Holiday food season is upon us, and so I sing the praises of GOOD EQUIPMENT. It's said "a poor workman blames his tools," but even an ace can be stymied by cheap implements. Prepping yesterday's Thanksgiving dinnner, for the first time I had NO cooking mishaps: nothing burned, no broken sauces, all seasonings perfect. Not even an injury (unless you count a chipped French manicure nail tip from dishwashing). If you are setting up your first kitchen, re-equipping one, putting together your gift-shopping list for your pals and loved ones who cook (or even putting together your wish list if YOU'RE the cook), here are my recommendations:
First, good, sharp knives. Stay away from the ones you find hanging on cards at the supermarket and discount store. Ditto infomercial or home-shopping channel ceramics and Ginsus. They are flimsy, not well-balanced, don't take or hold a good edge and are not conducive to good ergonomic knife technique (which skill will not only give you great food results but help prevent cuts and repetitive stress injury). The serrated ones may be sharp at first, but eventually dull and have proprietary edge-patterns that cannot be revived affordably by even the most sophisticated sharpeners. You want to look not for shiny "everlasting" stainless steel but rather "high-carbon stainless." (The old classic standby carbon-steel is terrific to work with, but costly, tedious to maintain and will darken and stain despite your best efforts). Also, stay away from knife sets: even those from good makers include ones you'll never use and omit some you will eventually wish you had. I used to buy Chicago Cutlery and Dexter-Russell knives from restaurant-supply stores; but have found fault with the wood handles that swell and get rough; and there are better blades out there. I did my homework over on CooksIllustrated.com, and found some real bargains that are not only better but less expensive than Chicago Cutlery (and which have replaced the latter in commercial kitchens). Victorinox is now my choice for chef's, slicing, butcher, boning and steak knives. All but the latter have sterilizable plastic non-slip textured handles, and all have well-shaped and highly responsive blades that take and hold an excellent edge with only regular honing on a steel. For larger slicing and chopping jobs the 8" chef's knife can't be beat, and unlike other brands it not only feels fine in my small hands but costs less than $30. For specialty knives, I like the Henckels Classic bread knife--well-serrated and it cuts neatly through the crustiest breads and airiest angel-food cakes. I'm also a big fan of Shun for smaller specialty knives: it is expensive, but scary-sharp out of the box and responsive. I love their 5" Santuko, 6" Ultimate Utility (weird scalloped curved round-tipped blade that cuts paper-thin onion and tomato slices, spreads condiments and saws effortlessly through bagels, rolls and finished sandwiches: a single knife needed for all steps of sandwich-making), and the fruit, paring, and sheeps-foot paring knives in the "Alton's Angles" trio for all cutting that does not require a large blade. The Alton's Angles knives have tips that allow for precision trimming and coring, and they and the small Santuko are very comfortable in my small hands for small slicing jobs. I find the Shuns work better for me than their Henckels or Wustof counterparts--and I very carefully comparison-shopped and waited for deep discount sales on them.
Second, good cutting boards. I like a generic white poly restaurant board for raw meats and poultry (label each surface's purpose with a Sharpie on the edges with arrows!). Never use it for anything but that, and wash it with hot water and bleach. For almost everything else, bamboo is my new fave, replacing even butcher block. The surface is perfect--not too soft, not too hard or abrasive, easily maintained (quick rinse plus a wipe with mineral oil), and naturally antiseptic. Look for the Totally Bamboo brand. My meat-carving board is a John Boos butcher-block with slant surface and juice-channel. Hot-water rinse it and oil it after each use; you might lightly sand it occasionally if the surface gets too rough. Have had it for over 10 yrs. now.
Next, the best and heaviest pots and pans you can possibly afford--and keep them at hand on a rack rather than stored if possible. (Helper-handles on the biggest behemoths are key). I can't tell you how many nonstick pots (T-Fal, etc.) and pans I've bought in sets, from QVC or in supermarkets and department stores that warped (even Circulon and Anolon!) and despite eschewing dishwashers and metal utensils had their nonstick surfaces wear off or lose their slickness within a few months. For nonstick, get only a few pieces, as good as possible and still be prepared to have to replace them every two or three years. I limit myself to frypans and one nonstick sauce pan for foods that otherwise stick but don't yield usable "fond" (the brown residue from stuck-on caramelized meat or veggie sugars that can be turned into sauces and gravies). With a very few exceptions (the new Calphalon"Sear" line I haven't tried yet--nor needed to) you can't effectively sear or get good "fond" from a nonstick surface--and you WANT to be able to make a sauce in the same pan you cooked the food over which you'll pour it. There are some things for which nonstick is preferable: eggs, fish, cheese, and cream or tomato sauces, and some convenience foods that specify being made in a nonstick pan. In nonstick I like: One 8" pan for eggs and only eggs (an extra 10"-er for omelettes if you're into that), a 10" and a 12" slope-sided skillet, and a 2-qt.saucepan for reheating soups or making rice or oatmeal. My 8-inchers are, for eggs and quick small-batch sautes, an Anolon Professional (after 5 yrs. the surface has started to wear) and for omelets, a $15 Leyte aluminum (the Frugal Gourmet's choice) from a restaurant-supply store--cheap but not a flimsy supermarket ten-buck special. It too is beginning to wear....after 10 yrs. BUT, after getting a gift of an induction burner, I have decided to buy only magnetic (steel or cast-iron) cookware from now on--and the aluminum pans won't work with it. I have just ordered a 7" All-Clad plain stainless (for non-egg small saute duty) and a 9" nonstick "French Skillet" (higher sides, wider and flatter bottom, as much surface area as a standard skillet or omelet pan. Also have a 2-qt. All-Clad nonstick saucepan--all my other pots are stainless or enameled cast-iron. I also have a couple of Lodge cast-iron skillets (10", which I inherited from my grandma and 12" which I bought 2 yrs. ago) for baking cornbread and outdoor sear-cooking. They are inexpensive, and if you take the time to season them (and the care to clean them properly) will last forever and be incredibly nonstick.
