January 22, 2003

Top Ten Equipment

What would I have in my kitchen on a limited budget? Here's what I think I could "make do" with if I had to. Specific items I own and strongly recommend I have links to. This list is also roughly in the order in which I'd buy them -- although I would be fairly hard pressed to do major kitchen work without all of these.

1) Chef's Knife and Knife Care items. If I had to have only one knife, it would be a major chef's knife. Knives are very personal things, and the best one to buy tends to depend your hands. I personally use Wusthof Classics, and my 8 inch Chef's Knife is my current favorite.

Size: You may prefer a larger 10 inch, or a smaller 6 inch. In general, shorter knives give you more control, while longer ones speed chopping of larger quantities. I think if you are only going to buy one, error on the side of longer rather than shorter.

Brand: Again, there isn't a "best" here. If you prefer lighter knives, look into Global. If you like those with less of a curve or "rock" to the blade, Sabatier is a good choice. My knives have a squared handle, which some people find uncomfortable, but for some reason fit my own hand well. If possible, use a variety of knives at friends houses prior to purchase.

Sets: In my opinion, knife sets are a waste of money. Typically, one or two knives in the set account for 90% of your use in the kitchen. Spend more on those one or two, and then get cheaper knives if you must have more variety.

Once you have a knife, you'll need:
- steel
- wood or poly cutting board
- sharpening stone
There no point in spending money on a knife if you aren't going to use a cutting board to keep it from going dull, a steel to keep the edge keen, and a sharpening stone to resharpen as needed. If you are uncomfortable sharpening knives, you can save some effort and money by having them done professionally. Butcher shops will usually offer this service for around $2 per knife. Since knives need sharpening once or twice a year (for a typical home cook), you can have this done a fair number of times before you hit the price of a sharpening stone.

Wusthof Classic 8-Inch Cook's Knife
Wusthof Classic 10-Inch Cook's Knife

2) Sautee Pan (not non-stick). 10 or 12 inches. Again, I'd error on the side of being larger rather than smaller. Get the thickest metal you can. Make sure the entire pan is the same thickness, or you'll tend to have burning at the edges.

Material: I personally prefer stainless coated aluminum and like All Clad. They are expensive, but widely available. Anodized Aluminum is also a possibility, but isn't my first choice. With time, the anodized layer will wear down. Copper is great, but quite expensive (unless you happen to be in Paris).

Handle: Must be metal and oven-proof. Many dishes will start on the stovetop and then finish in the oven.

Sets: Like with knives, I generally don't recommend purchasing sets of cookware. You are often paying for thick metal in pots (such as large stock pots) that don't require it. You are also often getting pots that will go unused. You'll be tempted to save money by getting a cheaper set when in the long run it is better to spend the money on one or two higher quality pieces and then economize on the less important ones.

All-Clad Stainless 10-Inch Fry Pan
All-Clad Stainless 12-Inch Fry Pan

3) Tongs. The cheapest best kitchen investment you'll ever make. I use them constantly and every day. Use for turning food in sautee pans, stirring things (including sauce, stock, pasta), helping pans out of the oven, and even spooning out small amounts of sauce. You can find these just about anyplace and shouldn't need to pay more than $8 for them. Some have locking handles, which are fine, but not required -- most chefs hate the locks and will remove them. I tend to prefer a medium length for kitchen work, but have a longer set for the BBQ grill.

4) Saucier Pans. 2-3 quart. These are amazing. I have a 2 quart and a 3 quart, but could get by with only one of them. Much more flexible than straight sided sauce pans, and yet you'll almost never find them in a set of cookware! You can boil things in them, reduce sauces, and even sautee items. In a pinch, you could get by with a Saucier instead of a sautee pan (although I'd rather not).

All-Clad Stainless 2-Quart Saucier Pan
All-Clad Stainless 3-Quart Saucier Pan

5) Cheap serrated knife. It's hard to sharpen these knives, so I usually just buy stamped (rather than forged) ones. They stay sharp a reasonably long time, and when they get too horribly dull, I just toss them and by a new one (maybe once every 5 years or so). A bunch of chefs have started using offset or "L-shaped" serrated knives during service. I don't have one yet, but may pick one up before too long.

6) Large stock pot. Don't spent lots of money on this one. Don't get wafer thin metal, but you don't need copper either. You'll mostly be boiling pasta and potatoes in it. I consider 6 quart a minimum size here, but if I could only have one, it would be 5 gallon.

7) Large coarse mesh strainer. Again, spend as little as you can get away with, and try to get the largest you can find. Use for straining pasta, getting larger bits out of sauces, add a dishtowel to strain stock, etc. If you want to add fine mesh, I go with a smaller one. Unless you do serious stock and sauce work, skip the very expensive chinois -- although if you do buy one, try to find it for closer to $50 than to $100.

8) Stainless steel bowls, various sizes -- at least 3 of them. My most used one is a 2.5 quart size. Plain is fine. The more rounded the bottom, the better. Cheaper, better. Use for prep work, making sauces, salad dressing, whipping egg whites, batters, bread, etc.

9) Whisk. I own two, a long sauce whisk and a larger balloon whisk. If you have to buy only one, get the longer kind. You can whip egg whites with either (although it is easier with a balloon whisk) but only a long sauce whisk works well in a saucepan. Get one with a solid metal handle with the wires firmly embedded -- this type is slightly more expensive, but easier to keep clean and it won't give out on you.

10) Heat proof silicon spatulas. This is a relatively new item to kitchens (in general, and in mine specifically). You can use them to stir sautee pans (you'll think you shouldn't at first, but they really do stand up to 800 degree heat), and they also serve as a spoon if you find the right kind.

Posted by dowdy at January 22, 2003 09:57 AM