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Sure, maybe early man got away with a fire and a stick, but any budding kitchen sleuth, or even a good home cook trying to up their game knows that the right equipment can make life on the hot line a whole lot easier. None of the selections here are necessary to cook a fantastic meal per se, but they happen to be the gadgets that I reach for most often in my own kitchen, whether I'm cooking 24 batches of the best chili ever for a Food Lab test or simply packing lunch for my wife.
You may notice that I have not included measuring spoons or cups on this list. That's because when I need to be precise, for the most part, I use a scale and rely on weight measurements, which are far more accurate than volume, though I do keep a set on hand for when I'm feeling lazy. (I promise I'll test and recommend a brand in a future equipment list update.)
So here we go, in no particular order: The Food Lab's Top Ten Pieces of Kitchen Gear.
1. An Instant Read Thermometer
A good instant-read thermometer is the only way to ensure that your roasts, steaks, chops, or burgers come out that perfect medium-rare every time. Forget about poking with your finger, relying on inaccurate timing guides, or the nick-and-peek method. Buy a high-quality, fast, accurate digital thermometer, and never have a piece of over or undercooked meat again.
The Splash Proof Super-Fast Thermapen by Thermoworks has a hefty $96 price tag, but it's money well-spent. It's head-and-shoulders above the competition with a stunning range of -58 to 572°F (-50 to 300°C), 1/10th of a degree precision, unparalleled accuracy, and a read time of under three seconds. Because of its wide range, you won't need a separate meat, candy, or deep-fry thermometer—a singe tool does all three tasks, and how.
Asides from my knives, it's my favorite piece of kit, and it rarely leaves my side while I'm in the kitchen.
For the best inexpensive model that's slower and more difficult to use but still perfectly serviceable, check out the CDN Pro-accurate Quick Read Thermometer ($16.95)
2. A Kitchen Scale
Did you know that depending on how you scoop up a cup of flour, its weight can vary by as much as 25%? No wonder the pizza dough that came out perfectly last week is suddenly too wet to handle this week. A good digital scale will make inaccuracies like that a thing of the past. A scale can also help you figure out how much moisture your chicken lost during roasting, or exactly how far you've reduced that stock. Hooray!
Things to look for in a good scale: at least 1 gram or 1/8th ounce accuracy, a capacity of at least seven to eight pounds, a tare (zero) function, measurements in both metric (g) and imperial (lb) units, a large, easy-to-read display, and a flat design for storage.
The Oxo Good Grips Food Scale with Pull-out Display ($44.49) has got all of that, plus a neat pull-out display that allows you to read measurements with ease, even when weighing large, bulky items that would otherwise obscure the screen. The only problem? Annoying fractions in the display instead of decimals. Who the heck wants to measure 3/8ths of an ounce)?
The Aquatronic Kitchen Scale by Salter ($49.95), on the other hand, lacks the pull-out display feature, but uses easy-to-read decimals, which makes both math, and looking cool in front of Europeans easier.
It's a toss-up—if you don't mind fractions, go with the Oxo. Otherwise, the Salter Aquatronic wins.
3. A Bench Scraper
A bench scraper is one of those tools whose advantages aren't obvious until you start using it regularly. I keep one on my cutting board whenever I'm doing prep work. It quickly transfers chopped mirepoix to my saucepot or carrot peels to the trash. I use it to divide up dough when making pizzas, or ground beef when making burgers.
For clean-up, a bench scraper makes short work of dough scraps that have dried onto the work surface, and efficiently picks up tiny bits of chopped herbs and other debris. Removing stickers from glass bottles or labels from plastic containers is also a snap.
With its comfortable handle, sturdy construction, convenient built-in six-inch ruler, and an edge sharp enough to rough-chop vegetables, the Oxo Good Grips Pastry Scraper ($8.99) is the scraper of choice for home. In my knife kit, however, I keep a lightweight plastic C.R. Manufacturing scraper ($0.50), which performs most of those functions at a fraction of the cost, and in a much more compact and transportable package.
4. A Microplane Grater
Recommendation: the Microplane Grater/Zester ($11.95, pictured)
My favorite thing to do with a Microplane Grater/Zester ($11.95) is go to town with it on an orange and watch as the little mountain of zest effortlessly grows on my cutting board. Or wait—my favorite thing to do is grate delicate wisps of Parmigiano-Reggiano over my Bolognese.
No, I take that back. My favorite thing is to grate fresh nutmeg on top of my gin flip. (Or is it to sprinkle chocolate shavings over my soufflé?)
No, I've got it: It's being able to throw out my single-tasking garlic press and using my Microplane to grate garlic into tiny, even mince. Or ginger. Or shallots.
So many things to grate, so little time!
5. An Immersion Blender
Recommendation: the Kitchenaid Immersion Hand Blender ($99.95, pictured)
Want a pitcher full of margaritas? The blender's your friend. Need to make two quarts of pesto? OK, pull out the food processor. But for smaller, everyday blending tasks, an immersion hand blender is the tool for the job. I've owned mine for 10 years now, and use it at least three times a week.
It's great for pureeing soups directly in the pot or rapidly breaking up whole tomatoes into rough chunks for sauce. I also use it to make fool-proof beurre monté, or perfect two-person servings of whipped cream.
Ever get annoyed at those stubborn large pieces of egg white you come across when breading food? Blend the eggs for a few seconds and they'll be perfectly uniform and smooth. You like that froth on your hot chocolate? Heat it up in the pot and buzz it to create a luxurious foam. Lumps in your bechamel? All gone.
