October 2012 Issue

The Essential Kitchen — Nine Items You Shouldn’t Cook Without
By Bryan Roof, RD, LDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 10 P. 104

Recently, I traveled to Cape Cod for vacation. I was enamored with its charm, hidden beaches, fried fish, and shake shacks—just as Boston tourists are supposed to be. We rented a house, which I prefer to staying in a hotel because I like to have access to a kitchen at all hours of the day and night. This affords me the opportunity to cook with local ingredients, spares me endless mediocre meals at tourist traps, and allows for occasional midnight snacks, which take place frequently when I’m away.

Not all kitchens are created equal, though, and you never know what types of gadgets, tools, and implements you’re likely to find in someone else’s kitchen drawers. (I once stumbled on an original Ginsu knife, which I used to carve leather, halve a soda can, and finally slice a ripe tomato.) Will the kitchen have the tools I need to scramble an egg? You never know. So in addition to jamming the car full of bicycles, stuffed animals, and kids, I packed these nine indispensable kitchen essentials in my vacation travel kit, which I I believe no home kitchen should ever be without.

1. Twelve-inch skillet: I can’t stress enough the importance of a good skillet. It’s where most meals come to life and others go to burn. There are tons of options available and at all price points. Because I was lucky enough to find a girl to marry me and she was smart enough to take advantage of registering for wedding gifts, I got my hands on a few of the pricier models. And they were good: sturdy, warp resistant, had heat distribution, and oven-safe handles so you could go directly from stovetop to oven.

But now, the skillet I go to the trouble of lugging around is a French-style carbon steel one. You can buy one for about half the price of expensive models (around $60 for a 12 inch), and they’re every bit as reliable. Carbon steel skillets build a patina similar to cast iron skillets (another inexpensive option), so they become nonstick the more you use and season them. (They also can be used on ceramic cooktops, whereas cast iron skillets cannot, as they scratch the surface and cause cracking.) Carbon steel skillets are extremely durable, and I’m quite sure they’ll last forever, though I’m still in the process of substantiating this claim, so I’ll let you know.

2. Fish spatula: Julia Child loved her Foley Fork; I love my fish spatula. A fish spatula features a stiff, slotted metal blade that flexes just enough to dislodge delicate fish fillets from the skillet or grill. The blade is long enough to support an average-size fish fillet and prevent it from breaking under its own weight when transferring it to a platter.

In addition to flipping fish, this spatula is good for stirring sauces; acting as an impromptu strainer; removing food from the oil when frying; prying the errant, stuck cookie off a baking pan; or any number of soon-to-be-discovered tasks. Trust me, once you get your hands on one of these, you’ll find a thousand uses for it, and you’ll toss your old-school spatula aside. 

3. Heatproof rubber spatula: Rubber spatulas are great for everything from spreading frosting on a cake to scrambling eggs to getting that last bit of something out of a bowl. Over the last few years, the trend has been to make most rubber spatulas heatproof, which keeps them from melting at the bottom of the pot while stirring. I like rubber spatulas made from one solid piece of rubber rather than a rubber head that slides onto a plastic handle. I’ve found that the latter sometimes collects water after washing where the head and handle meet. Rubber spatulas come in multiple sizes, but while I find uses for large and small varieties, I get the most mileage out of a regular medium-size one-piece, kind of like my swimsuit.

4. Tongs: Tongs are one of those items I take for granted when I’m cooking at home and quickly miss when I’m cooking away from home. A good pair of tongs should be sturdy enough to flip a heavyweight steak but precise enough to transfer cherry tomatoes without squashing them. I use the same type of tongs for the stove and grill. Avoid those bulky tongs sold in grilling kits with the oversized wooden handles and a jagged blade on one edge of the pincers. I’ve never understood these things, and I cringe every time someone proudly hands me a pair. One medium-size pair, about 14 inches long, with a solid spring, is appropriate for 98% of your tonging needs.

5. Wooden spoon: In an age of plastic, wooden spoons have become a rarity. However, they remain one of my favorite items. They don’t scuff pan bottoms, are lightweight and easy to negotiate and, in addition to stirring sauces, they can be cross-utilized for everything from mashing potatoes to playing the drums. Even the cheapest versions seem to last for years. I like wooden spoons that have skinny handles and a moderately deep cup for tasting and are sturdy enough to withstand the pressure when scraping the fond from the pan bottom without snapping in two. The days of inheriting your Nonna’s sauce-stained spoon may be gone for now, but I’m aiming to bring this trend back. 

6. Eight-inch chef’s knife: It goes without saying that a good knife is important to every kitchen, and I’m sure you’ve heard the old mantra “a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one.” The reason is that a dull knife causes you to force your way through the food, increasing your chances of slipping and cutting yourself, whereas a sharp knife glides through the food with little effort. All you have to do, in theory, is put the knife in the right spot and let it do all the work. Most home cooks can easily adapt to an 8-inch chef’s knife, which can accommodate most kitchen tasks. (A paring knife and boning knife also come in handy.)

As with most kitchen items, you can spend a lot or a little on a knife. When I was learning to cook, cheap knives suited me just fine. When I became the talented chef I’ve convinced my kids to believe I am, I purchased more expensive ones. But I think a sharp budget knife is more valuable than a dull high-priced knife, at least in the short term. A knife is only as good as you treat it. Sharpen it regularly, keep it clean, and don’t abuse it by hacking through chicken bones.

7. Honing steel: This is the steel rod that chefs ferociously slide their knives against at an approximate 20-degree angle before they get elbows-deep into whatever they’re cooking. While many incorrectly believe that honing steels sharpen knives, the truth is they reduce burs and inconsistencies on the knife blade that result from constant use. Honing steels can be rods of steel or ceramic or diamond coated. Diamond-coated and ceramic rods are more expensive but tend to be more effective. Regardless of the type, it’s safe to assume that behind every sharp knife is a blunt honing steel.

8. Whisk: If you’ve ever used a whisk, you know how valuable it is. You can make do with a fork when you’re in a bind, but whipping cream is nearly impossible. A whisk can blend ingredients thoroughly and quickly, incorporate air into egg whites, and form an emulsion between yolks and oil. Whisks come in different shapes and sizes, from the skinny “bullet whisk” to the fat “balloon whisk.” Home cooks can get by with a whisk that falls right in the middle. 

9. Microplane: This kitchen gadget, a type of rasp, migrated from the carpenter’s toolbox to the kitchen. A microplane contains many tiny blades set along one linear piece of metal. It’s the perfect tool for finely grating nutmeg, garlic, hard cheese, or chocolate and is especially effective for zesting citrus fruits. Its compact design and effectiveness have allowed it to take the place of a box grater in my kitchen, which is just fine because it’s far easier to travel with.

And in case you were wondering about my vacation: The waters were cold; the sharks were plentiful; and the meals were homemade.

— Bryan Roof, RD, LDN, is a chef, dietitian, and food writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @bryanroof.