"The most important tools in the kitchen are your hands."Meathead
Sorry folks, you don't need a lot of really expensive toys. You can do just fine with a few inexpensive toys. You don't need ceramic knives, copper mixing bowls, and enameled Dutch ovens.
So what do you need? I went through my cabinets and drawers and made a list of all my favorite tools and what you should look for when shopping. Almost all the tools below are items I have tested personally and merit our Gold Medal Best Buy Award.
The ESSENTIAL tools in blue, and a few extras that can help you fine tune your craft. Getting married? Birthday, Christmas, Mother's Day, Dad's Day? Sign up for Amazon's Gift and Wish Registry and link to the products you'd love to get.
Tell me in the comments below about your favorite tools.
Knives and cutting tools
You absolutely positively must have a few good sharp knives. The TV Chefs all have their own brands, and the cooking school instructors rave over the $300 Shun Elite, Kyocera, Wusthoff, and other really expensive weapons that are made from space age ceramics or hand forged from secret alloys and fitted ebony handles. But the dirty secret is that restaurants use much cheaper knives that they sharpen frequently or even throw away when they wear out.
For our wedding in 1974, my wife and I were given a beautiful set of Henckels, high quality German knives, and they're still going strong with professional sharpening every year.
The best knives are made of special stainless alloys that remain hard and keep their edge, yet are soft enough that they can be sharpened, a process that grinds away small parts of the steel. The best knives are forged, a process of pounding and grinding. The tang, the tail part that goes into the handle, goes all the way to the end, and it has a comfortable grip that is riveted to it. The grip should be tight against the tang so no water or food can get into it. The best knives are well balanced and easy to handle. Forged knives have an integral bolster, a shield, between the blade and the tang. Alas, high quality knives should not go through the dishwasher. The caustic soap dulls the blade.
4" Paring Knife — ESSENTIAL — A stiff blade with a sharp point makes this the tool of choice for fine work like slicing radishes, peeling apples, coring peppers, and boning meat. For a quality long lasting blade, try the Henckels Twin Pro-S Classic Parer. For an economy model, check out the Oxo Good Grips Professional 4" Paring Knife.
Chef's Knife — ESSENTIAL — The chef's knife is the most important tool in the kitchen. It is an all-purpose chopping and slicing knife with a slightly curved blades so you can rock it back and forth to chop. For a quality forged knife that will last many years but not break the bank, you can chose from many reputable manufacturers. Here are three I love:
The J.A. Henckels International Classic 8" Stainless-Steel Chef's Knife (above) is a traditional chef's knife.
The Wusthof Grand Prix II 8" Hollow-Ground Cook's Knife (above) is a "hollow ground" with dimples on the sides of the blades that reduces drag and helps it shed sliced foods like cucumbers that tend to stick to the blade.
The Messermeister Meridian Elite 7" Kullenschliff Santoku Knife (above) is the latest design shape called Santoku with the "hollow" ground dimples called "kullenschliffs" by German knife makers.
For an inexpensive stamped blade that will work just fine, try the Oxo Good Grips Professional 8" Chef Knife or the Victorinox Fibrox 8" Chef's Knife. I've never tried the Victorinox but I hear very good things about it.
8-10" Serrated Knife — ESSENTIAL — This is the tool for slicing bread and tomatoes. This is a knife that is used to saw through crusty breads. A chef's knife, even when sharp, is better at chipping soft materials, and tends to crust things like baguettes. You can spend a lot of money on one of these, but I don't think it's necessary. A good cheapo will do. Go for the Oxo Good Grips Professional 8" Bread Knife.
Fillet Knife — ESSENTIAL -Don't tell my professional chef friends, but the knife I reach for most often lately is my cheap . I get a new one every year. This cheapo blade has a thin flexible blade, with a dangerously sharp blade, a wicked sharp tip, and it's only about $16. It's great for slicing tomatoes, removing silverskin on meat, boning, cutting ribs on hot peppers, and, of course, filleting. It is not strong enough for cutting through bone, but there is nothing better for cutting things off bones. When it is dirty, it goes in the dishwasher.
I hone it with the cheapo V sharpener that came with it every month or so, and every six months or so I caress it across my whetstones. Every year or so I trash it and get a new one. To see all the different sizes available, click here.
Long thin slicing knife — For cutting large hunks of meat into thin slices, like prime rib or brisket I reach for my Messermeister Meridian Elite Forged 10" Slicer. The kullenschliffs (dimples) on each side of the knife reduce drag and prevent food from sticking to the blade.
Cleaver — This is the tool for whacking your way through bigger bones like lamb shanks or duck necks. I don't use mine often, but every now and then I'm glad I have one.
Knife kit. I often give cooking demonstrations and teach classes, and when I do, I bring my own knives. As they say in the cooking contests on TV, I pack my knives and go. My travel kit is the Messermeister Meridian Elite 5 Knife Set. They are all forged knives. The kit includes a five pocket knife bag, Kullenschliff Santoku 7" Chef's Knife, Kullenschliff Filet Knife Flexible 8", Kullenschliff Slicer Round Tip 10", Spear Point Paring Knife 3.5", and the Boning Knife Flexible 6".
