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Quality in the kitchen: Five essential cooking tools it's worth spending money on
At the risk of being accused of propagating outdated gender roles, I’m going to make the assertion that most guys really like tools. Whether you’re one of those guys who fills his garage with a kick-ass workshop or someone who prefers to chop mirepioux over chopping wood, having the right tools for the job gets you working at higher level in no time. So what about your kitchen: do you have the tools you need? If you’ve wandered into any kitchen supply store lately you’re aware that the options for kitchen tools, gadgets and supplies are almost literally endless, and even attempting to purchase them all will quickly send you into a spiral of desperation and madness.
The question is, what do you really need in your kitchen, what essentials will improve your cooking and not just sit collecting dust in the cupboard? Below I run down a few tools that you will use constantly and will never regret buying. But first, a quick warning. Don’t freak out when you see the prices of some of these items, it’s not expected for you to run out and buy all of this at once. Rather think of this as a planning guide for purchases as you can afford them. With that in mind I’m going to put them in order of priority; at the top of your list are items you should scurry out and buy tomorrow, at the bottom are things that you can make due with cheap, generic versions of until you have funds for the good stuff.
1. A High Quality Forged Chef’s Knife
Wusthof Classic 8 Inch Cooks Knife —$130, Kitchen Window
Wusthof 2-Stage Hand-Held Knife Sharpener—$20, Kitchen Window
If there’s one thing that separates chefs from the rest of us, it’s the nearly fanatical care and respect they have for their knives. Though a few different kinds of knives are certainly useful (a serrated bread knife, a paring knife, and a boning knife) having one good chef’s knife is an absolute must. But it’s not enough to just have a knife, that knife needs to be respected and coddled. For that you’ll also need a sharpening steel which you will now use prior to each use of your knife.The steel doesn’t really sharpen, it merely hones the blade to retain the sharpness between professional sharpenings. Yes, at least every few months you will need to bring your knife in to be professionally sharpened; it’s not terribly expensive, but it is essential (Kitchen Window in Uptown offers the service). A great knife will last you a lifetime, so your relationship with it will last longer than many others and therefore requires some ongoing work.
2. Quality Pots and Pans
Le Creuset 7.25 Quart French Oven—$280, Kitchen Window & Cooks of Crocus Hill
Lodge 13" Cast Iron Skillet—$45, Target & Kitchen Window
All Clad MC2 12 Inch Frypan—$125, Kitchen Window & Cooks of Crocus Hill
This is another tricky area where you really do get what you pay for. Again, there are a some pots and pans that will be really helpful as you get serious about cooking (a stock pot, a nonstick skillet, a small saucepan, a roasting pan) but with just three items you’ll be able to accomplish the majority of tasks with aplomb! The first is an enameled casserole, also called a dutch oven. These are great for braising and slow cooking, easy to clean and as they can go from stovetop to oven they are endlessly versatile. You can also makes soups and stews in them, and in a pinch you can boil water and make pasta in this pot. The second is a large cast iron skillet. Ideal for everything from cooking the perfect steak to frying chicken to making cornbread, a properly seasoned cast iron skillet is a purchase you will never regret. Finally, a simple saute pan (some would call it a frying pan, but you will likely not fry things in it) will get used every day. Make sure the saute pan is oven safe (i.e. the handle should be steel and there should be no plastic) and you will be able to brown something and then finish it in the oven, which you will do all the time. Do not, I repeat do not buy those stupid 20 piece sets of pots and pans no matter how good the deal seems. You’ll end up with a whole bunch of pieces you do not need and will almost never use. Instead, save up to get the best quality of the few pots and pans you will use, you’ll save on storage and be shocked how much better your cooking is in good pans!
3. A Good Cutting Board
Cutting Board—$60 to $80, Target or Kitchen Window
This one may seem self evident, but trying to work on some silly tiny plastic cutting board is a highly amateur move, and will limit you in ways you can’t fully understand until you use the real thing. The real thing in my mind is made of wood, and has enough room and weight that it won’t slip around. Some find it useful to have a "well" around the edge to catch any stray juices, though I prefer to be able to scrape right off the board into a bowl or pan, so I keep my board pretty simple. Like a good knife, a good cutting board requires maintenance including cleaning and disinfecting the board well after cutting anything that could contaminate (i.e. meats) and regular oiling (with mineral oil) to keep the wood from drying out and splitting. It will save our counters and your sanity to have a cutting board you can rely on.
4. Tongs, Spoons, and Spatulas
OXO Kitchen Tongs—$15, Target & Kitchen Window
Lamson Sharp Chefs Slotted Turner—$28, Kitchen Window & Cooks of Crocus Hill
Epicurean Large Spoon—Natural—$10, Kitchen Window
You’re going to need something to stir, scoop and turn all those delectable things you’ve chopped and panned, and to do so you need some high quality kitchen tools. You do not need an entire drawer fill of tools though, jut a few will get you pretty far. I’m going to assume you are an adult and therefore already have a can opener, grater, and some minimal level of silverware, so we’ll focus on what you need as you’re actively cooking. So here goes, tongs, a spatula, a wooden spoon. That’s all, just those three things. The tongs should be metal, and have a good heft. You will use them for more than you can imagine. Once you get used to using tongs as you cook you will use them for almost everything, but occasionally you will need a spatula to turn more delicate items (i.e., fish filets). I prefer metal spatulas, but be careful if you’re using them on a non-stick pan that it’s designed to handle metal utensils. A couple of good wooden spoons will last you a lifetime if you buy nice heavy versions and not the flimsy generic ones. It’s a good idea to clean wooden spoons by hand as they tend to get dried out and damaged in the dishwasher, you can also rub them with a little of the mineral oil you use on your cutting board to keep them conditioned.
5. Mixing Bowls and Colander
Le Creuset Silicone Prep Bowl Set—$20, Kitchen Window
Cuisinart Mesh Strainers—$20, Kitchen Window & Cooks of Crocus Hill
Even if you don’t bake, mixing bowls will be useful for a variety of tasks, you can marinate in them use them to organize your ingredients or beat eggs in them. Bowls with non-slip grips are especially useful though as far as material goes, I think both metal and glass work and there are some cool high tech silicone versions that are even more flexible. If you don’t already have one you also need a colander or strainer. Plastic is not nearly as useful and stainless steel, and I prefer a fine-mesh style since it can be used for far more than just draining pasta or washing vegetables.
Now where should you go to buy all of this? You could buy much of it online, but it’s even better to get a tactile sense of each item before you buy. For that we are blessed with two great local institutions who cater to the serious cook and and provide an exceptional selection of the best kitchen supplies.
3001 Hennepin Ave.
Cooks of Crocus Hill
877 Grand Ave.
(Also Edina and Stillwater Locations)