Kitchen Essentials, Part I

We’ve had some inquiries about the gear we use, and a few questions about setting up a kitchen for the first time with the bare necessities, so we figured a quick post was probably in order.

Over the years, I’ve gone through all kinds of phases and philosophies of culinary acquisition. In my early youth, we lived in a house with largely disposable, cheap non-stick cookware that would flake and scratch and then wind up in the garbage.

At some point, my parents invested in a nice stainless steel cookware set which they may or may not have known how to operate, leading to some personally flawed opinions about quality pots and pans, which I’ve since overcome.

Then there were the knives. Oh, the knives. We’ll get to that.

Anyway, over the years Mrs. 10Chickens and I have acquired all manner of kitchen implements and gadgets through some truly deranged gimmick-based purchasing. The following are the things that survived our move from corporate America to low-cost, high quality life in rural Maine, where space is a priority, and everything needs to do more than one job.

So, let’s get to it. If you’re reading this, your probably already have a well-supplied kitchen, but you might see something on this list that I think is essential and you don’t have. Hear my rationale, and maybe you’ll think about picking up a piece or two.

Anyway, were I dropped into a new kitchen, devoid of any tools, here’s what I’d buy.

Knives, Boards, and Maintenance

Like it or not, knives are sort of where things begin and end in the kitchen. The good news is you don’t need a million of them, and you don’t need to spend a ton of money, either. But you do need to take care of them, and there are a few tips and tricks to make sure you’re getting the most from your gear. But first, the knives.

Really, you only need two of the knives on this board to get started. The one on the far left, the serrated bread knife, is non-negotiable and a necessity. The great news with these is they are really, really cheap and require very little maintenance.

Of the three remaining knives, which one is the best? Well, the one you’ll use. The one that feels most comfortable in your hand. For me, it’s the one on the far right, which I grab for just about every occasion. For Mrs. 10Chickens, it’s the small chef’s knife on the far left.

So, my advice? When you can, get to a real cooking store and handle some quality cutlery. Avoid sets, as you’re going to end up paying too much for a lot of extras you may not use. Also, don’t be lured in by name brands (or, worse yet, celebrity chef-branded stuff). After you hold a few, you’ll get a sense of what fits your personality.

Are these the only knives we own? Of course not, but as you progress in the kitchen and find yourself in need of, say, a fillet or boning knife, you’ll be much better equipped to pick one up and can feel a little better about knowing it’s something you’ll use, versus something that will wind up in a drawer.

But, buying a quality knife is only the first step. You need to maintain it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a friend’s kitchen and they’ve spent a lot of money on flashy, fancy knives that are duller than tax law. The truth of the matter is, regardless of how much money you spend on a knife, it won’t hold it’s edge forever and a dull knife is both useless and dangerous.

So, what are the options? I like to sharpen my own, and I use Japanese water stones, which you can find for about $30.00 on the internet. All you need to do is soak in them in water, and you’re off. That said, they take some practice and patience, but I find it rewarding and meditative.

There are also sharpening systems out there with more regimented guides and angles, but I would avoid electric models as they tend to create micro-serrations which give the illusion of sharpness, but really are just destroying your edge.

The other perfectly-valid option is having them sharpened professionally. It’s usually pretty quick, and if you maintain your knives (we’ll get to that) you really only need to have it done a few times a year.

So, maintenance. Once you have a sharp edge, you want to work to keep it that way as long as possible. The good news is it’s pretty simple, and there are only a few basic rules.

First, the dishwasher is evil. Keep your knives out of there. It’s a violent environment: hot, wet, chemically caustic, and kinetically dangerous. Things fly around the inside like a tornado, and they’ll ding and dent your blades. So, hand-wash only.

Second, clean them as quickly as you can after use and DRY them. A lot of the things you’ll be cutting (tomatoes, citrus, etc) are acidic and will attack and dull your edge, so no leaving that knife on the board after cutting up your Corona limes. Similarly, they need to be dried as the water will corrode the edge as well. And, frankly, getting your sharp knives cleaned, dried, and back to safe storage quickly is always a good thing.

Third, hone them. The sharpening process actually takes metal off the blade to create a new edge. If you’ve ever sharpened a stick by scraping it on a concrete sidewalk, it’s the same concept. Honing, on the other hand, re-aligns the existing edge. With use, at a microscopic level, your edge will wobble a bit or end up off-angle. Using a honing rod brings that edge back to true, kind of like re-creasing a folded piece of paper to firm things up. I reach for the honing rod every time I get a knife out.

Fourth, last, and most importantly: only use your knives on knife-friendly surfaces. I once watched in horror as a friend minced garlic directly on a granite counter-top, and it was a struggle to even stay in the same room. Similarly, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen glass cutting boards.

Your boards should be wood or food-grade plastic. We have several (because frequently there are two of us making two different things), but our nicest board stays on the counter at all times. We also have a big plastic board that I use exclusively for raw meat because it can go through that evil dishwasher.

That’s it, that’s the initial setup for knives and boards. Like anything else, the more you use them and figure out what you like, the better informed you’ll be when it’s time to upgrade or replace something.

Next time around, we’ll talk cookware, and essential accessories, but that needs a post all it’s own.

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