By Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan
On a recent episode of Top Chef, the contestants were preparing a meal in the meadow of a farm on what looked to be a very cold afternoon. Cooking equipment and appliances were available, but space was tight and time was short. Everyone scrambled to make a meal that not only tasted good, but looked attractive to the highly qualified (and highly critical) judges. It made Todd and me think about the tools of the trade that we would choose in a pinch, and what qualities make a tool essential.
As chefs, Todd and I have done a decent job of collecting our favorite tools and equipment for our home and work in the years we’ve been together. We try to make choices based on usefulness and fit for our small kitchen. A lot of what we have came from tempting sale prices, both online and from garage sales. Of course, we also have a few unitasker duds, chosen mostly for novelty, that have not withstood the test of time and usage (ahem, panini press, I’m lookin’ at you).
We agree that our favorite essential kitchen tools, be they plugged or unplugged, are those that serve many purposes and hold up over time. Our assignment to create a list of just eight items was difficult, but we’ve each chosen four things that bring much joy and happiness into our tiny galley kitchen, as well as to our lives.
Jessica Maher's Must-Have Tools
1. KITCHENAID PROFESSIONAL 6-QUART STAND MIXER.
This is the queen mother of machines, hands down. I wouldn’t be churning out the sheer volume of sweet confections that I do if I didn’t own such a workhorse. This particular model has a larger bowl than the Artisan model, and the bowl lifts up to the mixer as opposed to the flip-top model (making moving it around less precarious). Perhaps the best feature is the powerful motor that can handle successive uses with strength and endurance.
It helps make bread and meringue, and everything in between, with equal efficiency. Any bonus attachments, like the pasta maker, meat grinder and ice cream churner, are just icing on the cake. Although we have a few of the attachments, I find the true beauty lies in the basic function of the mixer. This is an appliance that every passionate cook should have.
2. KITCHENAID IMMERSION BLENDER
In my spacious, well-organized dream kitchen, where everything has a place and there’s a place for every appliance I could ever want, I would definitely have a Vita-Prep commercial blender—the masterful Achilles of chopping and pureeing. Alas, our galley kitchen spares little space for all of the equipment that I’d like, so the KitchenAid Immersion Blender works wonderfully well when I need to puree soups, sauces, oils or ice cream bases to a chunky or smooth consistency. Quick clean up and simple storage are added bonuses. I’ve tried a number of brands, but our five-year-old KitchenAid model has yet to slow down or dull.
3. FINE-MESH STRAINER.
This is a true multitasking tool. I use this so many times while making a meal that I wish I had two or three of them. Most commercial kitchens have a separate strainer for every task, ranging from the large-holed China cap to the superfine mesh of a chinois. For home use, though, an 8-inch reinforced mesh strainer does a perfect job. Ours has a metal handle with a rubber grip, which clings nicely to the sink or a large bowl while straining anything from pasta to jam. My favorite use for it, though, is sifting dry ingredients for baking and evenly dusting cocoa or powdered sugar over a dessert. There are expensive fine-mesh products on the market, but $10 should get you a great strainer that will hold up for many years to come.
4. EUROPEAN-STYLE PEELER.
All peelers are not created equal. Ever since I was introduced to the Y-shaped Swiss peeler in a professional kitchen, the metal-handled version of yesteryear just won’t suffice. The Y shape allows for easy, evenly peeled strips; the plastic handle is lightweight and comfortable and the stainless steel swivel blade is sharp and durable. I seem to need a peeler almost every time I cook, and this tool makes the usually annoying tasks like peeling butternut squash or taking the eyes out of potatoes a pleasure. I like to use it to peel peaches (instead of blanching them to remove skins) and shave hard cheeses or vegetables into delicate salads. It’s an indispensable tool, and also inexpensive. Ranging from $2.50 to $11, you can afford to buy a few of these at a time, although my last peeler lasted through almost five years of constant wear and tear from both work and home use.
Todd Duplechan's Must-Have Tools
1. MISONO CHEF’S KNIFE.
A good chef’s knife is a cook’s best asset. My knives of choice are Misono brand because they’re lightweight, versatile and relatively inexpensive for their quality. Finding the right knife is personal, so I’ll offer some guidelines for finding yours. First, find the right size and shape of knife for your body type. If you’re six foot four, 220 pounds and have hands like dinner plates, you’ll need at least a 12-inch knife with a large handle. If you were the coxswain on the rowing team or have artist’s hands, a 9-inch knife with a smaller handle will do.
Second, craftsmanship is key. Look for brands with a proven track record, like Misono (which has centuries of sword-making experience). A well-crafted knife is sturdy, holds a sharp edge and feels balanced in your hand. Finally, serrated knives are only good for slicing bread. Who needs to cut a can, anyway?
2. STAINLESS STEEL PANS.
I’ve already written in these pages about my cast iron obsession (see “Cast Iron Manifesto,” in the Fall 2007 issue of Edible Austin, on edibleaustin.com), so I won’t rehash that subject. Stainless steel cookware is the only other cookware allowed in our house. For ease of use, cleanliness and just plain good looks, stainless is unbeatable. Unlike cast iron, stainless steel needs no fussing over seasoning, polishing or storing, and doesn’t retain odors or oils from foods cooked in them previously. The pans are nonporous, so there’s no threat of eating toxins like from an aluminum pan. The best stainless pans on the market are three-ply with an aluminum core, surrounded by two layers of 18/10 stainless steel.
3. BRAUN COFFEE GRINDER*.
While there is an abundance of spice mixes on the market, there’s nothing better than your own special blend. Spices lose their potency almost immediately after grinding, so they should be ground and used as needed to capture their true essence. Enter the coffee grinder—indispensable in adding depth to food, and faster, easier and cleaner than a mortar and pestle. It’s also great for grinding nuts, seeds and chilies for moles and curries. The Braun grinder is brilliant for its simplicity; it has a strong motor and few moving parts. I’ve found no other grinder that grinds as finely or has the staying power. Oh, and it does a pretty good job with coffee, too.
* Braun discontinued this product in 2008, so if buying new, look for the similar model made by Krups.
4. BENRINER MANDOLINE.
A mandoline is a tool that cooks use frequently in professional kitchens, though not many people have them at home. It’s one of the most versatile, efficient tools I have because it cuts quickly and consistently in a variety of sizes—baton, julienne, slice, etc. It also has some inventive uses, like taking the corn off the cob or shaving garlic à la Goodfellas. It does it all! But the best part is that it retails for about $30, whereas most so-called French mandolines go for about $60 to $180. There’s one downside, though: the teeth. You must take care of the teeth insert or it will bend and impair the use. Good life lesson, though: take care of your teeth.
2415 S. Congress Ave.
Breed & Co.
718 W. 29th St.
3663 Bee Cave Rd.
Der Kuchen Laden
258 E. Main St., Fredericksburg
Faraday’s Kitchen Store
1501 Ranch Rd. 620 N., Lakeway
Kiss the Cook
201 Wimberley Sq., Wimberley
113 E. Theissen, Boerne
Full Goods Building
200 East Grayson, Ste. 122, San Antonio
5249 Burnet Rd.
Sur la Table
11410 Century Oaks Ter. # 136
2901 Capital of Texas Hwy.
9722 Great Hills Tr.
Zinger Hardware and General Merchant
2438 W. Anderson Ln.