Kitchen Essentials

By Eric Murken

I worked five years in the kitchens of Chicago's fine dining restaurants. While not the longest of tenures, it offered me opportunities to learn from chefs from a variety of backgrounds, and to handle a dizzying variety of ingredients. I learned to cook foie gras, skate wing, sweetbreads, quail, morels—nearly every type of food, both familiar and exotic, classic or trendy. What might surprise many home cooks, however, is the type of equipment employed in the professional kitchen. While the Charlie Trotters of the world do use copper-clad pans in showcase kitchens, most chefs have to make do with well-used, second-rate equipment, in cramped rooms stuffed to the ceiling with ovens, coolers, and pots. This is why I find Williams-Sonoma and the other kitchen catalogs shipped to well-heeled home cooks so frustrating—they pitch lifestyle over utility. I imagine eager catalog shoppers tearing open boxes amid showers of foam peanuts, desperately clutching their new gadgets, with no understanding of how to use them.

My culinary internship took place in a closet of a kitchen, under the tutelage of a revered, tightfisted French chef. Toiling shoulder-to-shoulder with my kitchen cohorts in extreme heat, I quickly learned that (a) personal space was a luxury of the past; (b) the most frugal ingredients can be transformed into a sublime meal; and (c) you can make a refined, luxurious sauce just as well in a battered $10 saucepan as you can in the dearest of calphalon pots. In other kitchens, I used cheap knives, brought tart pans in from home, sawed PVC for ring molds, and guarded the few decent non-stick pans as if they were wrought of the finest precious metals. The lessons learned? Take care of the few decent tools you have. Keep your knife sharp, and protect it viciously. When all else fails, innovate. You think Vatel had non-stick? Did Escoffier have the luxury of high-carbon steel knives that never dull? Mais non.

Now, the catalogs of the world will inform you that the kitchen is incomplete without oil sprayers, cherry pitters, apple dividers, panini grills, cheese knives, wine coasters, bread machines, crepe pans, zesters, tortilla presses, rotofryers, electric egg cookers… any number of kitchen time-savers guaranteed only to clutter your drawers and prove impossible to find on the one annual occasion for which they might help. I've surely offended many readers by naming the one gadget without which their kitchen life would have no meaning, and I'm probably guiltier of this accumulative instinct than most kitchen czars (my personal favorite listed above is the crepe pan - ooh la la, crepes!!!). By virtue of my former profession (and a minor affliction with OCD), I've accumulated enough kitchen equipment to open a restaurant of my own—but most of these gewgaws and pretty whimsies languish at the back of cluttered drawers and cabinets. The items I use most regularly are within easy reach on my stove, hanging from a pot rack, or stuffed unglamorously in a jar at the back of my counter.

Understood, there's a breed of people who indulge in a completist's fantasy, and more power to them. However, the cooks who accomplish much with only a few utensils will always tower over their well-accessorized associates.

So what is essential in the kitchen?

Below is my list, and it is quite complete for most cooking. If you're a fanatic for baking, the items I list will not be enough. If you are wild for entertaining with hors d'ouevres, the list is a mere starting point—plan on accumulating hundreds of specialized, tiny zesters and cutters for incredible detail work. If you want Chinese food, include a wok; Japanese, a bamboo rolling mat; the list devolves from here. The most wonderful part of cooking, however, is that while specialized equipment is often helpful, it is rarely indispensable. During my cooking years, I subsisted on meager wages, with minimal resources for fancy equipment. I still make do with the tiny food processor my wife owned when we met, and when I bake, the dough is worked by hand, as I haven't yet justified the purchase of a good mixer.

Now then, all quantifying aside, let us get on with the list…

The Essentials

Cutting board
A good cutting board is your most important tool in the kitchen: it protects your knife and protects your counter. Acrylic is best. It's cheap, disposable, and doesn't require the care that wood or butcher block does. Find a local restaurant supply store (if you're in Chicago, visit the Edward Don outlet store at 2525 N. Elston Avenue—it's a blast!) and purchase the largest board that will fit on your counter (and in your sink!). The bigger the board, the bigger your work area.

Chef's knife
This is the best investment you'll make, and a tremendous opportunity to do something better than the restaurants. Restaurants use cheap knives because ill-paid cooks will use them to hack bones, clean refrigerator compressors, pick locks, play at target practice—really nearly anything but what they're meant for (at really nice restaurants, dedicated cooks often bring their own knives in for their shifts, and will rarely let another cook touch them). Forschner, Henckel, and Wustoff Trident are all good brands; look for full-tang knives (the blade runs through the handle) with rivets holding the handle together. Heat-tempered high-carbon steel holds an edge longer, but is difficult to sharpen. I prefer a 10" knife, but have known many cooks who prefer an 8". Don't be put off by fear of a blade—look for balance, and a grip that feels comfortable. A large knife is not overkill, but requires practice to use it properly (that lesson will come in another installment). Global also makes a lovely, especially light knife, unlike any other—chefs covet these—especially for the true aficionado.

A steel hones your knives' blades (this is not sharpening, but rather straightening). Daily use requires daily honing, and only occasional sharpening. Diamond steels are nice, and last longer, but a $10 bottom-of-the-barrel steel will work fine. If you're particularly ambitious, or don't have access to a local knife-sharpening shop, buy a whetstone as well, to sharpen your own knives. There's a bit of a trick to this, but it gets easier with practice.

Not metal spoons, not wooden spoons, not spatulas. This cook's favorite weapon is a set of sturdy metal tongs, purchased at the culinary school bookstore. Not flimsy light-gauge metal, but extra-thick steel with a bit of weight (and skip on the locking ring on the back of the tongs—it always slips down at the wrong moment). Tongs are the ultimate tool—use them for stirring, flipping, grilling, and nibbling. They store well on the oven or grill handle, too!

