Kitchen Basics

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I’m not a big fan of gadgets, you give me a piece of tinfoil and a bic lighter and I can cook you up something. Having said that, there are some tools that do improve your cooking and make your time in the kitchen more enjoyable. I’m guessing that somewhere in your kitchen there is a whole drawer of egg yolk separators, laser thermometers, mayonnaise cutters, steam buckets and left-handed ladles. I purged our junk drawer  and came up with this list of the essentials.

“A great chef, if they are lucky, will create one original dish in their lifetime.” Here in is my problem with cookbooks. What happens with a cookbook is that a chef takes a standard recipe and adds steps and ingredients to make it their own. A simple (and perfect) roast chicken becomes kaffir lime, pomegranate and black garlic marinated and brined chicken thighs with dehydrated toasted potato starch “noodles” and steamed thyme jus espuma.

Before you follow a recipe for key lime, pineapple and lemongrass guacamole, you should follow Mark Bittman’s recipe for the classic to understand what’s timeless about it. In Bittman’s “How to Cook everything” you will learn how to properly roast a chicken, carve a turkey, cook white beans, make hollandaise sauce or a classic guacamole. Bittman’s bible gives you the fundamentals. Once you master the fundamentals, then you can start adding your own steps.

“Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page enlists the help of  a number of top chefs to demystify making a tasting menu, cooking within the season and which flavors pair well together. They have a whole section of the book where you can look up an ingredient and they list what other ingredients compliment it. For example, buckwheat pairs well with pine nuts, asparagus, mushrooms and sour cream. Now you look up how to cook buckwheat, asparagus and mushrooms in “How to Cook Everything” and you have yourself a dish.

If there is one thing you can do to improve the consistency of your food, it’s to weigh your ingredients. Michael Ruhlman’s “Ratio” breaks down cakes, breads, sauces and more into their simple ratios to get you started with weighing your ingredients. Basically if you want a dish to work without having to tweak it, use “Ratio”.

Since “Ratio” is kinda useless without a scale, get yourself one. The one pictured above was 20€, but you can find plenty on the Amazon superstore. Be sure your scale does both standard and metric weights. You don’t need a scale that can do fractions of a gram unless you are going to be doing molecular gastronomy. And just think, if this cooking thing doesn’t work out you have one part of a rolling meth lab.

A good Knife, kitchen Shears, a Steel and Cutting Boards:
Unless you have hooks for hands, you don’t need one of the blocks of 33 different knives. Except when I am filleting a fish, I use the above knife 99% of the time. A steel (the metal rod with plastic handle) is to be used every time you use your knife. Steels don’t actually sharpen your knife, but rather they remove microscopic particles that gather on the blade and dull it. You will still need to have your knives professionally sharpened or learn to do it yourself.

Knife brands matter little to me and currently I have a SHUN, a WUSTHOF and a HENCKELS. I use the SHUN the most because I like the weight in hand. The SHUN also needs to most loving care to stay sharp though. You can’t, for example, use the above steel on a Japanese knife and need to invest cash money in an expensive diamond sharpener. If you have plenty of Benjamins and want to spend ’em, check out KORIN in NYC. My friend Nick took knife sharpening classes there and keeps my blades shiny. I will have him do a guest post on knife care sometime soon.

Kitchen shears are super handy for breaking down chicken into it’s parts, cutting herbs and removing the safety cap from bottles where some IDIOT forgot to add a pull tab.

It’s a good idea to invest in a nice cutting board. You want a block that is heavy and wood or plastic. Glass, marble and bamboo are cheap, but bad for your knives and hard to cut on because your knife has nothing to sink into. If you buy a wood cutting board be sure to treat it with mineral oil as the layers of wood will start to come apart after repeated washings. I like to keep a red plastic board reserved for cutting and butchering meat as well. Scrub the meat board with a water and bleach solution every once and a while to make sure and kill any lingering bacteria.

Olive Oil and Salt:
Taste your olive oils often. They should have a pleasant, mild taste of olives. If your olive oil tastes acrid or astringent, toss it. Always buy at least two different kinds of olive oil, a nice expensive bottle for eating with bread or drizzling on raw salads and a cheaper, weaker olive oil for cooking. Keep your nut oils in the fridge and throw them out after 6 months.

Buy a good salt like Malden, morton’s kosher or Camargue Fleur de Sel and use it for everything. If you cook with the same salt often, it will be easy to judge by feel how much of it you will need to use in a dish. Here is a great write-up from SLATE on best salts you will find at your grocer:

Good Spices:
Dill weed? Marjoram? Italian Seasoning? Seasoned Salt? If you are reading the covers of your spinning spice rack and can’t remember the last time you used any of these, it’s probably a good idea to throw them out. These herbs probably have as much potency as that schwag you smoked in high school.

