You don't need a fancy equipment to be a good cook. The good news is that there is no five hundred dollar blender, no state of the art oven, that is standing between you and making a decent meal today. If you love your sous vide or your Instant Pot, great — I feel pretty evangelical about my KitchenAid Mini stand mixer. But I also feel that way about my wooden spoons. The items that give us confidence in the kitchen, that make the act of preparing food a pleasure instead of a chore, are often the smallest, simplest things.
The holidays, like wedding season, seem to make our minds collectively turn longingly to extravagant, big ticket appliances. Yet the rest of the time, too many of us appear to try to bravely get by on our one spatula with a slightly melted handle. Maybe it's a false sense of toughness, or a fear of looking like some loser whose life is cluttered with useless unitaskers. But if among your New Year's resolutions is to step up your culinary game in 2022, can I suggest — why not do it by embracing some legitimately useful, joy-sparking tools, none of which cost more than a few dollars?
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When, a few weeks ago, I talked to Preppy Kitchen's John Kanell, he offered some wise advice to aspiring bakers — "If you can just invest in something, grab a scale," he said. "This little tool is going to make your life so much easier." Take it from a guy with 2.6 million YouTube subscribers, a scale really will change your life. "You might be scooping up your flour, innocently thinking you're using a measuring cup the right way," he explained. "But you're packing all that flour down, and you're adding like 50% more to that beautiful, melt in your mouth cake recipe so it becomes just not so beautiful and melt in your mouth."
Do yourself a favor and listen to John Kanell here. My own scale is about the size of the palm of my hand, is perfectly flat and set me back less than twenty bucks. It has also improved my baking more than even my KitchenAid Mini. Kanell also says that "Normal wooden skewers are a lifesaver" to straighten cakes and test for doneness, and that he likes "a set of graduated circle cookie cutters to make biscuits and everything else."
My conversation with Kanell made me wonder what my Salon colleagues couldn't live without, and their responses were simple and inspiring. Their answers make it clear there is no one size fits all, indispensable kitchen tool. There is only ever the thing that you wind up using all the time, because you chop a lot of herbs or juice a lot of citrus. It's the thing that didn't cost a fortune, that feels like it was made for your hands, and that makes your life easier and more delicious, every single day.
Erin Keane likes her T-shaped peeler. "I used this crummy all metal vertical peeler for years and it made me hate peeling vegetables. Horizontal blade made all the difference," she says. She adds that her Bellemain lemon squeezer "changed my life." "If you make a lot of cocktails like I do," she says, "it's a godsend. If you like a squeeze of lemon or lime to brighten up a dish while it's cooking or just before serving, it's also perfect. It's hardy, but dishwasher safe, and the silicone handles make it comfortable to use. I feel like King Kong when I squash limes with it." (I am similarly devoted to my OXO Good Grips citrus juicer, which lets me squeeze a lemon, strain it, and measure the juice all in one go, like a genius.
Ashlie Stevens says that "After over a year of cooking from home way more (and battling occasional joint pain and inflammation along the way), the first thing that I got sick of was chopping and mincing ingredients. Now I use the Ninja Express Chop probably daily for everything from mincing a few cloves of garlic to making smoothies." She adds that "Another cooking item that has changed my time in the kitchen for the better this year" has been her Ginkgo Japanese butter knife for cold, yet spreadable butter. "This was a gift from my best friend," she says, "and I have used it non-stop."
Amanda Marcotte, meanwhile, loves her Yarkor tofu press. "Having messed around with different ones, I found this to be the best, by far," she says. "Life changing, really presses tofu well and allows it to soak up any marinade." She also says she's "a big fan of herb scissors."
As for me, my own kitchen is laughably small, and every item in it has to prove its value. Among the tools in my personal hall of fame:
Because I buy cheap knives and then treat them disrespectfully, I long refused to see the point of getting a sharpener. Now I see the error of those ways. If you have good knives, a sharpener keeps them in top condition. If, however, you have some nameless blade rattling around in a drawer, a sharpener will also keep it in good condition. I think I spent ten dollars on my sharpener, and my cucumber slices have never been less than paper thin since.
You need tongs. You need them to turn your food as you're cooking it, you need them to pull out individual elements of a dish. They're also fun to go clack clack clack with as you dance around the kitchen. Related: A nice wide fish spatula (a pancake's best friend) and a kitchen spider or strainer, for moving things around and digging things out.
Sure, you could continue to lie to yourself that you "know" when your steak or chicken is done. You could cut into it, letting all those beautiful juices run out and dry it out your dish. Or you could just find out its internal temperature and know for sure. My little guy takes up no space and has saved innumerable dinners.
Parchment paper sheets
I wouldn't turn on my oven without them. I'm not saying that tearing off parchment from the roll was ever a big chore, but the day I discovered I could just grab one perfectly sized sheet at time without even taking the box out of the cabinet, I felt like I'd discovered a new planet.
I'm addicted to my microplane. I use it to shower my pasta in cheese, my cakes in chocolate. I use it for nutmeg and ginger. Mostly, though, I zest lemon into everything. One way or another, I rarely finish cooking a dish without busting out the microplane.
Aroma Rice Cooker
The biggest ticket item on this list, still dirt cheap. I have owned two Aroma rice cookers in my entire life. The last one died after twenty years of faithful service, and the current one, with exactly one button, seems destined for similar longevity. In the morning, I cook steel cut oats in it — I just flip in on, shower, and have a hot breakfast waiting for me. For dinner, I cook lentils and farro and barley and yes, rice, in it. Sometimes I put some tender vegetables on top, like spinach or shredded carrots, and then most of the meal is taken care of. Best $25 I ever spent? Maybe. Hardest working appliance in my kitchen? Absolutely. This year, maybe it'll be yours too.
More of our favorite kitchen gear: