and burrs do not dull your blade. Bob Kramer explains in detail how to hone your knife here. It’s such a simple habit to get into, and once again, it will make your cooking experience more enjoyable every time. We have a few steels, including the white-handled one above, which is Tai’s favorite. My favorite is the short ceramic steel, which I feel gives the knife a better edge.
Should you not be able to find a good knife sharpening service (do not take your good knives to the hardware store: I know from bitter experience that they will destroy your beautiful ninja knife), you can look into the many home-sharpening devices available. The traditional (and dare I say, ninja) method is a Japanese water stone (in picture above on left). Bob Kramer, once again, on how to sharpen your knife on a stone. The DuoSharp is a similar concept, yet with diamond instead of stone (although, I have to say that I have not been a big fan).
Keep your favorite knife sharp and feel like a bad-ass kitchen ninja every time you cook dinner. It’ll make you happy: I guarantee it.
While we’re talking about sharp: when is the last time you replaced your vegetable peeler? 1992? Uh huh. I thought so. Everywhere I go, there’s either an ancient, rusty harp-style peeler, a giant Good Grips model with blades so dull they might as well be cardboard, or none at all. Yes, I know, you could use a knife. But vegetable peelers get the job done much more efficiently, and let’s face it: they’re sort of fun. I always have a couple of spares on hand for when friends come over and want to help with dinner. And? Vegetable peelers are cheap. The little plastic Y peelers are $4 at Crate and Barrel, and a “nice” peeler will only run you about $12. OXO even makes replacement blades that fit their i-Series models.
Bottom line? No one sharpens vegetable peelers, but they do get dull. When you find yourself cursing at the butternut squash on your counter, in tatters because you’ve hacked it to death with your dull veggie peeler: do yourself a favor. Toss it, and get yourself a nice, new, sharp one. You’re welcome.
True story: Tai & I were up in Maine over the holidays, browsing through our favorite kitchen store, Rooster Brother in Ellsworth. While there, I happened to spot this huge, gorgeous wooden cutting board from Catskill Craftsmen (trust me to go all the way to Maine to find a cutting board made only a couple of hours from my house). It was enormous (a full 23 inches across), heavy, made from sustainably harvested wood from managed forests in New York’s Catskill mountains, and ludicrously cheap (boards like this usually start at $150 and go up from there): could it be any more perfect? But still: I hemmed and hawed, pulled out every board in the store, talked over the pros & cons with Tai (who nodded and smiled, nodded and smiled), then finally decided it was too good a bargain to resist. When I finally brought it to the counter, the checkout clerk said matter-of-factly, “This is on account?” I gave her a blank look. “Um, what?” She laughed and said,”Oh, never mind. I assumed you were a chef.” I refrained from saying, “What, you mean all of your customers don’t obsess over cutting boards for 40 minutes?”
Just like a good knife, having a good, solid and BIG cutting board is a joy. No really, I mean that: this thing is a joy to use. I have another board about this size (the one with the lip in the picture above), that I picked up in Asheville the Christmas before last, but since it is designed for working with bread and pastry I haven’t wanted to cut on it. Aside from that, the biggest board I had was that dinky-by-comparison green one (on the left above), the standard slightly-bigger-than-a-notebook size. And I still use it of course, for small jobs, but the big one? The big one lives on my counter now (kept steady on our non-level counter tops by another awesome purchase, the non-slip mat by Architec, above left.) I don’t have to use prep bowls, or have chopped vegetables piled willy-nilly on the counter: I can prep for an entire meal on this bad boy, and keep finding corners of space. I never realized how constrained I felt, how subtly annoying it was to always be using a cutting board that was too small for the task at hand. Want to feel like a bad-ass kitchen ninja having a kick-ass time? Get yourself a BIG board.
Before you start thinking I’m some sort of size queen, hear me out. Somehow we seem to have come to the conclusion that our kitchens will be less cluttered if we buy smaller things. I see this all the time: “I want a big stock pot, but where would I put it?” , or “Handy 6-inch cutting board is a convenient size to tuck in a drawer!” And then, because we’ve made chopping vegetables such a chore with our tiny, dull knives and our tiny, slippy cutting boards (buried in a drawer no less), we go out and buy a big, honking food processor that takes up half the counter.
I spent a couple of weeks with Tai’s grandmother over the holidays, and while I was there, I was determined to stock her up on healthy staples like soup, stew, granola and such that she could eat once I went back home. Now, Grandma doesn’t cook much anymore, but she used to cook all the time. So I was surprised to find that, her biggest stock pot? 3 quarts. Her cutting board? 6 inches. Her knife? The dull-as-dishwater Joyce Chef bamboo knife. Her mixing bowl? A 1-quart plastic Tupperware that had lost its lid back in the ’80’s. It didn’t take more than a single day of cooking until I was at Rooster Brothers, stocking up on the essentials: a big mixing bowl and cutting board; a sharp knife, tongs, wooden & silicone spatulas.
Everything is more difficult in a too-small pan: you can’t see what’s happening because the food is piled too high; the food doesn’t cook evenly because it’s not evenly in contact with the heat source or the pan; the meat doesn’t brown because the pan is too crowded; the soup or beans or jam threatens to boil over, making you turn the heat to below optimal; and let’s not even talk about the too-small-pot immersion blender disaster, hmm? The same is true of bowls or sheet pans or skillets. Ever try to efficiently fold flour into a quick bread batter in a bowl that’s full to overflowing? To evenly cook a stir-fry in a jam-packed skillet? Ideally, we would always have just the right sized pan for the job. But if I had to choose between too big and too small? Too big wins every time. Sorry, guys: size really does matter.