Buy your spices from Penzeys, World Spice Merchants or l’Epicerie de Bruno or places that keep their herb sealed in airtight jars. Buy smaller quantities or only what you need to prevent your stash from sitting on the shelf too long. If the store doesn’t have “born on date” follow these rules:

Toss ground Leaves, Seeds, and Bark after 6 months.
Toss ground roots, whole leaves and flowers after 1 year.
Toss anything that losses it’s smell, chances are the taste is shot as well.

Use a mortar and pestle to grind your spices or toss whole spices in a coffee/spice grinder to grind up. Clean your spice grinder with uncooked white rice when you have finished as not to leave nasty residue.

Tongs, Corkscrew, Peeler, Microplane, Spatula, Strainer:
Tongs should primarily be used on meat as they can crush and ruin fish. I use the tongs above also for spinning pasta against the side of a pan into neat nests for serving. I like the simple waiter corkscrew because it’s compact and easy to use. The double hinged variety like this one makes it easier to pull out those stuck corks. A good sharp peeler is necessary not only for peeling veggies, but also for trimming artichokes and slicing thin pieces of potato or beets for frying chips. Microplane grates hard cheeses, but also can be used on garlic, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, etc.

As Thomas Keller says “when in doubt, strain”. A good strainer should be used not only for retrieving pasta and  blanching vegetables, but every sauce, puree and liquid should pass through a strainer to remove any potential nasty bits. Pour your purees and sauces into the strainer and push them through using a spatula or large spoon.

Thermometer and Kitchen Timer:
You wanna turn friends into enemies, serve them well-done steak or quails still pink and translucent in the middle. In addition to checking internal temps, a thermometer is essential for checking that your liquids aren’t scalding before adding yeast.

Some good temperatures to know:
Beef/veal/lamb medium rare: 145º/63º
Beef/veal/lamb medium: 160º/71º
Pork medium: 170º/77º
Ham: 140º/60º
Poultry: 170º/77º
Whole roast poultry: 180º/82º
Warm water/milk to add yeast to: 110º-115º/43º-46º

A kitchen timer has saved my life more times than I care to admit by reminding me to check on toast or croutons in the broiler. It’s also handy for plenty of savory dishes; quail eggs: 55 seconds in boiling water, flank steak 3 minutes a side on high grill for rare, large asparagus 15 minutes at 200º/400º, 6 minutes for pencil thin asparagus.

Some notable absentees on this list are any picks of cookware. I’ll pretty much cook with whatever is in front of me, but my friend Mary who worked at a high-end cookware store says the Viking pans are her favorite. Another glaring absentee is a mixer. While we are currently on our second KitchenAid, we have lived and cooked without it and life still went on.

Well, is there anything you couldn’t live without?

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8 Responses to “Kitchen Basics”

  1. Forest Says:

    Wow. Very thourough (that looks spelled wrong) thanks for all the info! Tin foil and a lighter … You’re like the macgiver of the food world! The one thing I like to always have is a salad spinner. Sure probably not a necessity but I hate damp leaves even more than dirty salad.

  2. Bend Cookie Says:

    Great list! We use our scale all the time. I would love a microplaner. I would also add a cheese grater to the list – carried a portable all over South America because we are a cheese eating family! Plus don’t forget a good set of measuring cups and spoons if you are a baker!

  3. Hilary Says:

    Yes maybe measuring cups and spoons for a baker, but for a bread baker what is really important is a heavy, lidded, cast-iron or clay pot for baking the loaves in. Mark Bittman’s “Minimalist” article in the NY Times, on Jim Lahey’s “No-Knead Bread”, popularized the pot method of baking loaves, but for good reason. Bread baked in a pot has the crust AND crumb of real steam-baked bakery bread.

    Otherwise, your list captured all the “essentials”, although I must admit my kitchen is short quite a few of them.

    And “Culinary Artistry” is indeed a very helpful book!

  4. Rob Caplis Says:

    Once I got my copy of “Culinary Artistry,” the kitchen became a playground that I relished.

    The flavor profiles have helped guide me into creating new, spur-of-the-moment dishes using whatever I had I had. It really is highly recommended.

    Glad to see it included here in this list of kitchen essentials.

  5. hkmenus Says:

    Bend & Hilary, I totally agree about the cups and spoons, completely necessary if you bake. Even if you only use a scale you still need to use measuring spoons for the smaller stuff.

    Rob, Andrew and Karen have another book called the “Flavor Bible” which is entirely dedicated to those flavor pairings. It’s worth checking out if you want to find compliments to even more ingredients.

  6. Stephanie Says:

    I consider a pastry blender to be an essential kitchen accessory. sure, you can cut your butter into your flour with a fork, but its so much easier with the blender, and much less likely that the butter will have melted from handling the bowl for so long.

  7. Flour, Water, Flames & Child Labor « Hidden Kitchen Recipes Says:

    […] pizza dough from “Ratio“ by Michael […]

  8. Rachel Says:

    A dough scraper is indispensable in my kitchen. It is my “third hand” to move chopped vegetables from cutting board to the sauté pan. It also cleans my work surface lickety split.

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