A Wooden Spoon, a Ladle, and a Whisk


These are three very different things, but the one thing they all have in common is this: Their purpose cannot be fulfilled by anything else. (Also they all live in the utensil crock next to the stove, if you are the kind of person who keeps a utensil crock next to the stove.) Let us take them one by one:

A wooden spoon is a spoon made of wood. Or bamboo, sometimes, but it is for the most part easily identified by the fact that it is a spoon. Made of wood. Why not made of metal or plastic? Because here are the qualities you are looking for in your go-to cooking spoon: It should have poor heat conductivity, so it doesn’t overly cool or warm anything temperature-sensitive it gets stuck into. It should be durable, so it doesn’t snap in half or melt or explode. And like a good name-brand deodorant, it should be both strong and soft, so it can get all the good stuff up off the bottom of the pan, but also not scrape the living hell out of the bottom of the pan. Wooden spoons are handed down through generations (I cook daily with one stolen, surreptitiously, from my parents’ house) but they’re also wicked cheap to buy new.

My pick: I like long-handled, flat-bellied spoons, like this set of 18-Inch Wooden Cooking Mixing Spoons made of birch, ten bucks for two.

A ladle is the easiest way to get liquid out of one vessel and into another vessel, assuming that at least one of the following applies: (1) The first vessel can’t be conveniently lifted and poured; (2) It would be unbecoming (or perhaps painful) to use a cup or mug or something to do the liquid-scooping; (3) The first vessel contains a liquid that contains solids, like a soup with noodles or veggies or meat in it, and the solids are of varying weights and densities and have striated within the pot, and you’d like to create portioned servings that contain equal parts of each component of the soup, so the long handle on something like a ladle allows you to get deep in the pot and then lift, getting a remarkably accurate approximation of the balance of various stuffs in the pot. Ladles, man. They’re on it.

My pick: Pretty much any ladle will get ‘er done. I like this red KitchenAid nylon ladle because it’s red. I like this Stainless Steel “Professional Quality” ladle ladle because it is free from bullshit, and also because the bowl holds exactly 8 ounces so it’s useful as a measure of yield and other quantities.

A whisk is really a marvel. Do you need to introduce air to your egg whites? Whisk. Do you need to even out the lumpy roux in your stew? Whisk. Do you need to smooth your cake batter to a glossy texture? Whisk. Do you have a whole lot of stuff that you just need to stir up really really thoroughly, like dry ingredients for baking or a lot of small things in a pot? Whisk. Do you need to get in a good tricep workout? Whisk. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing a whisk can do that an egg beater or an immersion blender can’t also probably do. But a whisk will do it all, and just as well, and there’s also the delightful fact that the most common shape—this stretched-out teardrop—is known as a “balloon whisk,” which is just great.

My pick: Silicone whisks for nonstick vessels, metal whisks for the rest.

A Pair of Tongs

A pair of kitchen tongs is easily my most-used non-knife tool. Easily. It is to the point where if I’m cooking at someone else’s house and they don’t have tongs, I am just paralyzed with confusion and betrayal. How do these people even live? What do they use to flip a salmon fillet? What do they use to toss sautéed greens? How do they flip a burger on the grill? How do they pull out their oven racks when they can’t find a mitt or dishtowel and don’t want to self-inflict horrible burns? A pair of tongs is an extension of your hand in the most literal, most effective sense: it is basically a thumb and a finger, a grown-up, heatproof version of one of those inexpressibly neato-torpedo robot claw arms that were so cool when we were kids. You don’t need one of those silly infomercial Oven Gloves to reach into the flames: this is your Oven Glove. This is your Captain Hook’s hook. This is your Terminator-style cybernetic real-grip fireproof hand, and it is like ten bucks, and it is amazing.

Cooking tongs come in a variety of lengths, from teensy 6-inch models all the way up to huge 24-inchers. The less violently aggressive the environment of your food, the smaller your tongs can be: use a standard 10- or 12-inch model for most stovetop and grilling purposes; if you’re pulling a turkey out of an oil-drum deep-fryer, you’ll probably want to go longer. (And maybe wear an asbestos face mask?) For optimal control, choke up on the tongs when using them: the closer you are to the ends, the better your ability to manipulate things (it’s kind of like chopsticks, of which tongs are really just large, metal, for-beginners versions). All-metal varieties are inexpensive, but (science!) metal conducts heat, so they can become uncomfortable to hold. Many brands have versions with rubber- or silicone-lined handles, which to me is an invaluable addition to the tool; a locking closure mechanism makes the tongs easier to store.

My pick: I have a pair of OXO Good Grips 12-Inch stainless steel tongs. I love them dearly.

A Cast Iron Skillet

If I had to live alone on a remote island for the rest of my life and somehow the terms of my imprisonment allowed me to bring one and only one kitchen essential, it would be this: the cast iron skillet. Infinite in its versatility, exquisite in its simplicity, incomparable in its longevity — once you bring a cast iron skillet into your kitchen, your culinary world will never be the same. You can make a perfect pan of cornbread. You can flip the most amazingly delicate omelette. You can make fried chicken. You can sauté kale. You can sear the most beautiful goddamn steak you’ve ever seen. You can use all 8 pounds of it to smash the hell out of a handful of garlic cloves or pound chicken breasts into whisper-thin cutlets. (You can also brain a home invader in the back of the head and probably kill the guy.)

