Many obsessed foodies will go out of their way to get all kinds of fancy cooking tools for the kitchen. The newest gadgets promising to slice, dice and chop better than the rest seem to catch their attention, and before you know it the cupboards are overflowing with food processors, electric squeezers and juicers and objects with interesting names like Mandoline, Microplane and Silpat.
Of course, it's good to have a well-stocked kitchen, and the greater the variety of cooking utensils you have, the more you'll be able to do. But sometimes it's easy to overlook the essentials -- those classic cooking tools that make it possible to prepare our food. Without most of them, it'd be difficult or even near-impossible to make a lot of everyday foods. Read on to learn about 10 of the most important tools a cook should have in the kitchen.
Even if the extent of your home cooking is making out-of-the-box macaroni and cheese, a strainer is essential. Strainers are simply bowls with holes in them that allow liquids to drain out, leaving solid foods inside. They're indispensable for separating pasta from the water you just boiled it in, beans from the juices they're canned in and many other instances where you want to get rid of excess liquid. They're also a great place to rinse berries, veggies, beans and even lettuce.
Strainers come in many shapes, sizes and materials. They even have different sizes of holes. A colander, a type of strainer with relatively large holes, is usually used for larger foods like pasta and vegetables. The main drawback to colanders is that they only work for foods that are larger than the holes, so some people opt for fine mesh strainers that have smaller holes to separate finer ingredients.
You can use mesh strainers just like a colander to drain water or juices, but they also go a step further. Because the holes are very small you can use them to separate the fat out of gravy, seeds out of a raspberry puree, or chunks out of sauce. But that's not all -- you can even use them to sift flour or powdered sugar when a recipe calls for it. While a colander might adequately meet your everyday cooking needs, choosing a fine mesh strainer will give you the most versatility. Or since they're inexpensive, just buy one of each.
Stirring may be one of the most common kitchen tasks. Whether you're mixing together cake batter or combining the ingredients for Sunday afternoon chili, if you like to cook you can count on spending a lot of time stirring. And how much stirring can you really do without a spoon?
Plastic, silicone, stainless steel -- there are a lot of different types of kitchen spoons. But many chefs and seasoned cooks prefer the look, feel and function of wooden spoons to all the others. Why? First of all, they won't scratch nonstick surfaces when you stir, so you don't have to worry about ruining your nice pots and pans. They also don't conduct heat, which means you won't burn your hand when you grab them or your tongue when you use them to taste whatever delicious dish you're making. Another benefit is that they don't react with the acids in food and leave a metallic taste like a metal spoon might, so you're not endangering the taste of your food when you use them.
Of course some people simply like the old-world look wooden spoons bring to the kitchen, especially the look of a well-worn spoon after many years of use and many delicious meals cooked.
It's just about dinnertime on Thanksgiving Day and the entire family has gathered around the table, mouths watering for the first taste of that succulent holiday turkey. You take a peek inside the oven and everything looks perfect -- a warm, golden glaze on the outside says it's time to dig in. But when the turkey's carved up, it's quickly clear that something's not right. Undercooked meat has ruined the meal!
With some foods, knowing when they're cooked completely can be a guessing game, especially if you're working with an unreliable or unfamiliar oven. But undercooking meat isn't something to mess around with. Poultry in particular can transfer harmful bacteria if not cooked fully, and many food-borne illnesses can be prevented by ensuring food is cooked to a safe temperature before eating.
Unfortunately it's sometimes hard to tell when something's been cooked all the way through, especially if it looks fine on the outside. That's when a thermometer comes in handy. An instant-read thermometer can quickly tell you a meat's inside temperature. According to the USDA, using a thermometer is the only reliable way to make sure meat is cooked to a safe temperature, so keeping one in the kitchen is a smart choice.
If you've ever had to peel a whole sack of potatoes using only a knife, then you know that it can take a frustratingly long time. Plus, unless you're highly skilled you'll probably end up with a lot more waste than is necessary to remove the skin. And let's not forget how easy it is to cut your fingers while using a knife to peel something.
That's where peelers come in. Not only are they faster and easier to use than a knife, they're really good at removing only a very thin layer, which means more potato for cooking and less in the compost pile. And, of course, they're designed for safety. With a comfortable grip that gives you the right leverage for the task of peeling, and a blade that's not likely to come in contact with your fingers, it's a safer and more efficient way to skin an apple, peel a carrot or strip an eggplant.
Whisks have several purposes: to blend ingredients to a smooth consistency, to incorporate air into a mixture and to emulsify, or combine ingredients that don't normally hold together. As a whisk moves in and through a liquid, each of its wires creates a stream of air behind it. This action helps incorporate air into the mixture, and causes foods like whipped cream to be fluffy and meringue to be light and airy. Whisks are also good at bringing together substances that don't normally mix well, like oil and water, or oil and vinegar. For example, a whisk can be used to make mayonnaise or salad dressing, both of which contain oil and vinegar.
There are several different kinds of whisks, but the kind you'll use most often and for the widest variety of tasks is the balloon whisk. It looks kind of like a light bulb made out of wires. Other kinds include a flat whisk, a ball whisk and a gravy whisk.
Whether you use them to cut up some chicken, clip a piece of twine, slice a piece of pizza, snip some herbs, trim the stems of fresh flowers, or shape parchment paper, kitchen shears are an all-around kitchen must-have. They're stronger and sturdier than regular scissors, so the occasional small bone doesn't deter them. They're also sharp -- and can be sharpened -- so they're up to some of the toughest cutting tasks. Shears come in many different shapes and sizes so you can choose what's most comfortable or most suited to how you plan to use them. They're so versatile, you'll be surprised how often you reach for them. Even if it's just to open a package of salad mix.
