Cooking Tools Every Kitchen Should Have

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Phyllis Diller once said, "My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor." Maybe if she'd had an instant-read thermometer or other cooking tools, things wouldn't have been such a disaster. If so, she wouldn't be the first cook, or the last, thwarted by a lack of equipment. This quest for the right tools has been going on as long as humans have been eating. Millions of years ago, dinner with our hairy troglodyte cousins was no picnic. When they wrestled with what to fix for dinner, they really had to wrestle it—until they fashioned simple stone tools to get the job done. And once they figured out how to control fire, we went from being the main course to cooking the main course.

Yes, cooking has evolved since then, but the age-old question still remains, "What are the essential tools every kitchen should have?" It depends on your skill level, what you're cooking, and your budget.

What makes a tool essential?

Are you a whiz at the stove or do you walk into the kitchen and say, "I wonder what they do in this cute room"? There are cooking tools every kitchen should have, even if you never plan to turn on the stove. With just a few essential tools, you can cook almost anything, from fried chicken to steamed vegetables, soup, rice, or dessert.

What makes a tool essential? It should be easy enough to use every day, made from quality materials that will last, able to be used by beginners and pros alike, so versatile you can find multiple uses for it, and relatively inexpensive.

8-inch chef's knife

Acclaimed chef Charlie Trotter once said, "Using a top-quality knife versus a low-quality one is the difference between driving a Jaguar and a VW Jetta across the country. They'll both get you there. But the Jaguar will give you a much smoother ride." If you invest in a quality chef's knife, you will get a huge return on your investment from ease of use, versatility, and longevity. The best size is an 8-inch chef's knife. For less than $40, try the Victorinox 8" Swiss Army Fibrox Pro Chef's Knife. You'll be slicing and dicing like a pro.

This knife sharpens easily, keeps its edge, is stain-resistant, and makes cutting and chopping faster and easier. For the last 20 years, it has been the chef's knife ranked highest for quality and value by Cook's Illustrated magazine.

Wooden cutting board

A properly seasoned, end-grain, hardwood cutting board is more than a practical tool: it can be a thing of rare beauty that develops a burnished patina as it ages. In some families, these become cherished family heirlooms and are passed from one generation to the next. For a while, though, the wooden cutting board had a bit of a tarnished reputation, thanks to misinformed policies about the safety of wood in the kitchen.

For years, cooks, restaurants, and chefs were told wooden cutting boards weren't sanitary and that plastic was the way to go, but a study done by the Food Safety Lab at UC Davis proved that wood is actually safer to use and forced the USDA and FDA to change their plastic-only policies.

The study showed that wood contains natural enzymes that are like kryptonite to a range of nasty food germs and bacteria like salmonella and showed that it was plastic that was unsafe. Plastic cutting boards harbor dangerous germs long after they have been heated and washed. Buy a cutting board and start chopping and dicing with abandon. We know once you try wood and you see how easy it is to sanitize and how naturally attractive it is, you won't ever go back to plastic.

Spoons

Spoons, in a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials, are an extension of the cook's hand and are indispensable in any kitchen. Like any ancient tool, their origins are lost in in the mists of time, but they probably started when a clever cook realized they needed a utensil to hold, serve, or pour liquid. Maybe an oyster or other type of shell with a natural bowl was nearby. The ancient Egyptians were early adopters, fashioning spoons out of wood, pottery, and precious metals thousands of years before Christ was born. The Romans later named this everyday tool "coclear," which originates from the Latin word for "shell."

With mass production, and a range of materials at our disposal, modern cooks aren't content with just one utilitarian spoon! We keep a range of spoons in the kitchen. Metal spoons can be used by the stove for tasting sauces and other foods during cooking, but wooden spoons are the versatile workhorses relied on most often. Unlike metal, their handles don't get hot if left in a hot liquid, they can be used with acidic foods and won't impart a metal taste, they don't scratch nonstick pans, they can last for decades if properly washed and dried, and they aren't expensive at all.

A 10-inch nonstick saute pan with a lid

When you are stocking your kitchen, it's easy to give in to the temptation of buying a full set of shiny, new stainless steel pots and pans, but this is the short list of essentials. If you can only have one pan, you'll get the most use from a 10-inch, nonstick saute pan with a long handle and lid—you won't find a better pan for your cooking needs. It's shallow and wide enough to brown and glaze meats and vegetables, has enough space to fry several eggs or French toast, will keep a burger moist while crisping the outer layer, and can easily caramelize onions without burning or sticking.

This all-around pan can keep tiny kitchens clutter-free by eliminating the need for big, bulky, hard-to-store stock pots and Dutch ovens. And with this one pan, you can make your favorite Bolognese sauce, cook soup, roast a whole hen in the oven or make a tender pot roast. When shopping, look for a pan made of high-grade (18/8) stainless steel with an oven-safe lid and handle. (Plastic is just not an option if you want to get the most use out of your pans.)

Shop around to find the best prices. If you insist on buying expensive brands, shop at places like HomeGoods and Marshalls: they often have bargains on top-of-the-line pans like Calphalon and Cuisinart.

Sheet pans

If you don't already have a professional-grade half sheet pan, you will wonder how you ever got by without one. Running 13 inches by 18 inches, this pan is made of 18-grade aluminum and is preferred by chefs and home cooks because it is resistant to corrosion, doesn't warp easily, conducts heat evenly, and can be used to roast root vegetables with as much ease as it makes brownies, pizza, roasted chicken, or cookies. You can pick them up in bundles of three in hotel and restaurant supply stores, or just order one from Amazon.