“But listen,” I hear you saying. “I can do all or most of these things with my nonstick sautée pan, or my half-quart saucepan, or my wok, or even my big heavy pot.” And it’s true, you can. But the cast iron skillet is one of those things that a sufficiently gastronomically-inclined creationist could use as proof of God: how could a material so perfect for our needs — so durable (if you care for it properly, it’ll last literally forever), so evenly heat-distributing (less susceptible to variations in temperature than aluminum or copper, it warms more slowly but then conducts a steadier heat), so naturally nonstick (the seasoning that builds up with use will rival the most frictionless Teflon coating) — simply exist? Surely iron was created just for us! And surely the cast iron skillet is the highest calling to which the metal can be put!

Here are the things you shouldn’t use your cast iron skillet for: boiling water, cooking acidic foods like tomatoes. I mean, you can do these things, but you can do many things you probably don’t do because they’re stupid. Also, be warned: Caring for your cast iron skillet is not as simple as letting it soak in the sink or throwing it in the dishwasher. (You want to do that? Go for enameled cast iron: all the pleasing thermodynamic properties without the tendency towards rust, the unlovely reactions to acidic foods, or the chic Little House on the Prairie aesthetic.) As with all iron, the skillet has a tenuous relationship with water; give it just a quick rinse and then scrub down with an abrasive like kosher salt or (this is one of my favorite things in my kitchen) a spaghetti scrubber. Make sure it dries thoroughly, either by fully rubbing it down with a cloth or by drying it out over a low flame or in a low oven. But don’t burn the house down.

My pick: I have a 12-inch Lodge skillet, which is probably the one that most people have. They come pre-seasoned, which is kind of gross and weird, but saves some time I guess. If you want to be really cool you’ll buy vintage: you can find skillets from as far back as the late 1800s at hipster cookware stores or Etsy or probably your grandma’s house.

A Microplane Grater

Like the Le Creuset, the Microplane is one of those products that has achieved the glittering pinnacle of needing only to be referred to by its brand name. Sure, Le Creuset makes silicone spatulas and wine bottle coolers and whatever — but anyone who says “Hey, I really want a Le Creuset for my birthday” is very clearly referring to an enameled cast-iron oven. (Woe unto the hapless friend who misunderstands that birthday request.) Microplanes are the same: as far as the kitchen is concerned, there simply is no other super-insanely sharp mega-effective grater. This is how ubiquitous Microplane has become: I don’t even know if any other brands are trying.

The classic Microplane is the inch wide, 12-inch long version, and anyone who knows their kitchen lore knows the story of how it began life in a hardware store as a rasp, but hordes of home cooks quickly adopted it for its literally actually astonishingly insane ability to shred hard cheeses into airy, snowy haystacks and to drive even the most stubborn citrus zest to its knees. Nutmeg? Dust. Garlic? Pulverized. It is an unstoppable force.

My pick: I have three Microplanes: two of the classic version (one for citrus, one for cheese) and one of the big ones (for big cheese!). All three are about 5 years old, are used on a multiple-times-a-week basis, and are still sharp as heck, as evidenced by the extremely painful and totally gross wound on the side of my thumb that is a result of last night’s overzealous encounter with a stub of Grana Padano. Fuck you, Microplane, but that’s why I love you.

A Paring Knife

Buy a paring knife. Whatever kind you want, it doesn’t matter. Pare things with it.

Don’t read the above paragraph as dismissive. Seriously: paring knives are amazing. They do lots of great things that a chef’s knife is too large and menacing to do: peel fruit, devein shrimp, carve radishes into roses. (So easy! I learned how to do it when I was 7 and spent an afternoon reading my mom’s childhood copy of The Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook. It involves letting the radishes “bloom” in ice water.) But unlike a chef’s knife, most paring knives are more or less created equal. You probably could find a truly crap one if you tried, with a too-flimsy blade and a handle that snaps off when it encounters a terrifyingly insurmountable foe like orange pith or a tomato. And you could also probably wildly overpay for one, if for example you paid the list price of $67 for a Wusthof 3½-inch when you could get it on Amazon for a nickel under $40. Just stay out of the extremes and you’ll do fine.

My pick: I have three Kuhn Rikon 4-inchers which came as a set, have a perfect shape and balance for my hands, and are brightly colored, which is a surefire way to get me to want to buy something.

A Wooden Cutting Board

Switching from plastic cutting boards to wood is one of the most meaningful yet least practical coming-of-age moments for the home cook. No restaurant kitchen subject to American food safety standards would allow its meat, vegetables, or knives anywhere near a piece of wood, since they’re naturally porous and totally un-sanitizable. Similarly, obsessive clean freaks and the OCD types who wash their hands the very second they put down the piece of raw chicken (or even worse, only handle it if they’re wearing gloves) (do people actually do that at home? Who are these people? Are they the same people who treat their cutting boards the way accountants treat client files?) recoil in horror at the thought of using a wooden cutting board for anything. Maybe, maybe they’ll use one for bread.

