Chicago Chefs Reveal Their Kitchen Must-Haves
Self-taught gourmets and master microwavers alike probably have packed-full pantries and cabinets stuffed with kitchen gear and gadgets that they never use, don’t really need or can’t even explain how they work. We asked local Chicagoland chefs to help us narrow down the kitchen essentials and what we can finally declutter from the back of our houses.
Really good knife
“A sharp knife is a kitchen essential for me,” says pastry chef and cannabis culinarian Aaron Lindgren of ChicAgoArtizen. “It makes cutting safer and uses less energy.”
Chef Tina Drzal, department chair of the McHenry County College culinary program, says that a “well-weighted” knife that fits you well is an important consideration.
“I have short little hands, so my Japanese seven-inch knife is my favorite,” Chef Drzal notes.
A big mistake that most home cooks make is filling their utensil drawers with too many cheap knives, Chef Drzal says. Instead, invest in one large knife, a smaller knife, a paring knife and a serrated knife.
Measuring cups and scale
Pastry chef Penny S. Shack of Penny’s Pastries says several sets of measuring cups are the key to cooking for people with differing food allergies and preferences. Because she focuses on creating custom dishes for people who eat gluten-free, dairy free, paleo or are vegan or diabetic, it is important that she keeps ingredients separate. Apply this tactic to your own nightly means or in-home gatherings once you know each family member’s or guest’s food aversions, allergies or needs.
Pair your measuring cups with a scale if you want to be an accurate cook, Chef Lindgren explains.
“These two items go hand in hand for accurate recipe execution,” he says. Measure well and it could make all the difference in your diet plan or the gooeyness of your chocolate chip cookies.
Analog scales have a lovely vintage feel. And electronic scales that stay on for multiple ingredient measuring are simple to use and affordable.
Stainless steel mixing bowls
“They will last a lifetime,” Chef Drzal says, suggesting that you find good buys on reputable brands at HomeGoods or other designer discount stores.
While you’re at there, add a few more to your cart.
“One set won’t cut it,” Chef Shack says. If you want to get in the groove of cooking, you will need a few good sets of mixing bowls. “Use as many as you can and THEN wash.”
So you thought this lost its popularity in the ‘90’s? Not so, according to Chef Lindgren. Sure, it’s clunky and hard to store, but he says many home cooks would benefit from having one in the pantry. Other than whipping all the water out of your lettuce, use a salad spinner to clean veggies (like broccoli) and fruits (like blackberries) that have lots of nooks and crannies. You can also use it to rinse and drain beans, squeeze water from pasta, and remove seeds from tomatoes. Not yet convinced? Take it outside the kitchen and use the salad spinner to dry out sopping swimsuits and launder delicates.
Cast iron skillet and griddle
There’s nothing better to saute in than a cast iron skillet, according to Chef Jamie Bauer of JB Events. As a personal chef, a cast iron skillet is his go-to for creating new recipes from a variety of cuisines each week for clients.
Crank up the heat to lock in flavors and caramelize the sugars in foods, recommends Chef Lindgren. A griddle is great for this. If your stove doesn’t have one, find a nonstick griddle that you can place directly over two burners. Beyond Sunday morning pancakes, you will use it to make late-night grilled cheese, early morning eggs and hash brown patties, lunchtime veggie quesadillas, steak and shrimp for dinner, and warm up cold pizza so the crust stays crisp.
Stop using the rusty, wiggly tongs your mom passed down to you for your first college apartment! Chef Drzal says you need at least three tongs – one large pair, one small pair and one nonstick-friendly pair that won’t scrape up your pans. Use tongs for sauteing and stir-frying, flipping meat on the grill, scrambling eggs, tossing salad, and getting almost anything from the pan to the plate.
A hand blender is ideal for making sauces, says Chef Bauer, but a Vitamix or similar stand-up blender can’t be beat for the raw vegan dishes Chef Shack serves up. A good hand blender may even replace your whisk (for everything but eggs), she adds. Use an immersion blender to mix up creamy dressings, salsa, smoothies, whipped cream, pancake batter, the sauce for mac and cheese, soup, and of course, bullet coffee.
Reusable piping bag
You don’t have to commit to perfecting frosting roses for birthday cakes to get the most out of a piping bag. Chef Shack recommends that you use this simple kitchen must-have to get creative with your cooking. Use it for deviled eggs, pretty little biscuits, sweet potatoes, or adding filling to any dish. If you’re happy sticking with a DIY Ziploc piping bag, it’ll be much easier to use if you have a set of decorating tips to pop in.
Quality thrift-store finds
There’s no need to break the bank or wait for a wedding registry to stock up on high-quality kitchen equipment. Chef Lindgren recommends stalking resale shops for donated gear and gadgets that have probably never been used or are still in great shape, just at a steal of a price.
Chef Shack agrees, “You can get great stuff at thrift stores! It’s amazing the things you can find on a budget.”
What kitchen stuff can you skip, clear out or donate?
While many home cooks may think that a slow cooker is a must-have, Chef Lindgren says you can skip this purchase or pass your Crock Pot along.
You probably don’t need that double boiler, either, unless you melt bucket-loads of chocolate like Chef Shack. If you do (then please invite us over), repurpose a (barely) used double boiler from a thrift store (or a friend who has never taken his out of the box). Not baking daily? Then create your own with a pot and one of those stainless steel mixing bowls you’re ready to put to good use.
Another item that is jamming up your kitchen drawers is a turkey baster, Chef Lindgren says. Other common cutlery can do the same job, maybe even better. Even if a large spoon is a bit more work, chances are you’re only basting a turkey once or twice a year.
Take a pass on trendy kitchen gadgets, advises Chef Drzal. While some might be really hand or even well-made, many are not. These “money grabbers” will just take up storage space, she says. Chef Bauer says you only need to take an honest look at the dishes you love to cook to find out which kitchen tools you really need. Ask yourself if this brand new gadget will help you make the tuna casserole you serve weekly or if it will be essential for your signature souffle. If not, you don’t need it right now.
Be very careful of brightly colored silicone spatulas, scrapers and other cheap silicone gadgets, she also warns. Don’t buy them unless they are made of high-heat resistant silicone because they’re likely to melt in your pan (and all over that beautiful fillet of salmon you spent good money and time on). Do get a good-quality rubber or silicone spatula that you can use to scrape and stir, adds Chef Lindgren.
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