In this installment of Food Skill Builder, our guest geek chef, Jeff Potter, discusses some essential kitchen tools (ooh… tools) and tips for their proper use. In part 2 (tomorrow), we’ll look at measuring, timing, weighing, storing and similar tools. And, some knifing techniques! -Gareth
Regardless of your needs, a well-equipped home kitchen shouldn’t cost much money. I once heard the products sold in consumer kitchen stores described as “kitchen jewelry.” Stores like Williams-Sonoma offer beautiful products that make for beautiful gifts, but just because they call their products “professional-quality cookware” doesn’t mean that professionals routinely use them. Sure, their kitchenware is beautiful and functional, but if you’re willing to settle for just functionality and skip the bling factor, you can save a bundle.
If you live in a large city, look for a restaurant supply store. These stores stock aisle after aisle of every conceivable cooking, serving, and dining room product, down to the “Please wait to be seated” signs. If you can’t find such a store, next time you eat out, ask your waiter to ask the kitchen staff. If that fails, the Internet, as they say, “is your friend.”
If you do get stuck or want recommendations of which features to look for in a product, look at recent reviews from Adam Ried of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated or Alton Brown of Good Eats. Products continually change as manufacturers revise, update, and improve their offerings, so don’t be surprised if specific models you read about are no longer available. Common sense and thinking about your requirements are really all you need, though.
Bare Minimum Equipment
Here’s the equipment that you’ll need at a bare minimum.
Knife blades made of steel are manufactured in one of two ways: forging or stamping. Forged blades tend to be heavier and “drag” through cuts better due to the additional material present in the blade. Stamped blades are lighter and, because of the harder alloys used, hold an edge longer. Which type of knife is better is highly subjective and prone to starting flame wars (or is that flambé wars?), and with some specialty sashimi knives listing for upward of $1,000, there are plenty of options and rationales to go around.
Some people like a lighter knife, while others prefer something with more heft. Personally, I’m perfectly happy with a stamped knife (currently, Dexter-Russell’s V-Lo series) for most day-to-day work, although I do have a nice forged knife that I use for slicing cooked meats.
If I could take only one tool to a desert island, it would be my chef’s knife. What size and style of chef’s knife is best for you is a matter of preference. A typical chef’s knife is around 8″ / 20 cm to 9″ / 23 cm long and has a slightly curved blade, which allows for rocking the blade for chopping and pulling the blade through foods. If you have a large work surface, try a 10″ / 25 cm or larger knife. Or, if you have smaller hands, you might want to look at a Santoku-style knife, a Japanese-inspired design that has an almost flat blade and a thinner cross-section. Keep in mind, though, that Santoku knives are best suited for straight up-and-down cutting motions, not rocking chopping motions or pulling through foods.
A paring knife has a small (~4″ / 10 cm) blade and is probably the most versatile knife in the kitchen. I’ve had some chefs confide to me that their favorite knives are the scalloped paring knives, since they are useful for cutting so many different types of items. They’re designed to be held up off the cutting board, knife in one hand, food item in the other, for tasks such as removing the core from an apple quarter or cutting out bad spots on a potato. I find that the almost pencil-like grip design of some commercial paring knives allows me to twirl and spin the knife in my fingers, so I can cut around something by rotating the knife instead of rotating the food item or twisting my arms. Personally, I prefer a scalloped blade—one that is serrated—because I find it cuts more easily.
Look for an offset bread knife, which has the handle raised up higher than the blade, avoiding the awkward moment of knuckles-touching-breadboard at the end of a slice. While not an everyday knife, in addition to cutting bread and slicing bagels, bread knives are also handy for cutting items like oranges, grapefruits, melons, and tomatoes because of the serrated blade.
If you plan to cook fish and meat, consider acquiring a boning knife, which is designed to sweep around bones. A boning knife has a thinner, more flexible blade than a chef’s knife, allowing you to avoid hitting bones, which would otherwise nick and damage the knife blade. Some chefs find them indispensable, while others rarely use them.
Most cutting boards are made of either hardwoods, such as maple or walnut, or plastics like nylon or polyethylene. Regardless of which type you get, look for ones that are at least 12″ × 18″ / 30 cm × 45 cm. Bigger is better, as long as the board fits in your sink or dishwasher. If you choose a plastic board, consider snagging both a rigid one, which can serve double duty as a serving board, and a thin, flexible one, which can be used as a makeshift funnel (e.g., chop veggies, pick up board, and curl it while sliding the food into your pan).
You can use the wrapping paper that some meats come in as an impromptu disposable cutting board if you are just cutting something like a sausage to sauté. One less dish to wash!
Always use two different cutting boards when working with meats: one for raw meats and a second for cooked items. I use a plastic cutting board for raw meats and a wooden one for after cooking because I find the difference in material to be an easy visual reminder. I then toss the plastic cutting board into the dishwasher for cleanup. Since I have more than two boards, I use the plastic one exclusively for raw meats.