Measuring Cups and Spoons
If you're interested in baking or trying out new dishes that require spices and other interesting ingredients, measuring cups and spoons are a big help. Following a recipe correctly and putting in just the right amount can give you the best results, but you can also experiment with different measurements of each ingredient.
There are two main types of measuring cups -- dry cups and liquid cups. Many dry measuring cups are made to stack for easy storage and typically come in sets of four or five, with measurements typically for 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, 2/3 cup and 1 cup. This style of measuring cup is meant for dry ingredients, like flour or sugar, since you can easily level them off at the top. Liquid measuring cups are usually larger (coming in a 1-cup or 2-cup size) and are made of clear glass or plastic. They have various measurements marked on the side and a pour spout at the top. These are better for liquids because they don't allow measured liquids to overflow the cup.
Measuring spoons usually parcel out measurements of 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon, but some include a spoon as small as 1/8 teaspoon.
Of course, if you're using measuring cups to add a variety of ingredients together into one big group, it helps to have something in which to place them before you start cooking or baking. A good set of mixing bowls, possibly in a few different sizes, allows you to prepare any number of meals easily without making too much of a mess. If you have lots of leftovers, they're also a good tool for storing food.
Depending on your preference, you can choose between stainless steel, plastic, silicone, wood, ceramic or glass bowls. Some come in bright colors and some, like those made of silicone, are flexible enough to make pouring from the bowl a less-messy process. When mixing ingredients in these types of bowls, especially stainless steel, it's a good idea to use plastic mixing spoons or spatulas instead of metal ones, since plastic won't leave unsightly marks and scratches.
Cast Iron Skillets and Pans
Skillets and pans are a necessary tool for cooking food over a flame, and they're a must in any kitchen. Although non-stick cookware is popular today, many professional chefs prefer to use cast-iron skillets and pans to cook food -- they don't have chemical coatings like nonstick hardware, they cook food more evenly and if properly maintained, they can last for several generations.
If you treat new or refurbished cast-iron cookware correctly, it can have the same properties of non-stick cookware. This requires seasoning and reseasoning the tool, which is a simple process of cleaning and coating your skillets and pans with oils or fats before use. To do this, remove the cookware from any packaging, clean the cookware with soap and water and preheat the oven to anywhere between 250 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit (121.1 to 176.7 degrees Celsius). Coat the insides of the cookware with cooking oil, shortening, bacon grease or lard and place the skillet or pan upside down in the oven. To make sure nothing drips onto the bottom of your oven, it's a good idea to place an ovenproof tray below the cookware. After about an hour, turn off the heat and remove the cookware from the oven. The oil or fat will actually cook into the pores of the cast iron cookware, making it more difficult for food to stick. You can repeat this process, and will probably have to, several times to achieve a good seal. The skillet or pan should look black and charred once it's seasoned properly.
A knife is the most basic and most versatile of all cooking utensils. How else can you cut up meat, dice an onion or slice a piece of cheese? With all the tasks knives do, it's no wonder you can buy sets containing five to 15 styles.
Most cooks seem to agree that if you had to survive in the kitchen with just a single knife, a good chef's knife is the ideal choice. The chef's knife is the most versatile, all-purpose kitchen cutting tool. It's used mostly for chopping, but comes in handy with other tasks. Its medium size gives you good leverage and easy grip for efficient chopping, slicing and dicing, and the long, tapered blade (usually around 8 inches or 20 centimeters) makes it easy to rock while you cut.
Other good knives to keep on hand are a paring knife and a serrated bread knife. A paring knife is excellent for smaller precision tasks, like de-veining a chicken breast or, as its name suggests, paring the skin off of fruit. A serrated bread knife is also handy and will make slicing that freshly baked loaf of French bread so much easier.
For more on food and related topics, take a look at the links we've cooked up on the next page.
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- Busy Meals. "Do You Need a Food Strainer, A Colander, or Both?" June 4, 2010. (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.busymeals.com/simplify/tag/food-strainer-vs-colander
- Gartland, Ashley Griffin. "Down to the Wire." Culinate. Oct. 10, 2007. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/whisk
- Gold, Amanda. "Kitchen essentials." San Francisco Gate. Aug. 27, 2008. (Feb. 9, 2009) http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/27/FDVH125O0Q.DTL
- Kinzler, Alex. "10 Essential Cooking Utensils Every Kitchen Should Have." Maria Shriver. (Jan. 5, 2012) http://www.mariashriver.com/blog/2011/03/10-essential-cooking-utensils-every-kitchen-should-have
- Kitchen Hacker, The. "Whistle While You Whisk." March 30, 2011. (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.thekitchenhacker.com/?p=726
- Rappaport, Andrea. "Cooking tools and equipment." Chef2Chef.com. (Feb. 9, 2009) http://chef2chef.net/learn-to-cook/cooking-tools-equipment.php
- Reluctant Gourmet. "Dry Measuring Cups vs Liquid Measuring Cups." May 15, 2008. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/blog/ask-a-chef/dry-measuring-cups-vs-liquid-measuring-cups/
- Reluctant Gourmet. "Wooden Spoons - Why Chefs Recommend Cooking With Them." (Jan. 5, 2012) http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/wooden_spoons.htm
- United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Kitchen Thermometers." June 9, 2011. (Jan. 12, 2012) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Factsheets/Kitchen_Thermometers/index.asp
- Ward, Chad. "Knife Maintenance and Sharpening." eGullet Culinary Institute. Aug. 13, 2003. (Feb. 20, 2009). http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=26036