In witf's Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

Food Wednesdays: What should you REALLY have in your kitchen?

Written by Donna Marie Desfor, Culinary Consultant and Chef | Apr 3, 2012 10:30 PM

After the question, “what’s your favorite restaurant?” I think that chefs are most often asked, “What do I really need in my kitchen?”  Just as the first question (I think) is a way of maybe getting in on some chef-to-chef secret for really great food, the second one seems, at least to me, to be a way of validating the idea that with the right tools and equipment, anyone can be a great cook.  But when that question was recently put to me by WITF’s Radio Smart Talk host, Scott LaMar, I took my time and gave it some thoughtful consideration.  In a few instances I surprised myself; others seemed too painfully obvious. But, after living with my list for about a week now, I’m ready to commit.  I’ll be anxious to hear your questions and comments on my list when Scott compares his own 10 Kitchen Essentials list to mine on Radio Smart Talk, Wednesday, April 4th at 9 AM.

Aside from the obvious, like pots and pans and a standard electric appliance or two, and the not so obvious, like a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit, my list is comprised of the things I could not live without in my kitchen – both my professional kitchen and my home kitchen.  This is the list that lets me work in any kitchen for any purpose, and still perform like a star.  To make my list, each item has to let me function quickly and efficiently, and aid in the preparation and service of delicious food, time and time again.  These are my 10 Kitchen Essentials that I think everyone should have in their Kitchen.

1.         Your brain.

2.         Good quality/sharp knife.

3.         Salt:  Coarse for cooking; Sea salt/flake for seasoning/finishing

4.         Tea towels.

5.         Pastry scrapers

6.         Cling film (NOT grocery store brand plastic wrap.)

7.         Tongs

8.         A flavorful fat

9.         A small stash of your “go-to” store-bought, high-quality pantry foods.

10.       A détente; make peace with your kitchen;

Here’s why each one made the list.

Your brain.  For as long as I’ve been teaching cooking classes, one of the first ideas I share with my students is that we all share a lifetime of food experiences.  No matter your age, you’ve been eating your entire life.  You have a pretty good idea of what you like and what you don’t, what you’d try and what would never pass your lips.  If you stop, even just for a quick minute, to think about food you’ll realize the vast amount of knowledge, and probably even know-how, that you already have.  Whatever knowledge or technique you may lack is usually no more than a quick internet search away.  This is why bring “your brain” into the kitchen tops my list.  It is your tool to discovery, creativity, and satisfaction.

Good quality/sharp knife.  One of the most useful, if not dangerous, tools in any kitchen is your knife.  A good quality, sharp knife can transform the way you cook, right up to the amount of pleasure or frustration you experience when preparing a meal.  A sharp knife helps you slice through vegetables and meats effortless so that your prep time is reduced and your frustration minimized.  And, let’s be clear:  a “good quality” knife doesn’t necessarily mean expensive.  There are a lot of high quality knives available for a fraction of the cost of those “commercial-grade” knives sold in high-end retail home goods stores.  I have knives in my kitchen from the Dollar Store, that I’ve purchased on-line, and that I’ve I had custom made in Italy, and that I’ve collected as my needs in my kitchen have changed. 

Though I have many knives, I could do just about everything I need to do with just one.  I have a favorite 8-inch chef’s knife that is my go to blade, but with it I can do the tasks of smaller and even larger knives if I have to.  I keep it honed and sharpen it about once a year. 

Salt:  Coarse for cooking; Sea salt/flake for seasoning/finishing.  When I wrote my Food Wednesdays article “Seasoning with the Enemy,” the sole purpose was to dispel common misbeliefs about salt.  Both a taste and an ingredient, salt literally transforms taste, texture and the flavor of foods.  I use coarse/kosher salt for cooking, simply for economic utility, and a sea salt/flake salt to finish dishes.  Like it or hate it, it is part of bodies and without, food tastes often flat or even one dimensional. 

Tea towels.  In any kitchen, even those that rarely get used, there is forever the need to wash hands and dry them; wipe plates and equipment.  Tea towels (the sack flour, terry, and even beautiful linen weave ones you find while on vacation) are the work horse of any kitchen.  I have more than I can count and during large events or parties, I always seem to run out!  They double as pot-holders, dish drying racks, warmers, cushions, etc.  Some of my thinner sack cloth ones even double as cheese cloth for straining.  And while I still tend to use a lot of paper towels, they’re not depleted nearly as fast as they would be without the towels nearby. 

For convenience, I keep one at each sink draped over the edge to wipe down, wipe up and dab off.  Another one in close proximity is to dry hands and utensils.  And, there’s usually a third one (clean) close by in case I need a clean one to tackle a new job. 

I will admit they take a bit of getting used to, but arm yourself with a few tea towels and you’ll soon be relying on them.  Best of all, the more you have the less worried you are about tossing them into the laundry and pulling out a fresh one.  A little bleach and a good superhot wash it all it takes to bring these beauties back to their bright white impeccable look. 

Pastry scrapers (plastic).  This is a little tool I learned to use while taking classes in France.  They came out one day for bread-making, and again for pasta-making, and then for the clean-up.  I immediately purchased my own, and never miss a chance to snap up another if I’m at a Pampered Chef party or in a local restaurant supply store.  I emphasize the plastic pastry scraper because I like the lightness and that is glides over every surface easily – be it wood, metal, granite, plastic, or marble or porcelain. 

