|From Lia Huber of The Nourish Evolution
Many of the bigger ticket items make great use of holiday gift money, or can be saved up for over time. Well-cared for, most of these tools should last you decades. The first thing you need if you’re going to cook with real food — for realz — is the right equipment.
After many years as a home cook and pro recipe developer, I’ve identified 5 tools that, without them, it’s very difficult to cook real food over the long haul. At the very best, you might stick to it, but it won’t be fun.
I’m not a big one for kitchen gadgets or counter hogging devices (I’ve got a tiny kitchen with limited storage space) — if you are, all the power to you. But even those won’t do you a lot of good without the five basics below. I’ve included both my personal recommendations and how to use them too.
Please know that this isn’t about running out to buy all new tools and equipment right now. Remember, we’re taking the long view here, which is why I’ve got a Must-Have Kitchen Tool Worksheet below to help you make a plan.
So don’t stress. We’re just taking stock and planning ahead to get you set for the rest of the year. Ready? Here we go.
A GOOD, SHARP CHEF’S KNIFE
If you’re one of those home cooks who has a handful of knives, purchased God-knows-when, stored in a drawer with the can opener and that gadget you got for Christmas, it’s time to change your ways.
Using the right knife is a game-changer. It takes the act of endless sawing back and forth (which is both frustrating and dangerous) and turns it into a series of graceful glides. My personal favorite is a Santoku-style knife; it’s lightweight with a super-fine blade and rocks smoothly on the cutting board.
Go to a kitchen store and “test drive” different chef’s knives to see how they feel in your hand, and how they rock and grip on the cutting board.
DON’T be tempted by one of those “12-knives-in-one set … plus a knife block!” deals.
Your money is much better spent on ONE high-quality, can’t-live-without knife. Then branch out from there with a long narrow knife for slicing meat, one serrated bread knife and a small utility knife. Also handy are smaller serrated knives for cutting tomatoes and melons. That’s it. A strategically assembled set of your own with just 4 or 5 high-quality knives.
My Favorite Picks:
· Mac 8-inch Hollow-Edge Chef’s Knife – $95
· Henkels 7-inch Santoku – $45
· Wusthof Classic 8-inch Chef’s Knife – $99
How to Use It: If you’re just starting with a larger chef’s knife, use a basic grip. Hold the handle firmly so that your bent knuckles are all pointing down toward the cutting board (like holding a tennis racket). If you want to up the ante a bit, choke up on the handle and hold the end of the blade, just in front of the handle, with your thumb and forefinger (this gives you more control over the knife).
A LARGE, STURDY CUTTING BOARD
Once you’ve got your good, sharp chef’s knife you’re going to need a large, sturdy cutting board. Large because prepping vegetables takes up a lot of room, and it’s maddening to have them skittering off all over the place. Sturdy because it’s not only dangerous, but incredibly unpleasant to cut anything on a cutting board that acts like a teeter totter.
I love the Epicurean brand because they’re lightweight and sturdy all at the same time. In fact, I’m going to add a caveat here … ideally you’ll have 2-3 large, sturdy cutting boards. It’s best to designate one for vegetables and one for meats, to avoid cross-contamination.
My Favorite Picks:
· Large Epicurean Cutting Board – $25
· Large Epicurean Cutting Board with Juice Channel – $65 (This one is pricey, but it’s awesome when cutting juicy things like roast chicken. I’ve had mine for 10 years or so now and it shows no signs of quitting)
How to Use It: Set your cutting board on top of a thin, damp towel (even a paper towel will do) to keep it from sliding around on the counter. Also, keep your un-prepped foods to the left of your cutting board, and a large bowl behind your cutting board to collect scraps as you go. Then have a stash of bowls or plates to the right so you can move your prepped items off the cutting board as you go.
A BIG, STURDY, STAINLESS STEEL SKILLET (PREFERABLY WITH A LID)
You want a stainless steel skillet that is going to conduct heat evenly and steadily, and be balanced on the burner. This allows a flavorful crust (called a fond) to develop on the bottom of the pan that becomes the base for easy pan-sauces. Thinner pans of inferior material promote uneven cooking, burning and sticking, which is really, really frustrating (trust me). Depending on the size of crowd you’re cooking for, I’d recommend a 10-inch and/or a 12-inch skillet.
