For the foodie, gleaming electric meat smokers, mandolin slicers and sous vide machines call out like a siren song, but many kitchen gadgets that promise to make food prep easier or deliver restaurant-quality results end up in the back of the kitchen drawer.
While professional chefs can and do use some of those machines in their restaurant kitchens, many professional chefs say serious home cooks would be surprised to know they lean heavily on just a couple of key tools and use them in multiple ways.
“To me a lot of gadgets and tools are created as a replacement for cooking skills to help a home cook,” said Jonathan Deutsch, professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University. “If you want to be chef-y, you need to learn to cook like a chef, not buy the tools that you think will make you a chef.”
Hugh Acheson, a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” concurred.
“If you want to up your game, use the tools in your kitchen for what they can be used for,” he said.
For serious home cooks looking to invest in equipment, chefs recommended four key tools.
▪ Right-sized chef’s knife: The chef’s knife is the workhorse of the kitchen, said Kevin Schrimmer, instructor at the school of culinary arts at Kendall College in Chicago.
High-quality chef’s knives can replace a lot of gadgets, such as garlic presses, peelers and food processors, said Brian Frakes, executive chef of The Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
Deutsch suggests visiting a store that specializes in cutlery to try different sizes and styles and consider taking knife-skills classes.
“It’s really about what fits right in the hand, what’s comfortable,” he said. “Most people get serious about cooking and buy a 10-inch chef’s knife, and it’s ungainly because their hands are small,” he said.
According to Frake, trying to cut tomatoes with a crappy knife will make your life much more difficult than it needs to be. “The thing that changed my life, and I’ve had a lot of good knives, was my Michel Bras knife,” he says. “It stays sharp forever.”
▪ Knife sharpener: Eventually, all knives dull from use, making chopping a chore. Lisa McManus, executive tasting and testing editor at America’s Test Kitchen, said cooks usually put off taking their knives to be sharpened. Or, she adds, they get a fancy whetstone that they don’t really know how to use.
“Get a good simple manual sharpener that lets you touch up your knives in a few seconds and go back to cooking,” she says.
Her choice is the Chef’s Choice Pronto Manual Diamond Hone Asian Knife Sharpener.
▪ Stainless-steel or cast-iron cookware: Chefs raved about the heat retention and even cooking surfaces of stainless steel or cast-iron cookware. In the stainless steel category, every chef interviewed said cooks who can afford it should choose the All-Clad brand. Cast iron cookware — whether it’s premium pots by Staub or Le Creuset, or more budget-friendly companies like Lodge Manufacturing — is the alternate choice.
“The All-Clad Stainless Tri-Ply skillet really changed my life — you can do anything at all in that thing. Aside from the usual frying and sauteeing, it’s also great for baking — we bake pot pies, fruit pies and more in it — and even roasting,” McManus said.
Some manufacturers make a combination skillet-Dutch oven, which gives cooks two versatile pans in one.
“The one piece of equipment I can’t live without is my 8-quart round enameled cast iron Dutch oven. It’s incredibly versatile. I use it to bake bread and brownies, pop popcorn, braise meats, cook one-pot-meals like stew, steam rice, bake casseroles, deep fry, make jam and jelly, and I’ve even used it camping,” said Heather Terhune, executive chef at Tre Rivali in Milwaukee.
Some foodies seek out cast iron pans from defunct manufacturer Griswold, which increases a “cool” quotient in the kitchen. Schrimmer said beat-up Griswold pans found in secondhand shops are worth buying and taking to get refinished.
▪ Thermometer: Everyone on the America’s Test Kitchen testing team voted for Thermoworks Thermapen Mk4, McManus said.
Acheson agreed: “They are amazingly fast thermometers, amazingly accurate. It’s a really simple design that is bulletproof.”