Plastic cutting boards have the advantage of being sterilized when washed in a dishwasher because the heated water kills common bacteria. (Don’t put your wooden cutting board in the dishwasher, though: the hot water will damage the board.) Note that washing a cutting board in the sink with hot water and soap is not sufficient to remove absolutely all traces of bacteria like E. coli. Whether wood or plastic is “safer” depends on your habits. Some studies have shown that wood is better than plastic at preventing cross-contamination, possibly due to chemical properties of wood, which suggests that wooden cutting boards are more forgiving to lapses in sanitization. If you don’t have a dishwasher, current research suggests that a wooden cutting board is the way to go.
Note: Researchers at UC Davis found that disease-related bacteria such as E. coli survived for a longer period of time on plastic cutting boards than wooden ones, and that treating wooden cutting boards with mineral oil did not materially affect the die-off rate. Additional research found that home chefs using plastic cutting boards are twice as likely to contract salmonellosis than those using wooden cutting boards, even when cleaning the board after contact with raw meat.
Here are a few additional tips:
- Place a bar towel or slip mat under your cutting board to prevent it from moving while you’re working.
- Some cutting boards have a groove around the edge to prevent liquids from running over the edge. This is handy when you’re working with wet items, but it makes transferring dry items, such as diced potato, more difficult. Keep this in mind when choosing which board—or which side of a board—to use.
- You can clean wooden cutting boards by wiping them down with white vinegar (the acidity kills most common bacteria). If your board smells (e.g., of garlic or fish), you can use lemon juice and salt to neutralize the odors.
- Prep vegetables and fruits before starting to work on raw meats. This further reduces the chances of bacterial cross-contamination.
Pots and Pans
Which pot or pan is ideal to use for cooking an item, and how the materials in that pot will affect the cooking process, is a topic that could easily be expanded to fill an entire chapter and yet still leave questions unanswered. When it comes to the metals used in making pans, there are two key variables: how quickly the metal dissipates heat and how much heat the metal can retain (see Metals, Pans, and Hot Spots). For new cooks, the biggest issues are avoiding hot spots and being careful not to overheat the pan. Avoid hot spots by using pans with materials that conduct heat well (and avoid those really cheap thin pans). Also, don’t just automatically crank the heat up to high. Hotter doesn’t mean faster! And if you do find yourself with a pan full of ingredients that are starting to burn, dump the food into a bowl to halt the burning. Even off the burner, the pan will still be hot enough to continue cooking and burning its contents.
All that being said, don’t obsess over the “perfect” pan for a job. Looking at cladded pans (two types of metals sandwiched together) and can’t decide between copper and aluminum? If they’re properly made (in terms of the thickness of the metal and the construction), there won’t be a huge difference. Same thing when it comes to size and shape.
Sure, to a professional it matters: cooking 10 pounds of onions in a narrower pot will yield more consistent results than cooking them in a wide, shallow pan (the narrower pot will retain water better, which assists in the cooking). But as a home chef, you’ll typically achieve similar results in both cases, as long as you use common sense about the amount of heat you’re using and keep a watchful eye on the pan.
As with knives, let your preferences and cooking style guide your selection of pots and pans, and be willing to experiment and replace items to suit your needs. Avoid purchasing a set of pots and pans, because sets often come with extra items that aren’t quite ideal and end up wasting space and money. Instead, select each pot or pan individually and purchase only the ones that best suit your needs. Browse your local restaurant supply store or search for commercial products online. Commercial frying pans are cheap multitaskers. If you’re going to splurge on a pot or pan, spring for an enameled cast iron pan (Le Creuset is the leading maker), a good skillet, or a sauté pan.
Note: A skillet is technically the same thing as a frying pan, but I think of frying pans as being the cheap-but-good commercial aluminum ones and skillets as being stainless steel. A sauté pan is like a skillet, but the inside corners are square instead of rounded up.
When using pots and pans, follow these tips. Unless you’re heating a pan to sauté something, don’t absentmindedly leave it empty while it’s heating on the burner. Overheating a pan, especially the nonstick type, will ruin the pan’s finish and possibly warp it. Cast iron is the exception, but you still risk destroying the seasoned finish. Also, if you’re anything like me, when you throw a dinner party the dishes often wait until the next morning. Don’t leave pots and pans soaking in water overnight. In some cases, the water can get “under” nonstick finishes and blister it. In the case of cast iron, the pans will rust.
A frying pan is a shallow, wide pan with slightly sloped edges. Look for frying pans that have a smooth cooking surface and are as large as your stovetop will comfortably accommodate. If you get one that’s too large, the burners on your stove will heat the center but not the outer region, which will lead to uneven cooking.
Nonstick frying pans are useful for sautéing fish and for breakfast items such as eggs, pancakes, or crepes. Using a nonstick pan for eggs or fish also allows you to reduce the amount of butter or oil needed during cooking.
Since nonstick coatings prevent the formation of fond (the bits of food that brown in the bottom of the pan and provide much of the flavor in sauces), you might also want to purchase a stainless steel frying or sauté pan.
