Essential Kitchen Tools

Discover Did You Know

Whether they’re employed for basic or special culinary endeavors, kitchen tools’ universal appeal is their ability to make the performance of tasks easier and more convenient.

Because the kitchen tools and gadget category can literally include thousands of items, we’ve chosen ten kitchen tools that we feel every kitchen should contain. Though others are more desirable, we feel that our list is a good sampling of the range between the “No brainers” (like the spoon) and the “Do I really need that?” (the mortar and pestle).

Editor’s Note: The June 2002 installment of the Housewares Training Manual: Bakeware included a section on measuring and pastry tools and accessories. They will be excluded from this discussion.

The Tools

Kitchen tools may be fashioned from a variety of materials extending from wood to stainless steel, to nylon, plastic, or rubber. The material chosen can have an impact on the tool’s performance. For instance, while wooden spoons are better suited for jobs such as stirring pudding, stainless steel ones perform better for other tasks, such as stirring thick stews. Once you understand the differences in design, material construction, and quality, you’ll quickly realize you need more than one spoon in your kitchen.

Wooden utensils are functional, comfortable to use, and attractive. The obsequiousness of a raw material determines both its use and its price. Beech is popular for kitchen tools and is often considered the benchmark in terms of hardness and its ability to be finished. Relatively nonporous, beechwood is used to create a variety of utensils, but it’s most commonly utilized to make spoons. Maple is often used for flat pieces, such as cutting boards, because it is a very hard wood and resists absorption. Birch is a bit softer, and is a popular choice for turnery items like rolling pins.

The popularity of stainless steel is probably the result of fashion as much as it is function. Metals are a popular choice in kitchen design these days, but beyond design, stainless steel does perform a function. Nonreactive to foods, it does not rust, and bacteria buildup is not a problem. Nonstick coatings can be placed on stainless steel tools, further adding to their functionality.

Plastic utensils are reasonably priced, gentle on nonstick cookware coatings, and generally long-lasting. The drawback is that white plastic utensils can become scuffed and yellowed through use.

Nylon tools are dishwasher safe, bacteria unfriendly, don’t retain food flavors, can withstand heat up to 400 degrees F, and are practically unbreakable.

The Spoon

Probably, it’s safe to say that the wooden spoon is a kitchen icon. Though it lacks high-tech pizzazz, the spoon continues to serve as a part of a home cook’s core assortment of kitchen tools. The material choice is a personal one, but through experience, most cooks quickly determine which spoon performs which tasks better than others. For example, a wooden spoon mixes cookie dough the best, while a stainless steel one will be the likely choice for stirring soup.

According to the New Cook’s Catalogue (Knopf 2000), the ideal spoon should have “a moderately shallow bowl and a flat bottom so the spoon will stay level when put down on the counter.”

Having different spoon shapes and sizes is imperative in a well-stocked kitchen. Shallower bowls function well during everyday use, slightly larger bowls are great for stirring risotto or thicker stews, and spoons with narrower bowls enable cooks to easily reach inside jars. Oar-shaped spatulas serve their owners well as they quickly move ingredients around the pan during stir-frying.

Slotted spoons are useful for separating solids from liquids. Their handles should be long enough to keep fingers away from hot liquids. Available with slots or holes, some believe that slots drain liquid better than holes when separating small items such as peas or corn, which can become stuck in the holes.

The Ladle

No good cook lacks a ladle in their repertoire of kitchen tools. Suggest one that is sturdy, because it will be used quite often to ladle out a soup, tomato sauce, or a thick stew. The best attribute of a ladle is its ability to deliver in equal proportions both the solid and liquid ingredients of a concoction. Recommend more than one size ladle to handle various kitchen tasks (ones with 4-, 6-, and 8-ounce capacities). One piece stainless steel constructed ladles are considered to be the best. There should be no spaces between the handle and the bowl that might collect food. Consider a ladle with an angled rather than a vertical handle that can put undue pressure upon the wrist when it’s used. Traditional ladle bowls are round, with a pouring spout or rim. Some ladles have flat fronts that allow their bowls to be used for scraping, scooping, or trapping food. The sauce ladle should have a pouring spout for control when pouring or drizzling sauce.

The Spatula

Spatulas are available in many different designs and are indispensable for mixing, blending, folding, scraping, and spreading. Flexible silicone or rubber spatulas are used for scraping, folding, and blending. The flat-tooled spatula is used for lifting and turning, and the baking spatula which looks like a rounded blunt knife is used for assembling, glazing, frosting, and icing cakes.

Flexible spatulas are made of rubber, silicone, or plastic and should be comfortable to use. Recommend a spatula that is heat and stain resistant, as well as dishwasher safe. Spatula “blades” come in various shapes and sizes and several are necessary to accomplish various tasks. A thin blade allows the cook to reach into tight places, such as the inside of a jar. Wide blades facilitate easy scraping of batter from bowls. Extra flexible, flat-blade spatulas work well when folding large amounts of food. The spoon spatula, designed to have the flexibility of a spatula, enables the cook to use it like a small spoon to scoop liquids or batters. Silicone spatulas that can withstand temperatures up to 600 degrees F eliminate concerns about melting, cracking, or curling when used in bubbling hot sauces, and with all the colors available, make a fashion statement in any kitchen.

The term “spatula” also applies to tools that are used to lift and turn. Their shape and makeup differ from that of the flexible spatulas made of rubber and silicone. These spatulas are used to flip burgers, turn over eggs, or reach into a pan to turn over the food. The blade should be more rigid to lift heavier items yet flexible enough to lift more delicate eggs or pancakes. The handle should be set at an angle to the blade so the hand is kept safely away from the cooking surface. Because the spatula will be used to reach inside pans, the blade should be made of a material that will not damage cookware surfaces. The blade can be solid, or slotted to drain away fats.

