Cut the Clutter

Only three tools in your kitchen are genuinely indispensable.

You don’t need great tools to be a great cook. They make learning much easier, however, and they produce consistently satisfying results so that cooking isn’t just another hobby that always drives you nuts.

Only three things in your kitchen are truly essential. They are:

A Disposable Knife

Your work in the kitchen involves slicing and dicing for the most part. It’s slow-going, at first, as you adopt some basic motor skills and familiarize yourself with the contours and peculiarities of various ingredients.

That isn’t hard to do. Success in cooking isn’t about hard work, actually. It’s an easy-going activity, with tasks and routines that come naturally.

But results must justify efforts. You’ll feel disinclined to cook—you’ll procrastinate, you’ll order take-out—if the care and attention with which you apply yourself to a tomato pulverizes it beyond recognition, if carving a chicken mangles its skin, if slicing a carrot leaves you with useless shavings and the blade threatens to constantly roll onto your fingertips.

The perfect solution to those problems is a thirty-dollar, mass-market knife. When it’s dull, just toss it and buy another. The blade can keep its edge for a year if you simply pass it over a honing rod each time you use it.

The inescapable truth of expensive knives is that they must be sharpened. And sharpening a knife isn’t just another household chore like oiling a door hinge. It’s a skill unto itself, one more thing in your life that needs special equipment and a number of weeknights and Saturday afternoons to perfect.

You can always find someone else to sharpen your knife, of course. As with any service provider, however, such as a plumber or a psychotherapist, it’s a challenge to find one who knows what he’s doing and won’t rip you off.

So you can wind up stalled out at some point, waiting for the right time or the right person to sharpen your fancy, dull blade—your cooking routine a distant memory because every time you slice a carrot it feels like you’re using the side of a fork. A mass-market utensil with negligible sex appeal could be the thing that actually permits you to cook happily for once.

Such a utensile couldn’t be cheap, however. Even a disposable knife should be made of high-quality stainless steel that holds an edge durably. It should be factory-sharpened at an aggressive angle, and have have a non-slip polycarbonate handle so that you can put it in the dishwasher after working with raw meat, rather than having to turn your kitchen sink into a sanitation triage.

Something like a Victorinox Fibrox or a Kuhn Rikon Colori fits that description. Knives like these have become my everyday kitchen utensiles, my most important tools. I bought one on impulse after years of dealing with a perpetually dull, expensive chef’s knife.

Since then, I’ve whacked the bone on many a carcass while learning to carve chickens. I’ve poked myself while learning how to maneuver around the blade. A five-hundred dollar Japanese gyuto with an edge like a straight razor would have landed me in the emergency room by now.

To get the most travel out of my knives, I use a honing rod, which gently aligns the edge of a blade after I’ve applied it to the blunt objects that are my ingredients. A knife’s microscopic edge has a tendency, with use, to roll to one side ever so slightly. Gliding that edge over a honing rod afterwards gently uncoils the rolled metal so that the knife is keen once more.

A honing rod must be composed of a material that’s harder than the steel of a knife, otherwise knives would dig into it rather than glide over. That material can be steel as long as it’s hard enough; ceramic is very hard and usually a safe bet.

Honing rods must be perfectly smooth, not ridged or covered in diamond dust. Honing is not sharpening, which removes material from a blade in order to create a brand-new edge.

Sharpening takes skill, honing does not. Here’s how to do it:

A Dutch Oven

Three pans and a skillet are all I ever use, cooking four servings a night and occasionally up to six.

Of these, my 8-quart Dutch oven is only one I couldn’t live without.

A Dutch oven is a large pot with a tightly fitting lid. It has enough surface area to sauté a whole chicken or a kilo of beef, and its sides are high enough to catch splattering grease.

It has enough volume to poach a whole chicken, entirely submerged. It boils a pound of pasta, it wilts an armload of spinach, it accommodates a stock made from five or six pounds of bones.

A Dutch oven is densely constructed from heat-retaining materials, which enable it to brown cold meats before they overcook, and to hold a steady simmer.

And so the pot is built to do anything. It’s made of enameled iron, traditionally, because cast iron conducts and retains heat quite well, while enameled glazing provides a remarkably stick-free cooking surface with enough tenacity so that drippings adhere and brown.

Le Creuset’s oval Dutch oven (8 qt.)

Browned meat is a principal flavor foundation of Western cuisine. It’s a process that yields hundreds of intensely aromatic molecular compounds.

Dissolving these flavors in a long-simmering broth, fortified with the melted sinew of a tough joint of meat, produces an incomparable succulence that every cuisine on Earth strives to achieve in one way or other.

Call it a “stew”, a “braise”, a “hot pot”—for many of us it’s what home cooking is all about. A Dutch oven does it all in one pot, in a single batch that feeds a family of four with left-overs to spare.

