Too many tools crowd the utensil crock or drawer, rendering their access difficult, if not impossible. We are all guilty of this overcrowding and should force ourselves to conduct a quarterly utensil cleanse in order to streamline our kitchens and our peace of minds. Some of you may be building your utensil arsenal from scratch, either in the aisles of Target or in the cupboards of good old Mom and Dad. Either way, there are a handful of tools – twelve to be exact – that will set you and your cooking endeavors up for success. Start with these dozen and build from there:
1. TONGS: Speaking from experience, do not let other people pick out tongs for you. I've gone through something like five different gifted pairs of tongs and none of them work the way I really needed them to. Tongs are a very personal tool and their style, shape, and materials will depend a lot on you and your cooking style. If you cook with nonstick, invest in a hefty pair of silicone capped tongs; if you flip a lot of meat or heavy vegetables, a pair of metal tongs will work better. Trust me on this one, buy your own tongs.
2. WOODEN SPOON: A heavy hitter in the utensil world, a wooden spoon can do pretty much anything. Mix a soup, bring together a dough, thwack a cutlet, and the straight end can be used to stir the coffee in your fancy French press. When foods are acidic, a wooden spoon steps in where a metal spoon would mess with the taste. And cookie dough just seems to taste better when mixed with a big wood spoon. Any size will do and while you only need one good one, you'll want more.
3. OFF-SET SPATULA: This might seem like a strange choice for the top twelve utensils, but the off-set spatula is really quite useful. Spread condiments like in the sandwich commercials, frost cupcakes like a professional, and lift thin slices of cheesy pizza, oh the limits are endless.
4. WIRE WHISK: I feel like there are never enough whisks in the world. I have three, but they always seem to be dirty at the same time. If I had to leave my house with just one kitchen tool, this would be it. You can, of course, whisk things, but you can also whip up a batch of homemade whipped cream, "mash" a bowl of potatoes (they become really fluffy this way), and you can even "sift" dry ingredients with its many wire tines. Whisks are essentially wonderful.
5. BOX GRATER: Growing up, the box grater and I had a difficult relationship. I would always rake my knuckles across the sharp holes and vowed to find a better tool when I had my own kitchen one day. Since then I've used microplaners, one-sided hand-held graters, titled planes and and every other variation. I've found that they are all equally dangerous – we're dealing with sharp metal after all – but the box grater provides both the best stability and grating options. And while you might not be grating veggies or chocolate or bonito flakes, you will, I promise, be grating the staple of young gastronomes, cheese, and lots of it.
6. STURDY SPATULA: A sturdy spatula has several things: a hefty wooden handle, a thick silicone end, a slight curve to the silicone spoon, and, most importantly, the two pieces of the utensil should stick firmly together. I've had spatulas with nifty removable silicone ends which reportedly made the utensil easier to clean, but more often resulted in silicone pieces going M.I.A. in bowls of batter or frosting.
7. GRAPEFRUIT SPOON: As an avid grapefruit eater, I would consider this tool essential even if it was a unitasker. But, as luck would have it, grapefruit spoons are the farthest thing from a one trick pony. This nifty serrated spoon can, indeed, ease grapefruit consumption, but it also makes a wonderful fruit and vegetable corer, makes quick work of an avocado, and helps to cleanly pop the tops off of strawberries. Alternatively, it can serve as a safeguard in your cereal bowl or jar of Nutella. Unsuspecting snackers will never sneak your snack again when greeted by the menacing edges of a grapefruit spoon in their mouth.
8. KITCHEN SHEARS: Unless you grew up with a hairdresser or a seamstress, you probably never knew that there are specific scissors for specific tasks and they should never be used interchangeably. Delegating scissors for specific tasks not only prevents cross contamination, but it also keeps scissors sharper for longer. Kitchen shears are typically stronger for cutting through thicker foods – like chicken cartilage – and have little serrated edges for extra heft. Whether you buy fancy or plain, keep these shears in the kitchen and only use them for food related things.
9. ROLLING PIN: My favorite rolling pin is actually an old oiled dowel rod that I accidentally snitched while cooking in a family friend's kitchen. Sans handles, a rolling pin has so many more uses than flattening dough. It can beat and tenderize a cutlet of meat, serve as a makeshift pestle when grinding spices, and crush crackers or cookies for breadings and crusts. Some rolling pins are sold sans-handles and are tapered at the ends, these are known as French rolling pins, but if you have a plain old rolling pin simply unscrew the handles and voila.
10. VICTORINOX PEELER: Just to be clear, I'm not sponsored by Victorinox, but I love this peeler enough to profess my love for them here and now. Peelers, like graters, are difficult and often more dangerous than they let on. Unless you are a pro like my Dad who can remove an apple peel in a single curly strand with just an old paring knife, a reliable peeler is a handy tool to have around. Not only is this peeler super safe (I've used it with my eyes closed), it is flexible enough to thinly slice hard cheeses and even make dainty, little chocolate curls.
11. SHARP KNIFE: A good, strong knife will take you further than any mandolin, chopper, or other specialty slicing tool on the market. Find one that fits comfortably in your hand – this is another one you should always seek out and buy yourself – and is big enough to cut through meats, yet precise enough to mince fine herbs. A smaller chef knife typically fits this bill, but find what works for you. Keep it sharp. Dull knives hinder the cooking process and, surprisingly, cause more kitchen accidents than sharp ones.
12. SQUEEZE BOTTLE: Last, but not least, an inexpensive squeeze bottle will take your young gastronome skills from simple to spectacular. A sauce always looks better when carefully drizzled with a squeeze bottle, baked goods are a breeze to fill thanks to the little bottle tips, and salads just seem more awesome when the dressing is applied with a squeeze rather than a glug.
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Wherever you find your tools, be sure to seek out ones that are sturdy and preferably made of all wooden or metal materials. Plastic is sometimes cheaper and often seems like the better choice, but consistent application of heat, frequent washing, and use will warp and break the tool and then you'll be spoonless, or worse, whiskless.
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