The Fab Four: Must Have Items for Every Kitchen: A well-outfitted kitchen is an asset to every home cook. The good news is that “well-outfitted” doesn’t have to mean wallet-emptying—with the four tools mentioned here you can make a lifetime of meals—and more than a few memorable ones.
1-2. Chef’s Knife and Honing Steel
These first two items should be thought of as a bonded pair. A good chef’s knife will allow you to slice and dice ingredients with swift skill, while a honing steel will whip the blade back into shape in a matter of minutes. Buy wisely here because these two will be a regular part of your kitchen tool rotation.
Chef’s knives come in two varieties: forged and stamped. A forged knife has been hammered or forged from one piece of metal, which makes it feel solid. A forged knife will typically, though not always, have a bolster or metal lip that curls up at the top of the handle.
Stamped knives are produced from one large continuous sheet of steel, which is “stamped” by a machine to create the blades (imagine a knife-shaped cookie cutter). A forged blade is generally stronger and heavier, with no flexibility. A stamped knife will be lighter and have some flexibility. Stamped knives can be easier to use with speed and are less expensive.
So, which is better? It’s your call: A chef’s knife should be thought of as an extension of your hand, so it’s most important to choose what feels best to you.
To pick the piece that best suits you, duck into a Macy’s, TJ Maxx, or Sears and give a few knives a trial grip. You want the knife short enough to maneuver with confidence. Take hold of a 7- or 8-inch chef’s knife. Grip the handle like you’re shaking someone’s hand—this is the grip that will give you the most control—and see how the weight and balance feel.
My favorite knife is made by Victorinox Forschner; they have durable, high-quality stamped lightweight knives for less than $50. Other great brands are J.A. Henckels, Wüsthof, and Cuisinart. Wherever your brand preference guides you, get a blade that’s made of high-carbon stainless steel, as others rust and get dull quicker.
Keep your knife in a wooden block or a BladeSafe, a type of knife sheath made from rugged polypropylene. For the latter, put one of these on your blade before storing it in a drawer—it’s better for the blade and you’ll eliminate the risk of unpleasant nicks and cuts as you search for a spatula.
To maintain your knife’s form, get a honing steel. The most important factor here is the strength of the steel—the honing steel must be harder than the knife for it to work. This is why I recommend getting the knife and steel as a paired set, or at least from the same manufacturer.
Different from sharpening, honing splits off unwanted microscopic burrs from the edge of a blade, giving you a consistently cleaner cut. You should hone the blade’s edge every time you use your chef’s knife.
A knife sharpening, on the other hand, should be done only once a year because it wears down the metal to renew the “V” of the blade edge. Get this sharpening done by a professional, since an overzealous sharpening job can take years off the life of your knife. Plus, professional sharpening services are inexpensive—an 8-inch knife will typically cost between $4 and $8.
The blender is one of the most versatile tools to have in your kitchen. You can use a blender to puree vegetables for soups, make quick and simple salsas and salad dressings, chop vegetables if you’re tight on time (although a food processor is better for this if you have one), and blend meal-equivalent shakes and smoothies. Here are a few things to look for:
A removable blade. Instead of digging around under the blades with your fingers to remove trapped food, look for blades that pop out for cleaning if you’re using an ordinary blender (as opposed to a turbocharged one).
An hourglass figure. Or half of one—the best blenders taper down so all the ingredients are funneled in evenly.
A racing pulse. This super-speed button allows you to add the finishing touches on a shake without ending up with a fruit-flavored puddle.
A propeller blade. This blade allows foods to drop down into the blades. The other common design is the “star” blade, which can actually trap ingredients and prevent them from getting processed. If you get this type of blender, make sure it comes with a tamper to use through the top.
A top with a removable center. The removable center piece is often a measuring device, and can be removed to allow you to pour in ingredients while you are blending. It must be removed before you blend hot liquids. (I like to cover the opening firmly with a towel before blending hot liquids.)
I like blenders made by Ninja, Braun, KitchenAid, and Breville. And if you want to go for the cream of the crop, get a Vitamix. It’s easy to clean and can be used as juicer to boot. The Vitamix is an investment, costing close to $500, but the seven-year warranty gives you some time to work out any mechanical kinks without incurring additional cost.
The ultimate functional hand tool, tongs have many uses beyond the quick flip of a steak or chicken breast. You can use tongs to mix, toss, scramble, push, nudge, sample, and sauté (but keep metal-tipped ones off of nonstick pans). Buy multiple pairs, if you can. This way, you’ll have a backup when one is in the dishwasher or left hanging outside on the barbecue.
Wooden and metal tongs work extremely well; I avoid plastic ones for the chemical uncertainty, but silicone are okay as long as they have a nontoxic coating. If you only get one pair, grab the shorter version. A short pair of super sturdy stainless-steel tongs will provide more versatility and be easier to maneuver than the huge but unwieldy aluminum/wood/leather/giant springs so commonly on sale in early June.
Locking tongs store more easily in drawers, but I have multiple pairs of tongs resting in a ceramic utensil holder by the stove. The ones I reach for most are the 9-inchers made by Oxo.
5. Heavy-bottomed 6-quart Dutch Oven
If you can have only one pot in your kitchen, it should be a 6-quart Dutch oven. Literally, a mini-oven, this workhorse piece of cookery has been around for hundreds of years. It has been an essential traveling companion for men of adventure, helping feed Lewis and Clark and their team, and countless mountaineers and cowboys.
What’s so great about this pot? Well, it can be used for boiling, stewing, roasting, baking, sautéing, simmering, and braising. You can marinate meats in most Dutch ovens since they don’t absorb flavor or odors if they are lined with ceramic or are pure stainless steel. After cooking, you can serve meals straight from the pot. Want to preserve the leftovers of a one-pot meal? Transfer it. Cover, place in the refrigerator after it cools, and then the next day, just slide it right back onto the stove for reheating. If you get the enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, you’ve also picked up the perfect tool for cooking practice—it cleans very easily. Skip the nonstick versions: you don’t need the toxic fumes.
You should think of the purchase of a Dutch oven as an investment. A high-quality heavy-duty one by a well-known brand, like the ceramic-lined Le Creuset, will run upwards of $300, but this is a piece you can pass on to your children. I love the All-Clad stainless steel version: it doubles as a boiling or simmering pot, which would take a lot longer in a cast-iron anything. Plus the All-Clad is light and just 5.5 quarts, a good size. But it, too, is expensive.
You can also find less expensive, well-reviewed Dutch ovens for around $60. Consider Lodge for the pure cast-iron and Tramontina for the enamel-lined cast iron; they’re big, brawny, and beautiful. Just be sure to check the surface for chips on the enameled variety, as there have been reports of missing coating on less expensive varieties.