The Food Lab's Emergency Cooking Kit: How to Fit All the Tools You Need in One Small Box

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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With food, the only thing that really matters is what ends up on the plate. Your guests (or customers, as the case may be) don't give a damn what kind of challenges you faced to get that food there. They only care that it's there, and that it's delicious. And believe me, I've faced my share of Mission: Impossible-style cooking challenges in the past. That time the gas got shut off mid-service and we had to heat the ovens with a dozen Sterno burners. The time I catered my friend's 200-person wedding in the Bahamas out of a condo with two electric hot plates and a half-sized oven. That time at a Greek party when I roasted a whole lamb on a spit I'd jury-rigged out of a couple of coat racks and some metal shelving we'd bought at K-Mart.

But none of those challenges prepared me for what I've had to go through for the past four months. You see, my wife Adri and I moved out of our apartment in New York at the end of April. For a full month before heading off on a three-month trip through Asia, we were staying with friends who, despite their hospitality, had a severely understocked kitchen. And now, having finally moved into a new apartment in San Francisco, we've had to endure the past three weeks waiting for our boxes packed with kitchen tools to arrive. What is an itinerant cook to do?

Luckily, we were wise enough to plan for this and put together an emergency kitchen-in-a-box containing all the hand tools, small gadgets, knives, and pots I'd need to cook great meals for two people with no extra frills. With the contents of this box you can saute, simmer, boil, braise, and roast. You can even make cakes and breads, or boil pasta or rice. You can make casseroles or quick one-skillet dinners. You can pan-roast fish or make a small batch of stock. The best part? This entire collection of stuff fits inside a single standard small cardboard box, which means that you can take it with you on that weekend getaway to the ski lodge or the beach and know that you'll be in good shape.

I call it my Emergency Cooking Kit, and I plan on stocking all of my future bomb shelters (or earthquake shelters, as the case may be) with an ECK of their own.

I've gotta admit: when I returned from my 10 week trip through Asia and found this box waiting for me in my friend's basement, I felt very much like that Norwegian trekker who found his Cheetos after weeks of walking through the snow. I pulled out piece after piece of stuff like I had just seen it again for the very first time. It was better than Christmas.

Here's what I found:

A Chef's Knife

I'd packed away my handmade Japanese santoku blade, with a knife protector and wrapped in a side towel for extra safety, but really, any good chef's knife will do, whether you prefer a Western-style blade or a santoku. My favorite widely-available chef's knife is the Misono UX10 8.2-Inch Gyutou, but take a look at my guide to chef's knives for more recommendations.

Sure, a paring knife, a bread knife, and a boning knife don't hurt none to have around, but the chef's knife is by far the most versatile blade in your block. Check out our knife skills series for step-by-step demos on how to prepare dozens of different foods.

A Y-Head Vegetable Peeler

Sure, you can peel vegetables with a knife, but vegetable peelers like the Kuhn Rikon Original Swiss Peeler take up very little room, add hardly any weight, and make those tasks just so much more efficient. Into the box it goes.

A Wine Key

You can't have a dinner party or a date night or watch the sunset or play a board game or make out or play with the dogs or paint the walls or put together new furniture or anything, really, without having a good glass of wine or an ice cold beer. A standard wine key like this one is the most space-saving way to do both of those tasks (there's a reason waiters carry them around in their back pocket!).

A Can Opener

Let's face it: when you've just moved, sometimes you simply don't feel like cooking from scratch every single day. A can opener is essential for those days when you just feel like making a tuna sandwich or some soup. I used to use standard can openers until I discovered those nifty opens-from-the-side kind that cuts off the top of the can in a way that lets you pop it back on as a lid. It also creates a lipless edge on the opened can, making scraping out its contents that much easier.

A Rubber Spatula

Speaking of scraping, you're gonna need a tool to do that. I use my rubber spatula to scrape out cans and bowls, to fold ingredients together, and to scramble my eggs in the morning. You want a good, heat-proof silicone version that's not going to absorb many odors (or get stained red by tomato sauce). I prefer the feel of a wooden handle as well. For my money, the Le Creuset Large Silicone Spatula is the best one around.

A Wooden Spoon

Oh god, I don't know where I'd be or what I'd do without my wooden spoons. Being away from them for three months was almost as trying as being away from the dogs, even though the spoons didn't wiggle and jump on me when we were finally reunited.

I have a habit of collecting wooden spoons wherever I go—they're sort of like olive oil in that sense—so I couldn't tell you where to get the best ones. I can tell you that I prefer spoons with wide heads, at least one flat surface, and a corner to get into the edges of the pot you're stirring. The OXO Good Grips Wooden Corner Spoon checks off all those boxes.

A Medium-Sized Whisk

Scrambling eggs? Making a vinaigrette? Whipping cream? A good, mid-sized whisk is the tool for you. I like my whisks to be fast and whippy—stiff whisks require you to do all the work, flexible ones lend you a hand—and to have a nice, grippy handle. I've been using the OXO Good Grips 9-Inch Whisk for years and see no reason to stop.

A Flexible Fish Spatula

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, a fish spatula is what you'll find in the knife kit of every professional chef and one of the most indispensable (and luckily inexpensive) tools in the kitchen. 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 to be too stiff. The MIU Slotted Turner is inexpensive, small, and agile. For a few bucks more, the Lamsonsharp Slotted Turner is a little heftier. If you're a lefty, just be sure to get one that's angled correctly for left-hand use.

