You'll never hear a cook complain about having too many bowls. At the minimum, you'll need 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-quart bowls. A nesting set of graduated sizes will save space. A stack of small bowls to hold prepared ingredients is handy for keeping your cooking area organized. Stainless-steel bowls are heatproof (ideal for placing over a saucepan of simmering water to create a double boiler), lightweight, and unbreakable, so they should form the core of your bowl collection.
Key Kitchen Helpers
To scrape every last bit of batter from the bowl into the pan, or to sweep cookie dough efficiently away from the sides of a bowl as you mix it, use a handy tool called a bowl scraper. Made entirely of flexible plastic, it has a rounded edge that fits the contours of the bowl perfectly, ensuring you won't waste a drop.
Cheesecloth has many uses in the kitchen beyond its original one to wrap cheeses. It is most often used to strain liquids because its loose, gauzelike weave will catch the smallest particles. Herbs and spices are tied in cheesecloth bundles for adding to stocks, soups, stews, and braises. The cheesecloth ensures the seasonings can impart their flavors fully and are easily retrieved and discarded before serving. When squeezing lemon juice over fish, cover the cut side of the lemon with a piece of cheesecloth to hold back the seeds.
This small but powerful butane-fueled torch makes quick work of caramelizing sugar on a crème brûlée, but it has other applications, too. Use it to char the skins of bell peppers, toast marshmallows, brown meringue on a tart or pie, or melt cheese on bruschetta. When a cold dessert, such as a cheesecake or custard, refuses to loosen from its pan or mold, use the torch to warm the bottom of the container (of course, only if the container is flameproof).
A stainless-steel box grater is the classic model. With four (and sometimes more) different grating surfaces, the cook has a choice of applications. Use the fine punctures to grate citrus zest; the medium holes for hard cheeses like Parmesan or Romano; the slicing blade for hard-boiled eggs or shredding lettuce; and the large holes for semifirm cheeses, raw potatoes, and cabbage.
Have two sets of cups for dry ingredients, a full range of sizes of liquid measuring cups (1, 2 , 4, and 8 cups), and two sets of spoons. You'll be glad you did, especially when you're preparing a big meal. Otherwise, you'll have to keep washing and drying your measuring utensils to keep up with the cooking.
A mortar and pestle may be low tech, but many cooks would not trade their set for the world. The pounding and grinding in a mortar slowly releases the natural oils and other flavor elements in foods, which heighten their flavor. A suribachi, a Japanese ceramic mortar with a ridged interior, is handy for pulverizing whole spices to a powder with minimal effort.
A sieve is used to drain solids (sometimes both the solids and the liquid are reserved) Tor to strain liquids. The size of the mesh determines how the sieve should be used. Often, a cook will choose the wrong sieve, making a simple job difficult. A medium-mesh sieve is good for draining vegetables or straining the cooked bits of egg white from a custard sauce. It can also be used to sift dry ingredients for baking. A fine-mesh sieve should be reserved for eliminating very small solid bits, such as straining pureed raspberry sauce to remove its seeds or straining stocks to remove bits of herbs.
Silicone has become a favorite material for cooking utensils. It is heat-resistant (in most cases up to 520°F, the typical maximum surface cooking temperature, though some tools can withstand temperatures up to 800°F), water-resistant (so it won't soak up a liquid), nonstick, and nonreactive. Spoons, spatulas, and brushes are the most common cookware tools made from silicone, but you'll also find collapsible measuring cups that will fit easily into a drawer. And with a silicone rolling pin, you can roll out dough for sugar cookies with no fear of the dough sticking to the pin.
The Versatile Kitchen Thermometer
A common way to test bread for doneness is to rap on the bottom of the loaf and listen for a dull thump. Using a thermometer is more reliable. Insert an instant-read thermometer in the bottom of the loaf, being sure the tip reaches the center of the loaf. Butter-and-egg-laden breads are finished when their internal temperature reaches 185° to 190°F; leaner, crispier breads are ready at 200° to 205°F. For breads baked in loaf pans, insert the thermometer just above the rim of the pan, angling the tip down to the center of the loaf.
A candy thermometer is the best way to check the temperature of the syrup. Be sure the thermometer is firmly attached to the side of the pan, and that the probe is submerged deep enough into the syrup to get an accurate reading. The syrup goes through several stages as the temperature rises and the water evaporates, concentrating the syrup. Recipes indicate the desired stage, from thread to dark caramel, and each stage has a temperature range, so you have a few degrees leeway.
Few ovens are spot-on accurate. Always double-check the temperature with an oven thermometer. Place the thermometer in the center of the oven, where the cooking will actually take place, and not near one of the sides or the top or bottom, where the temperature can be thrown off by the metal wall. Allow at least 20 minutes for the oven to preheat fully before checking the temperature.