But the thing with wooden cutting boards is this: they’re beautiful. No one photographs a perfectly seared t-bone steak on a green plastic cutting board; you shoot it with its juices running along the surface of some exquisitely grained slab of maple. And this: they last for freaking ever. Properly cared for (which largely means: don’t be stupid about it), a wooden cutting board can last for generations. Over time, the edges will soften, the knife scars will darken. It’ll take on patina. It’ll take on character. No injection-molded plastic cutting board has ever had true character. Plus, if you’re serious about your knife, you’ll know that wood’s hard-yet-giving surface is a good blade’s soul mate. I’m not saying don’t have plastic cutting boards. I’m just saying don’t not have a wooden one, too.

The king of the wooden cutting board is John Boos, whose heavy slabs of maple are objects of worship for a certain type of cook. You might want to be that type of cook. You might want to spend a little less dough and not be that type of cook, but still not be the kind of jackass who only owns a plastic cutting board. Your call.

(Do not even talk to me about glass or marble cutting boards. Those aren’t cutting boards. Those are, I don’t even know, surface protectors? Slabs on which to make custom-mixed ice cream? Nobody even cares.)

My pick: I covet a Boos block, but along with the ancient Le Creuset I inherited from my great aunt, I also snagged two of my parents’ old wooden cutting boards. One has a handle and is technically a bread board, the other has a channel around the edges to catch the juices that run out of meat as it’s carved. Both are old and scarred and remind me in an almost embarrassingly severe way of my childhood.

A Heavy Pot

A heavy-bottomed pot will take you anywhere. Stew. Soup. Braises. Roasts. No-knead bread. Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. You can sear a steak in it, if you want. I not infrequently use mine to toss a salad when my larger mixing bowls are otherwise occupied. Le Creuset, with its enameled cast iron, is the undisputed king of this category: their pots are well-constructed, distribute heat evenly, and last for absolutely ever. There are many imitators — Staub, Emile Henry, and Mario Batali all make enameled cast-iron cookware, and they’re not bad. But they’re not Le Creuset.

My pick: I have a truly ancient round French oven from Le Creuset, which I inherited from my great aunt. It’s so old that instead of the black plastic knob on the lid, it has a an enameled iron handle that’s welded to the lid. It’s stamped with an F, which indicates its volume: 5.5 quarts. It’s the classic flame red-to-orange color, which I didn’t pick myself because of the inheriting-it thing, but even if I had been able to choose the color, I’d have gone with this one. It is to all other Le Creuset enamel colors what all other enameled cast-iron ovens are to Le Creuset. Which is to say: the hands-down winner.

A Good Chef’s Knife

This is the alpha and omega of the kitchen. Ask a chef — or a chef-aspiring obsessive amateur, or a casually really excellent cook, or a culinary professional in any branch of the industry — what their numero uno kitchen tool is, and they will say “my knife.” You want one with a sharp, strong blade, which can come one of two ways: You can pay a large amount of money for a high-carbon stainless steel blade, and have that knife forever, or you can pay a moderate amount of money for a ceramic blade, and have to replace it frequently.

The length of your blade (they start at about 6 inches and go up to 9 or so) says nothing about who you are as a person, or how manly you are. All it says is something ergonomically complex about the size of your hand and the way you comfortably hold things. Don’t buy a knife online. Go to a real store with a good knife selection and try a few on: hold them, heft them, practice chopping with them. Once you find your knife, learn how to hone it, learn how to sharpen it, learn what the difference between honing and sharpening is. Take a knife skills course. Nonchalantly show off your garlic-slicing prowess in front of your friends and be all like yeah, whatever.

My pick: I have a Wusthof Classic 8-inch Cook’s Knife. I swear that when I bought mine in 2005 they called it a chef’s knife. I’m also curious now if the more-general designation as a “cook’s knife” is to distinguish it from knives intended for e.g. murderers.

Kitchen Basics

This blog was inspired by a brief moment of frustrated rage I had in December 2011 when I read the fifth (or maybe sixth?) holiday gift guide that recommended a set of Essential Kitchen Tools that were, I am not kidding, about 90 percent overlapping in content.

There’s a reason the Essential Kitchen Tools stories are all so similar to one another: There are certain basic, brilliant tools that decades of trial, error, and pudding-borne proof in the modern kitchen have identified as meaningfully better than the other products in their category. People who have been turned on to these tools become blazingly, evangelically obsessed with their quality, and I am unreservedly one of those people — I can talk at length about the wonders of Le Creuset, I have no idea how I lived before my first Microplane, and I have actually had a full-on fight with my boyfriend caused by him using soap on a cast-iron skillet. (I have since apologized.)

I don’t blame the people writing these stories and recommending these products. I know many of them, and I love and respect many of them. But it’s time to stop. We all agree. It is time to canonize and be done with it. It is my fond hope that this website obviates the need for the Essential Cooking Tools story to ever be written ever again.

(This website is inspired by this post on my personal blog.)

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