When you move five times within a four-year period, it becomes achingly (literally, having done the packing and schlepping myself for most of those moves) clear just how much “stuff” you own. As you can see in these photos, my stuff tends to be of the culinary variety (and this isn’t even everything). Although my collection of kitchen wares doesn’t qualify me for the Hoarding Hall-of-Fame like a Collyer brother or Bouvier Beale sister, it has nonetheless gotten a bit out of control. Perhaps having a plethora of kitchen tools is the home cook’s equivalent of Linus’s blanket – we feel more secure in our culinary endeavors, knowing these tools are by our side. Sounds plausible, but nah, that’s just denial talking. Lately, I’ve been feeling the urge to downsize, which got me thinking about which tools are most essential in the kitchen.
Whenever I thumb through the latest Williams-Sonoma catalog, I’m usually amazed at the latest kitchen gadgetry on offer. Not in a “what will they think of next” or an “I can’t live without this” kind of way; rather, my first thought is generally along the lines of “are you kidding me, what idiot is going to spend $40 on a ‘breading pan’ set?” As described on W-S’s website, this set features “three shallow pans [that] link together to form an efficient workstation for breading foods with minimal drips and mess.” Oh joy! The answer to all my breading dilemmas, since plates and bowls just won’t do.
Seriously, folks, have we created a nation of cooks who are perfectly willing to drop $25 for a gadget that cuts your bagels in half – what happened to slicing them with a knife? And I’d really like to meet the person who can’t live without this $10 banana slicer , because, as we all know, it’s pretty difficult to pull out a knife—even a dull knife or a plastic knife—and SLICE A BANANA. As for me, I’m not sure I can resist the $15 “pan scraper”, made with a nylon blade so you can safely scrape even nonstick pans clean. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent countless evenings doing the back-breaking work of scrubbing caked-on food off my nonstick pans. To be fair, something like this could be useful for cleaning pans other than nonstick, but usually a little elbow grease does the job for me.
Don’t let the marketing geniuses at Williams-Sonoma fool you. Trust me, you will use these tools once, maybe twice, and then they will likely land in a drawer, on top of the pile of other tools you HAD to have, where you will never find (or think about) them again. And apologies if your kitchen includes any of these aforementioned items. I get it. I’ve been suckered into many a similar purchase. Hence, the reason for my post.
The Bare Essentials
Whether you’re trying to downsize like me, or simply looking to kit out your kitchen, it’s helpful to know which kitchen tools are most useful and therefore worth investing in. I’ve put together a must-have list of tools that are helpful for completing a range of basic cooking tasks. After taking stock of my own collection, reflecting on the tools I find myself turning to again and again, and considering whether a related or simpler implement is likely on hand that can accomplish the same task as a specialty tool (e.g., fork versus whisk), I determined that only a handful of tools are truly essential.
Here’s my must-have list of tools, in no particular order:
- Knives: chef’s knife (pictured is a 6”, which is perfect for my small hands, but you may prefer an 8”) and paring knife. Good, sharp knives are both indispensable and non-negotiable tools for completing a huge variety of cooking tasks. These two knives will allow you to perform just about any cutting job. Before making a purchase, test a few different brands and styles. Weights and grips vary, so you’ll want to find something that feels comfortable in your hand. And if you’re going to invest in a couple quality knives, you’ll want to keep them sharp and functional. I use a honing steel, as well as a sharpening tool. Any good kitchen supply store should be able to recommend (and demonstrate how to use) an appropriate knife sharpener.
- Silicone spatula/spoonula: Designed to withstand high temperatures (generally up to 500-600°F), these heat-resistant spatulas are true workhorses in the kitchen. I use mine to mix or fold ingredients into batters, softly scramble eggs, sauté vegetables, and stir sauces and soups. They’re won’t scratch nonstick cookware, are easy to clean, and won’t chip or crack like plastic spatulas. Most are made with silicone heads attached to wood or metal handles, but best are the ones made of a contiguous piece of silicone. Since the shape of mine is curved and more spoonlike, it’s sometimes referred to as a spoonula.
