9 essential tools for cooking all the vegetables

Produce whisperer and author Deborah Madison on how to stock our kitchen tool kits

Published May 31, 2022 4:59PM (EDT)

 (MJ Kroeger / Food52)
(MJ Kroeger / Food52)

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As with any other kitchen, what is considered essential in a vegetable-forward kitchen depends on what you like to cook. If you like stir-fries, then you might want to grab a wok. If you have a fondness for braising, as I do, then you might rely heavily on a shallow Le Creuset braising pan

While I've listed some of my favorite, most essential tools, I didn't mention my food mill, which I use only for two purposes (tomato sauce and applesauce) yet wouldn't be without, or my salad spinner. Nor did I mention hands, which are the best tools for feeling the food you're cooking; or noses, for smelling; or ears, for hearing when a process subtly changes on the stove; or eyes for discerning the beauty or flaw contained in a vegetable. You don't have to buy these; you're equipped with your senses already.

But what does stand out for me as the most essential items for a cook dealing with a lot of vegetables are good knives and a large cutting board. Without those tools, cooking isn't fun or efficient. From there? A mortar and pestle, and maybe just two more. Ahead, tools that are essential in my kitchen, and maybe in yours, too. 

1. Good knives and a way to keep them sharp

A few good knives are essential to any cook, but especially to one who is cooking a lot of vegetables because they usually require a fare amount of slicing and dicing. You don't want a boning knife or a knife with a curved blade because you want to have as much contact as possible with your board in order to get the job done.

good paring knife is very useful. I do a lot with my petite 4-inch knife: peeling, chopping, and getting into small grooves, like the stems of cauliflower florets. Mine is wider than most paring knives, which is why it's so versatile, but really, any will do. You'll also want one heavier chef's knife or cleaver for whacking dense winter squash into pieces.

It should also go without saying that you need a knife sharpener because they can slice, rather than crush, your veggies. And they won't slip over the skin and nick your fingers, either. If you need some expert recs on sharpeners, we have 'em right here.

2. A big cutting board

Giving yourself a lot of room to work is essential. You'll feel cramped and frustrated using a small cutting board like the cheese board you got for a wedding or graduation present. Wood or plastic, that's up to you. I used a large, plastic board for years before buying myself a gorgeous walnut cutting board because I prefer the look and feel of it (and because it was my birthday). Since I'm often hovering over the board, I want it to be something I love to use. It's not huge — my plastic one is twice as large — but it's fine when cooking for two, which is what I usually do, and I also have backups when needed.

I recommend having a second board for cutting fruit. Fruit with a trace of garlic just doesn't taste right, and if you don't have fresh fruit to slice very often, it needn't be large. 

3. A fait-tout pan, such as a saucier

This is a pan I use probably every day. Mine happens to be a stainless steel All-Clad. It's large enough for whatever I want to do, and its shape is wonderfully versatile. You can do just about anything in it — except maybe make an omelet. 

4. Beautiful multipurpose bakeware

To me, it's important that my functional pots and pans also be beautiful. I have a collection of earthenware vessels: casseroles and shallower dishes from Cook on Clay, micaceous pots made by native New Mexico potters, Italian baking dishes, and so forth. When they're not being used for actual baking, I use them to hold eggplants or tomatoes that are too gorgeous to be hidden in the refrigerator.

5. Tongs

There are few things more useful than a pair of tongs. A long pair allows you to stand back from the fire or grill, while shorter ones let you to get close to your food. You can use them to turn vegetables over in a pan or retrieve them from a pot of boiling water and check for doneness. My go-to? Simple, spring-loaded tongs — nothing fancy, no need for serrated bottoms.  

It helps if the tongs close when not in use so that they fit easily into a drawer, but if they don't have the gadget on them that makes that possible, a rubber band works just fine.

6. Mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder)

There's something about pounding garlic with a little salt that makes it so much better than merely pressing it. And the smell of freshly roasted spices is so wonderful as you work them over the rough bottom of a mortar. I use a small, inexpensive marble mortar and pestle for garlic and spices, and a larger one if I'm actually going to make a sauce in it. A spice grinder also makes quick work of grinding spices into a fine powder.  

7. More pots and pans (this may be cheating, but they're all important!)

  • I use my set of solid, well-made saucepans with inserts for steaming vegetables nearly everyday. One good non-stick skillet is a must for eggs and pancakes; otherwise, I use my cast-iron skilletor grill pan.  
  • A deeper pan with a lid or a Le Creuset Dutch oven is essential for braising vegetables or making risotto
  • A wide pot, about 6 inches deep, is key for making big soups or for boiling water for pasta. 
  • I have two double boilers: one a fancy copper affair and the other an old-fashioned blue metal one that I bought because of its color. I use them for holding mashed potatoes or other vegetable purées, making the base for a soufflé or a sauce, cooking polenta, or melting chocolate. A double boiler lets you keep foods warm without worry. I don't know why we let them go out of style — they're truly so useful. 
  • Finally, a one-quart saucepan for hard-boiling a few eggs, making hot cereal in the morning or quinoa in the evening, and for reheating soup for lunch. 

8. Pressure cooker

I love my pressure cooker. It makes lentil soup or sweet potatoes in 20 minutes when you really don't have an hour to make dinner, and is especially great for bean dishes and long-cooking grains. I don't use it as often as other pots and pans, but I'd feel adrift without it. Plus, the insert can double as an extra mixing pot.

9. A kitchen scale

I really think every cook should use one. Kitchen scales are ideal for baking, but a more accurate way to measure by weight. Sometimes it's surprising to see how much a vegetable, a cup of flour, or two cups of rice really weighs. Imagine you have a chunk of leftover butter or cheese or chocolate. Put it on the scale, then you'll know if you have enough to make that recipe. After a while you can pretty much judge accurately by eye, but until then, a scale can be helpful — if not essential — for getting it right on the money. Mine reads in both ounces and grams, which is useful when you're using recipes that are written by English cooks like Nigel Slater.

By Deborah Mitchell

MORE FROM Deborah Mitchell

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Cutting Board Food Food52 Kitchen Tools List Tongs Vegetables