An inexpensive option is the Wusthof Classic 2-Piece Knife Starter Set (above) with a first rate German chef's knife and a 3 1/2" paring knife. The combo is a very fair price.
Knife Sharpener — Once you have great knives you need to keep them sharp. I was thrilled every time Tony the knife sharpener brought his cart to my block in spring, but after a few months I needed them sharpened again and sending them out got expensive. So I bought a nifty inexpensive hand held sharpener that did a pretty good job, but not as good as Tony. So I splurged on the Chef's Choice M130 Professional Sharpening Station and now I have really good knives all year round.
Knife Honer — ESSENTIAL — Strop your blades across this every week or two and it will push any microscopic bends back into line. They will not, however, sharpen a knife. Diamond steels work best, and oval shaped honers fit serrated knives better.
Knife Block or Magnetic Strip — You need a place to store your knives. You can buy a nice knife block, just make sure you don't put wet knives in there or they can get moldy. Another option is a magnetic strip mounted to your wall. This makes them very handy, but a little easier to drop.
Knife Set with Knife Block. Ergo Chef's beautiful 10 Piece Crimson G10 Knife Block Set is crafted from high carbon German steel. Polished blades are stain resistant and easy to clean and maintain. The handles are made with the world's strongest G10 fiberglass resin in a redish brown wood grain look that requires no maintenance. This beautiful set includes: 8" Chef, 8" Carver, 8" Serrated bread, 7" Nakiri, 6" Santoku, 6" Utility, 3.5" Paring, a 8" Honing rod and heavy duty poultry shears. These all fit nicely in the beautiful 17 slot Bamboo storage block with non-slip feet. Comes with a lifetime warranty.
Carving Fork — These long tined forks are handy for holding meat still while you carve. Tongs will work fine most of the time, but sometime a fork is the better tool.
Alaskan Ulu — This gizmo looks like another gadget to take up space in your drawer, but it is really handy. Based on a prehistoric scraper design a curved sharp rock was the way our ancestors skinned game and cut food. A close descendant, the ulu, is still used by the Inuit in Alaska. My Mother bought us an ulu as a gift when she vacationed in Alaska. I use it often for mincing herbs. It is much easier to use for this task than a chef's knife. There are cutting boards sold that are concave for use with a mezzaluna, but I have never seen the need for them.
Egg Slicer — You can cut hardboiled eggs by hand, but you can't do it as nicely and neatly as this inexpensive gizmo. It has wires that slice through the egg producing neat even uniform slices. I even use mine on mushrooms.
Kitchen Shears — You want a good scissors for cutting a chicken apart, for snipping herbs, cutting pizza, butcher string, opening packages, and many other tasks. Get sturdy stainless blades so you can cut through the ribs of chickens. The best models come apart at the hinge so you can get them really clean and they can go in the dishwasher. Try the OXO Good Grips Spring-Loaded Poultry Shears shown here.
Vegetable Peeler — ESSENTIAL — You want something with really sharp stainless blades that won't rust, and a swivel head. They're impossible to sharpen, so I just buy a cheap one every year or so. Some of the new ones have soft rubber ergonomic handles that take up way too much in the junk drawer.
Tony the Knife Man. In days of yore, every Chicago neighborhood had a stream of peddlers traveling through on regular days. The milk man, the bread man, the melon man, and the knife sharpener among them. Most are long gone. Save one, Tony del Ciello, Tony the Knife Man. The first nice weekend in April, the first weekend when we can open our windows, Tony, with the thick Italian accent pulls his battered old van onto our street, rolls out his red and green Italian-made knife sharpening cart, and, as he pushes it down the sidewalk, its bells ring, like the Good Humor man for adults.
I call my neighbors, and I bring out all the kitchen knives, including the serrated knives, my wife's sewing scissors, my pruning shears, and even the lawnmower blade. We all hang out on the corner for an hour while he treadles his way through them all, using a variety of grinding and polishing wheels, at about $2 per blade.
If Tony doesn't come down your street, ask a local chef where she takes her blades. If you wish, there are several reputable services to whom you can ship your knives and they ship back promptly. Among them are Seattle Knife Sharpening, Epicurean Edge, and Truhone.
Mandolin — It slices, it dices, it makes matchsticks, crinkle cuts, chips, shreds, and grates. You insert your choice of plate, hold it at an angle, use the knuckle guard (and you must use it because the blade is razor sharp), and in a jiffy you have perfectly cut French fries or crinkle cut carrots.
Box Grater — ESSENTIAL — The tool you need when you are shredding cheese for pizza or mac 'n' cheese, or for making slaws. It stands up and you push the cheese or veggies down so there is plenty of leverage for even the hardest cheeses. Each of the four sides has a different cutting surfaces for different size shreds.
Microplane — The small incredibly sharp blades on this tool are perfect for zesting citrus, or shaving chocolate, grating hard cheeses.