"Nonstick" does not mean you need never use oil or fat--just much less of it.
Let me stop right here. Why am I transitioning from aluminum to stainless? Aluminum (unless nonstick anodized), will react with and darken acidic foods like tomatoes. Yes, even bare anodized aluminum like the venerable original Calphalon (in my experience). Besides the induction-burner factor (and not all stainless will work with one--if it isn't explicitly labeled as compatible, bring a fridge magnet to the store with you and discreetly see if it'll stick to the pan: if yes, it's induction-compatible), steel is simply an evener conductor of heat than is aluminum, which is a faster conductor. I prefer a steel-surface. aluminum-core design: the aluminum heats quickly and the steel encapsulating it outside and in ensures no hot-spots, which are what cause your food to heat unevenly and scorch instead of evenly sear. The steel outer surface is also magnetic, and the inner surface also gives a great sear and "fond." Fully-clad (the whole pan, not just a disk bottom, is aluminum between the steel) pans have no seams that can cause uneven cooking. Over the years, carefully shopping sales and closeouts, I've accumulated a 12" skillet, 11" French skillet, 1, 2, and 3-qt. sauciers (shallow flared rounded-contour saucepans that are more versatile than straight-sided saucepans), and 2-1/2 and 4-qt. saucepans, all with lids. All but the 2-1/2 qt. are All-Clad; that pan is a Marcus by Marcus Samuelsson, which is constructed and US-made just like All-Clad but deeply discounted on sale. I love it, Lodge and All-Clad because they're all American-made; All-Clad has a great warranty to boot. I also have a 2-qt. deep sauteuse and 4-qt sauteuse from All-Clad; the former is a great "one-pot/one-person" pan and the latter can double as a shallow fryer. Also have an All-Clad (replacing Anolon, which warped!) 3-qt. soup pot with pasta, steamer and double-boiler inserts. The 4-qt. saucepan also does boiled potatoes and small batches of stocks and chili and doubles as a deep-fryer. Finally, I have a 6-qt. Tramontina enameled cast iron Dutch oven (1/3 the price of Le Creuset) for soups and chilis, an 8-qt. Anolon anodized aluminum stockpot with pasta insert (for spaghetti & linguine), and my birthday present last year--a 12-qt. All-Clad stainless stockpot, for lobsters and soups based on large poultry carcasses. If you have no ideological qualms against shopping at Wal-Mart, Tramontina also makes a fully-clad stainless set that rivals All-Clad in quality at 1/4 the price. But as with knives, I am not a fan of sets, for the same reason: they cost too much, contain pans you may never use, and you will want to mix materials, manufacturers and shapes/sizes to assemble a "dream team" that will evenly see action in your kitchen.
Finally, take care of your tools! For knives, get a good honing steel (no, it DOESN'T sharpen) and use it before or after each time you use that knife. Both sharpening and cutting cause the very fine edge of the knife to curl microscopically--which feels dull, makes you exert more pressure, and cause the knife to slip and cut you. The steel realigns the edge and helps it stay sharp. A sharp knife is a safe knife--as long as you don't do something stupid like touch the edge or fail to curl your fingers under when slicing or chopping. If you steel your knives after each use or weekly, you needn't sharpen more than once or twice a year at most. For sharpening, get a good manual or electric sharpener (I like Chef's Choice, the one with separate sets of slots for Asian and Euro-American knives, whose edges are at different angles; it also can keep serrated edges sharp), learn to use a whetstone (very tricky, steep learning curve), or find a reputable sharpening service (expensive, and you're without your "pet" knife for awhile). Store knives either in blocks or covered with plastic sheaths in drawers or a fabric knife roll. For cookware, NEVER use bare metal tools in a nonstick pan, unless you want to replace it several times a year. No excuses: all tools these days are offered in heat-resistant, plastic, nylon or silicon-coated-or tipped versions, as well as the old wooden standbys. Never soak a wooden tool--rinse it and oil it frequently. Clean nonstick with sponges and pads specifically labeled as safe for nonstick--or wipe out pans with a paper towel and rinse with plain water (or a dishcloth with a little dish soap). For stainless and aluminum, I've ditched steel wool in favor of scour sponges and either dish soap or Bar Keeper's Friend mild powder abrasive. Soaking in hot water makes cleanup much easier. And NEVER expose a hot pan to cold water--even the best will warp. (Cheaper pans will warp no matter what, I've found. A warped pan, especially a rim gone out of round--my pet peeve and a bigger cause of discarding the pan than worn nonstick surfaces), will not allow for a tight seal with the lid, will impact flavor and texture, and will make you cook with too much liquid). Never heat a nonstick pan empty--you will ruin the surface AND cause odorless but noxious fumes (fatal to birds!).
Yes, my pots, pans and knives are copious and expensive, but I took years to collect them, never paid full price, and my heirs (and their grandkids) will fight over them long after I'm gone. And they make cooking so much easier! (I also have my faves in terms of appliances, but that's another blog post and preferences are more individualized).