Cast iron skillet
Notice that we haven't even spoken of cookware yet? Nothing fancy here, but this is still my favorite pan. Cast iron requires a bit of care, but out-performs many other materials; its heat-retaining qualities allow you to execute flawless, subtly crunchy stir-fries with ease, and may go straight into the oven for continued cooking or to hold food at temperature. I prefer a deep-sided 10" pan, to accommodate larger quantities. To season your pan, set it on a cookie sheet, coat it lightly with vegetable oil, and heat in a 300 degree F oven for 1 hour. Wipe any excess oil from the surface with a paper towel. When washing, use a stainless steel scrubber, rinse well, and dry thoroughly. If the pan begins to rust slightly, scrub well to remove all traces, and reseason.

Nonstick sauté pan
For pans, bigger is better. I have an All-Clad, non-stick 12" sauté pan, which is big enough for you to cook large quantities of food without over-filling the pan (when sautéing, the most crucial element is high heat; if you over-fill the pan, it loses most of its heat to the food, then has to recover the heat, creating more of a braising technique than a sauté). Non-stick surfaces allow you to cook with less oil or butter, and clean up easily. When purchasing cookware, I always look for metal handles; one of my favorite things to do is start a dish on the stovetop and transfer it to the oven to finish cooking—great if you've got all-metal handles, icky-bad with plastic. Metal handles also allow for keeping food warm in the oven while you synchronize the remainder of a meal. Metal bowls
Stainless steel metal bowls, in a variety of sizes. I use one every day—they're ideal for salads, sauces, dressings, doughs, nearly every kitchen task. Simple enough for the kitchen, and can be used at the table in a pinch; I can't get enough of these. I also have several tiny metal bowls to hold all the prep work for recipes with several steps.

High-heat rubber spatulas
Rubbermaid makes these, and a few other companies, too. Often identifiable by its red handle, a high-heat spatula can be used directly against the surface of a sauté pan without melting, in addition to all the other tasks a spatula normally does. High-heat spatulas replace wooden spoons in most situations, clean up more easily, and won't retain flavors as wood will. Especially nice for omelets.

Kitchen towels
Throw away the oven mitts and potholders, the only way a real cook grabs a hot pan is with a folded towel. A towel tucks under the strap of an apron for easy access. Folded carefully, it will provide more protection than most home-grade potholders, and is great for quick clean-ups, too! The restaurant cook will guard his towels nearly as viciously as he guards his knife—they're always in short supply, and cooks often have favorites. I prefer the flat, heavy cotton towels, others like the fluffy cotton ones. Two towels are kept out at all times—one for grabbing pots, one for clean up—and ne'er the twain shall meet (water conducts heat faster than any other medium—just grab a searing pot handle with a wet towel and find out!).

Everything else is just gravy.

Great Additions

Not the musical instrument! The mandoline is an evil, many-toothed French beast, designed to cut potatoes, carrots, really any firm vegetable (and thumbs) into perfect juliennes, chips, slices, etc. While it's not for the faint-of-heart, a mandoline takes hours out of your prep work and produces cuts superior to any knife. I always wanted one, but feared for its usefulness at home. Surprise! I use it all the time, and it only draws blood occasionally (of course, all cooks know that scars are cool).

Chinois (Shin-waa)
A super-fine mesh strainer, shaped like a cone. Another tool I loved in the restaurants, but was concerned for its home utility—and again was surprised at how frequently I use it. A chinois is essential for creating refined sauces, and is also useful for straining stock, soup, citrus juice, etc.

If you have a chinois, you must own a sturdy ladle to aid in pushing liquids through it. A ladle is also essential for serving anything with a lot of liquid.

Omelet pan
Like eggs? Gotta have one. Nonstick, 8" across, shallow (for easy access).

Kitchen-Aid. Bulletproof. I've used one in nearly every kitchen I've worked; withstands abuse that would make you blush. Crucial for cookies, breads, pizza, cake, meringues, doughs, any baking project.

Food processor
Even the little ones are great. I use mine for chopping garlic, making pesto, dressings, mayonnaise—it's truly amazing what timesavings these machines provide. If you get one with a cheese grater attachment, it's even nicer.

And so it goes. I'm certain I'll think of other favorite tools before the digital ink dries on this page, but the list above truly is enough to get you started on most culinary endeavors.

Three Rules

Lastly, I would like to share some personal rules you might keep in mind when exploring your kitchen:

Function over form
Many home kitchen tools are poorly-wrought pieces, draped in the season's latest styles. Avoid these! When looking for even the simplest of tools (i.e., a large metal serving spoon), I'll usually opt for the most heavy-duty piece available. While the design often corresponds nicely with the industrial aesthetic I prefer, the utensil itself is also built better, and should last longer.

Nicer is better
And really nice is better still! When faced with a difference of a few dollars for a vast difference in quality, I'll opt up. The nicer piece will probably last longer and do its job better than the cheaper tool. The kitchen is one realm where the old saying "You get what you pay for" truly applies.

Innovation wins every time
When faced with a recipe that calls for a strange utensil, or one that I'll most likely never again use, I innovate before conceding defeat (or spending the extra dollars). Don't have cheesecloth? Use a coffee filter. Can't find the zester your grandma gave you? Cut the zest with a paring knife and chop it by hand. Remember, the chefs who developed the cooking techniques we now take for granted didn't have a 'Chef's Catalog' full of gadgets to draw from—and neither did your mother; let invention guide you in the kitchen.

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Copyright©2002 by Eric Murken.

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