Meat Grinder — If you make hamburgers, you need to start grinding your own meat. That way you can use chuck, brisket, skirt, or sirloin, and get fresher better tasting patties, with the right amount of fat. You can use an attachment to a stand mixer or food processor, but the old fashioned hand operated meat grinders like the one grandma used, are inexpensive, and last forever.
Cutting Boards — ESSENTIAL — OK, this is not as complicated as some like to make it. There are pretty much two materials, wood or plastic. Glass and other hard materials just ruin your knives. Scientists have proven that, despite what you might have read, neither wood nor plastic is better at fighting contamination. If you clean them with hot soapy water, or even hit them with a dilute solution of bleach (see my article on food safety), they are safe. Wood is attractive enough to serve your ribs on, while plastic is kinda tacky.
But plastic has an advantage here because it can be put in the diswasher where the water is super hot, and there's plenty of soap. The problem is when the surface gets deep cuts where bacteria can hide. So if yours gets gouged, hit it with a little sandpaper. In the past few years manufacturers have introduced thin plastic boards that are nice because they are lightweight and can be bent and they help you pour your chopped onions into the sauce pan without spillage. They're cheap, and you can have several, a red one for meat, and a green one for veggies to prevent cross contamination. They're cheap, and when they get worn, you can chuck them.
Pots and pans and related tools
The size of a pot or pan is taken by measuring the inside diameter across the top.
8 Cup French Drip Coffee Maker — Nothing could be simpler or make better tasting coffee than the French Press. All you need are grounds and hot water. No electricity necessary. You can even take it on the patio for that wonderful summer dinner. Or take it camping. Boil water, add a scoop of coffee, pour in boiling water, wait 3 minutes, press the plunger down, voila! Pour and savor. I like the LaCafetiere Rainbow 8 Cup Coffee Press and it's flashy red enamel finish.
8" Stainless Steel Frying Pan — This is for cooking small quantities of food. The 8" All-Clad Master Chef 2 Fry Pan with sloped sides is about as good as it gets. It uses two layers of sturdy stainless steel sandwiching an aluminum core designed to heat up quickly, hold heat, and spread it evenly across the base. Do not get uncoated aluminum. It can react with acidic foods like tomatoes, wine, or citrus.
The handles are riveted on permanently and they can go into the oven or on the grill, but beware, they get hot. You'll need to use a potholder with this pan. It is dishwasher safe, but hand washing is recommended. From date of purchase, All-Clad guarantees to repair or replace any item found defective in material, construction or workmanship under normal use and following care instructions. Stainless pans are the ones you want for pan searing meats before roasting or braising, or for doing things like medallions of pork or chicken cutlets, and then turning the brown bits in the pan into fabulous pan sauces.
12" Stainless Steel Frying Pan — This is the workhorse of the kitchen. Again the All-Clad is my choice. Not cheap, but it will last a lifetime. See the description above.
8" Nonstick Frying Pan — Non-stick surfaces scratch and wear off, so I go cheap for these and throw them away every five years or so. I don't use them often, but they are perfect for omelets. Get them at your supermarket. Go for the heaviest one you can find with sloped sides which makes sliding an omelet off easier, and check the way the handle is attached. They are usually screwed on. Make sure it looks sturdy.
12" Nonstick Frying Pan — ESSENTIAL — See my description of the 8" nonstick fry pan, above.
1 Quart Saucepan — ESSENTIAL — This is for simmering and boiling liquids. Occasionally you need to brown something in a pot, but rarely. So you don't need the high priced All-Clads. Go for something with a heavy bottom, and slightly curved sides so things don't get caught in there and burn. Don't get one with a pouring spout. It impairs the seal with the lid. Go for one with an oven safe handle, and I favor the tempered glass lid on the Simply Calphalon Stainless Steel 1 Quart Saucepan with Glass Lid.
2 Quart Saucepan — See my description of the 1 quart saucepan above. Go for the Calphalon Contemporary Stainless-Steel 2-Quart Chef's Pan with Glass Lid
4 Quart Saucepan — ESSENTIAL — See my description of the 1 quart saucepan above. Go for the Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 4.5 Quart Saucepan with Glass Lid
8 Quart Stockpot With Lid
All Purpose Pot Lid — The nifty Nordic Ware 12-Inch Universal Pan Lid will fit all your pots and pans up to 12" so you don't have to buy the expensive All-Clad lids. Great if you've lost or bent lids or if you have limited storage. Even if you have dedicated lids, this is the one to grab when something catches fire in the pan and you don't have time to dig out the correct lid. It has a vent in the handle to let off steam. It is not a high end stainless device, but it does the job.
12" Cast Iron Frying Pan — ESSENTIAL — These are heavy and heavy duty. And cheap. I don't use them for omelets or onions, I use them for steaks, chops, burgers, fish, and frying potatoes. I use them on the stovetop, in the oven, on the grill, on the side burner, or camping.