Can opener

Wrestle with a #10 can of tomatoes or try to open a can of tuna fish with a slightly dented rim and you will realize this low-tech tool is just as relevant today as it was when Ezra J. Warner invented it in Connecticut back in 1858—years after the can was invented. The craze started when Napoleon Bonaparte held a contest in 1795 in hopes of getting a new food preservation system he could use to safely feed his army when fighting far afield. It took 15 years, but Nicolas François Appert claimed the prize based on his process of boiling and sealing food in glass jars. It took Englishman Peter Durand another 18 years to repurpose Monsieur Appert's idea and store food in metal cans that couldn't be broken and weren't as heavy as the glass Appert used.

With so many can openers to choose from, what should you have in your kitchen? Stick with an old-fashioned, reliable manual can opener like tried-and-true models from OXO. Their openers last forever, are made of sturdy stuff, can open large and small cans, and they never rust. Thanks, Ezra.

Essential prep tools you will want to buy

Okay, you get the whole essentials-only approach to the first six tools every kitchen should have. If cooking isn't your thing, you won't be in the kitchen trying to find a spatula or knife. But if you live with someone who is a good cook or wants to become one, there are some other tools you will want to have on hand.

Preparing a meal or just a snack can be made a lot easier with the right tool. Despite innovations in kitchen gadgets, there are some ancient tools that you will still want to have around.

Start with a sturdy, medium-sized stone mortar and pestle. It's invaluable for grinding spice seeds or for mincing garlic and olive oil for an aioli, and can make mashing herbs a breeze. No one should ever cook without a set of stainless steel mixing bowls in a range of sizes. Stainless steel is easy to clean, doesn't break, and doesn't absorb unpleasant smells or fats, which can ruin a beautiful meringue or flavor other ingredients. Washing up vegetables, lettuce, and fruit can be done in a jiffy and safely left to dry in the sink in a stainless steel colander with feet. Then you can toss your lettuce, herbs, and other leafy foods into another must—a salad spinner, which dries them so they stay fresh a lot longer.

If you love the taste of fresh lemon in your water, squeezed onto fish, or added to soup for a touch of Greek cuisine, this lemon juicer is the best. Try it and you will immediately understand why it's the manual juicer most bartenders prefer. No fuss and no electric cords. You might as well order the lime and orange sizes, too—you'll use them all the time.

What essential tools do chefs recommend?

It always helps to have perspective when you are learning a new skill or discovering a new hobby. For that, we turn to a few accomplished chefs who are a bit anti-tool establishment and opt to make their own tools or rely on low-tech options for most of their essentials.

Alton Brown is a dynamic TV personality, chef, and cooking science guru who has his own unique take on the question of what to stock in your kitchen. The first items on his list are things like good lighting, a table for proper dining, and a talisman that makes you feel confident in your element. His talisman is a favorite wooden spoon, but yours could be a knife your grandma used to pare apples or anything else.

Acclaimed nuevo Latin cuisine chef Michelle Bernstein has a slightly different perspective that reflects her roots and cooking style. In her kitchen, she always has "one great knife, about 8-9 inches, good and sharp; one great spoon, as that is pretty much all I use, almost as a second hand, one great small nonstick pan, one larger regular stainless steel pan, and a fish spatula." What you notice right away is that neither chef relies on expensive gadgets but on skill and the right tools rather than a kitchen brimming with blenders, electric mixers, etc.

Let's talk about knives

Any cook worth their salt will obviously have a good chef's knife, but for practical reasons and more specialized cutting, three other knives should be added to the list: a paring knife, a slicer, and a bread knife.

For small jobs, or when you can't find your potato peeler, a paring knife can make short work of mincing garlic, turning vegetables into perfect brunoise, and peeling all sorts of fruits. Like the chef's knife, you want to invest in quality and look for something that will last and can take everyday use. The second knife is essential if you want to slice meats like tenderloin or break down ribs, and it can do double duty as a carving knife at Thanksgiving. It makes carving thin slices a breeze and can be used to clean and skin salmon and more. Cutting ripe tomatoes, even slices of bread, or thin cake layers may not sound difficult until you try to do it with a chef's knife or a slicer. Switch to a bread knife and you will see why chefs find them a blessing.

Better baking means better tools

You've taken the plunge, you're cooking and using your tools, and now your talisman is giving you the confidence to dive into baking. It will take some precise measuring and trial and error, but think of the fun you will have later when people are making yummy sounds as they take another bite of that tender cherry pie or sneak an extra cookie. Other than expensive mixers, specialty pans, and sheet pans (which you already have) you can do a lot of fantastic baking with the right tools.

At this point, don't buy expensive mixers or other gadgets. In the beginning, you want to learn how to measure your ingredients, work with your tools, and learn how to bake in your oven. If you already have a mixer, of course you can use it. But you can make beautiful pies, tarts, cookies, and cakes with a handheld mixer or an elbow grease-powered fork like Granny did before Kitchenaid came on the scene.

Here's a suggested list of tools to have handy:

-a digital scale (useful for weighing bread and pizza dough)

-measuring spoons

-dry and volume measuring cups

-several good rubber spatulas

-a large (18-inch) wooden rolling pin

-silicone baking mats and a silicone pie mat with assorted pie ring sizes

-a pie crust edge cover

-pastry brushes

-varied cake pan sizes

-a dough scraper to cut dough and clean your work table