Thursday 13: Essential kitchen tools

A few week’s ago, I outlined “The Case for Cooking” and described 13 reasons why folks should start preparing food at home more often. And then I got to thinking that a large part of what makes cooking easy/enjoyable for me is having a set of good tools. (This was clearly apparent when I had an apartment in Phoenix stocked with the cheapest/lamest kitchen equipment Walmart could offer. Ahem.)

So for this Thursday 13, I thought about my essential kitchen tools. In a couple weeks, I’ll share my favorite frivolous-but-fun gadgets (yes, the ice cream maker is absolutely in there).

1. Chef’s knife. Good knives make SUCH a difference in the kitchen. I do most of my chopping and slicing with this chef’s knife. It’s decently heavy and quite sharp. (Note that there are many types of knives… from long serrated bread slicers to tiny paring knives. This one I find to be the most all-purpose and it gets the most use from me.)

More on knives here.

2. Spatula(s). It may sound strange to have a “favorite” spatula, but I do. This $3 IKEA find is perfect. The size works well for most saute jobs and flipping, and the handle doesn’t get hot when cooking (unless, like me, you prop it up on the hot pot sometimes). In addition to this all-purpose flipper, I have a giant spatula for moving delicate or large items like quesadillas or omelettes, and a couple flat bamboo spatulas.

3. 12-inch nonstick frying pan with some heft. Whereas a lot of tools you can get on the cheap, one area not to skimp is in the pan arena. A heavier pan makes ALL the difference in how food turns out. For example, this $50 Calphalon non-stick (a middling price point) is reliable on the stove, heats evenly and is my workhorse. You can get comparably sized pans for much cheaper but if they seem as thin as tin foil, you’re going to have more trouble producing well-cooked meals. Nonsticks always seem to need replacing after awhile, but to give you an idea of value… I bought this sucker on Amazon more than five years ago and I’m just now thinking of replacing it.

I use the 12-inch nonstick habitually, but also have other pan favs like a 12-inch All Clad stainless steel jobber (beautiful!), a nonstick grill pan, and a flat griddle.

4. Small and medium saucepan(s). Saucepans are identified by quart-size, which I admit, boggles my mind a bit. My favorites? The 3-quart saucepan pictured below (or maybe it’s 2.5?) and slightly larger 4 or 5-quart version. I have two of the smaller ones that are perfect for cooking veggies like corn or carrots, or simmering a can of beans, warming up spaghetti sauce, heating soup, etc. In a typical dinner-making evening, I might use all three. As with pans, heavier bottomed pots are best to avoiding burning food.

Pictured is a really old Calphalon hard-anodized saucepan. We also have a couple larger stainless steel types, but I admit favoring these oldies because they tolerate the dishwasher.

5. Colander. Want to make spaghetti, boil potatoes or rinse produce? Then you need a colander for draining. We got this pineapple-type at Target for less than $20 a number of year ago. There are also plastic versions in various shapes that fit over the kitchen sink. Whatever type you get, just make sure it is large enough to accommodate what you’re cooking.

6. Measuring spoons. I use these suckers all. the. time. So much so that I have two sets. For complex recipes, I might use both so I can save time on washing mid-meal-making.

Measuring spoons are particularly important when baking where ingredient quantities need to be precise. I also use them to dole out oil for frying as when I eyeball it, I add way too much!

7. Measuring cups, dry and liquid. Like measuring spoons, I keep several sets of measuring cups on hand. In the liquid arena, I have two one-cups, and two four-cups. I use these all the time not only to measure out liquids and ingredients, but for produce prep and transport.

8. Veggie steamer. I know a lot of people who hate cooked vegetables. And I would too if “cooked” meant “mushy.” To me, a good cooked veggie has a bit of bite left to it… at least where broccoli, carrots, beans and the like are concerned. The best investment I made for cooking veggies was a steamer pan. This Calphalon creation cooks veggies evenly and I use it several times a week. Plus, the pot does double duty for other cooking purposes like boiling potatoes or simmering soup.

There are also handy steamer “inserts” that you can buy and use with pans you already possess.

9. Lightweight mixing bowls. I bought this nested set of mixing bowls at Walmart when I lived in Ukiah, California for my first job out of college. Although I have a set of nested glass bowls now, I use these cheapos almost exclusively because they are light and easy to handle. Plus, they have a slight point at one end for pouring.

I use the two middle sizes most every day.

10. Garlic press. Okay, I suppose this is more of a gadget, but when you cook with garlic like yours truly, a good garlic press is something of an essential. Case in point, I use this sucker at least four or five times a week.

No vampires will ever visit the Redden household. Too much garlic here.

10a. Cute small dog (optional). Goliath gives me a head start on floor clean-up most days (I am a terribly messy cook). He is especially “helpful” (aka under foot) when I’m cooking steak. Go figure.

I used to have Martin, the tortoise, and I didn’t realize how much I took his veggie-scrap eating for granted until he stopped living with us!

11. Stock pot. Soup, potatoes, pasta, anything… A good stock pot will serve you well for years and years. Again, make sure it is heavy enough so that your food doesn’t burn.

This 8 or 10 quart pot is a good size for boiling spaghetti noodles and single pots of soup. I also have a gigantor 20-quart stockpot for making big batches of soup or sauce.

12. Baking sheet(s). My most-used baking sheets are these insulated types. My two versions can hold 12 or 20 cookies each, to give you an idea of size. I find myself using these frequently to roast veggies or bake rolls. Word to the wise: Always cover them in foil and you’ll hardly ever have to wash them!

I also use “jelly roll” pans quite a bit. See here.

13. Vegetable peeler. When I thought about my cooking habits, I was surprised to note how much I use this humble vegetable peeler. For carrots, potatoes, ginger, lemon zest… you name it.

This OXO type is of middling quality. Don’t cheap out too much though… Poor quality peelers will take a lot longer to do the job, and may end up mashing your food instead of peeling it.

Any essentials I’m forgetting?


Related links:
– The Case for Cooking

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