Note: How do they get Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, PTFE) to stick to the pan if it doesn’t stick to anything? By using a chemical that can actually stick to both PTFE and the pan, called an adhesion promoter in chem-speak. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is the adhesion promoter of choice. Unfortunately, it’s rather toxic, but according to the manufacturers it’s not present in the finished products. PTFE itself melts at 620°F / 327°C. Most stoves can get pans up above that temperature, which is why nonstick pans shouldn’t be used for searing or under the broiler. DuPont says nonstick pans coated with PTFE are fine up to 500°F / 260°C and that the material won’t begin to “significantly decompose” until 660°F / 349°C. Still, don’t try it: polymer fume fever isn’t fun.
I personally use nonstick frying pans as a default for day-to-day cooking because they’re easier to clean and well suited to the type of food I eat. My stainless steel frying pan gets used for those times when I am cooking “for real” (not to knock my morning scrambled eggs) and want to deglaze the pan to capture the fond. But you might cook different foods than I do, in which case your default pan might end up being stainless steel or cast iron.
I recommend that you have at least three frying pans on hand: one for searing items such as fish, a second for sautéing vegetables, and a third for those times when you want to reduce a sauce or sweat onions at a lower temperature. I prefer Vollrath’s Lincoln Wear-Ever Ceramiguard 10″ frying pans (EZ4010): they’re cheap, they get the job done, and the silicone handles are oven-safe. If you’re lucky enough to have a larger stovetop with burners rated for higher BTUs, snag a 12″/30 cm frying pan in lieu of a third 10″ / 24 cm pan. And, if you’re often cooking for one, a smaller 8″/20cm frying pan is a useful size for quick dishes like scrambled eggs.
You don’t need to completely wash nonstick frying pans every time you use them, unless there’s particulate food left behind. Wipe the pan down with a paper towel, leaving a thin layer of oil behind.
I find it useful to have multiple frying pans so that I can cook different components of a dish separately. Onions (left pan), for example, are often “sweated” at a lower temperature, to keep them from caramelizing, while sausage (right pan) needs to be cooked hot enough to trigger the Maillard reactions that give seared meats an intensely rich flavor.
A saucepan, roughly as wide as it is tall and with straight sides, holds two to three quarts of liquid and is used in cooking liquid foods such as sauces, small batches of soups, and hot drinks like hot chocolate. Look for a pan that has a thick base, as this will help dissipate the heat and avoid hot spots that could burn your food. Keep in mind that many of the liquids cooked in a saucepan tend to be things that can burn, so it’s worth spending a bit more to purchase a pan that conducts heat better. I picked up my favorite saucepan as an “odd lot” piece from a department store set. (Be sure to snag the lid as well!) You might prefer a saucier pan, one that has rounded corners that are easier to get into with a whisk or a spoon.
A stockpot holds two or more gallons of liquid and is used in blanching vegetables, cooking pasta, and making soups. Since most applications for a stockpot involve a large amount of water, burning foods is not as much of a concern as it is with a saucepan—unless you can figure out how to burn water! The stockpot I use is one of the $20 cheap stainless steel commercial varieties. Make sure to pick up a lid as well, because commercial sellers tend to sell them separately.
Cast Iron Pans
You should have a good cast iron pan in your pot and pan collection. Cast iron pans are heavy, and their larger mass allows for better retention of heat. Cast iron pans can also be heated to higher temperatures than nonstick and stainless steel pans, making them ideal for searing foods such as meat. They’re also handy for baking items such as corn-bread or deep-dish pizza. Just remember to avoid cooking highly acidic items such as tomatoes in them, because the iron will react with acidic items.
As with frying pans, when washing cast iron, don’t use soap. Instead, rinse the pan and wipe the inside to dislodge any stuck-on food, and then place the pan back on the stove. If the food is really stuck, throw in a few tablespoons of course salt and a spoonful or two of vinegar or lemon juice, and “sand” it off with a paper towel. Once your pan is clean, wipe it down with a little heat-stable oil such as canola or sunflower oil (but not extra virgin olive oil) and place on a burner set for low heat for a minute or so to thoroughly dry it out. And never let it sit in water for hours on end, because the water will ruin the finish. If you do end up with rust spots, don’t fear. You can use a metal scrubbing brush to scrape away the rust, and then reseason the pan with a coating of oil.
- Skill Builder: Jeff Potter’s Yogurt Lab
- Skill Builder: Hello, Kitchen!
- Skill Builder: CRAFT’s Kitchen 101 Tutorials
- All of the Food Skill Builder Series
In the Maker Shed:
Cooking for Geeks
Jeff Potter, O’Reilly, 2010
Are you the innovative type, the cook who marches to a different drummer, used to expressing your creativity instead of just following recipes? Are you interested in the science behind what happens to food while it’s cooking? Do you want to learn what makes a recipe work so you can improvise and create your own unique dish? Author Jeff Potter has done the cubicle thing, the startup thing, and the entrepreneur thing, and through it all maintained his sanity by cooking for his friends.