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Cooking Techniques

How to Cook, Lesson 2: Five Essential Kitchen Tools

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To cook successfully, there are five essential kitchen tools that you need. Yes, just five. Not five pieces but five kinds.

non-stick pan

A stove. A pot and a pan. Kitchen knives. Chopping / cutting board. Cooking utensils.

Stoves are either gas-fired or electric

The bottom line is that no two stoves are the same. Even two stoves with the same brand name will function differently depending on 1) design; 2) age and current condition and 3) usage.

Design and quality of the stove make a difference

Whether you have a gas-fired or electric stove and oven, know their specific design. Because, yes, designs differ.

An illustration of difference in design features. My cooking stove has a double burner which is ideal for wok-cooking / stir frying. It’s a feature that Alex’s cooking hob does not have. She can’t stir fry successfully on her stove.

An illustration of difference in quality of design. A few years ago, I bought a new aircon for my home office and a free Westinghouse cooking range came with it.

gas range

The aircon was great. The cooking range was functional but only in a manner of speaking. When the gas burner was turned to “low”, the contents of the pot was still boiling rather than simmering. It was after using the thing for a few weeks that I realized why it was being given away for free. The cooking range was designed so badly that it couldn’t be set to the correct cooking temperature.

So, you may know how to use a stove and oven properly but if you’re working with a badly designed or manufactured unit, you may still be facing cooking disaster.

The age and current condition of your stove and oven affects cooking

Just like any tool, your stove and oven get old. Whether they age gracefully or badly depends on how much maintenance you pour into them.

Metal rings of gas burners, for example, need to be washed and scrubbed regularly as they can get clogged with oil and dirt. Plates of electric stoves need to be wiped clean.

Clogged gas burners will deliver less heat. Dirty electric plates will give off uneven heat. That’s true too for induction stoves.

What is “correct usage” of the stove?

You need heat to cook. Stoves and ovens are sources of heat. To cook a dish successfully, you need to cook it at the correct temperature.

The first thing you should know about your stove and oven is how to control temperature. Boiling, simmering and poaching all require different temperatures and you have to know how to reach those temperatures with your stove.

And… one last thing. If you use a gas stove, consider the ventilation in your kitchen. If wind comes and goes freely, and it makes the flame flicker with its force, the cooking temperature will never be constant even you use the correct settings.

So, we’ve covered stoves. Let’s move on to the second essential kitchen tool.

A pot and a pan

I know how hard it is to resist pretty pots and pans especially if they come with attractive price tags. Know, however, that low quality and often inexpensive pots and pans will not last long. Worse, they may not deliver the desired cooking results.

The truth is, you need just two. One where you can make broth and cook soups and stews, and another for frying. That means a good-sized pot and frying pan.

carbon steel wok

If you do mostly Asian-style cooking, you can even survive with a single wok. I am not joking.

If you’re buying your first pot and frying pan, what things should you keep in mind?

Your pot and pan should be appropriate for your stove

Think back on the stove discussion. What stove do you have? While most pots and pans can go on a gas or electric stove, induction cookers require cookware that are especially designed for the cooking surface.

Choosing a good pot and pan

Know the characteristics of the material with which the pot and pan is made.

Stainless steel is easy to maintain and generally inexpensive but it is not the best conductor of heat.

Aluminum won’t rust but you can’t cook anything acidic in it.

Glass and ceramic can crack with sudden temperature changes like placing a pot of hot soup on a cold granite counter.

Cast iron and carbon steel can last a lifetime but need constant maintenance.

Real copper pots and pans can cost an arm and leg.

Although budget always plays an important consideration, know that having one good pot and one good frying pan is always preferable over having a lot of cheap but bad quality pieces.

Choose quality over quantity. Choose quality over looks too!

Think thick and heavy.

Lightweight pans cannot conduct heat property and will warp over high heat.

Frying pans with a thin bottom can easily cause scorching that can lead to burnt food.

Stay away from “coated” pans especially thin metal coated with ceramic. I had a few of those. At first, I thought they were so pretty that they would go from stove to dining table. But those were the worst cooking pots and pans I’ve ever used. The ceramic coating was thin as a single coat of paint. It didn’t take long before they were scratched. Worse, the metal underneath was so thin that the ceramic coating discolored even when no utensils touched it.

Knives for cutting and chopping

Confession: We own far too many knives. But that’s because we all cook and some of us get pretty possessive with knives. Sam and Alex have their own sets and they don’t want others using their knives.

santoku and partoku knives

Personally, I can do with only two knives: one that can chop through fish and chicken bones (an Asian cleaver), and another for slicing, mincing, dicing and everything else.

For our all-purpose use, we’re partial to Japanese knives.

What you need depends on the kind of cooking you intend to do. If you buy fish and chicken pre-cut, you may not need a cleaver at all.

What should you look for when buying kitchen knives?

Like pots and pans, go for quality over quantity. Good knives can be pricey but, with care, they can last a long time.

For an all-purpose knife (usually referred to as chef’s knife), choose a size and weight that feel comfortable in your hand. An extra long and extra heavy chef’s knife that you see in cooking shows might look cool but they aren’t necessarily made for your hands and purposes.

Chopping / cutting board(s)

A decade or so ago, the question that always accompanied the choice for chopping / cutting board was whether to go for wood or plastic. Those were the only choices back then. I grew up with solid wood cutting boards (cross cuts of tree trunk) and they were the best.

But, you know, these days with issues about illegal logging and deforestation, it becomes part of the responsibility of the consumer to ask where the wood came from. Manufacturers and sellers will just lie if their source is not so legal. So, to do away with the issue altogether, today we opt for a third alternative.

bamboo chopping board

Bamboo.

Is plastic not good? Well, heavy duty plastic will last a long time. And if you’re a little OC about the need to wash your chopping / cutting board with soap, then, plastic should be ideal. The environmental impact should be a consideration though.

See also “Color-coded cutting boards: are they a necessity?

Cooking utensils

When I say “cooking utensils”, I refer to those tools that you need to move food around in the pot or frying pan. There are only three basic cooking utensils you need.

A long spoon for stirring soups and stews.

A spatula for lifting and turning large pieces of food (especially during frying).

And a slotted spoon to scoop out solid food from the liquid in which they are cooking or have cooked.

A fourth utensil which I find extremely useful but wouldn’t call essential is a pair of kitchen tongs.

Do you really need measuring cups and spoons?

I debated for about an hour whether to include measuring cups and spoons in my list of essential kitchen tools.

measuring cup

The truth is, I learned to cook without them. In fact, I often feel uncomfortable listing ingredients in a recipe like 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper because taste is so subjective. I firmly believe that every cook should trust his or her own taste buds rather than rely on such exact measurements.

If, however, you don’t feel confident enough yet to eyeball everything, you might find measuring cups and spoons useful.

Recap

For successful cooking, you need:

  1. a well designed and maintained stove that you know how to operate
  2. good quality pot and frying pan
  3. knives that feel comfortable in your hands
  4. a sturdy chopping board
  5. basic utensils for moving food around in the pot or pan