Cooking is much more fun when you have all the right gear to turn your food dreams into food reality. If you have a contentious relationship with your kitchen, the problem may well be dull knives or the wrong tools, forcing you to slave over boring, repetitive tasks to make the simplest dishes. We teamed up with a group of chefs to come up with a list of gear for your kitchen that will transform the way you cook -- and eat -- without breaking the bank.
I love to cook, and I think part of the fun for me is having the toys in my kitchen to play with when a recipe strikes my fancy or I get a crazy idea. Cooking is always more fun when you have the right equipment -- labouring in an under-equipped kitchen can lead to lots of time-consuming manual labour that could be easily accomplished with the right multi-taskers in your kitchen drawers. You just need to have the right equipment on hand to make cooking fun again. To find out the best choices, I asked three chefs which kitchen items they can't live without, and the tools they suggest every home cook have. Here's what they said.
A Good, Sharp Knife
If you haven't used a quality knife while cooking, you haven't lived. There's nothing like flying through kitchen tasks with a trusty, sharp blade to make you feel like at home in the kitchen. Just make sure you buy quality, buy sharp, and buy a knife that compliments you. You don't have to break the bank on quality knives -- consider them an investment, but there's no need to take out a second mortgage. Chef Anthony Thomas explains:
Your knives do not need to be the latest and greatest available, only well maintained. Knives should fit who you are, your cooking style, your hand, and most importantly, your budget.
We agree. Make sure you try out before you buy, and you should probably have two or three good, sharp knives that you like in your kitchen.
Keep Your Knives in Top Condition
Chef Thomas also suggests you keep your knives happy: "Sharp knives cut and dull knives tear. This is something that a chef in culinary school taught me and I will never forget it. Sharp knives allow you to be precise, get professional grade cuts, butcher proteins with ease and make chopping veggies a lot easier." He notes that if your knives are losing their edge, pick up a honing steel -- something we've shown you how to use before. If you wait too long to use a honing steel and your knife is damaged, he suggests a 1000/6000 grit sharpening stone and a practiced hand. If you're not sure how to use a sharpening stone, read up first or find someone to do the job for you.
A Reliable Standing/Immersion Blender
Our chefs all agreed on the importance of having a good standing blender in your home and an immersion blender (one you hold in your hand). They're versatile, useful for making drinks, soups, sauces, salad dressings and just about anything else that requires you to mix liquids -- and best of all, they save you from doing it by hand. Chef Shaya Klechevsky explained that an immersion blender changed everything for him:
My life has literally been transformed from the invention of this amazing item. It's amazing for any kind of blending and instead of having to pour whatever you wish to blend into a blender, then pour it back out and have to wash the pesky blender pitcher, you just stick it into the pot or whatever is holding your ingredients, blend away, remove and then rinse! You're done!
Sounds good, but which one should you buy? He explains, "There are a bunch of different companies that make immersion blenders with various attachments (some have a food processor attachment and even a whisk attachment). The really good ones have at least 2 speed settings and some attachments. I would stick to known kitchenware brands however since you'd want a company you can trust in case you need to fix it."
What about a traditional standing blender? Chef Thomas says he can't live without his. "As a chef the blender is my go to tool. I love using it for a multitude of things. I can make sauces, emulsify vinaigrette, make soups (bisque), blend broths and much much more. You need a good, high quality blender, so if you are planning to splurge on your kitchen items this should be on the top of your list."
A Microplane Or Fine Zester/Grater
A fine hand grater is great for shredding cheese, grating spices, and more. Best of all, they're easily stored and inexpensive. You can pick one up without doing too much shopping around -- just stick to a known brand and you'll be fine. Chef Chris Whitpan has a tip for you when you get one:
It shaves things very fine like hard cheeses and chocolate, but where it really shines is grating fresh nutmeg. It does a wonderful job of zesting citrus too.
We couldn't agree more -- there's nothing like grabbing a nutmeg seed and grating a little fresh nutmeg into your coffee, or getting real lemon or orange zest for your recipes as opposed to trying to peel off thin layers by hand. Photo by thebittenword.com.
Trusty Cast-Iron Pans
You should definitely have a few quality pans. Chef Thomas notes: "Spend a little extra to purchase copper bottomed pans and be wary of buying sets at huge retail stores. If they also sell clothes, it's probably not the best place to buy your pots and pans.". When it comes to pans, we -- and the chefs we spoke to -- agree: cast iron is the way to go.
"When seasoned and maintained correctly they provide a unrivalled kitchen companion with even heating, a non-stick surface, and durability," Chef Thomas explained. "This is a must have for any home cook." Chef Klechevsky went further: "Any self-respecting kitchen will have, at minimum, a cast iron skillet. Maintenance on cast iron is mid-to-high, but I find that the benefits of the cookware outweigh the slight difficulty and of course its heft. Cast iron is great for good even heat, its versatility in being able to go from stovetop to oven immediately, and prolonged use (and proper cleaning) makes for even better seasoned cookware."
Bonus Gear: Salt and Pepper Mills, Pressure Cookers, and Other Items to Splurge On
In addition to the budget gear that we asked our chefs to put together, we also asked them what they thought would make a big impact in a home cook's life if they were to save the cash to buy it. Some of the items are small purchases that may sound superfluous (at least, until you have one in your own kitchen), and others are big purchases that are for the most dedicated home cooks and home bakers. Here's a quick rundown.
- A quality salt mill and pepper grinder. Chef Thomas noted that both of these are small purchases, but there's no replacement for a good wooden salt mill and a quality pepper grinder. Find two that match your style, grinds the way you like, and use them often.
- A good cutting board. Again, the rules are pretty loose here, and you should get one that matches your style and the amount of prep space you have in our kitchen. If we can offer a few basic rules though, consider wood before plastic, and never glass -- they'll damage your knives and if they ever break, you'll regret it. Chef Thomas reminds us that a good cutting board will make your job easier and even keep your knives sharper longer.
- A pressure cooker. Chef Klechevsky says his pressure cooker is one of his favourite kitchen appliances. "I have one of those old-school ones where you lock it into place and then it just builds up the pressure and you just cook. I also received as a gift a pressure cooker with a low and high-pressure setting so you have a greater level of control over the kind of pressure inside your pot. Whenever I can, I pull those pots out and get to work - it really saves me a tremendous amount of time in the kitchen."
It's quite a shopping list, but odds are that if you're reading Lifehacker, you already have some of these in your kitchen. So what would you add to the list? Do you have alternative suggestions for the gear we mentioned above? What does your must-have kitchen gear list look like? Share the tools you'd never set up a kitchen without in the comments below.
Chef Anthony Thomas hails from California and works for Fresh and Natural Food Service. Chef Shaya Klechevsky is the owner of At Your Palate and the author of the At Your Palate Blog. He competed on an episode of Food Network's competition cooking show Chopped, and is a personal chef and food writer in the New York metro area. Chef Chris Whitpan is a 20-year kitchen and restaurant management veteran, and the author of The Kitchen Hacker. All of these gentlemen volunteered their expertise and experience for this post, and we thank them.