Cast iron gets very hot and transmits that heat to food rapidly. It is the best way to get a crust on a burger. After the surface is seasoned, it is practically nonstick. There are the only two downsides to cast iron. It is heavy, and they need a little effort to care for. The metal must be heated and treated with cooking oil to keep it from rusting and create the nonstick properties. If you scrub it with steel wool or soap, you ruin the seasoning. So cast iron must be wiped with warm water only. That said, I have two, one for fish, and one for everything else. The fish pan seems to always have a fishy smell when heated.
If you can find cast iron pots and pans in garage sales or flea markets, get them because they are probably well seasoned. But recently manufacturers have begun shipping pre-seasoned pans. Get one with a lip to make pouring off grease easy, and an ear opposite the handle because these suckers are heavy. The Lodge Logic 12-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet is the gold standard.
Cast Iron Griddle — ESSENTIAL — You need a good cast iron griddle. Especially if you like fish, burgers, grilled sandwiches, home fries, or pancakes. Coat the flat side with oil, and you can sear fish so it is golden and crispy on the outside just like that great pan-seared fish you get in restaurants. Throw some dried herbs onto the flame, and you'll get a whisp of smoke in the meat.
You can even bring it indoors and it will straddle two burners. Use the flat side for burgers and pancakes. Flip it over and you get grill marks and conduction cooking from the ridges on steaks, burgers, or asparagus, and the fats and juices drip into the grooves where they vaporize and flavor the meat and cook by radiation.
This is a very handy tool. One word of caution. You may need two. If you use it for fish a lot, the flavor will remain on the surface, even after cleaning, so you won't be able to use it for pancakes.
I have two of them by Lodge, known for quality cast iron, and I use the ridged sides of both, one on top and one on the bottom, for making paninis. And my spatchcocked (butterflied) Cornish game hens pressed between the flat sides are unbelievably crisp and juicy in only 20 minutes. I love my 20" x 10 7/16" Lodge Logic Pro Cast Iron Grill/Griddle.
Dutch Oven — It would be nice to own a high end Le Cruset French Oven, but they are very expensive and I would never dream of taking one camping. But it is nice to have a big heavy pot for use indoors and out. My Bayou Classic 8.5 Quart Cast Iron Dutch Oven does both beautifully.
It's perfect for whole chickens or slow braising in the oven or in the grill. You can even sit it on top of coals and shovel more coals on top of the flat lid with a raised rim, and you can cook classic chili, baked beans, cornbread, casseroles, and even cobblers. It is 13" wide x 7" high, weighs 21 pounds and includes a perforated aluminum basket for steaming, frying, or boiling. Click here for a complete list of all cast iron pots and pans available on Amazon.com.
Wok — The problem with stir frying is that most of the time you end up steaming rather than frying. Frying meat and veggies in with only a little oil conducting heat between them and the metal makes them browner, crispier, and more flavorful than boiling or steaming. But when you try to do this in a flat bottomed frying pan at home, you don't have enough heat to do the job in a hurry. As a result, they give up liquid, which settles to the bottom. Because water boils at a much lower temp that oil, the pan cannot get hotter than 212F until all the water evaporates. So you end up stir steaming. The beauty of the wok is that you can pull the meat up the curved sides and the juices settle in the bottom to boil off or concentrate.
When buying, the bigger the better. You don't want to crowd your food. You can buy cast iron, but those are really really heavy, and they don't cool off fast enough when you turn down the heat. You can buy non-stick, but they're easy to scratch and you don't get the brown bits sticking to the sides that enrich the sauce. That leaves carbon steel, and that's the stuff they use in Chinese restaurant. Carbon steel needs to be seasoned and can rust so you need to wash and dry by hand, but if you want to cook authentic Chinese, you need an authentic wok. Make sure to get a wok spatula, a special curved spatula that fits the curved bowl, a dome lid, a ring for it to sit on, and a drain rack. I also like woks that have a handle on both sides so it is easy to lift and a small flat bottom. I bought mine on the cheap in a store in Chicago's Chinatown, but if you don't have a Chinese hardware store, go for Helen Chen's Asian Kitchen Flat Bottom Carbon Steel 14-Inch Lidded Wok Set.
Steamer Basket — First you pour some water in the bottom of any pot. Then you drop in this gizmo. A bowl is formed by perforated fans that open to fit the diameter of just about any 1 or 2 quart pot. You want stainless steel or silicone so it doesn't rust, you want legs to hold the food above the water, and you want a pin in the center that you can use as a handle to lift it out. This Norpro Silicone 9-Inch Steamer Insert is a lot easier to clean than the old fashioned metal ones. A lot cheaper than a steamer pot.
12" Splatter Guard — This mesh screen can go over a red hot 12" cast iron pan cooking a burger or bacon and allow the steam out but keep the grease splatters (or is it spatters?) in. The Oxo Good Grips Splatter Screen with Folding Handle has stainless steel mesh and ridges to help it fit different size pots and pans. The folding handle makes it easier to store. Makes cleanup and married life a lot easier.
