I’ll never forget when I was about to move into my shoebox of a first apartment in New York City…
I was wandering the aisles of Crate & Barrel, coveting the glistening appliances and magical-sounding two-in-one items that I couldn’t afford, money-wise or space-wise. The mini waffle maker! The bagel slicer! The spoon that was also a spatula! The pasta pot that had the built-in strainer! I wanted everything — probably because I wanted the life that all of it seemed to represent.
Fast-forward a quarter century and all I want to do is simplify and downsize. The more I cook, the more I realize that I only need a few well-selected pieces of kitchen tools. Obviously the list would be different for, say, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef, but here is a list of workhorse gear I believe your average everyday home cook (me) absolutely cannot live without.
No need to get all fancy with this one. A lightweight peeler (like the classic Kuhn Rikon), which is usually available at your local supermarket, is sharper and more nimble than any of the heftier, gussied-up models sold in kitchen speciality stores. I use mine for potatoes, carrots and (this time of year especially) stubbornly thick butternut squash skin.
Nesting Measuring Cups & Spoons
There’s a reason I call myself a cook rather than a baker — I am not terribly good at following recipes. Anyone who has ever winged it with, say, the amount of baking powder in a birthday cake knows this is not an ideal character trait. These measuring cups and spoons are the only thing separating improvisational, impatient me from baked good catastrophes.
Spatula & Tongs
Have you ever tried to make pancakes without a spatula? It’s not pretty. The key to a good one, at least in my opinion, is a short handle (better leverage) and a thin edge (easier to jam under a pancake or a piece of fish than a clunky silicone covered one). I prefer stainless steel to silicone because I don’t own chemically treated nonstick pans, whose surfaces steel tools can damage. Same with locking tongs (9-inch) which I use around the clock for dishes that require going back and forth between stirring and flipping, like, for instance, a chicken stir-fry.
Until a recent trip to Goodwill, I had about a dozen of these, and then I realized I always reach for the same one — the spoon I’ve owned since I was a kid, which has worn wood, a skinny, easily grippable handle and a thin lip, making it more conducive for scooping and tasting. But this is one of those utensils where what’s right for me, might not be for you. You might like a thicker handle or a slicker wood. I recommend heading to a kitchen store to hold a few to see what feels good.
Paring Knife (4-inch)
For peeling and chopping fruits and vegetables. My husband bought me the 4-inch paring knife from Wusthof as a gift — it was the first piece of quality kitchen gear I ever owned and it’s still in perfect condition 25 years later. How would I ever make an apple crisp or a peach cobbler without one?
Chef’s Knife (6- or 8-inch)
For chopping, mincing, slicing and prepping meats, tofu, vegetables, chocolate, cheese, literally anything that is edible in your kitchen. This is the kind of kitchen tool you’ll use so often that it might be worth shopping for it in person to make sure it feels right in your hand. (Plus, a high-quality knife is expensive, so you want to be sure it’s as perfect as possible.) The ideal chef’s knife has heft without bulk and should feel like an extension of your arm. For me, that’s the 8-inch Miyabi. Is it an investment? Yes. But I’d be willing to bet its cost-per-chop ends up being much less than a penny over the course of its very long lifetime. Another option: The always dependable Wusthof 8-inch.
Serrated Bread Knife (9- or 10-inch)
This one is crucial for slicing baguettes, bagels and challahs, which in my house seems to be an hourly activity. The key here is the serrated edge which makes tearing through tough crusts and skins smoother and easier. I’m a big fan of Victorinox, which makes a pretty wood-handled 10-incher. (I also own a fleet of their baby serrated paring knives, which I use as silverware when steak or pork chops are on the menu.)
A dull knife is a useless knife! A manual sharpener takes up very little space and will ensure you get the most out of your investments.
Medium Soup Pot (4-quart)
This is one of the two pots that have never seen the inside of a drawer or cabinet — it lives on the stovetop because I use it many times a day for: simmering vegetables and making polenta, risotto, rice, pasta, lentils. I like the Dansk Kobenstyle in particular because it’s beautiful, classic, its lid doubles as a trivet, and I grew up with one in my mom’s kitchen, so: nostalgia.
Cast Iron Skillet (10-inch)
Maybe the best deal going in cookware, a naturally nonstick cast iron skillet won’t set you back more than $20 and will last for years (even decades) if you take care of it. Ideal for searing steaks and chops, frying eggs, browning potatoes, sautéing vegetables, baking cornbread and cakes, it earns its keep and then some. Lodge brand is my go-to — I like the versatile 10-inch model because cast iron is heavy, and anything larger than that is a little too tricky for my weak wrists to handle. (And yes, this is the second pot that lives on the stovetop.)
Dutch Oven (5 1/2- to 7 1/4-quart)
I love my dutch oven so much, it made the cover of my first book. I use it for large-batch soups, stocks, stews, braised meats and ragus, the kind of food that puts the happy in “happy home.” Our Le Creuset was a wedding gift (and is pricey because it will last a lifetime), but if you’re looking for something more affordable, Cuisinart’s Enameled Cast Iron 7-quart is a solid option.
What would you add? What are the kitchen tools you swear by?
P.S. 10 ingredients to always have on hand and nine cookbooks that earn their keep.
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(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)