By Scott Leysath
I feel obligated to let you know that I’m not a gadget guy. You know, the multitude of choppers, dicers, and gizmos that usually end up selling for a dollar or less at the next garage sale. Many of them have their place. For instance, if you’re physically challenged and can’t easily work with a chef’s knife, a vegetable chopper might come in handy. For the rest of us, I’d rather you learn how to properly use and maintain a knife.
My list of kitchen must-haves is geared toward those of us who like to hunt and fish. If you don’t find yourself breaking down mallards (or mud hens) then you can probably get along without kitchen shears. Blow torches are great for caramelizing crème brûlée, but I use mine to burn off any pinfeathers I missed when processing my birds. If you don’t find yourself dealing with feathers or adding color to desserts, you can probably skip the torch.
Whenever I write about knives, I’m reminded of the knife drawer at the house I grew up in many years ago. Neither Mom nor Dad ever used a chef’s knife. The go-to knife was a long, thin wood-handled relic that had a concave blade edge from years of over sharpening. The only way to cut through a piece of meat or a vegetable was with a sawing, rather than a chopping, motion. This made any kitchen task more difficult and time consuming. It’s no wonder Mom was elated when products like Hamburger Helper hit the market. No knives required.
Before you go out and spend hundreds of dollars on a kitchen knife (and that’s relatively easy to do) consider buying an eight-inch chef’s knife like the ones used in commercial kitchens all over the world. They cost less than $10 and are available at restaurant supply stores, on Amazon, and at Walmart. Make sure the grip fits comfortably in your hand and then buy a 25-pound bag of carrots and learn how to dice, slice, chop, and julienne. There are countless online videos that will teach you how to use the knife correctly. By the time you’re done with the carrots, there will be a noticeable callus on the index finger of the hand you hold the knife with and you will have dramatically improved your knife skills.
If you decide that cooking is your thing, you will likely want to upgrade your kitchen cutlery to a few knives with higher-grade metals that hold an edge longer, are well-balanced, and look cooler than the basic chef’s knife. But before you invest in a large block of knives, keep in mind that you will probably use only two or three of them regularly: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a slicing or fillet knife.
2. Knife Sharpener/Steel
For years I relied on a cheap whetstone to keep my knives sharp. As the materials used to make the blades became more advanced, I realized that the whetstone was making sharpening more difficult. Besides, maintaining the proper blade angle while sharpening takes a fair amount of practice. If you can still get your cutlery razor-sharp with a whetstone, there’s probably no reason to switch. The rest of us need to decide which type of sharpener works best for us.
Some chefs claim that you should never sharpen a knife with an electric sharpener. I disagree. I use a belt-driven Work Sharp Ken Onion unit as needed, but I’m careful to use only the belts with more grit when a knife edge has become severely compromised. Most of the time, a few passes of each side of the blade with a honing belt makes for a super-sharp edge. There are several other electric models on the market and, for the most part, they all do a good job, but the key to knife longevity is to use these sharpeners properly and not to excess. And when you do have a knife that has been chipped, bent, or otherwise abused, you can’t beat an electric sharpener to get it back in working order.
Manual sharpeners come in many shapes and sizes. Rod kits with ceramic or diamond sharpening surfaces, handheld gadgets, water and oil stone kits, guided sharpeners, and sharpening steels are among the many choices. The steel rod that you see television chefs using is for honing or maintaining a knife edge, not for sharpening. As a knife is used, the edges can get a bit off-center. The steel is used to realign, or re-center, the edges so that the knife glides more easily through whatever needs cutting. Keeping a steel nearby when breaking down fish and game makes for less time processing and more time to watch the ballgame.
Tongs When it comes to tongs, I’m partial to the short ones. I get a better grip and they aren’t as squirrely when you grab a large hunk of meat off the grill. The downside is that you also might burn some hair off your arms when reaching for the back of a hot grill. Outdoor Edge makes telescoping tongs that can be either long or short, and they also come with a built-in flashlight. Good idea, right?
Spatula For outdoor grilling, a metal spatula beats a plastic one every time. The plastic spatula that you use indoors for pancakes doesn’t work nearly as well over white-hot coals.
Let’s face it, not all meat is created equal. Some parts could use a little help. Small chunks can simply be pounded with a mallet or a cast-iron skillet. Large and small parts can be poked with some of the spring-loaded gadgets that cut through connective tissues without changing the appearance of the meat. Victor makes a combination tenderizer-and-mallet, which comes in handy. I much prefer tenderizers that have flat blades over those with needle points. The blades do a much better job of tenderizing.
The chefs grilling your steaks at your favorite restaurant don’t use a thermometer to determine whether your meat is rare, medium rare, or well done. They also don’t cut a slot into the steak and peek inside. They have developed a sense of how a piece of meat should feel when gently prodded with a finger or tongs. When meat is less cooked, it will yield more easily to mild pressure. You push down and it leaves an impression or dimple in the meat. As it cooks longer, the meat will spring back when poked. Until you get a sense of what each temperature feels like when you press it, I highly recommend using a meat thermometer.
Meat thermometers vary from a $5 pen-like unit from the grocery store to fancy digital readout models. Wireless thermometers have a sending unit connected to a probe that is inserted into the meat. A receiver that looks much like a small walkie-talkie allows you to check cooking time and internal temperature anytime. You can also set an alarm that lets you know when the meat has reached the desired temperature.
I’m tough on cookware. I use metal utensils and toss my pans around the kitchen. It makes no sense for me to buy expensive cookware that looks great out of the box but requires a fair amount of maintenance to keep it looking pretty after a few uses. For those who think that cast-iron cookware requires special skill to maintain, fear not. The best thing about cast-iron pots and pans, besides the fact that they can get screaming hot for searing meats and blackening fish, is that no matter how badly they have been abused, you can always bring them back to life by brushing and reconditioning them. Once properly conditioned, they’re nonstick and easy to rinse out with mild soapy water.
7. Vacuum Sealer
There’s no better way to make sure your game tastes as good a year from now as it does today than with a vacuum-sealing unit. Gone are the days of freezing game in milk cartons and leaky zip-top bags. When vacuum sealing, make sure that you label and date every package and use the old stuff before the new. TIP: When freezing moist meats, place them in a single layer on a sheet pan until frozen, then vacuum pack for a super-tight seal.
8. Kitchen Shears
One of the best ways to beat up your good knives is to use them to cut through bone. Great for processing gamebirds, a good pair of kitchen shears will cut through any joints or bones with ease.
9. Blow Torch
Whether I clean my ducks and geese myself or have them processed elsewhere, there are usually a few pinfeathers left behind. Before I give the birds a rub, I put game to flame and burn off any feathers missed during cleaning. Torches are also handy for charring peppers, other vegetables, and meats.
10. Cutting Board
Wood is pretty, but polypropylene is easier to maintain and probably somewhat more sanitary. I use both, but I always make sure to sanitize them after every use with a mild bleach solution—1 tablespoon of bleach diluted in 1 gallon of water. Glass cutting boards really don’t have a place in my kitchen.