2 Large Trivets — ESSENTIAL —
2 Stainless Baking Pans 9" x 13" inside — ESSENTIAL —
Large Roasting Pan — ESSENTIAL —
Broiler Pan —
2 Loaf Pans —
Muffin Pans —
2 Cake Racks — ESSENTIAL — These are chrome or nickle coated wire grates like the ones in your oven only smaller. They are very useful for putting on top of pans to hold food so they can drip into the pan and not sit in the drippings. I also use them to put water in the pans so the meat is surrounded by humidity. They are also important for cooling baked goods where airflow on all sides is important.
Assorted Disposable Aluminum Roasting and Baking Pans — I buy a variety of them for dirty jobs, like drip pas in the grill. You need a large one for turkey, and small ones for holding wood chips.
2 Half Sheet Pans or Cookie Sheets — ESSENTIAL — A full sheet pan is 18 x 26" with a 1" lip. I rarely need a full sheet pan, but half sheet pans, which are 18 x 13 x 1" are great multi-taskers. Use them for drip pans, baking, cookie pans, drying peppers, or roasting nuts. They are usually aluminum or non-stick. I get the aluminum ones because the non-sticks scratch too easily and I abuse them on the grill.
2 Pie Pans — You do like pie, don't you? Metal or Pyrex pans work fine, but metal is cheaper.
Teakettle — I like the ones that whistle when the water is hot, because I often turn on the flame and walk out of the room. You want one that is easy to clean, because if you leave it on the stovetop it will collect spatters from other things you are cooking. You also want one with a well insulated handle that is far away from the body of the kettle so it doesn't get too hot to lift.
Other tools in my junk drawer
Measuring Spoons — ESSENTIAL — Ordinary spoons used for eating are not accurate measures. You need a good set of metal measuring spoons that you can toss in the dishwasher. Pick a set held together with a ring, and with the sizes marked large and easy to read. There should be at least 4 spoons: 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, 1 tablespoon. It's nice to have more than on set around for when you are making dishes that have dry and wet ingredients, like barbecue sauce.
Measuring Cups — ESSENTIAL — I like 2 cup capacity Pyrex measuring cups. It's also nice to have a set of individual scoops that can be nested and range from 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, and 1 cup.
Fat Separator — This is a measuring cup with a tubular spout that pours from the bottom of the cup. Because fat floats to the top, this lets you pour off the pan drippings free of fat.
Large Colander — ESSENTIAL — Get one with a base that will stand in the sink, but wide enough to sit in the top of your stock pot. You also want handles to you don't burn yourself.
Fine Mesh Sieve — This is good for washing fruits and veggies or for draining pasta. A colander will do the job pretty well, so it is not essential, but for things like draining cans of tomatoes, or big pots of tea, it's the best tool.
Tea Strainer — Designed for keeping the leaves out of your tea, this little sieve comes in handy for fine filtering broth, tomato juice, and other liquids.
Tea Ball — Designed to make a pot of tea, tea balls are good at holding spices in soups and other liquids when you want to remove them later.
Food Mill — My wife grows lots of tomatoes and cans her own sauce. A food mill is a must for getting rid of the seeds. It can also puree pretty well, and could save you the cost of a food processor. The Sunbeam 2-Quart Food Mill comes with three stainless steel blades.
Silicone Brushes — Silicone brushes are the best thing to happen to barbecue since the charcoal briquet. I long ago relegated my natural and nylon bristle brushes to cleaning computer keyboards. The silicone brushes load up with lots of sauce, deliver it evenly, and are so easy to clean and decontaminate. They are dishwasher safe. We have three: One for barbecue, one my wife uses for egg washes and other baking, and one for whatever. Grill Friends makes my fave long handled brush.
Tongs — Rated #1 by Cooks Illustrated and winners of the Tylenol/Arthritis Foundation Design Award. Dishwasher safe stainless steel with OXO's popular nonslip rubber handles. The ends are scalloped for better gripping. There is a loop for hanging and a mechanism that locks them in closed position for storing (which has failed after several years on all three pairs that I have). Regardless, they are still my faves. I just store them with a cardboard toilet paper core over the ends. I use mine for everything from the grill to tossing salads. OXO Good Grips makes the best 12" tongs.
The 18" tongs don't have the locking mechanism, but they are necessary if you have a deep pit. But be warned, the longer the tongs, the less leverage you have and the harder it is to get a grip.
I also recommend their 9" nylon tipped tongs for use on non-stick cookware.
While you're at it, get some salad tongs for mixing and serving salad, and some small ice tongs that will come in hand for any number of odd jobs.
Fish Tongs — A jumbo hybrid of tongs and spatulas, this is the proper tool for flipping fish, burgers, and other crumbly foods. Rosewood handle protects you against the heat, and there is a leather loop for hanging. They come with a lifetime warranty. I find them to be indispensable. Lamson Sharp is the model I have.
Balloon Whisk — ESSENTIAL — A good whisk is an essential kitchen tool for mixing, whipping, and adding air to sauces. I especially like my OXO Good Grips Nylon Balloon Whisk because it is nylon and I can use it vigorously on a coated frying pan without scratching the surface. This model is sturdy, comfortable to hold, and has a hole in the handle for hanging.
Also, I like having a 6" mini whisk that I can use to beat one egg in a coffee cup or mix a small amount of salad dressing. This link will get you two of them.
