If there’s a room in a person’s home that can go from zero to complete mess in no time flat, it’s the kitchen. Bottomless pots and pans, gadgets like dehydrators, immersion blenders, panini presses, waffle irons, and all those utensils—the amount of stuff in kitchens can be simply overwhelming. To clear out the clutter, we asked industry professionals and foodies to drill down to the essential items home cooks should have in their kitchens.
Knives are a staple in any kitchen and can be the difference between properly prepared food and food that could use some improvement. Sharp knives are key for prepping proteins, vegetables, herbs, and pretty much anything that’s in your kitchen. Your knives don’t need to be expensive to be sharp, you just need to learn how to hone a blade. In my home I have a plethora of blades, but you really only need a chef’s knife, a smaller utility knife, and a paring knife. Those three blades should get most home cooking projects done effectively. Pair those with a few sharpening stones and a little practice, and your knife game will be straight ballin’!
■ Jon Wipfli, Chef and Author, “Venison: The Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook”
I love having a mini rubber spatula in my bain-marie at all times because it helps me work cleanly and efficiently. I can easily scrape out that last little bit of sauce or puree when plating or consolidating my station at the end of the night. I keep several of them in my knife roll. At first cooks make fun of it. Then they see how useful it is, and then I gift them one. They are cheap, durable, and fit right in with my plating spoons for service. I look for highly heat-resistant ones with entirely plastic handles (wood tends to stain and warp). The other type of spatula I find invaluable is a metal fish spatula. It’s obviously the best tool for what it’s named after (turning fish) but it works for a lot of ingredients in a lot of different cooking elements. You can use it on a grill, saute pan, pulling veggies out of boiling water or even in a pinch as a whisk. It’s great for vegetables, any meat, and even for gently flipping pesky gnocchi that stick to the pan as you try to crisp them up. If you know what you’re doing, you can even use them on a nonstick pan for eggs. I like ones where the metal runs the whole length, like a good knife does.
■ Jessica Cak, Executive Chef, Barbette
Mixing bowls have to be one of the most underrated and versatile items in the kitchen. Without them, I couldn’t make a double boiler to melt chocolate for a sauce or make a velvety hollandaise for brunch. They also double as the perfect cheese melter for a flat top burger or the perfect mold for cutting a cake round. My favorite use is still as a chef-sized cereal bowl like in the movie “Friday.” When buying a mixing bowl, I always look for a heavier bowl. They will retain the hot or cold temperatures better for whatever you’re making. I also love the new style of mixing bowls with a silicon base that keeps the bowls from moving on your work station.
■ Gerard Klass, Owner and Chef, Klassics and Soul Bowl
Cast Iron Pan
For me, I would never give up my cast iron pan. If treated well, it will last a lifetime and beyond. I keep mine well-seasoned so I can do anything from flip omelets to sear steaks or make pan sauces. It can replace just about any other saute pan you might have. In fact, I don’t even touch my other pans. When looking to purchase a cast iron pan, I go for an enameled pan so I can cook acidic foods in it. It requires less work for seasoning, but the enamel can chip so you must be careful when handling it. I look for a medium-sized pan, one big enough to cook two steaks, a few pancakes, or one omelet. The versatility is unmatched.
■ Sarah Master, Executive Chef, Red Stag Supperclub
Cutting boards seem to go wrong in one of two directions. Either they’re light, insubstantial sheets of plastic-like material that slide around on your counter and get nicked to hell, or they’re massive, ornamental beasts—perfect for serving charcuterie, but awkward to use for the day-to-day prep that is the heart and soul of the kitchen. The cutting board in my kitchen is a rather ordinary-looking black rectangle of composite wood made by Epicurean. It’s thin and relatively light, yet heavy enough to stay in place while I work. It has stood up to years of knife work and is dishwasher safe. There are many more visually interesting cutting boards out there, but nothing quite so useful.
■ James Norton, Editor and Publisher, The Heavy Table
My five-and-a-half-quart Le Creuset dutch oven has the honor of living on my stovetop 24/7. The heavy bottom sears wonderfully and evenly, while the light interior finish is perfect for precisely monitoring low-and-slow caramelization. I make sweets with it (enamel won’t transfer flavors), simmer soups, and bake sourdough loaves in it because the tight-fitting lid keeps my bread steamy for a proper rise. It’s also incredibly easy to care for. My heart broke once when a piece of enamel popped off, but the company replaced it at no cost, so look for a lifetime guarantee.
■ Chloe Goodman, Food and Fermentation Manager, GYST Fermentation Bar
Of course you will want a stock pot. Not only does it make your stocks, it’s your go-to vessel for pasta and mashed potatoes, too. If you’re looking to invest a high-quality pot, try to find a nice laminated steel bottom so you can get some color going in your mirepoix. Avoid glass lids at all cost. It will break eventually. And really, you know what you put in that pot two minutes ago and can’t see in anyways due to all the steam. Eventually you will end up with two stock pots so you can have soup and stock going at the same time. When that happens, go big so you can make more stock to freeze. And that bigger stock pot doesn’t need to be quite as hefty on the bottom as it’s going to be full of liquids just simmering away, nothing to burn or use high heat on.
■ John Lambe, Chef, The Draft Horse
How do you know when your ice cream is done cooking? When it coats the back of a spoon. How do you make a caramel spiral on the plate? A spoon. How much sugar makes the medicine go down? A spoonful. Spoons are an indispensable tool and I am in love with them. In the kitchen, spoons are used for plating, tasting, stirring, measuring. The perfect spoon will create the perfect scoop of sorbet or the perfect swoosh of sauce. When I look for the perfect spoon, I usually look for a deep spoon and I prefer a pointed tip as opposed to a rounded one. A beautiful decorated handle doesn’t hurt either.
■ Carrie Riggs Imes, Executive Pastry Chef of Alma Cafe Hotel and Restaurant
While not as exciting as Japanese steel, a good set of towels is still an indispensable part of the minimalist kitchen. From prep to presentation, your kitchen should be stocked with a stack of clean towels. I prefer to use the flour sack variety in my kitchen because of their versatility. They’re lint-free, super absorbent, and dye-free, so they’re safe to use around food. I use them as oven mitts, pot holders, polishing rags, dusting cloths, and in place of paper towels. In a pinch they can even be used for poaching, straining, or cheesemaking.
■ Joseph Alton, Editor-in-Chief, The Growler
Fine Mesh Sieve
I started buying fine mesh sieves because they’re handy for straining cocktails. But I’ve grown to use them for much more. They strain out loose leaf tea when I’m preparing kombucha, and they strain out the big strands of yeast when it’s ready weeks later. They separate curds from whey when I make ricotta cheese. When I poach eggs, I crack them into a sieve first, to remove the most watery part of the whites. I use them to strain the liquid out of tamarind pulp for pad thai sauce. I press chicken liver pate through a sieve to remove any little bits that didn’t blend. They’re great for straining chicken broth, sifting flour, and separating crispy lardons of bacon from their precious rendered fat. They also keep shards of ice out of my cocktails, but now that’s just an added bonus.
■ John Garland, Senior Editor, The Growler