If I had a magic kitchen genie who would grant me three cooking-related wishes, one of them would have to be to abolish the non-stick skillet. Or, at the very least, make people sign an affidavit that the only thing they will ever cook in it is an omelet. Much like we were sold the “smaller = less clutter!” myth by companies with small kitchen gadgets to sell, we’ve also been sold the “cooking with fat = evil!” myth by people with processed food and non-stick pans to sell. And since Fat = Evil has been the mantra for about 30 years now, non-stick pans have proliferated like black mold: just as toxic, just as hard to get rid of, and about as useful.
My second genie wish? To replace all of those non-stick pans with just one good, heavy, big, cast iron skillet. Aside from eggs, which I will admit, really don’t stick in a non-stick pan, non-stick does nothing well: it won’t sear meat, it doesn’t get hot enough, it scratches at the drop of a hat, it can’t go in the oven, it leeches toxic chemicals, and it constantly needs replacing. Cast iron, on the other hand, heats beautifully, sears like a dream, is oven-safe, is non-toxic, gets better with each use, and will last beyond your lifetime. Suck it, Teflon. Bad-ass kitchen ninjas swing iron.
Speaking of cast iron: do you have an enameled cast iron Dutch oven yet? I know: the good ones are expensive. Very expensive. And you wonder what you’ll do with it. How is it different from any other BAP? (Big Ass Pot, for the uninitiated.) All I can say is: I bought my first Le Creuset two and a half years ago and it has changed the way I cook. I never used to braise: I’m not sure that I knew what braise meant. Now? From whole chickens to pork shoulders, and even beef tacos, I braise with the best of ‘em. Soups, stews, a big pot of beans; fruit butter, barbecue sauce, marmalade & jam; caramel and candy and citrus curd too. These babies do it all and they do it better than any other pot you own. They heat more evenly: food almost never sticks or burns, meaning less stirring and more sipping wine and contemplating your awesome cooking chops; they retain heat very well, meaning they will cook food faster and at lower temperatures (thereby saving you time, energy and money); they clean easily, and properly cared for, they will last forever.
The bottom line is: the only thing I use my old stock pots for these days is… stock. And boiling water for pasta. That’s about it. Everything else you can do in a big pot is done better in enameled cast iron.
All hail the mighty spatula! So many varieties, all of them brilliant at their particular forté. How did we get cake batter out of a mixing bowl before the silicone spatula came along? I don’t know, but I suspect a lot of cake batter got left behind. For the record, everyone loves the Le Creuset version, but I’m loyal to my battered pair from Crate & Barrel: I find them just slightly more flexible than the LC. And I know for a fact that I have frosted a cake with a butter knife in the past: but now that I’ve used an offset spatula, I’m ruined for life. Ruined, I tell you. Wooden spoons? Completely useless if you ask me. Flat-ended wooden spatulas? Can’t. live. without. I can’t tell you how many friend’s houses I have populated with a wooden spatula: it’s probably the thing I miss the most when I am cooking away from home.
Other people carry chef’s knives with them when they travel & cook. Me? I’m thinking I’ll make my own little chef roll with three spatulas: wood, silicone and small offset. With these three tools, I can conquer the world. Or at the very least, whip you up a mean bundt cake.
Rumor has it that Thomas Keller hates kitchen tongs, saying that they are “bad at every job.” Respectfully, Thomas, I say “whatever.” Maybe you have minions who like nothing better than turning over dozens of grilling sausages with a spoon and a spatula: I have places to go, people to see, tequila to drink. Tongs, tongs! Tongs are the tool for me.
Ah, the holy grail of Kitchen Tools That You Don’t Have: the humble kitchen scale and bonus digital thermometer. Why, people? Why? Why won’t you buy a scale? We bitch and moan that we can’t find time to cook; we obsess over 5-ingredient recipes and 15-minute meals; we lament our lack of baking prowess; we hate to do dishes. Well, good news, I have the answer to your prayers! The humble kitchen scale. How much easier is it to make bread, scones, pizza dough, muffins, quick breads, etc., when you can simply weigh everything into one bowl rather than measure (and measure and measure) into little cups? A lot. How much more accurate and precise, more reliable and dependable, are your recipes when you weigh instead of measure? A lot. How much easier is it to adjust preserving recipes on the fly when you use weights instead of vague volumes and random amounts? A lot.
I don’t get it, I really don’t. I don’t know why people simply refuse to buy a kitchen scale. Is it the need for batteries? The digital read-out? A vague fear of electronics? There is a tool out there that saves you time, energy, and dish-washing angst; that makes you a better and more reliable cook; and that saves you a trip to the post office when you don’t know the postage on that really over-stuffed envelope. What more do you want, people? Unicorns and rainbows?!?
The same goes for the digital thermometer, really. I use mine every day. Bread & muffins, chicken, pork and sausages, caramel and fruit curd, cheese and yogurt, jam and marmalade: if you want to know if it’s done, why go through pulling and poking, knocking and wiggling, slicing and peering, freezing and dipping and dolloping in water, when you could just buy. a. freaking. thermometer. Unicorns and rainbows, people. Unicorns and rainbows.
Full disclosure: No one has paid me to say nice things about their brand (although really, Le Creuset should consider tossing a few bucks my way. Jeez). There are no affiliate links and no nefarious purposes whatsoever: just sharing the love of good tools designed well. Unicorns and rainbows, people. Unicorns and rainbows.