For the foodie, rows of gleaming electric meat smokers, mandolin slicers and sous vide machines call out like a siren song, but many kitchen gadgets that promise to make food prep easier or deliver restaurant-quality results end up in the back of the kitchen drawer.
While professional chefs can and do use some of those machines in their restaurant kitchens, many professional chefs say serious home cooks would be surprised to know they lean heavily on just a couple of key tools and use them in multiple ways.
“To me a lot of gadgets and tools are created as a replacement for cooking skills to help a home cook. . If you want to be chef-y, you need to learn to cook like a chef, not buy the tools that you think will make you a chef,” said Jonathan Deutsch, professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University.
Hugh Acheson, chef, author and judge on TV show “Top Chef,” concurred that many serious home cooks haven’t explored the versatility of what they already own.
“If you want to up your game, use the tools in your kitchen for what they can be used for,” he said.
For serious home cooks looking to invest in equipment, chefs recommended four key tools.
Right-sized chef’s knife
Home cooks may have a multitude of knives, but the chef’s knife is the workhorse of the kitchen, said Kevin Schrimmer, chef instructor at Kendall College.
High-quality chef’s knives can replace a multitude of gadgets, such as garlic presses, peelers and food processors, said Brian Frakes, executive chef of The Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
Spend some time at a store that specializes in cutlery to try different sizes and styles, Deutsch said, and consider taking knife-skills classes.
“It’s really about what fits right in the hand, what’s comfortable. Most people get serious about cooking and buy a 10-inch chef’s knife, and it’s ungainly because their hands are small,” he said.
Frakes said the right knife makes a world of difference.” You’re trying to cut tomatoes with a crappy knife, it’s going to make your life much more difficult than it needs to be,” Frakes said. “The thing that changed my life, and I’ve had a lot of good knives, was my Michel Bras knife. . It stays sharp forever.”
Other brands recommended by the chefs included Korin on the high end, and Victorinox and Mercer for frugal foodies.
Eventually, all knives dull from use, making chopping a chore. Lisa McManus, executive tasting and testing editor at America’s Test Kitchen, said cooks usually put off taking their knives to be sharpened or do so rarely.
“Or they’ll get some fancy whetstone that they feel like they don’t really know how to use,” she said. “Get a good simple manual sharpener that lets you touch up your knives in a few seconds and go back to cooking.”
Her choice is the Chef’s Choice Pronto Manual Diamond Hone Asian Knife Sharpener.
“It was a revelation when I finally used a truly sharp knife. And now I can’t go back to dull knives,” she said.
Stainless-steel or cast-iron cookware
Chefs raved about the heat retention and even cooking surfaces of stainless steel or cast-iron cookware. In the stainless steel category, every chef interviewed said cooks who can afford it should choose the All-Clad brand. Cast iron cookware - whether its premium pots by Staub or Le Creuset, or more budget-friendly companies like Lodge Manufacturing - is the alternate choice.
“The All-Clad Stainless Tri-Ply skillet really changed my life - you can do anything at all in that thing. Aside from the usual frying and sauteeing, it’s also great for baking - we bake pot pies, fruit pies and more in it - and even roasting,” McManus said.
Some manufacturers make a combination skillet-Dutch oven, which gives cooks two versatile pans in one.
“The one piece of equipment I can’t live without is my 8-quart round enameled cast iron Dutch oven. It’s incredibly versatile. I use it to bake bread and brownies, pop popcorn, braise meats, cook one-pot-meals like stew, steam rice, bake casseroles, deep fry, make jam and jelly, and I’ve even used it camping,” said Heather Terhune, executive chef at Tre Rivali in Milwaukee.
Some foodies might seek out cast iron pans from defunct cast iron manufacturer Griswold, which could increase a “cool” quotient in the kitchen, Frakes said. Schrimmer said beat-up Griswold pans found in secondhand shops are worth buying and taking to get refinished.
Serious home cooks know that a thermometer is a must-have. McManus said everyone on the America’s Test Kitchen testing team voted for Thermoworks Thermapen Mk4. Acheson agreed.
“If you’re cooking a lot, and cooking a lot of meats or things where you need to know the temperature for precision, invest in something like Thermapen. They are amazingly fast thermometers, amazingly accurate. It’s a really simple design that is bulletproof,” he said.