Last weekend it was upper-60's, sunny and bright here in Boston. That means t-shirts and shorts to many who have had to endure that long and arduous winter. For me, it meant opening day for the grill and breaking out the hammock for relaxing in the backyard! We had a fun-packed Sunday, which included working, then working out, making lunch for friends, going for a hike in our neighborhood and then hosting our impromptu first barbecue of the season! Lucky for me my friends were so kind to bring vegetables, so we marinated some tofu and chicken and my neighbor came down and made us fabulous cocktails to round it off. It was a wonderful day, and it got me so excited for more days of hiking and hanging out with good friends in our backyard.
With spring comes spring cleaning, and I LOVE cleaning out my kitchen and feeling like I am starting fresh. Over the past few weeks I have been trying to eat my way through all of the dry foods, sauces and condiments to make sure we don't keep things around past their expiration date. I also went through my kitchen tools and gadgets to try to make room in our cramped cabinets. It was then that I thought about my Instant Pot. Even though I had been having so much fun with the pressure cooker all winter, I found I really don't rely on it, and it takes up a TON of space on my counter top (and is sort of an eyesore). I began to wonder if I really wanted to keep my Instant Pot or try to sell it on craigslist. Chris was able to convince me to keep it - he loves using any kind of technology in the kitchen - so it will live another season in the Heinen Household. But this got me really thinking about what my favorite kitchen tools are and what I could not live without.
When I began making my list of cooking tools I would hypothetically bring with me if abandoned on a deserted island, I realized I rely on a small number of low-tech tools for most of my home-made meals. This might be because I was taught to cook with these utensils, but I think it is because these are essential to anyone! Fancy, expensive gadgets and contraptions are not needed to make a good chef. Rather, a few classic utensils are all that are needed to make nearly everything. Nearly. I would never willingly give up my Kitchen Aid mixer that has been in my family for 30+ years even though I only use it once a month (if that). But I'm assuming the deserted island doesn't have outlets.
Here is my top ten list of essential cooking tools:
1. A really sharp chef's knife
I pretty much use this every day, multiple times a day. I have two 10" chefs knives in my kitchen, which I use for cutting vegetables, meats, chopping garlic and herbs, cutting cakes and pies. Pretty much any reason you'd have to cut something in the kitchen I am using my chef's knife. The only things I do not use the chef's knife for is cutting bread (I have a separate serrated bread knife for that) and de-boning fish (which I don't even really do that often). If I had no other tool at all and had to only pick one for my deserted island fantasy, I would definitely bring my chef's knife.
2. Wooden spatula
Do I mean wooden spoon you ask? Why no, I meant what I said - wooden spatula. I got one in a package of wooden utensils for our wedding (or a birthday, or Christmas... can't really remember) and I never really thought I needed so many different shapes of wooden spoons. But after a while of experimenting I am using the spatula much more than I ever imagined. It does the same work as a wooden spoon, but has a larger surface area for scraping bits off the bottom of the pan, turning wide scoops of food in a pot and can scoop a larger amount of food onto a plate when I am done cooking, which reduces the amount of things I need to wash! And of course, you can also use it as a regular spatula, but it might be too thick for things like pancakes and other small, thin foods.
I first learned how critical tongs were when I worked in restaurants in New York. I was not a chef, but I saw how my chefs used them almost as extensions of themselves, like they were their fingers, gently lifting up anything in a pot, pan or on a grill. I now own two tongs - one metal and another with a silicone tip - and use them pretty much daily for everything. Grilling. Sautéing. Mixing salad greens. Stir-frying. Checking the done-ness of something in the oven just out of reach... its uses are endless!
This seemingly unimportant kitchen staple has helped make almost every savory dish even more spectacular. I LOVE black pepper. I find myself blindly adding it to almost everything that is not sweet. I mean, there's a reason why waiters ask if you want fresh pepper on your entrees at restaurants! I recently purchased a Peugeot grinder and love the way it looks and grinds. Fresh ground pepper instantly boosts any dish in my opinion.
When you eat as many vegetables and fruits as we do, you need a good peeler. My sister had an amazing vegetable peeler, a simple, no-frills flat peeler with a black handle, and I use it often to help me quickly prep my produce for recipes. I also recently found out the best way to prepare mangos is by peeling the skin and then slicing the flesh off the pit. Now I'll never live without a peeler (especially if my deserted island has a mango tree).
A well-calibrated working thermometer is important if you want to make sure you are cooking your meats to the proper temperatures. A thermometer takes the guessing game out of cooking meats, and if you are looking to protect yourself from food-borne illnesses because you are immunocompromised, consider this tool critical. If you are interested in learning more about proper cooking temperatures, click here.
Not exactly a colander, but it also works as one. And if you had to pick one tool that can separate liquid from solids, this one does the trick but better. It catches smaller pieces of food that a colander will not, and you can also use a fine mesh strainer for sifting flour, confectioners sugar or cornstarch in recipes.
8. Citrus juicer/reamer
I love adding citrus to sauces, dressings, marinades and beverages. Citrus juices provide flavor without sodium and also give a brightness to most vegetable side dishes. Citrus cuts through the fishiness of most seafood and adds a lovely zing to homemade salad dressings. The fresh juice from a lemon or lime is so much better than concentrated juice, and a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice adds an extra touch of love to your breakfast in bed. And if you have a reamer and want to avoid pulp or seeds in your juice, use your strainer (see #7) to keep out any pieces!
This has been on my "want" list for a loooooong time. Perfect for grating fresh lemon zest (see citrus love above) or adding a dash of parmesan to finish pasta or chicken, or even to shave some chocolate finely onto the top of a frosted cake, a microplane can do the job of a grater and a zester all in one easy-to-hold minimalist kitchen tool. Consider using a Microplane for grating fresh nutmeg or ginger, garlic or anything else you want to have fine, fluffy shreds of.
10. Immersion blender
Ok, I know - my hypothetical deserted island doesn't have outlets! But I love my immersion blender and I have had it for almost 11 years so it is hard to give up. I find myself reveling in adoration of how fast and precise it works to blend to a pulp my soups and whip together cream for dessert. I do also have a blender and a food processor, but I often choose my immersion blender because it is so easy to clean. I don't need to muck up other equipment and attachments and spend an extra 10 minutes washing dishes instead of enjoying my soup. Sometimes it isn't just the way the tool is used, but how easy it is to use it that makes it so valuable.
Now that I have shared my top ten kitchen tools with you, what are yours? I would love to hear in the comments!