Like dad always said, you need the right tool for the job. Lopsided birdhouses aside, the same is absolutely true in the kitchen. The right tools will speed preparation and lessen the chance your endeavor will end up a bust (or on fire – you know who you are).
1) Cast Iron Skillet
Cast iron is the seasoned cook’s (pun intended) pan of choice for a variety of reasons. First, it heats evenly and maintains that heat without sudden fluctuations. No more half burned and half raw pancakes! Second, it adds flavor to whatever you’re cooking as well as a little iron content to the nutritional value of the food. Third, it doubles as a weapon should the need arise. Whatever you do, don’t put a cast iron pan in the dishwasher. Simply wait until it cools, remove solids and wipe it clean. When shopping, look for a 10” to 12” skillet from a well-known manufacturer. Whether the pan is described as “pre-seasoned” on the label or not, you will benefit from taking the time to season it yourself. Do a bit a research and choose the method that works for you.
2) Variable Speed Stand Mixer
Mixers come in many shapes and sizes and have different uses. A hand mixer is fine for making instant pudding, but for kneading bread you need something whose motor won’t burn up at the sight of a hardy dough. Get a good stand mixer that comes with different attachments, a whisk, dough hook, and a paddle. Make sure the mixer has at least three speeds, low, medium, and high are fine. The settings roughly translate to stir, mix, and beat. A locking mechanism is also a good idea if you plan on using it to knead dough of any kind. As budget allows and cooking skills soar, additional attachments are a good idea, such as the self-scraping paddle, pasta rolling machine, meat grinder, and bowl shield.
Nope, it’s not a woodworking tool. A kitchen microplane is basically a grater with much smaller openings. Why would a cook need such a thing? You can grate hard cheeses very finely to top pasta or soup; add fresh nutmeg to cream sauces, never have to mince or smash garlic again, and much more! Microplanes are very versatile in the kitchen and can save steps in your favorite recipes. Throw away any garlic “gadget” you already own and replace it with a microplane. Your garlic and ginger will blend seamlessly in sauces thanks to the fine texture.
A word about knives: less is more! If space is an issue (and let’s face it, in whose kitchen is space NOT an issue) you can truly get by with one knife. If you are limited by space and budget to just one knife, make it a chef’s knife, and purchase it from a restaurant supply store, not the local big box retailer. You can do just about anything you need to with just a chef’s knife, and an inexpensive one at that. If you have a bit of room to expand your collection, pick up a serrated knife for breads and cakes, a paring knife for very small jobs, and a boning knife for, well, deboning things. If you want to get fancy, add a cleaver and filet knife to your repertoire. That’s it. That is all you need. Make sure any knife you purchase feels good in your hand, is nicely balanced, and isn’t an overpriced import. Finally, never, EVER put a knife in the dishwasher because it dulls the blade and loosens the handle.
5) Measuring Devices
There are multiple ways to measure ingredients for a recipe: Liquid, dry, volume, or weight. Make sure you’re using the correct equipment for the job. Tablespoon and teaspoon do not refer (any more at least) to a spoon from your flatware set. Instead, use a set of spoons for dry measure to get your proportions correct. Small pitchers or beakers with graduated markings on the side are for liquid measurement only. Thusly, small cups with handles and no graduated markings are for dry-goods measurement only. The two are not interchangeable. For the best results, measure everything by weight on a kitchen scale.
Temperature matters, not only in cooking things like fudge and meat, but also in a larger scale like your refrigerator and your oven. Refrigerators and ovens both cycle, that is, their temperatures do not remain constant while in use. Keep a thermometer made for each respective environment on hand in each appliance and check them regularly to insure proper cooling and cooking. You’ll also need an instant read candy and oil thermometer for frying and precise stove top cooking. A digital thermometer with alert and alarm settings with a nylon covered cord is ideal. You can use this type of thermometer to insure your expensive prime rib does not turn into shoe leather and your candy hasn’t moved in to the break your teeth stage.
7) Spatulas, Tongs, and Whisks
Most people have a jungle of cooking utensils so it is hard to find the right tool when they need it. Let’s deforest a bit and weed it down to the essentials you really need. Keep a metal spatula with a wide base on hand for jobs that do not come into contact with non-stick surfaces, life ferrying French fries from a baking sheet or flipping burgers in your new cast iron pan. Get a plastic spatula with a thick handle and well-proportioned base for the same purpose to use on non-stick surfaces. The same goes for tongs and whisks, you need at least one set with plastic ends and one with metal. Last, you need at least one soft sided silicone or rubber spatula for scraping down bowls and getting that last drop of brownie batter into your pan (or mouth).
8) Heavy Bottomed Pots
There is no reason to have a set of non-stick pots, they don’t last and are usually too thin to heat efficiently. What you do need is a set of heavy-bottomed, restaurant grade pots with secure handles and tight-fitting lids. The heavy bottom ensures a quality pot, even heating, and the ability to stand up to high heat without warping. Pots are for cooking things of volume with liquid, thus the frivolity of non-stick in such a situation. Make a set with a large Dutch oven, a 3 quart, 2 quart, and 1 quart pot to have all your culinary bases covered. This is a no frills purchase, a chef’s name or fancy color won’t improve your food or get you out of the kitchen any faster. Restaurant grade pots are made to be used for hours every day and stand up to scouring and storing. The average person who uses a few pots four days a week will only ever need to purchase one set.
While cast iron and professional pots will take you a long way in your foodie adventures, some applications still call for a non-stick surface. Look for a 12” or 14” skillet with sloped slides made of anodized aluminum. The anodized aluminum will keep its coating longer than less expensive models. Like your knives and pots, do no put your non-stick items in the dishwasher, the detergent is too harsh and will reduce the life of your pans. Sloped sides are important for sliding food out without breaking delicate items like fish and eggs. Look for a nice heavy bottom for heat distribution and a solid well attached handle with insulation so the heat does not travel up and cause burns. Get another skillet with the same qualities but without a non-stick surface and with a handle that is oven safe. That way you can create dishes that require a good sear followed by a short bake in a single pan. This pan will move seamlessly from stove-top to oven.
10) Baking Pans
Larger is better when talking about baking sheets. Get two with rolled edges and short sides. Look for heavy gauge aluminum that doesn’t sound like Hollywood thunder sound effects when your shake it. It should be sturdy enough to hold heavy items without buckling. You need two so you can easily complete recipes that call for more space than one baking sheet provides, like cookies. Air filled pans and other fad bakeware are not necessary for the savvy cook, neither is non-stick when it comes to baking sheets. Parchment paper will keep items like cookies from sticking without the use of cooking spray, which gives pans their aged and darkened appearance. As far as specialty bakeware, good choices are a loaf pan or two, muffin tins, and cake pans. Bare aluminum or non-stick is a personal preference with these types of pans.
A Good Place To Start
Though not an exhaustive list, these items will give a burgeoning cook or newlyweds looking to fill their cabinets a good start. Conserve space and choose wisely, these well planned purchases can last a lifetime, or at least until you hit the lottery and hire a personal chef.