When I was in high school I did two years of auto mechanics class where I learned how to tear down motors then put them back together. It was an amazing feeling, especially when they sounded better than when we started. In order to do the job right we had a “tool room” with every tool needed to complete the job, any job. At home the mechanic jobs didn’t require a room full of tools but I did need a tool box of essential tools to do all I needed at the time. This got me thinking about cooking and all the “tools” I not only have in the room formerly known as my garage but also in my back yard. Just about every tool to get the job, any job, done. But, just as in high school, it all began with a tool box full of essentials.
- Sharp Knife
This is as essential in a cooking tool box as a hammer is in your home improvement kit. When a chef walks into a kitchen they have their personal knife roll full of knives they need for every task. When you set out to choose knives to begin your culinary journey then I would recommend a chef’s knife, boning knife and a paring knife. Each has its own purpose, but there is little that can’t be accomplished with these three. But don’t just run down to the local big box store to get them, research to get some quality knives. Ones with a good feel for your hand, nice balance and that will hold a sharp edge. However, learn how to sharpen your knives when needed.
Growing up my first introduction to cooking was watching my mom and grandmother cook everything. If it was something I especially liked, I couldn’t hardly stand the wait, but they always seemed to know when it was done and a lot of times it was perfect. But I did notice they would set a timer so when it rang they would check on it but they didn’t trust it. If it was a cake they would stick a knife or toothpick in it. If it were meat, then the thermometer would come out. You know the one, with the arrow on top and you had to have a magnifying class to read it. However, today is the day of the instant read digital thermometer (with big numbers you can actually see). Spend the money to get a proper thermometer so you will never serve under or over done food again. To get the proper read, only go in your meat half way.
Burning your fingers is never fun but if you haven’t done it then you’ve probably not cooked very much. Our mom’s warned all of us to not touch the stove because it was hot but we still had to and we still do. How many of you have a burn scar on your arm or hand? Enter the super hero cook tool, the tongs. Why call it a superhero? Because superheroes are supposed to save the citizens from getting hurt. Tongs are a simple (mild mannered, if you will) tool in the cooking tool box designed to save us from getting burned. I have several with varying lengths depending on the task but a nice spring loaded pair will do just fine to start.
- Wooden Spoon
For many, our first introduction to this small piece of lumber was when it was applied as a correctional tool upon our backsides, but it has so many other uses. Rarely a day goes by when I’m not using my wooden spoon as a stirrer or scoop. In an era of all things modern, a good wooden carries with it a bit of nostalgia. A time when I would watch my grandmother stir up a dough or cake.
- Measuring Spoons/cups
Mary Poppins said it best with her proverbial and iconic words, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” What many don’t catch is, she was giving us a measurement (as well as a trick) to aid in the recipe of medicine taking. Many recipes, from rubs to cakes, require an exact measurement in order to reproduce a favorite dish.
Essential because of the versatile uses it brings to the tool box. A good strainer can be used for its intended uses like straining out unwanted leftovers such as a vanilla bean pod or impurities from an au jus. You can also use it as a sifter for brown sugar over your ribs or some powdered sugar over some fried apple pies.
French Toast is one of my favorite breakfast foods, so much so I’ll even have it for supper. Partly because it brings back childhood memories of my mom whisking the egg and milk together with a fork (you thought I was going to say a whisk didn’t ya?). It wasn’t till I was older, I discovered a whisk for this job is so much better than a fork and not only for this job but for many others like marinades, sauces and glazes.
- Salt & Pepper
This is more than just a music group from the 90’s, it’s the foundation of most every great rub and recipe. Although very different seasonings, they are forever married together just like peanut butter and jelly. If I have no other seasonings, I’ll always have salt and pepper. This classic combination was even a key component of Eric Hodson’s 2017 Steak World Championship win. According to YouTube, Aaron Franklin only uses this when seasoning his briskets in his famous restaurant and people stand in line for hours. When all other seasonings fail, legends, like salt & pepper, never die.
This list of essentials isn’t exhaustive by any means but would be a great place to begin as you start down this culinary journey or if you’re looking for a list to give some students at your next BBQ class. Building a tool box can be overwhelming at first but with this list, a good cooker and great meat, you’ll have the neighborhood lined up to eat what you are cooking.