Most cookbooks spend so much time telling you how many ridiculous tools and accessories you need ("Every chef should have two high-end potato peelers, one for your average potatoes, and another for the potatoes you just don't trust") that they barely leave any room for the actual cooking. That's like picking up a book on casual cycling that starts with "Want to see if you like cycling? Fantastic! Before we get started, go buy a custom-fitted carbon fiber road bike, then pick out your uniform and competition clip-in shoes, go to Lance Armstrong's house, leave a bag of (expensive) flaming soup on his doorstep ..." You'd close the book, precisely as I did with cookbooks my entire life. It had to be simpler. I mean, calculus is simpler.
So, while working on my book (The 4-Hour Chef, currently available wherever you keep your Internet), I sought out the people who do the most with the least: chefs like Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti in New York City, which has a broom-closet-size kitchen; food-truck operators; and caterers, who need to build a new kitchen at each gig. What are the lightweight and low-cost tools that serve as their Swiss Army knives? Even if you're starting from zero (perhaps especially so), here is the ultimate list of insider tools ...
$8.50 for 12
Forget about oven mitts and pot holders. You know who uses those? Your grandma, who is a very nice lady and a fine cook, but she probably never read this article when she was learning to cook (exceptions: grandma time travelers). Why use the frilly trinkets of an average cook when you can use what the pros use? The pros use folded towels for just about everything, and using them will teach you more than your grandma ever did.
"You're a chef, dammit. Folded towels are the only family you need now."
How do you tell the veterans from the noobs? The former have a neatly stacked pile of cooking towels, crisply folded at the edges and tucked into their aprons. The latter have sloppy messes pushed through string. In a world of high-speed repetitive action, the little things are the big things. Suffice it to say, if you grab something hot with a single layer of a damp towel, your hands will be seared like strip steak. (Not to worry: It's easy to avoid.)
You won't find the little blue towels that the pros use in any kitchen or restaurant supply store, but you can easily find them online by searching for "lint-free surgical towels." Order a dozen from Amazon to start. If you want something close, but -- in my opinion -- inferior, the long, narrow IKEA towels with red stripes will suffice. If you do go to IKEA, get those meatballs in their food court, but only after you've purchased the towels. You're gonna need them to wipe all the shit off your face. Goddamn, Scandinavians know their meatballs. Italians, what happened? Amirite? Italians?
The TEKLA, seen here being substantially more durable than a BILLY bookshelf.
Joe Ades (may he rest in peace) made a fortune selling $5 Swiss-made peelers in New York City's Union Square. He was so good at it, he taught his daughter the art of the pitch, and she used it to put herself through Columbia University by selling children's books on the street.
Without Joe's daily demos, New York wouldn't have half as many rats as it does today.
The Zena Swiss may be the original, but the Kuhn Rikon version is cheaper and easier to clean. The latter was one of two items (the other a Microplane) an executive chef recommended when asked, "What do professionals use all the time that home cooks don't?"
No one likes peeling, and this gadget makes it a cinch. They're three for $11. Don't need three peelers? Boom, you've got Christmas presents for your two most potato-friendly buddies. For $11.
Buy a couple bags of potatoes to go along with 'em and your holiday shopping is done.
Even a cheap-ass bastard can afford these bad boys. Ante up and you'll use them forever.
Chefs are exacting, precise, delicate creatures when it comes to food prep. For instance, they don't pierce their meat like some sort of kitchen Hunger Games savages, spilling all the juices that should remain inside. To avoid that, you'll need OXO Good Grips Locking Tongs and the Kuhn Rikon SoftEdge Slotted 12-Inch Spatula (Peltex).
Tongs with tips that don't scratch, like the OXO nylon-tipped tongs, will be the easiest to use. Real chefs end up using a "Peltex," which is a brand name, but generically refers to a slotted fish turner. The better the cook, the fewer tools required. Only posers own more equipment than they can use. (See: Taylor, Tim "Tool Man.") If you ever walk into a man's kitchen and he says he's figured out how to prepare and cook every meal with just a single spoon and some salt, congratulations, you've just found the greatest living chef.
The best is the Kuhn Rikon Peltex, as it has silicone edges and can also effectively replace silicone spatulas. Don't waste money. Grandma would slap you with one of her stupid pot holders.
