Serious Eats

Guide to Essential Kitchen Hand Tools, Part 2

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.

20100426-esential-kitchen-hand-tools-ii.jpg

In the second installment of our guide to essential kitchen hand tools, we cover a few more of the basics.

In addition to the items mentioned below, I'd like add "basic common sense" to the list. If I'd had but an ounce of it, I would not have placed a glass of soda water next to my keyboard, where it could tip over and short circuit my "l" key. As it is, every time I want to use that letter, I have to copy and paste it. I'm afraid that I'm forced to limit my use of "l" words in this article. Or woud anyone mind if I just eft them out competey?

Anyhow, on to the ist:

1. A Wire Whisk

20100426-essential-kitchen-hand-whisk.jpg Recommendation: the OXO Good Grips 9-Inch Egg Whisk ($8.95)

They're essential for mixing quick bread batters or emulsifying a hollandaise. Use them in a large pot of soup to incorporate seasoning much faster than a wooden spoon can. It's the best tool to whip cream or foam egg white into a frothy meringue.

Models with stiff wires require much more movement and hard work from your wrist. The OXO Good Grips 9-inch Egg whisk ($8.95), on the other hand, has thin, flexible wires, which make whipping vinaigrettes into shape an effortlessly enjoyable endeavor.

2. A Ladle

20100426-essential-kitchen-hand-ladle.jpgRecommendation: the Vollrath One Piece Stainless 4 Ounce Ladle ($4.45).

The key to a perfectly clear soup or stock is to gently skim off foam and fat from the surface as the pot simmers. A 4-ounce ladle is just large enough to make the task quick and easy, but not so large that it is unwieldy to hold and store. They are also essential for serving soup, transferring broth into a simmering pot of risotto, basically any time you work with a full pot of liquids.

Some ladles are made with two separate pieces of metal: a long handle that is welded onto a bowl. I owned a couple of these ladle in the past, and neither one of them made it past their first birthday—the bowls separated from the handles, and both parts went into the trash. The Vollrath One Piece Stainless 4 Ounce Ladle ($4.45), on the other hand, is made of a singe piece of stainless steel, precluding the possibility of an early death.

3. Chopsticks

20100426-essential-kitchen-hand-chopsticks.jpg Recommendation: the Extra Long Chopsticks from Hong Kong Imports Ltd. ($2).

I admit it: this one is a little controversial. Either you grew up using chopsticks and wouldn't be caught dead near a pot of simmering water or a wok-ful of hot oil without them, or you didn't, and you probably wonder: "Do I really need them?"

Precise tips and a gentle touch will treat small, delicate pieces of fried or grilled food (say, a tempura of squash blossoms or slender stalks of asparagus on the grill) far more gently than a relatively clumsy pair of tongs, which are better suited to large food items like fried chicken or a rack of ribs. I use mine for picking up bits of food from a stir-fry in progress to taste for doneness. They are also ideal for picking out slippery noodles from a pot of boiling water to make sure that they are perfectly al dente before draining.

While regular chopsticks will do in many circumstances, high heat applications require extra-long sticks made specifically for cooking. If you are lucky enough to have an East Asian kitchen supply store nearby, you can pick these up for a couple bucks a pair. Otherwise, you can find acceptable models online, like the Extra Long Chopsticks from Hong Kong Imports Ltd. ($2).

4. Small Offset Spatula

20100426-essential-kitchen-hand-offset-spat.jpgRecommendation: the Ateco Small Offset Spatula ($3.25).

Though these diminutive 4 1/2" long spatulas are intended for applying frosting to small pastry items like cupcakes, you'll find that they have a slew of other uses in both sweet and savory kitchens.

Ever find yourself trying to carefully unstick a fragile piece of food from a skillet with a spatula three times too big? The thin flexible blade of a small offset spatula can slip under even the smallest food items with ease. It's indispensable if you want careful, controlled plating and presentation. A lightweight feel, comfortable handle, and ultra-thin blade makes the Ateco Small Offset Spatula ($3.25) the industry standard, typefying precision, control and finesse. More control means less mess and better tasting food. Oh, and it's good with the cupcakes as well, if that's your bag.

5. A Can Opener

20100426-essential-kitchen-hand-can opener.jpg Recommendations: the Back Soft Handled Can Opener from OXO ($12.95) and the Stainless Steel Can Opener from Rosle ($36.95). So... too good to cook from a can, would we? We, can that kind of talk. Even the best restaurants in the world recognize the advantages of a few canned staples. Canned tomatoes, picked and processed at the height of ripeness outstrip supermarket offerings (or most farmer's market offerings, for that matter) 9 times out of 10—even in the dead of winter! A couple cans of beans and a few aromatics can deliver a quick and easy supper in a matter of minutes. Where would Spain be without it's incredible canned seafood for tapas? And how on earth would we make that perennial holiday favorite, the green bean casserole?

Right, well, ahem. So moving on... The standard model can opener which features a lever that clamps around the top of the can and leaves a sharp-edged lid cutout still works just fine. The Back Soft Handled Can Opener from OXO ($12.95) is cheap, functional, and comfortable. But for the ultimate opening experience, go for the Stainless Steel Can Opener from Rosle ($36.95). It's unique design cuts the tops off the cans underneath the rolled edge, creating a cap that can fit right back onto any unused portion left in the can, which means you can stop buying a whole new can of tomato paste every time you need a single tablespoon.

6. A Stiff Spatula

20100426-essential-kitchen-hand-stiff spat.jpg Recommendation: the Norpro Solid Spatula ($12.95)

While I love me my flexible fish spatula and my small offset spatula, sometimes only a heavy-duty solid steel number will do the job. The industrial-strength Solid Spatula from Norpro ($12.95) will handily smash any burger that comes your way for crispy, perfectly browned Shake Shake style burgers at home. Its thin but stiff blade and wide surface area make it ideal for maneuvering large items in and out of the oven, or on the grill. I've picked up full 12-inch pizzas without a problem. let's see your wimpy plastic spatula do that!

7. A Handhed Fine-Mesh Strainer

20100426-essential-kitchen-hand-strainer.jpg Recommendations: the 8-inch Steel Strainer from OXO ($24.95)

A full size colander is great if you've got a full pot of pasta to strain, but rarely gets used otherwise. For smaller, everyday tasks like straining a can of tomatoes, draining a can of beans, or ensuring that your crèpe batter is perfectly smooth, a smaller hand-held strainer is what you need. I keep one hanging on a magnetic fridge hook within hand's reach for easy access.

Inferior models consist of just a round mesh basket on the end of a handle. The 8-inch Steel Strainer from OXO ($24.95), on the other hand, has a loop of metal sticking out on the opposite end of the basket from the handle. This allows you to set the strainer directly in a bowl for no-handed operation. It may seem a little pricey for a simple strainer, but its heavy duty construction will last and last.

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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