* A note on stainless steel vs. nonstick — Yes, I believe there’s a place for nonstick pans in the kitchen — I have a small one and a large one myself. Nonstick pans are great for cooking delicate foods at relatively low temperatures. For me, that translates almost exclusively into eggs, fish, things stuffed with cheese and reheating leftovers. Unlike stainless steel pans, which can and should last you decades, nonstick pans are more “disposable,” (they should be replaced as soon as scratches or wearing appears), which is why I choose less expensive options.
My Favorite Picks:
· All-Clad 10-Inch Fry Pan with Lid – $99
· All-Clad 12-Inch Fry Pan with Lid – $120
· Cuisinart Classic 12-Inch Skillet with Cover – $32
· Cuisinart Classic 10-Inch Skillet (without Cover) – $26
How to Use It: This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s a major game-changer once you get used to it — heat your pan over medium-high heat before putting anything in it *. This causes the cells to expand, creating a sort of “nonstick” surface. Then add your oil to the pan and let it get hot, and swirl it around to coat the pan. This creates another “nonstick” layer. Then, when your oil is hot, add whatever you’re cooking.
Don’t crowd the pan or things will steam rather than brown — you want room for air to circulate. And don’t move things around too much or they’ll never get the chance to develop that gorgeous caramelized crust (if something is still sticking to the pan, let it cook for a bit longer until it naturally releases). The goal is for your food to brown, which will leave a thin layer of goodness in the bottom of the pan (that’s the fond) that you can use to make a quick sauce when the food is done. Click here to learn how to use the fond to make a pan sauce.
* Note – The advice to heat the pan before adding oil only applies to stainless steel pans. When using nonstick pans, always add oil before heating.
A LARGE, HEAVY-DUTY ROASTING PAN
A large, heavy duty roasting pan made of either enameled cast iron or heavy gauge stainless steel can make wholesome food fast food in the sense that, aside from a couple of flips, the heat from the pan does the work. I love my enameled cast iron roasting pan for rendering crispy, caramelized root vegetables; smoky flavorful roasted summer vegetables; even things you wouldn’t think to roast like broccoli and kale. I just chop, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and pop the pan in the oven for a half hour or so. When I’m making larger batches, which I often do for leftovers, I use my giant, less expensive stainless steel pan so I can maintain a single layer.
My Favorite Picks:
· Cuisinart 14-Inch Enameled Cast Iron 14-Inch Roasting Pan – $50
· Cuisinart 16-inch Stainless Roaster with Rack – $42
· Kitchen Aid Tri-Ply 16-Inch Stainless Steel Large Roaster with Rack – $115
· Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron 7-Quart Roaster – $275
How to Use It: Roasting at lower heats creates limp, soggy vegetables. Roasting at high heat — 450F to 475F — makes vegetables that have a savory, caramelized crust on the outside and are tender inside. I always like to roast veggies with some sort of aromatic (sliced garlic, onion, shallot or ginger) and spices or herbs (like thyme or rosemary) for the most flavor.
A STAINLESS STEEL TURNER (ALSO KNOWN AS A STIFF SPATULA) AND SPRING-LOADED TONGS
I know these are actually two things, but I couldn’t let you go without both. In the e-mail I’ll be sending next week, I’ll show you how all of these tools work together.
So, spatulas. Whereas silicone spatulas are great for scooping things out of bowls and pots, a stiff, flat spatula (also known as a “turner”) is essential for two things: scraping the flavorful ‘fond’ off the bottom of pans when sautéing or roasting, and flipping anything from burgers to chicken breasts.
And, at last, tongs. Get rid of those old tongs that open and close like scissors and buy a pair or two of spring-loaded tongs. They’re much more responsive and don’t tire your hand out nearly as much. You can use the regular metal ones in stainless steel pans and pots, but opt for silicone-tipped ones for your nonstick cookware.
My Favorite Picks:
· Oxo Good Grips Stainless Steel Turner – $10
· Artisan 2-Set Spring-Loaded Tongs – $13
How to Use It:
When using the spatula to flip something like a burger or a chicken breast, slide it face-up under foods and, you guessed it, flip. But when you’re scraping up fond or wanting to move veggies around in a roasting pan, flip the spatula over so it’s curved down and acts more like a chisel — think of when you’re using a shovel to pick something up, versus when you’re using a shovel to chip away at something.