Cooking utensils are the chef's equivalent to a painter's box of brushes. It's just as important for home cooks to have good tools as it is for professional chefs. A good set of tools makes cooking not only easier, but often much more efficient. With thoughtful selection, the aspiring chef can create a whole collection of valuable cooking gear that will offer years of help and success in the kitchen.
Rachel Sherwood, author of The Pretty Plate and Culinary Strategist and Food Stylist with impressionsathome.com, points out that knives are the single most important kitchen tool, so it's important to have quality knives that you can use safely.
Forged steel knives are considered to be the best, a statement that held true in Consumer Reports testing. Luca Manfè, winner of MasterChef Season 4 and Chef Ambassador for Bauli, states, "Forged steel is more expensive, but worth the investment. Spend a little more and they can last you a lifetime."
Building Your Knife Collection
A variety of quality knives are essential to create a great cooking utensil collection. Sherwood recommends three basic knives that can be used for most kitchen tasks as a starting point to build your knife set.
- Chef's knife: A must-have for every kitchen, a chef's knife is a mid-sized knife that works well for for rapid chopping and cutting. It can be used for common tasks like cutting meat and chopping vegetables.
- Paring knife: With a blade under four inches, this type of knife is used for fine tasks like coring strawberries or creating garnishes. It will also work well for cutting tomatoes, other fruit, cheese, etc.
- Serrated/Bread knife: With its long, straight blade, this type of knife is ideal for slicing baked goods like cake and bread.
Additional Knife Types
Of course, these are not the only types of knives that you may want to include in your collection. Properly matching knife to function will aid not only in success and speed, but also keep your hands and wrists from fatigue. Other types to consider include:
- Boning knife: Use this type of knife to cut away the bones from meat or poultry.
- Carving knife: This knife type is helpful for cutting serving size pieces from large pieces of meat like a roast or turkey.
- Steak knife: Use this sharp, personal-size knife generally for cutting beef or pork. Steak knives generally come in sets of four.
- Cleaver: This heavy-duty knife has a large rectangle-shaped blade and is used for cutting meat or large vegetables like cabbage or eggplant.
To make the best use of your knives, you will also need one or more quality cutting boards. Sherwood cautions against glass boards, indicating that they can lead to knife damage. Materials she recommends include:
- Plastic: Plastic cutting boards are a good option because they are easy to clean and they don't absorb smells as easily as natural materials.
- Bamboo: Cutting boards made from bamboo, which is a renewable material, are easy to maintain and are more resistant to scarring than wooden boards.
- Wood: While wood cutting boards are not recommended for meat (because it is difficult to sanitize them), they are a good choice for vegetables and cheese.
- Composite: A cutting board made of composite materials is incredibly durable and long lasting.
Other Food Prep Tools
Not all foods can be properly prepared using a knife and cutting board. Important tools to consider for a well-appointed kitchen include:
- Grater: Described by Chef Manfè as a "must" for a well-stocked kitchen, a grater is useful for shredding cheese and vegetables like zucchini and carrots.
- Vegetable peeler: Sherwood indicates that vegetable peelers are useful to "remove the skin from vegetable like potatoes and carrots and can also make 'vegetable ribbons' and shave items like chocolate and cheeses."
- Zester: While not everyone needs a zester, this utensil can be handy. Sherwood states that a zester "easily adds flavor to items by removing the rind from citrus, grates fresh spices like nutmeg, and can finely grate chocolate and hard cheeses."
Garlic press: If you often cook with fresh garlic, a garlic press can be a handy tool. According to Sherwood, this utensil offers "a quick way to easily add garlic to something without using a cutting board and knife."
Cooking and Mixing Utensils
Of course, once you cut, grate or chop your food, you will also need to mix and cook it - and you'll need a variety of cooking utensils for that task. For cooking, mixing, and flipping, your collection should start with just the basics. As you cook more and discover you can't live without a giant meat fork or pasta spoon, that's the time to reach for specialized utensils. Basics every kitchen should have include:
- Whisks: Stock your kitchen with a variety of whisks, including a balloon whisk for beating and a flat whisk for things like gravy. Chef Manfè prefers the whisk and handle to both be in stainless steel, pointing out that you have to take care not to burn your fingers. A wire whisk with a silicone handle can be a good compromise. Manfè cautions, "Avoid plastic whisks: at high temperatures they can melt and you always have to be careful not to leave them to close to the stove."
- Mixing spoons: You'll need multiple sizes of mixing spoons for stirring soups, mixing baking ingredients, etc. Chef Manfè states, "I love to cook with wooden spoons, but it all depends on what you need to do. Either wood or stainless steel works great for a lot of different things. I don't recommend plastic." Your collection should include solid and slotted spoons as well as a ladle for serving soups and stews.
- Mixing spatulas: For mixing ingredients for baked goods, Chef Manfè recommends silicone or rubber spatulas. He states, "I like the silicone the best because they are easy to use and make for an easy clean up. In a medium size you can use them for almost everything."
- Food turners: You should have at least one small and one large flat stainless steel or nylon turner (sometimes referred to as spatulas) for flipping foods, such as pancakes and burgers.
- Tongs: Every kitchen needs a good pair of tongs. Sherwood states that tongs are "used to easily grab things or flip them as well like steaks, chicken, hot dogs or pull larger items from a pot such as corn."
- Strainer/Colander: A strainer or colander is necessary for draining cooking liquid from food. You will use it any time you boil something, such as pasta, potatoes or vegetables. Sherwood points out that a strainer can also be useful for "removing particles from sauces or soups."
Learning how to measure will ensure great success not only in baking, but in many other types of cooking as well. Use good tools that are accurate and made out of durable material. For cooking utensils that last, purchase metal cups with engraved lines versus plastic with printed lines that wear off over time. Many glass measuring cups can similarly be found with raised lettering rather than printing. A basic set of measuring utensils should include:
- Measuring cup set: You'll need a set of individual measuring cups to use for dry ingredients. Look for a set that includes pieces that will help you portion out 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, and 1 cup of dry ingredients.
- Measuring cup for liquids: Every kitchen should have a clear glass or plastic liquid measuring cup that is clearly marked with incremental measurements. Have a few: one with measurements from 1/4 to 1 cup, one up to 2 cups, and a large size up to 6 cups.
- Measuring spoons: A set of measuring spoons should include 1/8, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, and 1 teaspoon as well as 1 tablespoon.
Investing in Quality Cooking Utensils
There is a lot of junk out there and a lot of unnecessary cooking gadgets. It's better to build a collection of high quality utensils rather than focusing on quantity. Ask yourself if it's really necessary to have a strawberry huller that you use once a year when you can invest in a quality paring knife that gets used every day? Start out with the basics and you will have a foundation on which to grow a great assortment of tools, including specialty selections.