There’s too much kitchen crap.
Not that I needed to tell you this. But I just had my own personal “enough is enough” moment, and it went a little something like this:
I went to a Barnes and Noble where, in a display near the cookbooks, was for sale what appeared to be a solid mass of vomit. As I approached, I realized that it wasn’t vomit at all, but rather a plastic bowl that had been carefully designed to look exactly like vomit. This barfy-lookin’ bowl, courtesy of Rachael Ray, is designed to keep you from having to go all the way to the trash can when you’re working on the kitchen counter and want to throw something out. The Garbage Bowl (her name for it) is meant to sit on your counter and act as a waystation, a Mos Eisley of trash.
No mas. You don’t need a lot of money or a lot of stuff to have a decent kitchen. Today, I’m going to figure out what to do with the first hundred dollars you spend on a kitchen – I’ll try to get a starter kitchen put together, all of top quality gear, for under a hundred clams. So let’s get this bird in the air.
As anyone who’s watched five seconds of Top Chef knows, the sine qua non of a chef’s toolbox is the knife. Even though excellent knife manufacturers are all too willing to sell you 13- and 14-piece knife sets, I think two different knives is all you’re likely to need: a large chef’s knife and a small paring knife. That’s it. Of these, you’ll use the chef’s knife about 95% of the time. So let’s start there.
Chef’s knife choices are very personal. In research for this entry I read articles which likened a chef’s knife to, among other things, a dance partner and a lover. I think the intention was to make the points that (a) a knife should feel comfortable and (2) a knife that feels perfect to me in my hand might not feel perfect for you in yours; however, the dominant takeaway I got from these articles was that their authors really needed girlfriends. In any event, if you’re at this level of knife detail awareness this article may not be for you; what I will do here is make recommendations that have worked very well for me and are pretty widely applicable.
You want sharp, durable, and stainless (non-stainless blades can be made a little sharper, but in my opinion they’re not worth the huge additional amount of hassle. And stainless knives can be made to be very sharp; I’ve got the scars to prove it). For me a critical but rarely-mentioned quality in a chef’s knife is a blade with a wide heel. It’s absolutely essential that the heel of the blade be wide enough to accommodate your knuckles as your fingers wrap around the handle. This way, you can chop without rapping your knuckles on the cutting board with each pass.
Meeting these criteria, and at a low enough price point to give us some change to work with, the Victorinox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife ($29.55 on Amazon as of this writing) is an easy call. Razor-sharp out of the box, this knife is a great value compared to similar excellent offerings from Henckels, Wusthof, and Global, which retail for more than double the price.
Got to keep it sharp. The 9-Inch Round Sharpening Steel ($16.29; running total $45.84) will do the trick, leaving us with the most important piece of equipment handled in perpetuity and more than $50 left to spend.
Next up, a pan. For value and versatility the 10 1/4-inch version of the Lodge Logic Skillet ($13.76 – you have to navigate to the 10 1/4 inch size; running total $59.60) is the way to go. And working with these pans will get you ripped: I have a range of them up to the 15-incher, which weighs in at over ten pounds.
I can’t quite pick up the largest pan with one hand; to do it, I need the other hand to come in for the assist (as in the photo below). Wow, what kind of torque would it take to require you to use a second hand just to manage that pan, you ask? Well, let’s say I’m cooking two pounds of ‘shrooms, which are evenly distributed in the pan; I grab the pan on the handle an inch and a half from the rim of the pan, matching the length of the loop at the far end of the pan, and that these bits have the same mass; and I’m holding the pan out parallel to the ground. The torque could then be said to be identical to that arising from an identical force originating from a point in the center of the pan 9 inches (.75 feet) from my wrist.
Applying the formula τ=rF sinθ:
So picking up the pan full of mushrooms puts 9 foot-pounds of torque on my wrist. That’s more that I would have thought – for comparison, a car engine running at 4000rpm might generate 300 foot-pounds. So rather than bow my head in shame about this, I should be psyched I can move the thing at all! I’m a goddamn superhero. Thanks, physics!
Next up: kitchen utensils. I have dozens by the stove, but always seem to reach for one of three indispensable items: a pair of tongs and two spatulas, or turners – one steel, one wood.
Every make of tong has its own action, the movement of the tongs against the spring, and having the right feel makes the tong an extension of your hand. An extension of your hand that can handle 500-degree temperatures. I like the all-stainless steel versions; many tongs sold today have silicone ends, which I try to avoid. Plastic + high heat ≠ crazy delicious. The wooden turner, which primarily gets used for stirring, can be of any make as long as the end is flat – this makes stirring action more effective and is also great to prevent things like eggs and certain thick sauces from getting stuck to the bottom of the pan. The metal spatula, whose specialties are handling flat objects in a pan, should have a large surface area – three inches by four inches at least. Good choices for each are the Cuisipro locking tongs ($10.86; running total $70.46), the Calphalon wood turner ($4.99; running total $75.45) and the OXO Good Grips stainless steel turner ($9.99; running total $85.44).
Next up, something to cut on. I’ve always preferred plastic cutting boards for their durability and dishwasher-safeness. Lots of cutting boards that claim to be top-end have rubber feet to keep the board from slipping: I say, the hell with that. The feet put a space between the board and the counter, and the board then gives a little with every cut, which gives the experience a Moon Walk-type quality (well, if you use your imagination enough), which you don’t want. And on top of this, I doubt the very existence of the problem that these no-skid bumps were meant to solve; cutting board slippage has not ever been a problem for me. The cutting board from Progressive International ($13.95; running total $99.39) does what you need and has a trough around the edges to catch runaway juice, which comes in handy when you’re cutting up tomatoes or carving a roast.
So there you go. A serviceable kitchen for under a hundred bucks, with 61 cents left over for hookers and blow. Enjoy. In a future installment, I’ll explore what to do with the next hundred, including: A pot! A spoon! Stay tuned.