The baking spatula used for assembling, frosting, or icing a cake should be a bit longer than the cake’s diameter or width. They are available in lengths from 4″ to 14″. Baking spatulas with shorter blades make frosting cookies, petits fours, and cupcakes a breeze.

The Whisk

Whisks are designed to incorporate ingredients, blend sauces, or whip air into egg whites. Available in all shapes and sizes, the number of wires in a whisk range from two to twenty. The thickness and shape of the wires coupled with their material makeup affect how air is incorporated into the mixture. Wires may be made of stainless steel, nylon, wood, and even rattan.

The standard or sauce whisk has approximately nine fairly rigid wires looped in a pear shape. The stiffness of the wires and their design aids in mixing, emulsifying, and aerating.

For whipping air into cream or egg whites, the balloon whisk’s bulb shape and pliant wires increase the area in contact with the moisture, thereby speeding up the process. The best balloon whisks have thin wires, since less pressure should be applied to the cream and egg whites.

The flat whisk, in which the wires lie flat, works equally well for lightly beating eggs in a shallow bowl or incorporating flour into melted butter.

Coiled whisks serve more as a tool for whipping than whisking as they mix and aerate small amounts of thin batters. Each coil comes into contact with the pan’s surface.

Though these are the four basic whisk shapes, there are a multitude of others – triangular, jug whisks, cocktail whisk, etc., each of which performs a specific task. Regardless of shape or size, whisks should be well balanced with uniformly shaped wires tightly grouped at the base and secured with a waterproof seal.

The Garlic Press

This hinged, viselike press forces a garlic head through a small, stationery cup whose base is perforated. The chef simply places the garlic in the top section and as he/she presses the utensil’s handles together, the garlic is forced through the holes. The press should be large enough to hold two garlic gloves, have a comfortable grip, and be of sturdy construction.

The Peeler

Potatoes or other vegetables can be peeled using a paring knife; however, a peeler helps remove the skin from fruits and vegetables with greater ease. Peelers are available in stationary or swivel varieties, but the stationary peeler requires more wrist movement to move smoothly across the skin of the fruit or vegetable. The traditional swivel peeler has a double-edge stainless steel blade that swivels to maintain contact with the skin as the peeler is moved across the fruit or vegetable’s surface. The most commonly used swivel peeler has a blade that protrudes from the end of a handle to create a six-inch tool that is best used with a movement away from the body.

A “Y” or harp-shaped peeler performs the same tasks, yet with a different motion – the blade is pulled towards the body. Regardless of the style, the peeler’s blade must slice through fruit and vegetable skin easily whilst removing no flesh.

The Potato Masher/Ricer

A kitchen staple for generations, the potato masher’s design has been updated to allow for easier mashing to a smooth consistency. Today’s potato mashers incorporate a round or oval disk that is perforated with holes attached to a handle. Recommend a masher with a comfortable grip that provides leverage when mashing. A disc that is slightly curved allows the user to rock back and forth to crush the potatoes.

For customers who prefer a ricer to mash their potatoes, suggest one that is easy to squeeze, has a solid body construction, and is easy to clean. Some ricers have interchangeable perforated plates – coarse and fine – as an added feature. The container should have a minimum capacity of one to two cups.

The Mortar and Pestle

A basic kitchen tool that has been used for centuries, the mortar and pestle’s job is to pulverize ingredients. Mills and electric food processors can produce the same results, but food purists often prefer using a mortar and pestle. Additionally, the mortar and pestle allows the cook to pulverize small amounts of ingredients that might otherwise become lost in a food processor.

Made of various materials, including ceramic, marble, basalt, granite, wood, or brass, the best mortars are hard and nonporous so food residue is not left behind. A marble mortar should be left unpolished to maximize the friction inside the bowl. A ceramic mortar and pestle is lighter than a marble or granite one, which may be a plus for some home cooks. Brass requires polishing as certain ingredients corrode it. The rough-textured Mexican black basalt or lava stone mortar and pestle is often the choice of purists. A well­ equipped kitchen will include several sizes of mortar and pestles, but if your customer is purchasing their first one, suggest one with a 4-inch diameter to accommodate most ingredients. The sides should be relatively deep, and the material composing both the mortar and pestle should be the same to maximize grinding potential. Comfort in the hand is another consideration.

The Mandolin/Slicer

A mandolin moves food across a blade. The basic shape of a mandolin is a narrow body that has been fitted with one (or more) cutters. The cutters determine the result- julienne, ridges, or thin slices. Most mandolins are made of plastic or stainless steel. The food to be cut is placed in a small holder meant to protect the knuckles, then run across the blade to create the desired shape. Some mandolins can be adjusted to alter the slice’s width; others come with a container attached to the frame into which the sliced food falls.

The Can Opener

Basic manual can openers perform several functions – opening cans, lifting off crown caps (which still appear on beer bottles), some even uncork wine bottles. A dropped short blade punctures the can. The opener is then rocked forward to rip open the lid’s perimeter. Gear-driven manual openers employ a hand-powered crank to cut through the can’s top. As the crank is turned, the greats advance to cut the can’s top disk. Newer models offer ergonomic design, ease in cranking, and easy and clean lid removal.

Other Items

Pasta forks, skimmers, apple slicers, avocado slicers, melon balers, olive/cherry pitters, herb shredders, oyster knives, lobster crackers, crab crackers, shrimp cleaners, shellfish picks … the list of kitchen tools seems endless. Rest assured that if there is a task to be done, there is a gadget or tool to accomplish it. Examine current eating trends, and ask your customers what they’re cooking or baking. Then suggest tools that will help your customers perform those tasks easier.

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