Five years ago, I couldn’t walk into a kitchen store and not buy something. I’d see something and tell myself how useful it was, I’d buy it and, nine out of ten times, the kitchen tool would lay forgotten deep in some kitchen drawer. I have about five graters, some two dozen baking pans, a dozen cooking pots… yet, still, compared to other cooks, what I’ve got isn’t really a lot. Some cooks’ kitchen gadget affliction is far worse than mine.
Maybe it’s the subliminal message we get from watching too many food and cooking TV shows. We see professional cooks whipping up delicious-looking meals effortlessly and we think it’s because they have all those nifty tools and gadgets. Or, perhaps, it’s the feeling that every new kitchen tool is an additional incentive to cook better. I don’t really know. I only know that I’ve stopped hoarding kitchen tools especially the ones that are merely meant for convenience. These days, whatever I buy is a replacement for something that is beyond repair.
Why? What broke the kitchen tool hoarding habit? Kids in college, for one. Sam went off to college, Alex followed a year later and buying expensive kitchen tools felt like a frivolity. But even before that, I had already written about the only 5 kitchen tools you really need. So, perhaps, even before financial priorities shifted, I was already cringing at the ever-growing clutter in the kitchen.
Since I had already written about the only 5 kitchen tools you really need, why write about it again? Has anything in the list changed? Yes. But more than the slightly modified list, I have gained more insight and I am convinced, more than ever, that it’s not the tools that make the cook. Rather, a good cook will always be able to create wonderful meals even with only the most basic tools.
Here are my five essential kitchen tools. Note though that I am an Asian living in Asia, I adore Chinese food, and the list most definitely reflects that.
Solid wood chopping block
I grew up cooking with wood chopping blocks — the cross cut of tree trunks. They were sold on the roadside in many rural areas quite cheaply. There was a time though when I shifted to plastic and then to bamboo.
Why plastic? It can be washed with soap and water. I thought that made plastic chopping boards more sanitary. But plastic cutting boards warp when very hot food is placed on them. And it’s not really all that easy to remove grease. Often, they have to be washed with hot water to get rid of all the oil and grease, and that makes them warp even faster. So, I ditched the plastic chopping boards and moved to bamboo.
Why bamboo? Why not back to solid wood? Because when deforestation became a serious issue and it became illegal to cut down trees, solid wood chopping blocks became harder and harder to source. The thing about bamboo chopping boards is that they eventually crack and split apart. And this is especially true when you use them often to chop meat through the bones because that’s quite a lot of force to take for the bamboo. I bought a set-of-three bamboo chopping boards two and a half years ago, two have already split apart and I am down to the last piece. After this one goes out of commission, Speedy and I will drive to neighboring towns in Rizal where, on a recent trip, I noticed that solid wood chopping blocks are still sold on roadside stalls.
Until I got my first chef’s knife some seven years ago, the cleaver was the only knife I used in the kitchen. It was what my father used; so did his father before him. While a chef’s knife is lighter on my hand, it doesn’t do all the work that a good cleaver can accomplish. A chef’s knife can’t cut through pork ribs; a cleaver can. A chef’s knife can’t split open a large fish head; a cleaver can. While I use both a chef’s knife and a cleaver for convenience, one is dispensable while the other is indispensable. I don’t think I need to spell out which is which.
As with the solid wood chopping block and cleaver, the bamboo steamer is a tool I grew up with. My grandfather had really large restaurant-size ones; my father had a smaller set that was more practical for homecooking.
I bought this set of steamers in December 2006 back when we were still living in our old house. We brought it over when we moved in 2008, and we used it for another four years before the metal frames finally broke. By that time, the bamboo was breaking apart too. The steamer served us for six years. We’re looking for a replacement, preferably with metal frames for support, but we still haven’t been able to find any.
Why not buy stainless steel? What does a bamboo steamer accomplish that a sturdier metal steamer cannot? A bamboo steamer absorbs condensation so no liquid falls back into the food allowing it to come in contact only with pure steam as it is meant to. A bamboo steamer also absorbs oils and aromas from whatever is cooked in it so that, over time, it just makes the food better and better.
Ahhh… the wonders of the kitchen tongs. Since the first time I used one, I have never been without kitchen tongs. They work as an extension of the fingers so there’s more control in handling and manipulating food. Imagine frying a whole fish in a lot of oil. Before I owned tongs, I used turners and that had resulted in a lot of oil spilling over the edge of the pan. But turn the fish over using tongs and it’s so easy.
I use kitchen tongs for just about everything these days — cook noodles, stir fry, deep fry small pieces of food. Wonderful tool.
I saved the most important one for last. The wok is my all-around cooking pan. It’s unique shape — partly pot and partly frying pan — makes it so adaptable. I stir fry and deep fry in it, I use it as a base for the steamer, I cook stews in it and I even make soups in it.
And those are my five essential kitchen tools. All the rest are just for convenience.