One of the things that can be most daunting about getting started in the kitchen is not the food or the preparation, but simply determining what stuff you actually need to cook. When you walk into a store there are isles and isles of kitchen gadgets and gizmos most of which I find utterly useless.
I get a bit heated sometimes when I talk about kitchen gadgets because they are one of my favorite parts about cooking. A good tool in the kitchen is priceless. But makers have gone overboard. You do not need a specific tool for every type of food you make.
Macheesmo Rules for Kitchen Appliances
Does it have a specific food in the name?
If it does then I probably consider it useless. Apple Corer? Use a knife. Avocado Slicer? Use a knife. Egg chopper? Use a knife. Are you noticing a trend? These devices are just more work than they are worth. You are spending money on these things that take up space in your kitchen and will only be used occasionally. As with everything there are probably exceptions. If you eat two apples a day, maybe it would be useful to have an apple corer.
Did you discover it on an Infomercial?
If so, I must say that it is most likely useless. These tools sold on television are manufactured on the cheap to sell cheap and make a quick buck. That means that they probably do one thing sort of okay. But they won’t do anything great. So if you see it on TV, save your money.
The Kitchen Tool Litmus Test.
When I pick up a kitchen gadget in the store these are the questions I ask, ultimately, before buying the thing. First, does the tool enable me to make something that I couldn’t otherwise make? If it will enable me to do something new then I will consider it. Keep in mind that I do not think most tools actually do this. Most tools just help to do something that is already possible.
Second, if the tool helps do something faster or better, how often will I use it? Typically if I use it at least twice a month, I think it is probably worthwhile.
Third, are their alternate uses besides the primary one? If a tool has multiple uses, that makes it more valuable.
If I can’t answer these questions correctly then I don’t buy the thing.
My example of the Litmus test is a pizza stone (I broke rule #1!) I was trying for many months to make a nice crispy crust pizza. I was getting decent results on a baking pan, but after a few months of frustration I decided I would use it enough to warrant the purchase. I also had a number of other uses in mind for the stone though besides pizza such as flat breads.
I would guess probably 70-80% of the stuff you can buy in the kitchen appliance section these days breaks at least one of these rules.
My 10 Practically Essential Kitchen Tools in no Particular Order (Not including pots, pans, knives)
I say “practically essential” because you don’t NEED any of this stuff. But you sort of do.
1) Cutting Board – Don’t cut on your countertop Dude. It will ruin your knife and counter. I like a large plastic cutting board. Wood will absorb gross smells. Marble will ding up your knife.
Update: A few readers commented that wood is actually safer than plastic when it comes to bacteria removal. There was an article about this in the New York Times here. Wow! Of course the best way to handle the situation is to have TWO cutting boards and not to cross-contaminate them.
2) Colander or Strainer – If you cook a lot of pasta, beans, or things in boiling water, this will come in handy.
3) Tongs – Yes you can use a fork, but then you pierce the meat. It makes turning food so much easier and has a number of hidden uses like getting pasta out of water.
4) Box Grater - You know what sucks? Grating cheese with a knife. If you find yourself without a grater when you need grated cheese and you will be saying, “Screw the Five Times Rule.” The Box Grater is nice because it has a smaller grating surface on the other side which is nice for hard cheeses and getting zest off of fruit.
5) Measuring Cups - I saw the most pointless measuring cups a few days ago. I think they might have been a Rachel Ray product but instead of saying what the measurements actually were they said “Pinch”, “A bit”, “Sprinkle”. What the hell is that about? Anyway, measuring cups are pretty essential unless you enjoy extreme frustration.
6) Spatula – I dare you to flip a pancake without one.
7) Whisk - This might be a questionable one for you depending on how much you bake, but for me it is essential. I can’t imagine making batters without it. I don’t have one of those fancy Kitchen Aid things though which might make a whisk obsolete. Oh and don’t get the silicone kind. Metal is the only way to go here.
8) Timer – I am a space cadet. Without a reliable kitchen timer, I would burn at least half of the things I cook.
9) Funnel – When you don’t have one, things can get really messy. A super cheap piece of equipment that I use regularly. Totally not essential if you have a VERY steady hand.
10) Can Opener - Not one of those fancy electric ones. Just an old-fashioned, reliable can opener. If you don’t have one you will hate life when you need to open that can of stewed tomatoes.
You might look at this list and think it is boring, but that is the point! You probably have most of the stuff on this list and therefore you probably have most of the essentials necessary to cook on a daily basis. Also, I’ve lived without a lot of the stuff on this list for periods of time and still managed to cook pretty solid dishes.
When it comes to kitchen tools, try to buy quality items that you know you are going to use. Ignore all of the one-use, one-food products. Save your time and your kitchen space and make sure you know what products you are buying.
Do you have any kitchen tools that you consider essential or useless?