Guide to Essential Kitchen Hand Tools, Part 1

Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt will drop by with a list of tools you might want to stock your kitchen with—if you haven't already. —The Mgmt.

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Every cook has to start somewhere, and the cheapest place to start is with your small tools. These are the hand tools that should be constantly by the side of your stove top, ready to stir, whisk, flip, or pick up any food item at moment's notice. As the list is long, we're dividing it into three parts. These first 7 are the most essential.

1. A Utensil Holder

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Recommendations: the Le Creuset Utensil Holder ($35.95), or a 2-quart Stainless Steel Bain Marie ($8.98).

First things first: if your tools are in the drawer, you probably won't use them. And if you don't use them, you probably won't cook as often. And if you don't cook, what's the point of living, really?

A utensil holder with a capacity of at least 2 quarts helps keeps your tools handy right when you need them.

If style is what you're after, Le Creuset makes handsome ceramic models in a variety of colors ($25.95). On the other hand, if you're just after pure functionality, a 2-quart Stainless Steel Bain Marie ($8.98) is all you need. I have two of them that only leave my stoveside when they're being washed.

2. Wooden Spoons

2010019-eq-basic-part 1-spoon.jpg Recommendation: the Mario Batali Flat End Beech Wood Spoon ($5.95). A good wooden spoon is any cook's best friend. I've seen macho line cooks come close to tears when their favorite wooden spoon finally cracked in half after years of loyal, obedient service.

Whether stirring sauces, tasting soups, or making the creamiest possible risotto, with rare exception, the wooden spoon is the the most essential hand tool for any cook.

I have a half dozen of various shapes and sizes that I use almost every time I cook. But if I had to pick a single spoon to perform every task, I'd choose one which has both a cupped section for tasting, and a flat head—ideal for scraping up fond or getting into the corners f pots. The Mario Batali Flat End Beech Wood Spoon ($5.95) is cheap, functional, and pretty.

3. Flexible Metal Spatula

20100413-grilling-gear-flexi spat.jpg Recommendation: the MIU Slotted Turner ($7.95).

I've already espoused my love of flexible metal spatula (a.k.a. fish spatulas) in our guide to grilling gear. Well they work equally well—better even!—indoors. Flexible enough to flip tender pieces of delicate fish without breaking them, yet sturdy enough to get every last bit of a smashed burger off the bottom of your pan (It's what I used to make the Fake Shack).

It's also ideal for blotting excess grease off of cooked steaks and chops. Just pick up the meat from the skillet, and pat it on a paper towel without even removing it from the spatula before transferring it directly to the serving plate. The wide open slots in the spatula allow grease to drain off easily.

I find some of the more expensive brands (Global in particulate) to be too stiff. The MIU Slotted Turner ($7.95) is inexpensive, small, and agile.

4. Short Tongs

20100413-grilling-gear-tongs.jpg Recommendation: the OXO Good Grips 9-inch Stainless Steel Locking Tongs ($11.95).

Restaurant cooks are macho, and restaurant chefs are often diabolically arbitrary. In many high-end joints, tongs are outlawed. Apparently, they can bruise, maim, or disfigure meat. I don't believe a word of it.

For the rest of us home cooks, a good, sturdy set of tongs are like a heat-proof extension of your own fingers. Sturdy construction, slip-proof grips (ever try to grab onto a pari of stainless steel tongs with greasy fingers?), and scalloped edges perfect for grabbing everything from the most tender stalks of spring asparagus to the biggest bone-in pork roast, the OXO Good Grips 9-inch Stainless Steel Locking Tongs ($11.95) sets the bar for quality.

5. A Silicone Spatula

2010019-eq-basic-part 1-rubber spat.jpg Recommendation: the Rubbermaid High-Heat Spatula/Scraper ($11.48).

Spatula, scraper, whatever you call it, it's the tool to reach for when you want to get that stubborn bit of flour to fall into the bottom of your stand mixer's bowl, or when transferring your home-made mayo out of the food processor. That reduced chicken-stock represents a lot of time and money, right? Make sure you get every last drop of it out of the pan!

The heat proof silicone construction of the Rubbermaid High-Heat Spatula/Scraper ($11.48) make it ideal for both hot and cold tasks. It's also nearly stain-proof, though I wouldn't let it sit in a pot of tomato sauce for too long...

6. A Fine Grater/Zester

2010019-eq-basic-part 1-microplane.jpg Recommendations: the 9-inch Microplane Zester Grater ($14.95)

When you're talking fine-toothed graters, pretty much only one brand name comes to mind: the Microplane Zester Grater ($14.95). I talked about it once in the Food Lab's Guide to Kitchen Gear, but this thing is more than just a useful gadget—it's an absolute essential.

Though it's primary function is to remove just the fragrant outermost layers of citrus zest leaving the bitter pitch behind, it's true power lies in it's ability to multitask. It flies through parmesan cheese, creating fluttering wisps that enhance pastas or melt into sauces. Tough nutmeg doesn't stand a chance against its sharp teeth. And it handily replaces your single-tasking garlic press.

7. A Spider

2010019-eq-basic-part 1-spider.jpg Recommendations: the 5-inch Stainless Steel Spider Skimmer ($6.96)

Throw your slotted spoons away. I mean it. A spider-skimmer accomplishes everything a slotted spoon does, does it better, and at a fraction of the cost. It excels at fishing dumplings, vegetables, or pasta out of pots of boiling water. Its wire construction and relatively open mesh creates less turbulence in the liquid, making it much easier to fish particles out than with a standard slotted spoon.

As for the task it was designed for—stirring and dunking foods for deep frying—the only thing that even comes close in terms of agility and control is a long pair of chopsticks, and even I have trouble picking up peas from a pot full of boiling water with a pair of chopsticks.

Got all that? Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

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.

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