Walk into any kitchen store and look around; the choices of tools and gadgets are overwhelming. Which ones are necessary and which ones are not? We could get by if we had to with a pot, a fire, something sharp and a glass of wine, but we have tools at our disposal that make cooking so much easier. Since everyone loves a list, I decided to compose one consisting of my personal favorites. For this list I left off the obvious essentials. I am assuming everyone has a pot and pan or two, an oven and a good sharp knife. This list of favorite tools I got along without at one time, but couldn’t imagine doing without now. How many of these make your list, and how many more can you think of?
Mortar and Pestle
I have always been fascinated with mortar and pestles… I don’t know why. Maybe it is the timeless form or the connection to science and alchemy which I relate to. I always have an eye out for them. I have a few, but there are probably more in my future. I came by my first mortar and pestle by way of my grandfather. He found this Native American beauty while hunting in Lassen County. I remember it sitting in his back yard since I was a small child; now it is sitting in mine. I don’t know much about it other than he found it hunting, it is volcanic rock, and it should probably be in a museum instead of my back yard. I never use it, but it is one of my favorite things. One my most reliable mortar and pestle is from Laos; it is made out of stoneware and palm wood. I bought it in a Thai grocery store about 20 years ago. It has a great form and is one of the few things that remain on my kitchen counter all the time. It is essential for serious Thai cooking and great for grinding spices, herbs, chilies, curry pastes, or making papaya salad. Another mortar I keep handy is a small stone one I use for the small jobs like grinding spices. They taste so much better when they are freshly ground. Lately I have noticed stores selling spices in smaller packages or by weight. I love this and am so happy when I see them being sold this way. It is so much easier to keep them fresh when you only need to buy what you can use right away. How many jars of spices and herbs in your cupboard are candidates for carbon dating? You can use a mini processor to grind them but I think it is easier and much more fun to throw it in a mortar and crush it by hand rather than getting out another appliance. My most recent acquisition is a mortar and pestle from Italy. It is made from the same Carrara marble that Michelangelo carved David out of, and it is the design that’s been used for centuries. If that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. Making pesto in one of these becomes transcendental. You absolutely cannot get the same results by mechanical means. One other type of mortar still on my wish list is from Latin America. The “molcajete” is made from volcanic rock and therefore has a very rough surface. They are very attractive but they need to be seasoned or you will be eating gritty salsa for a long time. Because it is porous it will absorb the flavors of the ingredients that you prepare in them. This may or may not be a good thing, but I can tell you that some of the best salsa I ever had was made in a molcajete.
Olive Oil Spout
I was just perusing Crate and Barrel one day, when I came across this work of art that really caught my eye. It is made by OXO which explains its beautiful appearance and perfect functionality. I took it home and inserted it into a bottle of ‘McElvoy’ olive oil (another essential) where it has remained ever since. The thing I like about this spout is that you can close it off when you aren’t using it to keep your oil fresh. It also pours at the perfect rate when making dressing, mayonnaise or just adding oil to a pan. Sometimes it is just the simple things that make all the difference, and this is certainly one that does.
I have used a couple different kinds of citrus juicers over the years; an antique Depression glass one from my Grandmother, a reamer, and the standard method that involves cutting and squeezing by hand. A few years ago I started seeing these brightly colored ones everywhere. They’ve probably been around for years and I just never noticed them. I finally decide to pick one up and do I ever love it! What doesn’t taste better with a fresh squeeze of lemon or lime? One of my pet peeves has always been bottled lemon juice (especially the little plastic lemons). Fake juice in fake lemons should be banned from the market. With one of these handy it is just a snap to add some lemon to anything from a plate of fresh steamed vegetables to an ice cold cocktail. Just the other day I was talking to my friend Karen (AKA “The Lemon Lady”) and we were talking shop. She naturally agrees that they are essential, but pointed out that these eventually become chipped. Fortunately they are cheap and easily replaced. There are a couple of nice alloy and aluminum ones, but I think I will stick with my painted model at least until someone makes one in stainless steel.
