Ask Chef Emily: Tools of the Trade

Dear Chef Emily, I’m graduating from college soon and moving into my first apartment. I don’t have anything for my kitchen yet and I’m wondering what are your must-haves to get started? — Nina, Seaford, NY

Graduation season is close at hand! My students at NYU and Montclair State are similarly excited, anxious, and ready to fledge into the real world, despite my advice to milk the safety of the nest for as long as possible. Heck, I’ve got multiple degrees and a career in academia as evidence of the benefits institutional education.

But I too was once ready to give up my summers off and subsidized living expenses in exchange for true independence, including preparing my very own meals. Having just Kon-Mari’d my own tool kit, I’ll share with you a list of must-haves for beginners that you can feel free to copy and paste into your Amazon Wish List.

Note: I’m going to stick just to tools today. Knives, pots & pans, and appliances all deserve their own posts.

#1 Wooden Spoons

I love a good wooden spoon. It can do so much, but not everything. They are durable, inexpensive and forgiving. Size and shape vary and this is an area of personal choice. The primary job of the spoon is mixing and so you want something large enough to say, stir pancake batter but not too large that stir frying with it sends bits of asparagus tumbling all over the stovetop. The aesthetics of the spoon are truly up to you: wood color and grain, the transition from handle to bowl, whether the spoon has been sealed or not, all of these things matter little to the actual function of the spoon. Go to a retailer, pick up a couple different shapes and sizes and with a little trial and error, you’ll know which one is the one for you.

#2 Rubber Spatulas

Have you seen the movie Amelie? The characters are introduced by what they love and hate (sticking hands into a barrel of dried lentils, clinging swim trunks) and for me, the running of a rubber spatula across the bottom of a bowl to reveal clean stainless steel beneath a cloud of whipped cream or lemon curd brings me great happiness. Rubber spatulas come in a rainbow of colors to brighten up your cooking experience. Some are one piece of silicone or plastic extruded to be paddle and handle together, others are paddle affixed to a wooden, metal or plastic handle. I have found the lifespan of the latter to be shorter because the glue has given up the ghost but not so much so that I’d opt out of the perfect orange addition to my drawer.

#3 Whisks

The primary job of a whisk is to incorporate air into liquid, as in whipping cream and egg whites. It can be used to remove small lumps from thin batters or roux, but focus on the primary goal. This means you want a whisk with a bulb large enough to make quick work of whipped cream and is dishwasher safe (if your fifth-floor walkup is lucky enough to come equipped.) Those charming little tiny whisks that are diminutive and adorable should be hung on a Christmas tree. Opt for the real thing.

#4 Turners

You’ll want something to flip over pancakes, french toast, crispy fried eggs, and move cookies from Silpat to cooling rack. Pick a turner (often referred to as a “spatula” but it is in fact a turner) that has a handle that won’t melt if you rest it on the edge of your pan. If you are only buying one, pick one that won’t scratch a non-stick surface.

#5 Microplanes

My desert island ingredient is citrus zest and the best way to get it just right is via Microplane. I prefer the long skinny version but there are lots of proportions and grades from which to choose. The long skinny is versatile, classic and found in every chef’s kitchen.

#6 Vegetable Peeler

Not just for veggies! Use on hard cheese over pasta, curl chocolate over your bowl of ice cream, and make ribbons of all the delicious summer squashes that will be at the farmers market you’ll want to move in next to.

#7 Instant Read Thermometer

Nothing is worse then carving into your beautifully roasted farmers market chicken to discover it’s raw. Well, it’s worse if you have hungry friends waiting at the table. They’ll forgive you (and you’ll forgive yourself), but the whole situation can be avoided by using an instant read. I prefer digital over analog and always check to make sure it’s reading room temperature close to accurate before I stick it into a chicken thigh.

These are the must haves, and if you can swing it, have multiples of #1-4. You won’t spend so much money on dish soap if you can have two or three spoons going at one time. You’ll also want a vessel to hold everybody. I have a dedicated drawer, but I’m old and live in a house now. Until recently I used an Ikea flower vase that I got at a yard sale. Every once in a while dump all your tools out and give that thing a wash; if it lives on the counter near where you are cooking, it will get pretty grungy. It’s an easy thing to keep clean and take pride in.

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