You know you’ve got one. Maybe it’s a half-melted, hand-me-down beige rubber spatula you still use to stir risotto. Or a scorched, chipped T-fal sauté pan that sloughs random bits of “non-stick” coating onto your fish. A friend of my wife has managed to retain not just one, but two tempered-glass cutting boards from the 1980s; small wonder her Wiltshire StaySharp knives won’t cut through anything tougher than a wet slice of bread. (A side note to potential StaySharp buyers: A knife can’t stay something it never was.)
I’ll admit that I’m just as guilty: Somewhere in the cupboard to the left of my stovetop, there’s a very expensive salt grinder gathering dust and ignominy. When’s the last time somebody said, “All this dish needs now is a little freshly ground salt?”
Canada’s kitchens are littered with useless, obsolete cooking equipment. Even many people who profess a love of food don’t have the basic tools to make good cooking possible, much less pleasurable.
It’s time to set things right.
After consulting chefs, hard-core home cooks and a cross-sampling of food geeks, we’ve come up with a short and somewhat-affordable list of the 16 cooking tools every home kitchen needs.
Where some of the picks seem expensive – the $140 chef’s knife, the $215 saucepan – we’ve chosen them because they last forever and work much better than cheaper versions. We’ve also advised where it makes no sense to buy more expensive options; if you spend more than $35 on a stock pot, for instance, maybe also consider filling it with cash when you get it home and setting it on fire. (Another note: Don’t neglect your local restaurant-supply store. They are often far cheaper and better stocked than kitchen boutiques.)
This list is not meant to be exhaustive. It assumes that most kitchens already contain the absolute bare basics, such as a cookie sheet, a casserole dish, a Joy of Cooking, measuring spoons and cups and a colander of some sort. But it’s a solid starting point. And it will let you make risotto that doesn’t taste like melted rubber spatula, guaranteed.
Stirrers, grabbers, flippers
Some cooks prefer wooden spoons with square bottoms, some prefer round (I’m agnostic); either way, they’re cheap and 100-per-cent indispensable. Get them 10 inches or longer, and get a few. Cost: $2 each.
If your fingers haven’t built up years of heat-resistant kitchen calluses, you’re going to need to turn those chicken thighs and toss searing rapini some other way. (And no, you shouldn’t use a dinner fork.) Get yourself a pair of long (10 inches is perfect), locking, stainless-steel tongs. You want locking because they’ll stay closed in your drawer that way. $6.
There is no better flipper than a fish flipper. They’re flexible enough to slide under delicate eggs, fluffy cottage-cheese pancakes and buttery sole fillets, and just wide enough so that your food doesn’t droop over the sides. But the best part is the sharpened front edge: If anything’s sticking, a fish spatula will free it. $4 at restaurant supply stores, $30 everywhere else.
Silicone spatulas are heat-proof to 500 F, don’t go hard and crumbly with aging and are virtually indestructible. They come in pretty colours too. $12
A balloon whisk is useful for combining dry ingredients in baking recipes (I never sift flour and salt together; a quick whisking is good enough), making lump-free sauces and gravy and, yes, even beating eggs. $4.
You don’t need that 16-piece knife set. All you really need is three knives.
A high-quality eight-inch chef’s knife should be your kitchen workhorse. They’re made for slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing and carving and even for peeling garlic (just lay the blade flat over a clove and slam it with the side of your fist). The best ones are made from a single piece of high-carbon steel that extends from the knife’s tip to the end of the handle. Treat it well, and keep it well sharpened. It will live longer than you do. $140.
You need a serrated bread knife. The best one we’ve tried is made by Forschner and has an offset handle so that you don’t scrape your knuckles on the cutting board. $24.
Also get a paring knife: short, simple, great for hulling and slicing berries, peeling, well, pears, and other finicky cutting tasks. Restaurant supply stores sell razor-sharp ones for peanuts (though you can also use them on other foods); just replace it once it’s dull, after about a year. $7.
If peeling potatoes sounds to you like drudgery, that’s because you don’t have a Swiss Y-peeler. “Life-changing” might be overstating it, but not by much. $5.
You’ll also reach for the Microplane rasp grater far more often than you would think: It zests citrus, grates nutmeg, minces ginger, turns amaretti cookies into a spectacular garnish for creamy pastas and shaves hard cheeses such as Parmesan into fluffy, ultralight wisps. $14.
And don’t forget the cutting board. End-grain wood is the best, but expensive. Thick plastic boards are also excellent; they’re soft on knives and easy to clean. A great size is 12 by 18 inches. Put a damp paper towel or cloth underneath to prevent it from sliding. $12.
A 16-quart stainless-steel stock pot is go-to equipment, perfect for boiling spaghetti, blanching green vegetables or cooking whole lobster. You can even make stock in it. Don’t bother buying anything fancy: You’re using it to boil water and thin liquids for the most part; water doesn’t generally burn. $20.
Four-quart and 1½-quart saucepans are stovetop MVPs; I use mine nearly every time I cook. The four-quart size is great for everything from steaming broccoli and simmering tomato sauce to reheating soup; the one-and-a-halfer is perfect for making rice, tempering chocolate or whisking together delicate sauces. Quality is key here: A pot that is triple-ply construction (stainless steel outside, aluminum core, stainless steel inside) from the base all the way up the sides (many have only triple-ply bases; be sure to check) will heat evenly and be less prone to scorching and hot spots. It will also last a lifetime. Avoid non-metal handles; pans with those can’t go in the oven. $215 (four-quart), $100 (1.5-quart)
A properly seasoned cast-iron pan browns meat and vegetables beautifully, lasts forever and, unlike many “non-stick” sauté pans, won’t typically stick to food. Lodge makes excellent versions, but they’re heavy enough that you think twice before hauling one onto the stove. Even better, grab an older, lighter cast-iron pan at a garage sale or antique shop: They’re cheap and easy to find, and often they’re perfectly seasoned. You’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than $15.
The gateway appliance
Few kitchen tools can open up worlds of possibility more readily than a stand mixer. With a good mixer, you can make batter and dough for cakes, cookies, breads and pastries, beat eggs and whipping cream easily and even whip homemade marshmallows from gelatin, light corn syrup and candied sugar. Kitchen Aid stand mixers are the gold standard: They’re tough, they last and there are plenty of excellent attachments available, from a pasta roller to a (very good-quality) meat grinder. Better still, the price keeps falling. It’s not uncommon to find the basic model (all you need) for $200.
When you buy a cast-iron pan, clean it with steel wool if necessary to remove any light rust, particularly if it’s second-hand. Rinse the pan and dry it, then brush a film of vegetable oil inside and out with a paper towel. Finish the process on the barbecue if you have one; crank the heat, put the pan on the grate, upside down, and leave it for an hour or so. (You can also use a 250-degree oven, leaving the pan in for at least a couple hours; be prepared for a bit of smoke.)
To maintain the pan, don’t use soap unless absolutely necessary; scrub it with hot water and a stiff brush or copper scrubbing pad. Dry once it’s clean, and then rub with a thin film of vegetable oil. High-acid foods such as lemon juice and tomatoes are best left to stainless; the acid will pull out some of cast iron’s seasoning.
For delicate foods such as pancakes, use a lower setting than you’re used to (cast iron retains a lot of heat) and give the pan time to heat evenly. But for meat, burgers and greens such as sautéed rapini, let ’er rip.
After you put your meat in the hot pan, go pour a drink or something: It needs a little alone time to sear. Then it will “release” from the pan’s surface, and you’ll be able to turn it without sticking.
Readers: What is your must have kitchen tool? Which ones can you do without? Tell us in the comments.