How about if you want to make just a few ounces of perfectly smooth cauliflower puree or a half-cup of fresh mayonnaise? Impossible with a regular blender or food processor. But with the sturdy plastic cup that ships with the Kitchenaid Immersion Hand Blender ($99.95), small, real-life-sized portions of food are easy to prepare.
The interchangeable attachments (whisk, mini-chopper) aren't worth the space they take up, but at least its detachable handle separates the blade shaft from the motor, giving you peace of mind as you clean it.*
*I once got my fingers caught in the blades of a spinning commercial-grade immersion blender. It wasn't pretty. I now remember to unplug it before cleaning.
6. A Digital Timer/Stop Watch
Recommendation: the Polder 3 in 1 Timer, Clock & Stopwatch ($13.95, pictured)
Did you know that in restaurant kitchens, croutons are the number-one item most burnt by line cooks? I can't tell you the number of times I've popped a tray of sliced bread in the oven for crostini, only to pull it out thirty minutes later after it finally sets off the smoke alarm.
At least, I used to, that is.
These days, I keep a Polder 3 in 1 Timer, Clock & Stopwatch ($13.95) around my neck at all times. It's got an easy to read display, an unobtrusive size, intuitive buttons, a loud alarm, a magnet for sticking to the fridge, and a nylon lanyard for keeping it right around your neck, so there's no way you can forget about your roasting peppers—even if you leave the kitchen.
With both a count-up and count-down function, what more could you want in a kitchen timer?
7. A Salt Cellar and a Pepper Mill
So why would anyone need a salt cellar? Seasoning food properly is the fastest and easiest way to improve your cooking, and as any chef will tell you, the best way to season is through kosher salt. Pick it up between your thumb and fingers, and taste, taste, and taste again.
Having a salt cellar in a prominent spot by your prep station or stove is a constant reminder to do just that. I guarantee that if you don't already have one, putting a salt cellar on your counter will make you a better cook. Any covered container with a wide-mouthed easy-open lid will do, but the RSVP International Salt Server with Spoon ($18.95) does it with style.
And pepper? If you've been using pre-ground pepper, do yourself a favor and buy an inexpensive jar of pepper with a built-in mill. Taste the fresh ground stuff side-by-side with the pre-ground. Which would you rather be putting on your food?
$45 might seem like a big chunk of change, but a real pepper mill is much better than the plastic disposable type, and it's an investment that will improve practically every savory food item you cook. The Unicorn Magnum Plus Pepper Mill ($44.95) is sturdy, has a tough, nickel-plated grinding mechanism, an easy-to-load design, and a quick grind-size adjustment screw.
I keep one loaded with black pepper, and a second with toasted Sichuan peppercorns for grating over hot bowls of mapo doufu (yes, my wok gets a good workout).
8. Prep Bowls
Recommendation: RSVP International Stainless Steel Prep Bowl ($3.49, pictured).
Here's a mantra for aspiring chefs: An orderly kitchen is a good kitchen.
Isn't it annoying trying to chop carrots on your cutting board when that little pile of parsley in the corner is getting in your way? Or what about frantically trying to scoop up chopped ginger to get into that stir-fry-in-progress before your bok choy fully wilts?
I use several prep bowls with a small capacity (we're talking 1-cup or less) pretty much every time I cook to keep chopped aromatics, measured spices, grated cheese, whatever, off my board, within easy reach, and organized.
Any small bowls will do (I own a dozen 25¢ cereal bowls from IKEA for this very purpose), but if you want to look like a pro, go for durable, miniature stainless-steel versions, like these Stainless Steel Prep Bowls from RSVP International ($3.49).
9. A Salad Spinner
Recommendation: Large Pump Action Salad Spinner by Oxo ($29.99 pictured).
Yes, they'll get your greens dry, and we all know that dry greens are better at holding dressing (right?), but the salad spinner is one of the truly great multi-taskers in the kitchen. I like to fill mine with water and pick herbs directly into the bowl. Once they're picked, I swish them around, lift them up in the basket, dump the sandy water, and spin dry.
Line it with paper towels to dry delicate items like berries and extend their shelf life by a few days. Take whole chopped tomatoes for a spin for easy seeding (seeds slip through the basket while the pulp stays put). Washed mushroom, peppers, broccoli—anything you could think of stir-frying or sauteeing will cook better after a thorough drying in the spinner.
Use the power of centripetal force to whip away excess marinade from shrimp, chicken, or kebab meat. And as long as you've got a sturdy one with small grates, like the Large Pump Action Salad Spinner by Oxo ($3.49), there's no need to own a separate colander—drain beans, pasta, and vegetables directly in the spinner basket.
10. A Plastic Mandoline
Recommendation: Benriner Mandoline Plus ($49.95, pictured).
Sure, you can train for years and spend hours a day sharpening and honing your knives to get to the point where you can whip out fennel wisps so thin you can read through them or slice through your prep work at 100 onions per hour. And I'll be the first one to tell you that you're really really cool.
But for the rest of us, a mandoline makes quick work of repetitive slicing and julienning tasks. At one point in my life, I owned a fancy-pants $150 French model. And you know what? It was heavy, bulky, a pain in the butt to clean, and with it's straight blade, didn't really do a great job.
The Benriner Mandoline Plus ($49.95), on the other hand, features a sharp, angled blade that cuts much more efficiently than the awkward straight blades or clumsy V-shaped cutters. Walk into any four-star restaurant in the city, and I guarantee you'll find at least a couple Bennies—as they are affectionately called by line cooks—occupying a prominent place in the kitchen
Random Trivia: "Benriner" means "oh, how handy!" in Japanese, despite the fact that the Japanglish on the box front proclaims "Dry cut radishes also OK."
What About You?
What pieces of kitchen gear can you not live without?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.