As a caterer in northern California, I worked in countless unfamiliar kitchens. Even if we didn't cook meals on the spot, clients' kitchens often became our work areas. Most kitchens were spacious, modern, and fully equipped – kitchens of clients who could afford high-end catering. But occasionally we worked in more modest kitchens and sometimes in simple, basic kitchens at second homes or cabins.
Wherever we worked, all the kitchens had something in common: Drawers filled to capacity with kitchen tools and gadgets. Gadgets, it seems, are part of kitchen life everywhere.
Caterers travel fully equipped, but occasionally we were short of an item or two and needed to borrow from our clients' cupboards. And at the end of an event, we often searched for storage containers, aluminum foil, and plastic wrap to pack away leftovers.
No matter if the household had a real cook, or simply someone to heat up frozen dinners or bring home take-out food, the drawers and cupboards never failed to bloom with everything from toast caddies to electronics that had outlived their usefulness.
People love their kitchen tools and gadgets. With each newly bought item comes the hope that it will facilitate their work and ease the drudgery. But it is rarely so. With good kitchen skills, cooks can get their work done with minimal equipment.
An artist or a craftsman can create well only with the best of tools, and this is equally true in the kitchen – even if your creation is simply soup, salad, and sandwiches.
"When I need a new piece of equipment, I go for high quality. I visit one of the local or nationally available high-end kitchen supply stores," says Mary Jean Anderson, an accomplished home cook in Sacramento, Calif. When pastry chef Ingrid Fraser of Amador City, Calif., needs a new piece of equipment, she takes a hands-on approach.
"I pay extra and buy it locally," she says. "I am careful to shop with the price in mind. I don't buy new equipment through catalogs or on the Internet. I want to see and have the equipment in my hand. Besides price, I look for sturdiness and functionality."
Good tools make work easy, efficient, even effortless. Poor tools make your kitchen work uninspired.
Consider the simple task of cutting up vegetables for salad. Using a small, unsuitable and not-very-sharp knife on a small cutting board turns your job into a chore. Use a good, sharp chef's knife on a large board, and you will whistle while you work.
Good tools are an investment
Owning good equipment may not always mean buying the highest-priced item you can find. Good equipment is not cheap, but it's good to think of whatever you spend as an investment in your kitchen and your cooking pleasure.
But how can you tell what good equipment is?
Talk with food professionals, cooking teachers, and good home cooks with well-equipped kitchens to learn what they look for.
Kitchen store owners can be helpful, too, and cooking schools may be another source. But beware: Some may push products from companies who give them endorsements.
Researching food and consumer magazines is also useful. They often have ratings of various kitchen tools.
Three 'must have' small appliances
A food processor, a blender, and a food mixer are three small appliances that can make some tedious kitchen work a snap.
Both food processors and electric mixers should be of large capacity and have powerful motors.
Cheaper, weaker processors and blenders will not do some jobs properly, such as kneading dough, and their smaller capacities set limits on the quantities you are able to process or mix.
The best food processors are those with a set of four or five different discs that can grate, slice, and cut into shapes not easily done by hand, such as julienne cuts.
A good-quality toaster oven and an electric hand blender (not a hand mixer) are also good investments.
Start with knives and cutting board
There are only two essential kitchen tools: a set of excellent knives and a large, sturdy cutting board.
Knives vary tremendously in quality, and it is wise to feel knives in your hand before deciding on this critical tool.
Low-priced knives are often not worth it. Find something in the medium- to high-price range and you will pass them down to the next generation.
If you own a set of knives that you don't like, replace them.
Four knives are essential to every kitchen: a large eight- or nine-inch chef's knife (that's the length of the blade) with a curving cutting edge that you can rock from tip to shaft on a cutting board, a small paring knife, a thin-bladed carving knife (or electric knife), and a large serrated bread knife.
Cutting boards come in different sizes. Equip yourself with the largest, sturdiest one you can find.
A second, smaller cutting board for little jobs, such as slicing cheese or cutting up an apple, is useful to have around. Cutting boards may be made of thick hardwood that won't warp or heavy man-made polyethylene. Both are equally good and easy to clean.