- Mixing bowl: Pictured is a stainless steel mixing bowl – these come in a range of sizes and can be used for all manner of prep work and mixing. You can’t have too many of these, especially if you do a lot of cooking and want to stay organized as you cook. Sometimes I use this size bowl as a double-boiler, placing it over a pot of simmering water.
- Cutting board: A cutting board will help protect your counters and your knives. Some cooks will designate different colored plastic boards for various types of food (e.g., one for raw meat, one for vegetables, etc.), for food safety purposes. I tend to prefer a cutting surface that has a little give, so it’s less hard on my knives. Wood boards look great, but since they can’t go in the dishwasher (where the hot water helps sanitize your boards), I don’t use them for anything that poses food safety risks.
- Saucepan with lid (pictured is a 3½ to 4 qt size): You can use this pot for making soups and sauces, boiling water, steaming or boiling vegetables, and cooking pasta or other grains. Look for one that’s heavy-bottomed, which will help the heat transfer more evenly and reduce hot spots during cooking.
- Flat spatula/turner: I recommend a turner with a silicone head (the one pictured is plastic, which doesn’t hold up as well over high heat and is more difficult to clean). You can use this to flip or turn foods in a sauté pan (pancakes, burgers, eggs/omelets), remove foods from a baking sheet (cookies, biscuits, roasted vegetables), and lift slices/pieces from a baking dish (lasagna, brownies, cake, etc.).
- Sauté pan with lid (pictured is a 12-inch, nonstick): this type of pan is very versatile and can complete a wide range of cooking tasks from sautéeing vegetables, fish and meats, to cooking eggs (scrambled, fried, omelet or frittata), to reducing sauces, to braising foods in liquid. Mine has sloped sides, which is helpful for sautéeing and braising. As with the saucepan, best to look for one with a heavy duty bottom.
- Sheet pan (aka baking sheet/cookie sheet): known as a half-sheet pan in the restaurant world, this heavy duty rimmed baking sheet measures approximately 18”x13” and can be used for baking (cookies, rolls, biscuits, etc.), roasting vegetables or fries, and even for kitchen prep work (carrying ingredients from one part of the kitchen to another or holding prepped items before cooking).
- Silicone-tipped Tongs: I use these all the time when I’m sautéeing vegetables, tossing salads, lifting foods out of boiling water, stirring pastas and grains while cooking, and for picking up foods on baking sheets (e.g., hot biscuits or rolls). Look for tongs that have a locking mechanism at the hinge end (allows you to keep them in closed position for easier storage) and that have tips with scalloped edges (makes it easier to pick up foods with them).
- Microplane zester/grater: based on a carpenter’s rasp, this tool is probably one of the biggest kitchen tool success stories in recent years. I use mine to grate hard cheeses, chocolate, fresh ginger or nutmeg, and for zesting citrus fruits. I suppose you could argue that this tool falls more into the nice-to-have category, but based on how often it gets called up for duty in my kitchen, I’ve put it on my must-have list.
- Garlic Press: if you cook with garlic a lot, you’ll appreciate this tool that quickly and easily minces garlic (without getting sticky and strong-smelling garlic juices on your fingers). Some presses, like mine, don’t even require you to peel the clove first. Like the Microplane zester, this might be considered non-essential, but for someone who uses garlic in a lot of dishes, it’s a useful tool.
And finally, although they’re not pictured in the photo, I’m going to add a colander and a can-opener to the must-have list. You don’t need to spend a lot of money for these to be functional: my opener is hand-cranked, and my colander is a hand-me-down from my grandmother; both are very useful in the kitchen. If you cook a lot of meats and fish, a meat thermometer may also be a necessity, since it will help you gauge when your food is cooked to a safe temperature.
That’s my list and I’m sticking to it! In theory, it should make it easier for me to part with the non-essentials and make more space for…other stuff!