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Beat Me, Whip Me, Mash Me, Julienne Me...
A thumbnail guide to the essential kitchen tools
By B.A. Nilsson

Leif Zurmuhlen

Peek into a restaurant kitchen and you behold an impressive array of equipment hanging or stacked near the stove; nearby drawers and racks probably contain even more in the way of knives and whisks and other such implements.

Although no chef wants to be caught without a necessary tool, there really are only just a few called into constant use: knife, spoon, spatula, fork, and a few favored pots and pans. But other tools need to be there, need to be waiting, because you never know when you’re going to have to grate nutmeg or bake an angel food cake.

We looked at knives in this space a couple of years ago (Nov. 16, 2000, to be exact), and cookware is a big enough to subject to warrant a future column. For now, here’s a very prejudiced list of what’s essential for the ambitious home chef—and some of the silly stuff that’s also for sale.

“It slices, it dices . . .” and how nice it would be for one tool really to do it all! Despite Ron Popeil’s claims of yore, you’ll need more than one tool to take care of all the cutting and peeling that cooking requires. That sharp-pointed twisty little vegetable peeler remains one of the most marvelous culinary inventions. Use the tip to dig stubborn eyes from potatoes, then peel it with the blade; and there’s a blade on each side of the opening to accommodate lefties and righties or, if you’re deft, to allow you use both, which is good for carrots and other smooth-surfaced items. Do you need a fancy plastic handle? It’s up to you. I prefer to buy two cheap metal- handled ones so I can always find one.

A harp peeler puts the blade perpendicular to the handle, which is nice for thick-skinned comestibles like apples. Cakes and sauces get a flavor sparkle from orange or lemon zest, so keep a zester on hand. Ditto a nutmeg grater. For cheese, a four-sided grater is essential, and serves for grating potatoes and other vegetables as well. I like a rotary grater for hard cheeses like Parmesan and Asiago.

On the luxury side, a mandoline gives you extra-thin slices for potato chips and the like; while I’ve yet to pony up the 100-plus dollars for one, friends who have them swear by them.

Not surprisingly, peeling and grating attracts its share of the frivolous. I don’t really see the need for an asparagus peeler—you can use a standard peeler if you really need to peel the things—and a zucchini corer is the height of self-indulgence. I take that back: I think the wire-strung butter slicer leads the pack.

Once it’s cooking, it probably needs to be stirred, turned or pried away from something. Arm yourself with spatulas: flat, offset, wooden, rubber and the good old-fashioned pancake-turner type. In the spoons drawer, keep two each of solid and perforated: two with short handles, two with long. Sauce and balloon whisks go where a fork can’t manage. And don’t forget your wooden spoons, essential for tomato sauce and the like.

In my kitchen, ladles—2-, 4- and 6-ounce varieties—hang alongside a row of spring-action tongs.

After years of busting up cheap little potato mashers, I finally bought a long-handled, heavy-duty version that is serving well. Similarly, I spent extra money on a lemon reamer that doesn’t break when I bear down on the lemons. I will not, however, indulge in an egg separator. If you can’t do it by hand, you shouldn’t be cooking.

For dry spices, a mortar and pestle is a surprisingly handy combo, and very useful for Indian cookery, although I use a dedicated coffee-bean grinder for large amounts.

Don’t strain yourself: Use a sturdy metal colander for liberating cooked pasta, and have a China cap and a bouillon strainer around for refining sauces. They’re expensive but worth it.

Back in my restaurant days, I had access to a fearsome can opener with a sharp, heavy plunger and a giant handle that made short work of large cans. At home I use one of those little manual handheld jobs because I refuse to waste wattage on the electric variety. But I do keep a handheld electric mixer alongside the standing mixer (I love my Kitchen-Aid machine); another electric necessity is the food processor. Don’t buy cheap. My Cuisinart Classic is going on 20 years.

Do you make your own pasta? You should. If you’re too lazy to knead, throw a dough hook on your Kitchen-Aid, and then you’ll need a pasta-rolling machine to get the stuff thin. Most of them come with a couple of cutters—usually for linguine and fettuccine.

Or you can be very old- fashioned and use a rolling pin. You’ll want the two-handled and the no-handled French types, the latter to get your pie crusts to just the right thickness. Disposable pie plates are a waste when you can reuse a good one indefinitely. Get two 8-inch and two 9-inch cake pans and you’re covered; a couple of wire racks will help you cool those cakes.

You’ll need a springform pan for cheesecake, a tube pan (with a detachable bottom and center) for angel food cake, and a couple of sizes of pastry bags and a few different tips for decorations—not to mention piping purées on an entrée plate. A pastry brush eases the egg-white glaze on your pies or a coating of shortening on your waffle iron.

You probably already have an array of measuring cups and spoons; my collection of cups is duplicated in glass and plastic, and I can’t remember why. Because of my restaurant background, I keep thermometers on hand to make sure that the refrigerator and freezer are really cold enough—and to check my ovens from time to time. They’re also necessary for checking meat doneness and, if you make candy, sugar consistency.

So now you have all this stuff. You’re fully equipped. Or you’re shopping for someone who’s fully equipped. What’s next? The most frivolous gadget of them all. “You mean the looks-like-an- instrument-of-obscene-torture prosciutto holder?” you ask, and you’re very close. No, it’s the duck press.

Solely for use with caneton rouennais à la presse, a recipe that begins with the instruction, “strangle a duck,” this $1,000, foot-and-half-tall gadget allows you to ceremoniously mash the carcass, using the burgundy-enhanced pressings as a base in which to poach the previously removed breasts. I’ll have mine grilled, thanks.

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