Grade “A” grating of hard cheeses has never been greater. The light airy wisps of cheese grated from a microplane grater are like snowflakes and perfect on pasta and salads. It is also the best way to efficiently zest citrus.
When I told my friends I was getting ready to write this story and asked them what some of their essential tools were, quite a few mentioned spatulas. I have to agree even though it did not immediately come to mind. Spatulas tend to be taken for granted, but it would be tough to get by without them. Just try deglazing a pan or scraping the batter out of a bowl without one and you will quickly realize how important our spatulas are.
When making stock or gravy, the easiest way to separate out the fat is to put it in the fridge, then remove the solidified fat that has risen to the top and hardened the next day. I just don’t always have time for that. That is where a grease separator comes in handy. I have a couple of these and they both work really well. This one from OXO is great; you just pour the liquid into the cup, wait for the grease and oil to rise, and then pour, stopping just as you reach the grease. The other one I use is by AMCO. It works pretty much the same but with this one there is a lever that you squeeze and the separated juices come out the bottom leaving the grease in the cup. Both have strainers on top for trapping the large “bits”. They save time and make the job much easier.
Squeeze bottles are real handy when garnishing a soup, appetizer, or dessert plate and they cost practically nothing. As you know, I like to make things pretty. You can use it to garnish a puréed soup with sour cream, or decorate a desert plate with a berry puree. It is simple and fun, and will always impress your guests.
Pots and pans are a given; everyone has their favorite finishes and styles. We all have a few different types for cooking different things. I decided to include a wok because I truly could not be without one. If I could only have one pan it would be the wok. You can cook almost anything in it; they are the most versatile pan ever created. There are many styles to choose from and buying the right one can be daunting. Selecting the right one for you depends mostly on what kind of cooktop you have. If you have electric cooktop you need to have a flat bottom wok. For gas you can go with a wok that is flat or rounded on the bottom. Carbon steel woks are the most common and my personal favorite. They are cheap, conduct heat beautifully, and last a long time. You do need to season them and care for them properly or they will rust (which is a deterrent for some). However, a well-seasoned wok is a joy to cook with and worth the extra attention. Most well-known manufacturers of pots and pans feature a wok in their line, so you can find them in anodized aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, enameled cast iron, and copper as well as nonstick versions. If you don’t have one and are contemplating on getting one, I recommend one that is at least 14 inches across. You need the extra room when making Pad Thai or Fried Rice or it could get messy.
Not everyone measures when they cook. I am one of those guys. The hardest part of writing recipes for me is figuring out the exact measurements. I have always just proceeded conservatively, adding a little of this and that and tasting as I went along. This method really sucks when you want to make something again and have it turn out the same every time, so I have gotten into the habit of measuring. Being exact is also a good idea when trying out a new recipe for the first time. When baking it is a must! Baking is like chemistry, and you absolutely need to be exact. Table flatware spoons are not exact so you really should have a set of measuring spoons. Extra measuring cups are a good idea too while you’re at it.
I got a Braun hand blender from my brother and his wife for Christmas such a long ago I can’t even remember. It is another item I don’t use much, but can’t live without. One of my favorite things to make and eat is Cream of (fill in the blank) Soup. You could make it by cooling the soup slightly, pouring into a food processor or blender and pureeing in batches, then returning it to the pot. Alternatively, you can just plug in the Braun, stick it in the pot and push the button. I also use it for my Pot Roast Gravy. Remind me to share that recipe later. I am sure hand blenders are good for many other things but that is all I use it for (but that is good enough for me).
Bowls are bit of a no brainer; who doesn’t have a few bowls? I have lots and lots. The reason I included it here is because there are a couple types I think you just have to have. I love an extremely large stainless steel bowl. I tend to mix and toss with great enthusiasm. With a large bowl I am able to mix everything together and toss with confidence knowing none of it is going to end up on the floor. Another set of stainless steel bowls I have really come to love is a set that come with rubber bottoms. You can whisk without holding on to the bowl. If you have ever tried whisking oil into some vinegar while holding the bowl, you will appreciate these rubber bottoms. Without them you need a third hand. The other bowls I rely on are my prep bowls and my pinch bowls. They are great to fill with pre-measured ingredients that you can have handy when you need to work fast.
