Kick Off the School Year with These Top 10 Necessary Kitchen ToolsAug 09, 2017 08:08AM ● By Melanie Heisinger
By Carol Ritchie
As kids get ready to dive back into school books, and backpacks are filling with new school supplies, it’s a good time to do the same thing in the kitchen. Getting ready for a new school year of breakfast, lunch and dinner menus requires a properly equipped workspace - a properly filled kitchen toolbox! Food prep is much easier and is done much quicker when the proper tools are at hand. Here’s a “Top Ten” checklist to make sure your kitchen is ready with the equipment needed for great meals as the busy school year kicks off once again.
1) KnivesThe most important tool in the kitchen is a good, sharp knife. This might be the most expensive tool in your kitchen, but a good, high-carbon, stainless steel knife is worth the cost. A “chef knife” is the first and most all-around useful knife to consider. It has a large blade, comfortable handle and is indispensable for cutting, chopping, slicing and dicing. Other knives to consider for specific tasks include: paring, boning, slicing, serrated and a meat cleaver. A knife steel or sharpener completes a collection and is essential to keeping blades sharp. A sharp knife will cut through food effortlessly. Dull knives can slip and cause injury. Always remember, a sharp knife is a safe knife.
2) Cutting BoardsOnce you have a good kitchen knife, you’ll need a good cutting surface. Cutting boards are available in many different shapes, sizes and thicknesses, and are constructed from many different materials. Finding the best design basically comes down to a matter of taste. Plastic surfaces are dishwasher safe and easily sanitized; however, wooden cutting boards have a great “feel” when a lot of cutting and chopping is required. It is good to have several cutting boards available for different cutting tasks, for instance, a cutting board specifically for fresh produce, and another cutting board for raw meats. Always thoroughly wash cutting boards between uses, and most importantly, avoid cross contamination between raw foods and cooked foods.
3) CookwareThis is a rather large, general subject, with many options, but when choosing cookware, you’ll always do best when selecting pans of heavy gauge construction. Stainless steel and nonstick cookware choices are popular, but copper, aluminum and cast-iron are good choices, as well. Stainless steel with an aluminum core is a good option because the aluminum heats evenly, while the stainless steel provides a good cooking surface that is easy to clean. Many different shapes and sizes are available for specific cooking needs. In a good, basic set of cookware, you’ll generally find an omelet pan (fry pan), a skillet (sauté pan with straight sides and lid), a saucepan or two (of different sizes, with lids) and perhaps a stockpot (a tall saucepan with loop handles and a lid). Like good kitchen knives, cookware will perhaps be the most expensive tools in your kitchen; however, like good knives, good cookware is well worth the investment for successful cooking results. “The proof is in the pudding!” (A small selection of bakeware - baking pans and cookie sheets - are also highly recommended.)
4) Stirring Spoons & SpatulasFrom slotted spoons to flat metal spatulas, a good stirring and turning utensil is necessary for the home cook. Like pans, stirring spoons come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Always choose an appropriate design for the task at hand. Silicone spoons and spatulas have become very popular in recent years. They do not melt or warp (like plastic) under high heat conditions, they retain their shape (and color) very well and they work well with many different cookware materials. Metal utensils are useful in stainless steel and aluminum cookware, but never with nonstick cookware. It is wise to have a variety of stirring spoons and spatulas available for a multitude of cooking techniques and needs.
5) Measuring UtensilsUnless you ignore recipes altogether, you are going to need a set of measuring utensils. From spoons to cups to liquid measurers, these kitchen utensils are the necessary tools to add “just the right amount.” Again, available in a variety of designs, choose measuring cups and spoons that suit your taste or kitchen décor. I prefer a simple stainless-steel design; they get the job done and are easily cleaned. A basic set of measuring cups and spoons should include these measurements: 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, 1 tablespoon, 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup and 1 cup. These measuring cups are designed for dry measurements: flour, sugar, grains, etc. For liquid measurements, Pyrex measuring cups are the readily available and highly useful design choice. Measurements are marked in ounces and cups on the side of the glass utensil making it very easy to measure any liquids, from water to molasses.
6) Mixing BowlsFrom salads to baking mixes, or simply to contain a mélange of ingredients during a recipe preparation, a variety of small-to-large bowls is another important element to have on hand in a well-equipped kitchen. From plastic to glass to wood to stainless steel, mixing bowls hold and contain ingredients from the prep counter to the dining table. It is always good to have many sizes - and often, several of the same sizes - available for all cooking, baking and raw food preparation needs. Choose plain bowls for prep and easy cleanup; choose decorative bowls for serving needs.