Trudeau Garlic Press — ESSENTIAL — When a recipe calls for garlic to be crushed, minced, or pressed, I use a garlic press. A good garlic press releases more oils and flavors than mincing with a knife and pressed garlic coats the food more evenly than mincing. A good garlic press is an important kitchen tool. Get one that is sturdily built, that is easy to grip, that is easy to clean, and has a large hopper to hold big cloves. Avoid non-stick models. I have a well-used Trudeau Garlic Press and I recommend it.
Wooden Spoon and a Wooden Spatula — ESSENTIAL — You need these for stirring and scooping with your non-stick pans. They wont scratch the surface.
Ladle — ESSENTIAL — Get at least one with a mouth about 3-4" wide for serving soups, or moving hot liquids like spaghetti sauce from pot to pot or to a serving bowl without pouring, spilling, and scalding. I also keep a small ladle around for serving small amounts of sauce, gravy, or dressings.
Large Long Handled Spoon — ESSENTIAL — Necessary for stirring pots of sauce or scooping them out.
Large Long Handled Slotted or Perforated Spoon — ESSENTIAL — You need this when you want to scoop the meatballs out and not the sauce.
Spaghetti Scoop — ESSENTIAL — The best way to get spaghetti from bowl to plate.
Spider — This is the Asian version of a slotted spoon and perfect for lifting food out of a deep fryer.
Heatproof Silicon Spatulas — ESSENTIAL — These guys are flexible and there's no better way to every bit of barbecue sauce out of the pot or frosting out of the bowl. Get one large and one small.
Stiff Metal Spatula — ESSENTIAL — They come in slotted and solid, and I recommend the solid with a good insulated sturdy handle. The solid is best for pressing things down on a griddle, like when you are making Diner Burgers on a griddle or in a frying pan. I like the Weber Style 6446 Professional-Grade Fish Turner.
Thin Flexible Metal Spatula - This spatula is used for spreading, not lifting or pressing. You use it to spread icing on a cake or cheese in a lasagna.
Pie Spatula — This pointy tipped spatula is the one you need for lifting pie and quiche slices from the pan.
Ice Cream Scoop — Not only handy for ice cream, but a great way to portion ground meat for burgers.
Fish Scaler — Makes quick work of fish scales.
Wire Potato Masher — You can mash potatoes with an electric mixer, but you run the risk of introducing too much air and if you go too long the glutens will get gluey. I like the old fashioned masher. With very little elbow grease you can mash them plenty smooth, or if you prefer, as I do, you can leave in a few lumps. Besides you can't make skin-on smashed potatoes in a mixer. I recommend the Oxo Good Grips Wire Potato Masher.
Salad Spinner — There is no better way to clean your lettuce or spinach. Submerge it in water and then spin off all the water. You can blot off the water with paper towels, but that's wasteful and not as effective.
Can Opener — Skip the electric can openers. You want something lightweight, with a good comfy grip, with a large cutting wheel. They should be dishwasher safe because the gunk that builds up on the cutting wheel is a lovely bungalow for bacteria.
Lid Opener — If you didn't marry a crushing handshake, this little rubber pad helps a lot buy getting a grip on that stubborn slippery %^&*$#!
Bottle Brushes — Cleanliness is next to godliness, and you need bottle brushes to get down into those thermos bottles, jelly jars, and most importantly, basting bulbs.
Scrubbie Sponges — I don't know who invented sponges with scrubbies on the back, but he or she deserves a place in heaven alongside the person who invented post-it notes.
Citrus Juicer — There all kind of fancy gizmos designed to get the juice out of citrus including one that looks like a giant garlic press. It works fine, but you've gotta be strong. Nothing works better for me than an old fashioned juicer with a little built-in bowl and a strainer like grandma used. I bought a nice glass one at an antique store. Check this stainless unit out: Stainless Steel Citrus Juicer.
Nut Cracker —
Nut Chopper —
Bag Clips —
Corks — I always have a drawer full of corks for a variety of tasks, especially for recorking open bottles. The T-top corks, the kind that are used on sherry and port are especially good for this. I use regular wine corks for holding my digital thermometer probe just above the cooking surface of my smokers.
Assorted Funnels — ESSENTIAL — You can get by with two funnels. You want a wide opening on the top and a small opening on the bottom, and one with a wide bottom that fits neatly into the standard ball jar. I also recommend a small funnel that will rest on top of a spice jar without tipping it over.
Spice Rack — I've never found one I like, that holds a variety of bottle diameters and heights. You?
Mortar & Pestle — Useful for grinding seeds.
Spice Grinder —
Egg Timer — This inexpensive little gizmo is amazing. It really works. You just put this heat sensitive plastic egg in the boiling water with the real eggs, and it changes color at the same rate as the eggs. It's easy to read the scale and get perfect soft, medium, or hard boiled eggs every time, no matter what altitude you are at or how many eggs in the bath. Click here to order the Norpro Egg Rite Egg Timer.
