Kim's Top 10 Kitchen Basics
In the eight years I've been hosting What's Cooking, my weekly Web chat, one of the questions most frequently asked is this:
What do I need to cook-ready my kitchen?
In many respects, this is a vague question, as it fails to take into account factors such as budget, skill level and culinary area of interest. For purposes of this exercise, though, let's assume our cooking novice is tight on both money and physical space. Cook in question is keen to cook at least three nights a week and wean himself off dinner in a box.
Which tools will make that all possible?
I'm especially suited to answer this question -- and not just because I'm a trained cook and food writer. For years, I lived paycheck to paycheck. Small and cramped were the operative words to describe my apartment kitchens in my 20s and 30s. Still, I wanted to cook and needed to outfit my kitchen accordingly.
As a result, my tool chest contained just what I needed -- only the basics. It was a simple yet functional relationship. Even with a bit more money in my pocket, my sensibilities remain minimalist and pragmatic. I gravitate towards the hand-held over the electronic. I prefer function over form.
Below, a sampler of what's key in my kitchen and why:
Tongs - A pair of tongs is your friend. Instead of a plastic flipper, use a pair of tongs to turn your fish, steak or sauteed spinach. It does the job without excessive handling. Once you start using tongs, you'll discover how versatile they are -- pulling out oven racks, lifting a turkey out of roasting pan...the possibilities are endless.
Wooden spoon - I have round and flat varieties. I use them to deglaze, stir tomato sauce, scrape rice out of a pot. It lasts forever and refuses to break. Keep a few on hand.
Rubber, heatproof spatula - The beauty of this thing is its nonstaining, unmelting qualities. You can't make candy without one. I use them for mixing batter that needs a lighter touch than an electric mixer. It's great for stirring cooked fruit or anything else that you're worried will stain.
It may seem elementary, but measuring spoons and cups are essential, whether or not you bake. You need a liquid measure to make rice, to pour oil, to measure milk. The dry measures (1/2 cup, 1/4 cup, etc.) I find myself using more for baking, which is much more exacting and requires definitive amounts rather than estimates. Even your basic curry needs a bunch of measuring spoons.
Yes to mixing bowls, but if you need a magic number, pick three, and make sure they're varied in size, for maximum flexibility with your kitchen projects. It's nice to have a mix of mediums as well - stainless as well as glass or plastic - so that you can use stainless as a makeshift double boiler on top of a saucepan.
Speaking of saucepans, you need a minimum of two, in different sizes -- one for boiling rice and a quick sauce, another for simply melting butter and cheese.
Mortar and pestle -- I know it may seem ancient and obsolete, but I love this old-school tool for mashing garlic, herbs, spices, anchovies, olives... The pounding action is primal and never fails to make me feel like I'm really cooking. This is tactile titillation at its best.
The same applies to a hand-operated potato masher. In addition to spuds, I use it to puree cooked apples into applesauce and mash rice into a pulp for soup or bread doughs.
If you're going to spend money on a good knife -- as well you should because it will last you a lifetime -- spend the money on a sharpening steel. Knives and steels should be sold as a pair, so that cooks understand the steel's integral role in maintaining the edge of your expensive knife. Ideally, you should hone your knife every time you cook. I've been doing this for 11 years and credit my practice to having well-groomed knives that will be around for the next generation.
In the world of skillets, I prefer cast-iron over nonstick, and when I really need nonstick I use my nicely seasoned wok. It took some getting used to, but I've weaned myself from the nonstick universe and now I don't miss it a bit. The benefits of using a cast-iron pan or a wok are gradual rather than immediate, but the results are long-lasting and more gratifying. I also like the interactivity, the ongoing maintenance of seasoning a pan to help maintain its protective coat.
Although I've only just got started, this list makes 10. Let's hear from you -- which kitchen tools do you consider indispensable and a daily part of your cooking life? Share in the comments area, and when I get back from wedding land, I'll take the list to another, second-tier level. Back at you March 12!
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