28 August 2012
Top tools for your first kitchen, Part 1: Prep
It's the end of August, and you know what that means: school. Moving. New apartments. Fun yet busy and potentially stressful times.
If you've never lived in your own place before, you may find yourself standing in the middle of a crowded department store, staring at the hundreds of different odds and ends spread out under the "Kitchen" sign. What should you buy? What do you actually need?
Before you throw down an extra $50 on a selection of assorted whisks, soap dispensers, egg separators, paper towel racks, potato mashers, or coffee grinders, step back. Take a breath. Instead of buying indiscriminately, target the tools you'll use to make your food every single day. Here's what I recommend.
Top cooking tools for your first kitchen
PART 1: PREP
8-inch chef's knife
My chef's knife is by far the most important tool in my kitchen. I use it every day to prepare practically everything I eat. Anything that needs to be actually cut (as opposed to peanut butter, for instance) falls under this blade.
It's worth spending some decent money to get a good knife you really like. Then you not only can but will use it all the time, and you can avoid buying an entire knife block set, from which you'll use maybe two knives ever. Thrift stores usually have knife blocks on hand anyway--why not get the cheap block and gradually fill it with two or three carefully chosen high-quality knives?
Before you buy, go to a department store and try out the knives. Higher end stores should have some equipment on hand for this exact purpose. At the very least, you can hold the knives and figure out which one feels best in your hand. You may find that you prefer a heavier knife, like my Henckels, or a lighter one, like John's Global; it's up to you.
Any chef's knife you buy should have a two-inch-wide blade. This means you'll be able to curl your fingers under the handle and chop without whacking your hand into the cutting board. That means your blade won't bounce around and you'll be less likely to cut yourself. You're welcome.
Be careful with your knife. Don't leave it in the dish drainer to get dull, and definitely don't put it in the dishwasher, no matter what the manufacturer says! Instead, wash it by hand, dry it by hand, and put it in a knife block or on a magnetic wall rack. If you must store it in a drawer, keep it in its own dedicated slot, so nothing can jostle against the blade and dull it. Keep a sharpening steel on hand so you can sharpen your knife at will. Steels are usually pretty easy to find at your local thrift store. I almost never take my knife to be professionally sharpened, but it's a good idea to do so if your knife gets really dull & won't hold an edge anymore. We have a knife sharpener at our farmer's market; you can also usually find knife sharpening services through higher-end grocery stores.
In conjunction with the knife, get a good cutting board. I like wood and bamboo (technically a grass, not a wood--the more you know!). Plastic cutting boards are good for specific purposes, such as cutting up raw meat, but they dull your knife blade faster than wood or bamboo. Don't ever use a glass cutting board, as this will at least dull and possibly seriously damage your knife--and after you've been so careful and taken care of it so well!
The cutting board is my main prep surface, my organization board, and my means of transporting chopped ingredients to cooking pans. Of course, if you are awesome, you can always use the chef's knife for this. Chefs definitely do. I tend not to, however. Fortunately, my preferred cutting boards are small enough to pick up and move around easily.
You can find good cutting boards for decent prices pretty much anywhere. TJ Maxx and Marshalls usually have a good selection, for instance. A thicker wooden board is a better idea than a thin one--it's heavier & less likely to shift around on the counter as you chop, and will also be less likely to warp when drying. I like boards with a lot of crosscut segments for this same reason. The size of the board is up to you, but I find that about 12x15 inches gives me enough space to work.
Next: the classic mixing bowl. This is obviously a necessity if you want to mix up any dough, batter, or glaze, but it also can serve as a dish soaker, a salad bowl, or a serving dish. You can wash vegetables in it without taking up your entire sink. You can soak several cups of dried beans. You can let bread dough rise until doubled. You can whip a massive amount of cream. If nothing else, you can put it on your counter and fill it with the lemons and tomatoes you don't want to hide in the refrigerator.
The most important mixing bowl you buy should have one key quality: it should be large. If you're going to use it for all these different purposes, you need to have plenty of space. If you buy a set of bowls, you'll end up with a range of sizes, and that's fine. But if you just buy one, make sure it's big enough to hold a full batch of bread dough. Three or four quarts is a good size. I tend to prefer taller, narrower bowls to wider, shallower ones; this lets me avoid slopping ingredients over the sides.
The choice of material is up to you. My main mixing bowl is heavy pyrex, but lots of people go for thin, light stainless steel bowls. Metal is also a good choice if you tend to make pastries that need to be kept cold, as it conducts heat well. But it really depends more on your preferences than anything else.
Honorable mention: vegetable peeler, can opener, waiter-style corkscrew with bottle opener, measuring spoons & cups.
Next: on to the stovetop!
The whole top tools for your first kitchen series:
- Part 1: Prep
- Part 2: Stovetop
- Part 3: Oven
- Part 4: Cleanup