"I'mma choke you to death, mothafucka."
Grapefruit seed extract (GSE) is perfect for disinfecting heavier jobs, especially if you're cooking with a lot of chicken. A component of GSE, naringenin, is a potent antiviral and antibacterial agent; it also extends the effect of caffeine (see The 4-Hour Body). Add in hesperidin, also in GSE, and you can reduce everything from hepatitis C and E. coli to methicillin-resistant staph bacteria. If something tastes off, put a few drops of this in water and down the hatch it goes. This one guy said it made his dick bigger, and this other chick said it made everyone's dick bigger.
While traveling in India, this is how I prevented myself from dying. Street food? Enjoy it, but bring an insurance policy: GSE. If not, take photos of yourself in the Third World ER. I've been there. Highly overrated. Ganges River water makes horrible IV fluid.
It's a pretty decent combination national bath/toilet, though.
Plastic wrap, such as Saran Wrap, is a headache. It gets stuck to itself, it won't cling to whatever you want it to, and you wonder: Why the hell even bother?
Anchor Purity is the industrial solution (what the pros use), and for a mere $13 you can get 1,000 feet, which, unless your cooking is aggressively wrap-heavy, should last you forever. Easier to use, faster to use, no mess, and it just works.
And if you are going through more than 1,000 feet per year, you should know that you don't need to wrap your entire kitchen in Saran Wrap every time you cook. Whoever told you that was screwing with you.
$6 to $9
This guy is perfect for picking up chopped bits of anything on a cutting board. When doing a bunch of cooking, stick this in your back pocket like a switchblade comb, The Outsiders style, ready for action. If you have a hardware store nearby, any flexible scraper for home improvement will work. Just make sure it's at least 4 inches wide at the blade.
Not that I've tried, but this thing is also really easy to toss at your friends like a throwing star. You could be part Bob Vila, part Thomas Keller, part Beverly Hills Ninja ...
Your friends will fear your wrath as much as they love your pancakes.
Francis Mallmann, the most famous chef in South America, has classical French training, which involves using high-end copper pots and pans. Regardless, he still prefers cast iron, because nothing transfers heat more uniformly. It's beautifully primitive.
The best combination model for value is the Lodge LCC3. If you'd like to cook tomatoes, baked beans or other acidic foods in "raw," or unenameled, cast iron (which is what I use most often), you'll need to first season the skillet. "Seasoning" helps the iron absorb a protective coat of oil so that acids don't react with the surface and cause a metallic taste or black coloring.
It also ensures the cast iron skillet's title of "deadliest non-bladed non-spork culinary instrument."
Since we're not going to take our time over six to 12 meals to season our tool, here's how to do it in an evening:
-Coat the pans in oil (flaxseed is ideal; look for it in health food stores among refrigerated nutritional supplements) by spreading it all over the inside surface with a folded paper towel.
-Bake the skillet and Dutch oven upside down in your oven, on the top rack, at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour, then turn off the heat, open the door and allow the pans to cool for 30 minutes.
-Rinse with warm water (no soap), towel dry immediately and repeat five more times.
-Use all of the time I just saved you to learn piano, or dancing, or cooking, or karate, or fucking all of them.
Kuhn Rikon Epicurean Garlic Press
The Epicurean press does a better job of pressing garlic when you keep the skin on! Read that sentence again -- it's a big deal!
No more peeling, no more cutting, no more pain-in-the-ass cleanup of a poorly designed press. This press is the one press to rule them all. Yes, it's expensive ... and totally worth it. That is, if you like garlic. If you don't ... well, then stop reading this, because I don't want to live in a world where people like you are allowed to walk freely among the rest of us.
Fissler Magic Smooth-Edge Can Opener
The Fissler Store
In the can-opening world, the equivalent of the Epicurean press is the Fissler Magic Smooth-Edge Can Opener. It cuts around the side of the can, leaving no sharp edges and a lid that can be put back on. As one chef asked upon seeing it, "Why did it take 100+ years for someone to think of that?"
Better late than never. Cooking needn't be complicated or expensive. Get cheap, get dirty and get inventive. That's the Kitchen Jedi path -- minimalist and brutally effective. Enjoy.