Magnetic Can Opener — You want one that can cling to your fridge door because you never know when you really need a beer and a lot of the better beers are still not twistoff.
Corn Holders — Corn has to be served hot, and although I rarely butter mine, a lot of folks do, these little guys keep hot buttered corn from slipping into your lap.
Rolling Pin — A simple tapered wooden pin is all you need. In a pinch, you can use a wine bottle that doesn't have sloped sides, the kind cabernet comes in.
Heatproof Silicone Mats. Silpat is the standard for these amazing newfangled non-stick mats. They're unmatched for rolling dough and baking cookies or frico cheese crisps. Yes, they can handle oven temps. No more parchment paper needed.
Large Serving Platters — ESSENTIAL — Big enough for a turkey and a mound of ribs. You should probably have two of them.
Adjustable Pepper Mill — ESSENTIAL — The Kyocera Everything Mill Adjustable Grinder came into my life after trying many many pepper mills. This one is easy to adjust the size of the grind, and that is really important.
I want coarse grind for some things, like steaks, and fine grind for use in sauces. Yes, the size of the grind is important. It influences flavor. And yes, freshly ground pepper is better than the pre-ground stuff in the metal box. It has one other really smart feature. The grinder is on top. That means that it won't leave a little pile of pepper dust on your table.
Kitchen Towels — ESSENTIAL — I prefer terry cloth. Cheaper the better. White so you can bleach them and no fringe to catch fire. Get 6 of them.
Butcher String — ESSENTIAL — It's really just food grade kite string.
Double Strength Aluminum Foil — ESSENTIAL —
Plastic Wrap — ESSENTIAL — You need this stuff for wrapping food to keep air off it and keep it fresh. The best are the kinds that cling to bowls so you can cover the coleslaw.
Rubber Bands — ESSENTIAL — Needed for holding the plastic wrap tight around the food.
Duct Tape — ESSENTIAL — 'Cause I'm a guy.
Canister Set — If you don't put the flour in an airtight canister, it can lose quality, but worst of all, it will attract pantry moths, a most unwelcome infestation that can swarm like an Alfred Hitchcock movie in a few days and carry away your children and pets. You need a canister for flour, sugar, brown sugar, all your rices, coffee, and tea.
Plastic Storage Containers — ESSENTIAL — They need to be easy to use, come in various sizes, keep all liquids within, stack neatly, withstand multiple diswasher cycles without melting or cracking, not absorb odors, easy to store, and it would be especially nice if one lid fits different sizes. Rubbermaid Stain Shield Containers meet all my criteria. One word of caution: I always remove food from plastic containers before microwaving. I am just not convinced that the plasticizers and other compounds in these things are perfectly inert and harmless when heated.
Nesting Mixing Bowls — ESSENTIAL — You need at least three sizes of mixing bowls that will nest inside of each other for easy storage. Heat proof glass like Pyrex and stainless are good choices because they can go in the oven. Glass can be used in the microwave, metal cannot. Glass also looks nicer as a serving bowl. Stainless is lightweight and can be used on stovetop in a pinch. Don't get aluminum, it can react with acidic or salty foods.
Assorted Jars and Lids — ESSENTIAL —
Thermos — Not for coffee, but for gravy and sauce that you need to keep warm, especially if you are going over the river and through the wood with a turkey and gravy.
Juice Pitcher — At least one gallon capacity with markings on the side for quarts and a tight lid so you can shake up the OJ without splattering the ceiling.
Zipper Bags — ESSENTIAL —
Things that use electricity
Toaster — I don't know why it is so hard to make a good toaster and why there are so few. I mean all it needs to do is brown the bread to the desired setting without burning it. WHY IS THIS SO HARD???? Then it must have openings wide enough for a bagel. It must be easy to remove the crumbs. And a special feature, rarely found, must have an option to toast only one side, handy for English muffins and onion bagels. I am so tired of charred onions so I am not recommending anything. If you know of a great toaster, please tell me in the comments below.
Stand Mixer — This is an investment. Not cheap. And if you are on a limited budget, a hand mixer (below) will do almost everything a stand mixer will do, but not quite. The stand mixer can handle kneading bread dough and grinding meat, and if you are whipping cream and eggs, you can walk away while it does its thing. They mix wet ingredients at a range of speeds, can kneed bread or pizza dough. Hamilton Beach has a number of reasonably priced products.
Hand Mixer — ESSENTIAL — You can whip eggs and cream with a whisk, but a hand mixer will do the job better job on batter and the other things in a fraction of the time.
Stick Blender — You won't have a lot of use for this, but when you want to puree a potato soup or barbecue sauce right in the pot without dirtying the blender or food processor, the old boat motor does a mighty fine job. On the other hand, it can do most everything a stand blender can do and it takes up less space. And it's cheaper.
Food Processor — ESSENTIAL — It chops, shreds, slices, grates, and blends. Does everything a blender does, and it is better at making very thick things like pesto. The 10 cup unit from Hamilton Beach 10 cup Chef Prep 525-Watt Food Processor is a great bargain. There are bigger fancier better models, but if you are watching your budget, start here.
