Me, Whip Me, Mash Me, Julienne Me...
A thumbnail guide to the essential kitchen tools
By B.A. Nilsson
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.
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
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
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
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.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.