From Pots to Shears—20 Essential Kitchen Tools

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

It’s a novice mistake to become overwhelmed with too many esoteric cooking tools in the kitchen. The trick is that you don’t need a lot of tools—you just need the right tools.

Kitchen tools - pots and pans

Kitchen Tools: Pots and Pans

It’s a good idea to have a selection of saucepans with tight-fitting lids. The larger ones should have two handles because they can get pretty unwieldy if they’re full of food.

  • Nonstick pans are invaluable if you’re cooking eggs. If you take good care of them and don’t use them for anything else, the nonstick coating will last a long time.
  • A sauteuse—also known as a sauté pan or frying pan—has sloping sides, which are important because they allow you to flip food and move it very quickly over high heat.
  • A sautoir is a type of frying pan that has straight sides, is a little bit deeper, and has a tight-fitting lid. A sautoir is great if you want to fry a piece of chicken and then make a sauce right in the pan because you can put a lid on the pan and trap the steam.
  • Stockpots are pots that you might use for boiling pasta or cooking a lot of soup. A traditional stockpot in a professional kitchen is a narrower pot that is also deeper. A narrower, deeper pot takes up less room on the stove, and you don’t get as much evaporation over a long period of cooking. When
 you’re making soup, you might want a
shallower pot that makes it easier to manipulate the food inside. With a shallower pot, you don’t get as much steaming, which can prevent things from browning.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Stockpots often come with a few inserts. There is a perforated insert that sits on the top of thepot—with the water down belowand a lid up above—and becomes a serviceable steamer. There is another insert that is perforated butis a little bit deeper.

Learn more about which knives you should always have on hand in the kitchen

Pot and pasta

When you place it in the pot with boiling water, you could then add pasta to the pot, and then when it’s time to take the pasta out of the water, simply lift the insert, allowing the water to drain from the pasta, and then add the pasta directly to the sauce. There are also pasta baskets that serve a similar purpose.

Many people use a colander for the purpose of draining the water from cooked pasta. When your pasta is ready, you put the colander in the sink and dump the pasta into the colander. The downside to using a colander is that you lose the pasta water, which is a precious commodity that can be used to adjust consistencies and make really simple sauces. However, a colander is not a bad thing to have on hand in your kitchen.

You should have a selection of stainless-steel bowls, including a large one that might hold salad for about eight people and a small one that might be just right for making the salad dressing that goes on that salad.

Salad bowls that are rounded on the bottom are great if you want to whip and manipulate the food in the bowl. On the other hand, if you’re just mixing something up, then a flat-bottomed pan is fine. Then, there are bowls that are hybrids of the two that have flat bottoms, but the curved sides go almost all the way down to the center.

You should also have a selection of roasting pans, including a smaller one that would be appropriate if you were making a lasagna or roasting a chicken and a larger one that would be useful if you were roasting a turkey or prime rib.

Learn more about how to Sauté—Dry-Heat Cooking with Fat

There are a few nonessential but handy pans that you might want to consider having in your kitchen. A cast- iron pan that is seasoned and nonstick holds the heat very well.  A braising pot that is oval is also helpful to have when making a pot roast because there’s not a lot of extra room around the outside of the roast, and when it goes into the oven, the cast iron is so heavy that the heat is diffused and comes to the meat in a very even way.