A Bench Scraper

Adri I want my bench scraper!!!, I screamed on more than one occasion. Or, at least I thought of screaming it before I remembered the conversation we had about not troubling her with problems that can't be fixed. Needless to say, when my OXO Good Grips Multi-Purpose Pastry Scraper/Chopper emerged from the box, I planted a big fat kiss on its non-slip silicone handle and thought about doing the same to its stainless steel blade with built-in ruler but thought better of it at the last moment.

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—something I'll be doing a lot of as I stock my new kitchen—is a snap.

A Pair of Locking Tongs

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 pair of stainless steel tongs with greasy fingers?), and scalloped edges perfect for grabbing everything from those charred stalks of broiled asparagus to those big fat pork chops, the OXO Good Grips 9-inch Stainless Steel Locking Tongs set the bar for quality.

A Hand Blender With Mixing Cup

I knew there were going to be some casualties in the move—items that broke or went missing in the process—but why, oh why did it have to be my hand blender? When my box arrived, it had a big fat tear in one side. At some point on its journey from New York to San Francisco, the business-end of my much-used, much-beloved Braun Multiquick Hand Blender was missing, its mixing cup smashed. Unfortunately, the model I had—a $25 version I bought about a decade ago—has been discontinued.

I don't need my hand blenders to be super big and powerful, and I certainly don't need all the silly extra attachments. So long as it can make Foolproof Hollandaise or Foolproof Mayonnaise or do a decent job of making a batch of 15-Minute Creamy Vegan Tomato Soup, then it's alright by me.

I picked up an inexpensive Cuisinart Smart Stick and so far it's fared admirably.

Two Mixing Bowls

Like my wooden spoons, I've collected more and more mixing bowls over the years, but in my box, I packed just two. One extra-large one for tossing salads, and a smaller one for holding prepped vegetables, beating eggs, or making vinaigrettes and the like.

The main thing to look for in a mixing bowl is material. Metal is the way to go. Metal bowls are thinner, lighter, and more robust than those silly glass mixing bowls that invariably end up chipped (most likely into your salad). These set of 6 standard-weight mixing bowls nest and work as well as any other.

10-Inch Cast Iron Skillet

Here it is, guys. The real kitchen work horse. This is what I've used for 75% of the dishes I've cooked since arriving in San Francisco.

Whether you're searing a steak, making the best potato hash, ultra-smashing your burgers, searing some salmon, or even making a foolproof no-knead pan pizza, a heavy-duty, seasoned cast iron skillet is the pan to reach for. You can bake cornbread or pull-apart monkey bread in it, use it to make a frittata or a Spanish tortilla (even one made out of salt and vinegar potato chips!), or to bake pasta.

Its weight makes it ideal for retaining heat, while its ruggedness means that a single pan will outlive you (and most likely your children and grandchildren).

My favorite pan is an old vintage job I picked up at a flea market a number of years ago (they're worth seeking out of you have the inclination), but modern cast iron, like Lodge's 10.25-inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet, despite its pebbly finish, will still do a good job for most tasks.

You might have heard that cast iron is a pain in the butt to take care of. Not so! It's actually a lot more forgiving than people think. I spend about 30 seconds each time I use my pan wiping it dry, reheating it, and rubbing some oil into it. Heck, I even wash mine with soap and water! For more info, check out our guide to learn How to Buy, Season, Clean, and Maintain Cast Iron Pans.

A 3-Quart Sloped Saucepan

Also known by the fancy French term saucier, a sloped saucepan is the second and last pan I put in my box. It's just the right size for any number of quick cooking projects. I can cook enough pasta to feed three or four people in it (and no, you do not need a huge pot to cook pasta). I use it to make my wife happy by stuffing her with risotto. It's perfect for a batch of soup or stock, or for a big ol' pot of my Lighter Tuna Noodle Casserole or these hearty Garbanzos with Ginger and Spinach.

Why not just a straight-sided saucepan? Well first off, the sloping sides make stirring much, much easier. You know those little bits of garlic or onion that get caught in the corner of your saucepan and burn? That doesn't happen with a slope-sided saucier. Sloped sides make this pan easier to store as well—unlike a standard saucepan, it easily nests inside other pans or bowls.

In truth, the pan I have is one that I got at a restaurant supply shop in Queens, but if you're looking for a name-brand, there's none better than the 3 Quart Tri-Ply Saucier With Lid from All-Clad.

Kitchen Towels

I know some folks like to collect cute patterned towels with frilly edges or vintage designs, and that's all well and good if all you're doing is wiping your hands on them, but I put my kitchen towels through the wringer. I always have a half-dozen dry towels stacked up in an easy-to-reach location in the kitchen to use when grabbing the handle of a saucepan or pulling a red hot cast iron skillet out of the oven. I like to fold them in thirds lengthwise, wrap an end around that skillet, then place it on the table, using the rest of the towel as a trivet. I use the towels to line trays where I'm keeping steaks or chicken parts so that they don't sit in a pool of their own juices. I use the towel to wrap around moist vegetables like blanched spinach or shredded potatoes to squeeze out extra liquid.

In other words, my towels get a workout, and come out a little worse for wear on the other side.

I use inexpensive, not-so-stylish professional kitchen-grade towels like these blue-striped cotton ones from Amazon.

The Splash-Proof Thermapen

Splashproof Thermapen

Via Thermoworks

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What's New On Serious Eats

I consider my instant-read thermometer to be my wingman in the kitchen. His job is to look out for me and make sure that I never overcook a steak, a piece of fish, or anything ever again. The Splash Proof Super-Fast Thermapen by Thermoworks has a hefty 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—this single 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.

What's in Your Box?

So I know that all cooks are different, and a box like this is sort of like an insight into how their minds work and the dishes they love to cook most. So what would be in your box? Are you a baker? Are you a casserole fiend? A microwaver?