Occasionally test your instant-read and candy thermometers for accuracy. Submerge the thermometer probe in a small saucepan of boiling water. It should read 212°F at sea level. (Check with your local cooperative extension to find out the exact boiling temperature where you live. In general, the boiling point of water occurs at approximately 2°F lower than 212°F for every 1,000 feet above sea level. For example, at 2,000 feet above sea level, water boils at about 208°F.) If the thermometer is off a few degrees either way, take note and allow for the difference when you use it the next time. If it is seriously off, buy a new thermometer.
Natural-bristle brushes are ideal for applying glazes to baked goods and for greasing cake pans with softened butter. To clean them, rinse the brush under hot running water. Add a drop of dishwashing detergent to the bristles, and rub them to give them a "shampoo." Rinse well, then air dry. Never put bristle brushes in the dishwasher.
Tricks & Techniques
Before shredding semisoft cheese on the large holes of a grater, spritz the grater with cooking oil spray so the cheese doesn't stick. Freezing the cheese slightly makes it easier to grate, but freeze only the amount you need for the recipe.
For accuracy's sake, measure semisolid fats such as shortening and peanut butter in a solid measuring cup, not a glass one. Level the shortening with a knife so it is even with the rim of the cup. For easy cleanup, line the cup with plastic wrap before adding the fat.
The best tool for smashing garlic so you can remove the peel is a rubber garlic peeler that looks like a cannoli shell. You can also smash it under the flat side of a knife blade, but better yet is the bottom of an unopened, fairly heavy (say, 16-ounce) can. With its additional surface area and weight, the can is much safer than the knife.
Here are three ways to eliminate the odor of garlic on your hands after chopping. The first and most unusual (but it works!) calls for rubbing your hands well with a stainless-steel spoon. Or try scouring your hands with coffee grounds. A third trick is to squeeze lemon juice over your hands, sprinkle them with kosher salt, and then rub away the odor. Don't choose this method if you have any cuts on your skin or the cuts will burn. In all cases, rinse your hands well with cold water after cleaning.
Instead of mincing ginger for a stir-fry, grate it on the medium-size holes of a box grater. You won't need to peel the ginger, and the grater will remove most of the tough ginger "hairs," too.
Certain cuts (veal scaloppini, boneless chicken breasts) are often pounded to give them a uniform thickness so they will cook evenly. Use the flat side of a meat pounder for this job. If the pounder also has a side with raised points, use that side to tenderize tough cuts of meat such as chuck or round steak. A rolling pin (or even an empty wine bottle) can be a substitute for a flat meat pounder.
When a recipe calls for chopped nuts, but your cooking space is crowded, you have options. Crush the nuts in a mortar. The irregular shapes that result will add texture to your food. Or, chop the nuts in a stainless-steel bowl with a pastry blender with rigid, not flexible, blades. A food processor works, too, but use short pulses to avoid pulverizing the nuts.
Use a cherry pitter to pit olives. (Or, for that matter, use an olive pitter to pit cherries!) If you don't have either, use a flat meat pounder or the bottom of a small skillet to smash the olives on a work surface, crushing the flesh so you can remove the pit. There are very few recipes that call for perfectly pitted olives, anyway. A melon baller can be used to pull olives out of the jar. The small hole in the baller drains the brine, too.
To transfer pancake batter to the griddle with a minimum of drips, use a bulb baster. You'll be able to gauge the amount of batter as it fills the cylinder, so you can make uniformly round pancakes.
Filling a pepper mill can be a messy job. To get the peppercorns into the mill without spilling, put them in a small plastic bag or paper envelope, snip off a corner, and direct them into the mill.
Many cooks prefer a potato masher or a ricer for making mashed potatoes, but what if you don't have either tool? A handheld electric mixer works well, as does a stand mixer for big batches. For a low-tech method, use a wire-mesh spider, or skimmer (the kind used to lift out the food from liquid in a wok).
A child's sippy cup is perfect for making, storing, and serving salad dressings. Just combine the ingredients in the cup, attach the lid, place your thumb over the spout, and shake away until the dressing is emulsified. The dressing-filled cup can go into the refrigerator for storage. Drizzle the dressing through the spout over the greens
To help salad greens stay fresh longer, wash and dry the greens in a salad spinner as soon as you get them home from the market. Then moisten a paper towel with water, and squeeze out the excess water. Place the moistened towel in a resealable plastic bag and add the rinsed and dried greens (arrange large-leaf lettuces vertically). Close the bag and refrigerate in the vegetable crisper. The towel will provide the extra bit of humidity the greens need to stay fresh.
Always keep a vegetable brush handy near the sink to clean vegetables that might have sand on their skins. Summer squash and potatoes, in particular, may look like they only need a quick rinse, but give them a scrub under cold running water to remove any hidden grit.