Kitchen tools - spoons

Kitchen Tools: Hand Tools and Smallwares

  • Balloon whip—for whipping air into preparations like cream or egg whites. A sauce whip is composed of much heavier wires and a much narrower head. Because it has a narrower head, it more easily fits into the corners of a saucepan. A sauce whip would be appropriate for stirring flour and water into a sauce to make it thick.
  • Bain-marie insert—contains a bath of hot water that is then inserted into a larger pot. It is used, for example, to keep soup warm.
  • Two sets of tongs—one that is short and one that is long. A short one is appropriate when you’re doing fine work, but if you’re cooking on a grill and the fire is hot, a longer set of tongs is useful so that you don’t burn your hands.
  • Ladles—for portioning soup or taking clarified butter and putting it into a hollandaise as it’s being made. In addition, the size or volume of the ladle is typically written on the handle, which can come in handy when you have to measure what’s being added. It’s nice to have ladles of different sizes.
  • Normal-sized spatula is great for flipping eggs, but one with a longer base is great for anything that is so tender that it might break, such as fish or pancakes. When buying spatulas, look for ones with silicone, heat-tolerant ends; they are a little more expensive, but it is well worth the extra money. In fact, some of them are tolerant up to 700 degrees of heat.
  • Wooden spoons—great to use with aluminum pans because a stainless-steel spoon rubbing against an aluminum pan will turn a light-colored preparation grey. Wooden spoons also feel good in your hand.

When you buy stainless-steel spoons, make sure that you include in your collection a solid spoon, which is appropriate if you’re trying to move sauce from a pan to a plate. In addition, you should have a slotted or perforated spoon so that when you remove brussels sprouts from butter, for example, the butter can drain off before you move the food to the plate.

  • Skimmers are appropriate for skimming stocks and sauces, and others— called spiders, which have an open net—are more appropriate for dipping foods out of hot oil. Because the net on spiders is open, the oil drains very quickly.
  • Food-grade brush—for when you want to brush oil on top of food. It tolerates heat, so if it accidentally touches the pan, the bristles won’t melt.
  • Ice cream scoop—great for ice cream, but also when you’re portioning muffins or small amounts of anything. Often, ice cream scoops are measured.
  • Kitchen shears—for any cutting that goes on in the kitchen.
    A meat mallet
  • Meat mallet is great for pounding or tenderizing meat. If you don’t have a meat mallet, however, you can also use a small saucepan to pound meat.
  • A selection of cookie sheets or sheet pans is handy to have in the kitchen.
  • Box grater—used to grate cheese or zest lemons, is a great kitchen tool. Many of them have different sizes of holes on each of the four sides of the grater.
  • Small digital thermometer—necessary when you are roasting food and need to take the temperature of the food, and a larger thermometer that has a probe can be put into a roast beef so that you can monitor its progress as it cooks.
  • Selection of dishes that you can serve from than can also be used to store food.
  • Graduated measuring cups—essential so that you can follow recipes with some confidence that the dishes will come out exactly the way they should if you are being accurate.

Guidelines for Buying Kitchen Tools

If you buy a new piece of equipment for your kitchen, notice how often you use it. A piece of equipment that gets used many times on a daily basis, such as a cutting board or knife, is an essential piece of equipment, and you should feel fine about spending a lot of money on those items to get exactly what you want. However, if you have a piece of equipment that you use once every few weeks, it might be a helpful item, but it’s not essential. A piece of equipment that you only use every few months is perhaps an unnecessary piece of equipment for you to keep on hand in your kitchen. If you only use an item twice a year, it can live in the basement or garage so that it doesn’t clutter up your life on a daily basis.

Learn more about how to make the perfect roast chicken and potatoes

Common Questions About Kitchen Tools

Q: What are the most important kitchen tools?

The most important kitchen tools are the ones you have at the moment! However, some essential kitchen tools are a sharp knife, pot, frying pan, baking sheet, silicon or wooden stirring spoon, and spatula.

Q: Is there a difference between utensils and kitchen tools?

The difference between utensils and kitchen tools is that utensils such as spoons, knives, and forks are used to serve and eat the food that is made in the kitchen with kitchen tools such as pots, pans, and baking sheets.

Q: What are tongs used for?

There are many types of tongs made for different applications, but the primary use of tongs is to grip, hold, and maneuver (from a short distance) solid ingredients that are too hot to touch with the fingers.

Q: Did the fork or chopsticks come first?

As the fork only appeared around the 15th century, the use of chopsticks, which appeared around 5000 years ago, came first.

This article was updated on 1/22/2020

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