7) Whisk & Rubber SpatulasFor the home baker, you’ll need to have a good balloon whisk and rubber (or silicone) spatula. These essential tools go hand-in-hand with large mixing bowls and are needed for whisking, folding and stirring tasks. Whisks help to bring air into a mixture, for instance, when whipping egg whites into soft foam or stiff peaks. Rubber spatulas help to clear food from the sides of bowls, and turn mixtures over onto themselves, “folding” the ingredients without heavy mixing. Many baking recipes will call for techniques that require the use of a whisk or rubber spatula.
8) Electric BlenderSmall electric kitchen appliances all have important uses for various kitchen tasks, but this is a fringe area need that is best determined by the budget and desires of each individual home cook. While I would highly recommend an electric hand (or stand) mixer, food processor, Crock pot slow cooker and many other useful small electric kitchen appliances for a well-equipped kitchen, these tools are not necessary if you have most of the previously mentioned utensils in your kitchen. For the novice cook, or someone just starting to equip a kitchen, I would recommend the electric blender as a first small kitchen appliance choice (well, maybe a toaster, too!). While many might associate the blender with drinks, a good blender can also handle small food processor tasks, as well. And, of course, electric blenders are essential for homemade fruit (and/or vegetable) smoothies.
9) GadgetsOkay, here’s where my top-ten list seems to become irrelevant, or ironic. Or maybe a misnomer? Oh well, who’s counting anyways? I love gadgets. Kitchen gadgets. There, I said it, and I could leave it at that, but this is a huge category itself. This could be a top-ten within the “Top Ten” if I could limit it to that few of the items I love to use in the kitchen. Kitchen gadgets are usually identified by their limited use; a specific use to make a single preparation of a specified ingredient much easier or quicker than what might be experienced without the aid of this kitchen “miracle tool.” Some of my favorite gadgets include (but are not limited to): garlic press, citrus zester (or microplane), citrus reamer/juicer, cheese grater, vegetable peeler, potato masher, strainer, sieve, or colander, avocado slicer, tomato shark, apple corer, mortar & pestle, kitchen scissors, instant-read thermometer, ladles and ice cream scoops of various sizes, cookie cutters, pastry scraper, flour shaker, rolling pins, hand-crank pasta maker, can opener, salt grinder and pepper mill and don’t forget pot mitts. Yes, I am the queen of all kitchen gadgets!
10) CookbooksLast, but certainly not least, a well-equipped kitchen needs a variety of cookbooks. Just like textbooks for different school subjects, the home cook needs good reference books for the cooking and baking tasks at hand. From culinary history and cooking basics, to step-by-step recipes and descriptions of food ingredients, cookbooks offer knowledge and inspiration for the home cook. Start with a good, general, all-purpose cookbook; there are so many to consider. The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, and The American Heart Association Cookbook to name just a few. Maybe choose a cookbook or two from favorite chefs or cooking show hosts. Select a cookbook that highlights a favorite international cuisine. Plus, choose specialized cookbooks that focus on single, favorite topics or techniques, such as stir-fry, salads, bread or cookies. And while not technically a “cookbook,” a notebook or recipe card file full of your own traditional family recipes is the best cookbook to have in your kitchen!
Tools of the TradeWhether you are new to the kitchen, or you are simply completing this checklist for a well-equipped kitchen, you’ll soon find that these tools will help you become a better-prepared home cook. Just like the school supply needs of the student for study, the task is always much easier when the correct tool is available. My Greek Salad with Tomato, Cucumber and Feta (see recipe) is a great example of a dish that highly benefits from the use of proper and convenient kitchen tools for preparation. The uses of more than half of my “Top Ten” list of utensils are easily implemented in the preparation of this recipe. It demonstrates the importance of good kitchen equipment, basic kitchen skills and an organized home cook - all the great tools of the trade.
Greek Salad with Tomato, Cucumber and Feta
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 English cucumber, diced
4 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/2 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon zest, lemon juice, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. Add the diced cucumber, tomatoes, sliced onion and crumbled feta, and toss gently to coat with the dressing. Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to two days.
Notes: To make this salad more of a complete meal, add two diced (or shredded), cooked and chilled chicken breasts, and top the finished salad with slices of fresh avocado.
Carol Ritchie is the host of “Cookin’ with Carol.” She has taught cooking classes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for over 25 years.