Oddly enough I use my pastry scraper mostly for moving large amounts of chopped vegetables or food from my work station to my stove.  The scrapers are like mini-shovels and a lot safer than using the blade of a knife.  Best of all when you are engaged in making pastry or pasta, these scrapers out-perform spatulas not only in scraping, but in slicing.  Like a tea towel, until you use one you won’t miss it, but as my husband says, “I never used one before I met you and now, it’s the first thing I grab when I’m cooking.”

Cling film (NOT grocery store brand plastic wrap.)  Conventional plastic wrap that is purchased in the grocery store does little to help you out in the kitchen in my opinion.  What every recipe says when it comes to storage in the refrigerator or freezer is “air tight”.  The point is that air is what speeds up the deterioration of your food, and circulates odors throughout your refrigerator or freezer.  I choose that old sticky kind of wrap we had back in the days where Mom used to pack lunches and wrestle with the wrap as she tried to unstick it to whatever it touched.  THAT is the real McCoy and the stuff you want in your kitchen.  I use “Stretch-tite” brand and it’s available and affordable at your local wholesale discount club.  Best of all if you read the directions on how to feed the cling film through the opening (some even have a safety cutter bar) rarely do you end up with a ball of wrap destined for the trash.  Just remember, it sticks to itself and glass or ceramic.  Plastics, non-stick surfaces, etc., forget it.  But, you can place a layer of the cling film between the plastic container and its lid to get a better seal!

From a usage standpoint this is my saving grace when I prep for parties, TV shoots, or even just to transport food.  I can chop herbs a day or two in advance, stretch the cling film over the container and rest confidently knowing that everything is sealed tight.  Same for just about anything else.  Best of all I’m not sorting through or searching for plastic containers and matching lids.   

Tongs.   After a quality knife, about the only other tool I am lost without in the kitchen is a pair of tongs.  They are my work-horse utensil.  From tossing to stirring to turning to grabbing to moving and removing, these do it all.  Mine have rubberized tips, which I suppose for non-stick pans are perfect.  They just happened to be the ones I bought.  I have two sizes in my kitchen and through the course of a meal or prep; I wash and use these over and over again.  Probably would be smart to invest in another set or two!

A flavorful fat.  Just as I need my tongs, I couldn’t successfully turn out flavorful dishes without a bit of flavorful in my kitchen.  Flavorful fats are things like butter, olive oil, hazelnut oil, sesame oil, and so on.  Because fat is what transports taste across your palate and to your taste buds a little bit is critical in the taste process.  And, with the choices available to us in the “better-for-you-fat” department, you can use a bit of these fragrant, aromatic fats to add flavor when you cook and then as a finishing sauce to deliver all that delicious taste across your palate.

A small stash of your “go-to” store-bought, high-quality pantry foods.  A well-stocked pantry means nothing if you can’t get a meal out of it in the blink of an eye.  Whether you know it or not there probably are a few things you always keep on hand “just in case,” or when you’re looking for something to give a little kick to your standard weeknight dinner fare.  These items are your “ace-up-the-sleeve” at meal time, or your “Plan B” when you’re entertaining and disaster strikes.  I find with these few things on hand I can turn simple into spectacular without much more than a little thought (see my #1 kitchen essential).  And, when disaster strikes and I’m entertaining?  I can whip up another course, a snack, a dessert, or even an entire meal as long as I have these few items handy. 

Naturally, your list should be ever evolving as you find new things and tire of others.  For now, though, if you were to drop by my kitchen on any given day you’d find that I would have:  some roasted tomatoes from my grocer’s antipasti bar, Alessi brand dry soup mixes, Betty Crocker’s Fudge Brownie Mix, DeCecco dried pasta, Kikkoman’s Teriyaki Marinade and Glaze, Wegman’s own herb and garlic basting oil, and my growing arsenal of The Spice and Tea Exchange spices, blends, sugars, salts and olive oils

A détente; make peace with your kitchen.  I know no one who thinks they have the perfect kitchen, and most of us don’t have to think too hard or long to find some “thing” we don’t like or would change.  Sometimes it’s as simple as finding ourselves without an ingredient, but for sure, the kitchen is the one place in our homes that can intimidate us.  As part of my job I’ve worked in enough kitchens to hear all the excuses and apologies, and despite what I’m told about how horrible a stove is, how bad the oven is, I still manage to make it work.  I have to (usually, because it’s my job!). 

Making peace with your kitchen, and especially your stove(s) and oven(s) is one of the best things you can do.  Know what is possible and what isn’t, and then work around that.  You’ll be much happier and more inclined to get creative so you can get what you want out of your kitchen.

At the end of the day I suspect we all have our own “must haves.”  How does your list compare to mine?  Join Scott LaMar and me today on Radio Smart Talk, at 9 AM as we hash over our lists and perhaps come up with the ULTIMATE top 10 Kitchen Essentials!

Copyright © 2012 by Donna Marie Desfor and There’s a Chef in My Kitchen, LLC.  All Rights Reserved. 
Copyright © 2012 by WITF, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Published in In witfs Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

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