I had always wanted a KitchenAid mixer…what serious cook wouldn’t? They are modern classics of design and function. When I finally got one I was so proud that I displayed it on the counter as if it was an Academy Award. Unfortunately, I never really used it very much. The reason is I am honestly not into baking. Whenever I entertained and anyone asked me if they could bring anything, my answer was always the same…bring a dessert! Since I met Paul I bake even less. He is the best baker I know, so why try to compete. I am hoping one of these days I can get him to share some of his amazing desserts on my blog (but so far, no luck). If you are into baking at all however, a KitchenAid mixer is a necessity! I am sure you can knead dough, make cake batters, frostings, and crusts by hand like our grandmothers did, but why? Grandma would approve.
How can we overlook the whisk? Just try to whisk without one. Emulsifying oil and vinegar together in harmonious bliss is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Bottled salad dressings are convenient but can’t come close. When you start with great quality oil and vinegar, fresh herbs, good salt and omit the sugar and chemical additives there is really no comparison. If you want to read more about that you can look here.
Instant Read Thermometer
There are so many judgment calls, variables, and guess work in cooking. A meat thermometer is one thing that you can count on every time like an expert second opinion. You can poke it, stick a fork in it, wiggle the drumsticks, and check to make sure the juices are “running clear” but nothing is as definitive as a properly placed thermometer. With poultry it can still be a little tricky; you have to make sure you put in the right place and don’t hit any bones. It is easier with other meats and it is so nice to have some confirmation that it’s done!There are many types of thermometers. I like the instant read ones the best plus they are all cheap and easy to use. They are also easily broken, lost, or damaged, so as cheap as they are, it really doesn’t hurt to have a couple on hand.
Seriously! I never buy chopped lettuce in plastic bags and containers, EVER. I will admit that they are convenient, and the dressing and goodies that come with some of them are often tasty, but the lettuce is never as nice as what you can pick out. Buy a head of lettuce, take it home, tear it or chop it, wash it and dry it in a spinner. Add some spring mix if you want. It is tastier, fresher, and nicer to look at.
ipad and Internet Connection
There is nothing like curling up somewhere comfortable and thumbing through some treasured cookbooks to plan a menu. However, you can’t beat the internet as a reference for charts, recipes, and great information. The ipad is easy to use, doesn’t take up much room and can go anywhere. Just don’t put it in the dishwasher.
Not the musical kind! My pick is the classic French Bron version in stainless steel that you can see here. It is so good for slicing vegetables paper thin, julienne, gaufrette, not to mention making the best pommes frittes ever. Just watch your fingers!
Mini Food Processor
These come in handy for grinding and chopping things like garlic, nuts, olives for tapenade, and a few other things (but remember there is little that can’t be accomplished with just a simple knife or a mortar and pestle). They don’t take up much room, so it doesn’t hurt to have one in the cupboard.
I am probably going to get a lot of heat for this one but I just don’t like them. I know they are great for cooking vegetables and re-heating left overs, but they scare me. I still use them but I have a tendency to run out of the room like an X-ray technician until the bell goes off. It seems odd to me eating something “cooked” in a microwave; one bite is warm, then you bite into ice, then you are burning a layer off the roof of your mouth. Is it just me or does water heated in a microwave cool off faster that water from the kettle? Sorry…spooky!
I used to love my Cuisinart food processor more than my luggage. I’ve had one about 30 years and I’ve used it a lot over the years. Back then Cuisinart made really great products. This thing was built like a brick s+++ house. I’m sorry to say they just don’t make them like that anymore. Even though mine still works like a champ I just don’t use it very often unless I am cooking for a very large group. I find that it chops things too fine or unevenly. I like a little more control and the texture and soul that you get by chopping things by hand. As convenient as it is to chop onions in a processor, the action of processing on the cell structure of the onion releases more sulfur and the results are bitter. Better to brave the tears and chop them by hand.
I hope my favorites become your favorites as well. Let me know what you would have to add to make it onto your essential list!