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Recipe Rock Star #4: Tools make the chef

Lightning-fast ginger chopping
Dave's skilled paws chop ginger at lightning-speed

The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series. We've covered one focused minute, mise and the importance of quality. Feel free to read them in whatever order you wish. Moving on...

Recipe Rock Star Lesson #4:

Tools make the chef

In a professional kitchen setting, those who clock into work with dull knives have doomed themselves to an 8- to 13-hour shift of culinary hell. Delicate herbs will be crushed, not sliced, beneath a shoddy blade. Vegetables are hacked into misshapen chunks that cook at different rates, making some pulpy while others are crunchy. Because dull knives tear meat rather than carving it, the resulting slices are clumsy, thick and ugly. A cook using a dull knife has to use force to cut things, increasing the risk of chopping up fingers. (Unfortunately, I know this from experience.)

This is why chefs baby their tools. They sharpen their knives, massage oil on them and take them everywhere. Why? Any chef worth her salt knows she's more like Batman than Superman. That is to say, chefs might appear to have superhuman superpowers, but (like Batman) it's all about ace skill augmented with impressive hardware. Take away the utility belt and the Batmobile, and you've left Batman in a bad, bad place.

It's not just the knives. Inexperienced cooks usually don't want to invest much money in a new endeavor, so they tend to purchase inexpensive pans made with thin, flimsy metals. That's about the worst thing a newbie can do, since this type of pan is extremely difficult to use. Because heat is distributed unevenly, these pans tend to warp or develop hot spots.

What does this mean for your dinner? In a cheap pan, you're almost guaranteed to burn your meats, scorch your sauces and find your fish fillets, omelets and cutlets sticking anxiously to the surface of the pan, rather than sliding easily onto your spatula. I've found that a plate of shredded omelet alongside a pan of charred remains doesn't really boost a new cook's sense of accomplishment. Don't worry, though. It's probably not you. It's the equipment.

Though I could go on forever about various pieces of equipment I love, here, in brief, is what I consider to be the very basics for your utility belt (along with some nice accessory items listed thereafter).

Essential Kitchen Equipment

1. A set of sharp, good-quality knives (and a safe place to store 'em):

• chef's knife (about 8")
• long serrated knife
• short paring knife
• honing steel (to keep those knives in shape)

I have a set of Wüsthof-Trident knives I picked up on the cheap, but there's a lot of good brands. Just find something that feels good in your hands. Some people also like a mid-length utility knife, but I never use 'em.

2. Two non-slip cutting boards.

I prefer wood. You'll need one for meats and one for fruit/veg. Label the boards with a permanent marker. On the fruit/veg board, use one side of the board for veg and the other side for fruit. Nobody likes their apples to taste like onions. Or raw chicken. Bleah!

3. A very basic set of high-quality pans:

• small saucepot with a lid
• large, heavy-bottomed stockpot with a lid
• small sauté pan
• large sauté pan
• large roasting pan

If you have extra interest and money, it's really nice to have a large cast-iron pan, a wok and a dutch oven.

4. Bakers will need a few extra pans:

• muffin tin
• sheet trays (It's good to have two.)
• 13"x9" cake pan
• 9" round cake pan (It's nice to have two of these for doing stacked birthday cakes.)
• What they now call a "fluted tube pan." I call it a bundt pan.
• 9" pie pan
• 9" tart pan
• loaf pan
• a cooling rack (or two)

There's a host of other pans for specialty items. These few will assist you with the basic pies, cookies, tarts, muffins, cupcakes, brownies, cakes and quickbreads. Folks who really dig baking will need to get springform pans and pans that accomodate additional shapes.

5. Other necessary tools:

• timer (Unless there's already one on your stove)
• meat thermometer and oven thermometer (You'd be shocked to know how many ovens run too hot or too cool...)
• vegetable peeler (the OXO one rocks)
• mixing bowls (I'd advise a small, medium and large one. The metal Martha Stewart ones at K-Mart are good and cheap.)
• heat-proof rubber spatula
• metal spatula (I believe these are also called pancake turners.)
• whisk
• set of teaspoons
• set of dry measuring cups
• liquid measuring cup
• ladle
• long-handled meat fork
• ricer or potato masher
• slotted spoon
• wooden mixing spoon
• colander
• strainer
• citrus reamer
• carving fork
• heavy-duty kitchen shears
• butcher's string
• grater
• pepper mill*
• metal steamer basket of some kind
• can opener/bottle opener/wine opener
• blender/food processor (immersion blenders are nice, but heavy-duty stand up ones work well, too)
• rolling pin (or a clean wine bottle)
• fire extinguisher

If you're a baker, add in a candy thermometer, pastry brush, sifter, pastry bag and a pastry scraper (also called a "bench scraper").

These days, I might be tempted to list a stand mixer, a Silpat tray liner, a kitchen scale, a microplane and a spice grinder (aka coffee grinder) or mortar and pestle as essential equipment as well, but since I got along without 'em for many years, maybe they're not essential... just awfully nice.

With all this stuff, you'll have a properly equipped utility belt, or at least a nicely stocked kitchen. In the next edition, we'll work on the other part of the Batman equation... skills.

* Cooks grind a lot of pepper, so we have arguments about the best one... I dig my Vic Firth, while fellow cook Molly loves the Unicorn Magnum. As long as it puts out a satisfying grind and volume, you're fine.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article,

I know you mentioned that knives aren't the only important tool one needs in the kitchen, but they definately are near the top of the list. I'm not a professional cook by any means, but even I noticed the difference after I upgraded to a more sturdy set of cooking knives. I had for years simply used the various collection of odd knives inside my silverware drawer for most all cooking tasks. Then about 4 Christmas's ago, my cousin gave me a very nice set with a block sheath for a present. They stay much sharper, and I now have the luxury of having different knives designed specifically for different kinds of jobs. If I want to Julien some vegetables, I now have a knife made especially for that. If I want to filet a fish or hollow out a tomato, I have individual knives for that. Since I didn't buy my own set, and don't know for sure how nice it is compared to others, I'm not sure what kind of prices the top of line sets might run. I have seen sets that appeared to be similar to mine going for reasonable prices in most department and kitchenware stores. There are probably even better deals available online. Here is a good article that touches on some of the basics in what to look for when purchasing a set of knives. Hopefully it will be of use to anyone out there reading this. Happy cooking!


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