Blender — This is the best tool for making a lot of drinks, sauces, dressings, drinks, and gravies, although a food processor can do most of the things a blender does.
Coffee and Spice Grinder — Coffee beans and whole spices keep better than ground, so buy stuff whole and get a coffee grinder for freshest coffee and for reducing peppercorns to crushed pepper, or for powdering celery seeds, anise, caraway, bay leaves, etc. Get one with a blade not burrs, and make sure it is easy to clean if you plan to use it for both coffee and spices ("Honey, why does the coffee make me cry today?"). I like my Krups GX4100.
Kitchen scale. I don't know how I lived without a good, accurate digital kitchen scale for so many years. It is so important. Look at salt for example. 1 cup of table salt has almost twice as much salinity as a cup of Morton's kosher salt because Morton's kosher salt has more air space between the grains. But a pound of all salts contain exactly the same amount of sodium chloride. Without a scale, making a brine requires a calculator.
Flour and sugar have the same problem. Packed flour or loose flour. Big diff. Ever try to measure a tablespoon of honey? Did you get it all into the bowl or leave a lot of it on the spoon?
My favorite scale is the OXO Good Grips Stainless Food Scale with Pull-Out Display. It can weight accurately up to 11 pounds as well as fractions of an ounce. Push a button and it converts to metric. Put the bowl on the scale and push a button and it zeros out so the bowl's weight is not included. The top comes off for easy cleaning. It will change your life.
Coffee Maker — I hate mine. Still looking for a good one.
Microwave Oven — I don't use mine for a lot of cooking, but it is pretty good at reheating leftovers in a hurry without burning them, for precooking potatoes, for making popcorn, for heating glögg, and for melting chocolate.
Vacuum Storage System — They take up counter space, and they can be awkward to use, but a vacuum sealer can really extend the shelf life of perishable foods from meats to nuts in the fridge and freezer. They also preserve flavor.
Dymo Labeler — Purely a luxury, but I love putting nice neat easy to read labels on jars with my nifty Dymo LetraTag Label Maker.
Deep Fryer — Many fried foods, like fried chicken, are actually better when done only partially submerged in a frying pan, but occasionally I want deep fried breaded zucchini slices, sweet potato chips, or plantains, or French fries.
A deep fryer is a bit of a pain, because you cannot keep used oil for more than a few weeks without it getting funky, so it is kinda wasteful to pour a quart of oil into a fryer and throw it away after one use. But if you're making a mess of hush puppies for a party, a fryer sure come in handy. DeLonghi's Deep Fryer holds 2.2 pounds of food and cooks from 300 to 370°F. It has a clever oil drainage system, a viewing window in the lid, a non-stick interior, and an air filter that helps prevent oil smells.
Induction Cooktop/Hot Plate — For dorm dwellers or people in a small apartment, an induction cooktop is the ultimate answer. Induction cookers are the latest technology. There's no flame. The coil inside the unit excites the molecules in the steel pan (it must be mostly steel) which in turn heats the food. I use the Fissler CookStar Induction Pro Portable Cooktop. Fast, efficient, and safe.
Waffle Iron — Sometimes there is nothing better than a crispy waffle topped with fresh fruit and soaked with read Grade B maple syrup. For this, you need an electric waffle iron.
Slow Cooker — Braising is a wonderful technique for making tough cuts of meat like beef ribs tender and juicy. And they fill the house with wonderful aromas. Since my slow cooker was a wedding gift more than 30 years ago, I asked my friend Brigit Binns of Roadfoodie.com what to look for and what she recommends. She just finished writing a book about slow cookers for a major cookware store. "The most popular slow cookers have a capacity of 6 to 7 quarts, and consist of a simple metal housing with a heavy ceramic insert and a tight-fitting lid, which is crucial to the process (it also means your house won't smell like delicious braising food, which could be good or bad, depending on your opinion).
"In the old days, recipes for slow cookers were of the 'dump, stir, and walk away' variety, but the resulting dishes tended to be soft, bland, and rather one-note in flavor. Now, it's acknowledged that a little preliminary browning (in another pan) before you dump will elevate the dish by many levels of magnitude. It's as if you had a French auntie at home nurturing a consoling supper just for you (an auntie who disappears before dinnertime). Flavors get happy together, protein becomes succulent while remaining juicy, and you look like a star.
"The best models, like the fabulous All-Clad feature a delayed-start button, at least three temperature settings, and revert to hold mode automatically after the cooking time is up. Note that "Low" is always 200°F, and the "High" is always 300°F. Also note that slow-cookers make great additions to the buffet table. They're brilliant, fr'instance, at keeping your favorite chili nice and hot on game days." I also use mine to keep my Swedish Glögg warm during winter parties.
Rice Cooker — Most of the time I make my rice in a saucepan or the microwave (read The Science of Rice), but my friends who eat rice almost every night tell me that Zojirushi makes the best rice cookers. They have a huge line with all kinds of bells and whistles, but a reliable friend says all you need is this low end unit, the Zojirushi NHS-18 10-Cup Rice Cooker/Steamer & Warmer