Efficiency like this is the reason for great tools. They make it more likely that you’ll prepare foods you truly enjoy, rather than settling for things that are merely simple to prepare.

So, if you have an iron pot already, you’re set.

If you need to buy a Dutch oven, I recommend a “clad” pan, which is an aluminum vessel covered by stainless steel on at least one side.

All-Clad’s LTD “Stock Pot” (8 qt.)

Demeyere’s Atlantis Dutch oven (9 qt.)

Aluminum is an excellent conductor of thermal energy, meaning that it heats and cools very quickly and very evenly: You can reduce the temperature in a hurry to keep things from burning, or you can increase it in a hurry to revive a simmer.

Aluminum heats very evenly, moreover. It’s much less likely than cast iron to develop hotspots where food scorches even as the rest of the pan remains relatively cool.

Highly conductive materials like aluminum are poor insulators, however, meaning that they don’t hold heat very well. Heat-retention is necessary for browning meats. When you drop a cold slab of beef into the pan, for example, you want the temperature to remain high enough to instantly vaporize any surface moisture and begin browning the meat right away.

Heat-retaining pans also hold a simmer very well, so that you can more easily find that sweet spot on your dial where a soup bubbles away happily without babysitting.

Conductive metals like aluminum can be made into great insulators just by using a thick-enough layer. Somewhere in the vicinity of three-millimeters is ideal. That permits a clad pan to retain heat nearly as well as one made of cast iron.


I myself use All-Clad pans. I can vouch for the brand’s performance and construction, but I haven’t had the opportunity to examine their current offerings. From what I can tell, their LTD line-up is a rebranding the discontinued MC2 line of pans, which featured three-millimeter-thick walls of aluminum lined on each interior with stainless steel. The only potential drawbacks to these pans are their aluminum exteriors. Aluminum isn’t incompatible with induction stoves, it scratches more easily than steel, and it doesn’t really tolerate dishwasher detergents, which are quite harsh.

The company’s D5 pans each have a thin layer of stainless steel embedded within their aluminum cores, which supposedly achieves the thermal capacity of cast iron at the expense of a slight reduction in conductivity.

Worth investigating, as well, are pans made by a Belgian company called Demeyere (de-MY-reh) whose Atlantis and John Pawson lines feature a massive footpad of solid copper lined with sliver, sandwiched in between sheets of stainless-steel alloy.

It’s vital for a pan to have generous quantities of conductive materials like aluminum, copper and silver. Heavy construction alone isn’t enough. I once had a Calphalon Dutch oven that felt hefty enough but was incapable of browning anything larger than a few chicken pieces, presumably because its steel bulk concealed only a meager aluminum core. (Steel is much cheaper than aluminum, after all.)

Clad pans like that are the reason why recipe-writers still extol iron pots and carbon steel skillets, despite the drawbacks of such old-fashioned materials including a tendency to rust.

A Kitchen Scale

Life is too short to be scraping mayonnaise out of a teaspoon with a butterknife. Get a kitchen scale.

The miracle of our measuring system is that the weight of water equals its volume. That holds whether you work in metric or imperial:

1 gram of water = 1 milliliter
1 ounce of water = 1 fluid ounce

If you need a “cup” of water, just weight it. You can use a coffee mug, a beer stein, a dog dish, it doesn’t matter. That goes for nearly any liquid you use.

Any ingredient can be measured just by weighing it, in fact. You can quickly determine how many “tablespoons” a lump of butter equals. (A tablespoon of butter is a half of an ounce.) You don’t have to pack brown sugar. You don’t have to level flour.

And you can compare the weights of the sugar and flour to quickly establish the ratio between them. A pound cake literally requires one pound of each (along with a pound of butter and a pound of eggs).

Quantifying those ingredients in cups and spoons, as nearly every recipe does, produces nonsensical amounts like “2¾ cups plus 1 tablespoon,” which is impossible to remember.

The scale I use, by MyWeigh, has everything I need: It goes up to fifteen pounds (7 kg), which enables it to accommodate my heavy Dutch oven and whatever I fill it with.

The scale shifts among metric and imperial, which is useful whenever I’m looking for inspiration in recipes written for the other system.

The screen can be back-lighted, which would be handy, I suppose, if I ever found myself cooking over campfire by twilight.

The scale takes ordinary batteries, or I can plug it in with an inexpensive power adaptor.

It tells me when I need to recalibrate, which must be done now and then with any scale, and which is an easy thing to do with this one.

The scale doesn’t feel very durable. It scratches and stains somewhat easily. It’s made of lightweight plastic. But it cost only forty bucks and still performs flawlessly after four years.

Guided by Whim, Not Recipe
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