7 Kitchen Tools I Learned About In Culinary School
Kitchen gear philosophy tends to swing wildly between minimalism and maximalism. There is the camp of people who insist that you don't need much more than a chef's knife and a cast iron skillet, and a camp that revels in specific tools for specific projects. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle—I have absolutely fashioned a sheet pan out of tin foil before, but at home, I also make frequent use of a Champagne stopper and a mezzaluna, plus lots of other tools that might be viewed as extraneous by the minimalist crew. So when I started a culinary school program, I was fascinated by the things that restuarant chefs tend to make a lot of use of (All-Clad pans, kitchen towels) and things they rarely bother with (measuring spoons). The things I've ordered from a restaurant supply store after my classes aren't things I would have thought I'd want before I took this program, but they've made cooking at home a much more efficient and pleasant experience, even in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen
You know how plastic wrap always sticks to itself and crumples up, and is impossible to pull out of the box in the correct quantity, somehow? What if your plastic wrap was about six inches wider and much easier to deal with? That's what food service film is, and you can use it for everything. You can order it in quantities of 2000 or 3000 square feet, and use it for so much more than you'd think—wrapping a whole sheet pan, or covering a counter so that you can easily roll out pie dough without getting flour everywhere. You cocoon a container in plastic wrap, and it won't leak.
At home, I used to have a mish-mash stack of mixing bowls that I had picked up over the years made of different materials. But in school, one thing that we go through many, many of is prep bowls. They're pretty simple stainless steel bowls, and we use them for absolutely everything. The small ones serve as salt cellars, or containers for measuring out smaller amounts of ingredients. The large ones are used for mixing, of course, but also as a double-boiler for mixing chocolate or making a mayonnaise. For whipping cream, you nestle one bowl with the cream above one bowl full of ice to help your efforts move along. These bowls can take a beating and still clean up well. I replaced my hodge-podge bowl bowls with a bunch of Winco mixing bowls in different sizes and never looked back.
Before school, I didn't do a whole lot of fileting fish or breaking down chickens and ducks into their components. I probably still won't be doing that frequently at home, but when I do, now I know the knife to use. A boning knife has a semi-flexible blade, and is therefore excellent for tasks that require you to work close to the bone of a chicken or fish. It is a lifesaver in carving a chicken either raw or cooked, and a must for filteing a fish. (A fileting knife also works for fish—it just has a slightly longer blade.)
Even if you never make cake, a cake tester is a really useful implement in your kitchen. That's because the thin metal tip can help check when meat or vegetables are done without damaging the thing you're cooking too much. You can use a paring knife to check fish once, but more than that, and you're looking at a piece of fish that looks like it's gotten into a fight. Because chefs tend to figure out when something is done by smell and by feel rather than my temperature, it's a good habit to get in to gently poke your steak (or chicken or whatever else) with a cake tester and see for yourself what the texture of something done to your liking feels like. Another trick our chef-instructor often uses when preparing meat is to put the cake tester into a thick part of it and then bring the cake tester to the spot of flesh just under your lip. Because body temperature is just about 100 degrees, you can tell how done something is by how you react. If it's cool to the touch, your meat is undercooked. So hot that you pull back, it's overdone.
Piping bags are a huge pain to clean, no matter what you do. They get stained and seem like bacteria traps, generally. Disposable piping bags, I admit, aren't as good for the environment, but they are a heck of a lot easier to work with, particularly if you're doing something that requires, say, multiple colors of frosting. And rather than having a pile of them that'll get lost in your kitchen drawer, you can buy them in these neat rolls and tear one off. That's progress!
I know, I know, everyone tells you to weigh things instead of measure them in a cup or with measuring spoons. But it truly didn't hit me how much easier this was to deal with until I was in the pastry part of my program shaking out exactly 50 grams of flour. A digital scale is not only way more precise, it allows you to dispense with your measuring spoons and cups and whatnot. All you need is a bowl to figure out how much you need, which often ends up being way less messy. Plus, digital scales are really cheap these days—a good one will only put you out about $20.
Like plastic wrap, parchment paper can be a pain to measure out and cut. In class, we use a pile of pre-cut parchment sheets that fit a half-sheet pan perfectly, meaning you aren't struggling with rolls of paper either. We use them for lining pans, but also for cutting out rounds (cartouches) that work as lids when you're sweating vegetables, or for making packets to cook fish gently in. And guess what? You can buy pre-cut parchment really easily! And it's so much better! Make your life easier and grab some.