Walk down department store kitchenware aisles and what do you see? Chocolate fountains and fondue sets sporting the grinning mugs of TV chefs. “Buy my pans,“ the product packages suggest. “They’re what I use in my own restaurant kitchen, and don’t you want to cook like a pro, too?”
Tempting…but, with respect to TV chefs everywhere, they’re lying.
We’re here to tell you that beyond the swinging doors of the elite kitchens of America, you’ll find few flame-orange Le Creuset pots. There are no gleaming nests of All-Clad pans, no Calphalon spatulas, and not one single item designed by Jamie Oliver or Rocco Dispirito. In fact, the most sublime food in American restaurants is cooked in dinged-up utilitarian pans that you can purchase rather cheaply from any local restaurant-supply store.
But there’s a catch. While you could run out and pack your kitchen with all sorts of pro-grade staples, home cooks use their cooking equipment differently than chefs. Unlike the nearly disposable pans stacked above a restaurant cook’s station, home cookware is meant to last. Cleanability is important, as we have no on-staff dishwashers in home kitchens, and since we’ll be using this stuff for a while, it would be nice if it were easy on the eye. After that, we want the same performance that pro chefs get from their equipment—and often we won’t find that next to the fondue sets in the housewares aisles.
With an eye toward satisfying the pro’s need for performance with the home cook’s need for durability and style, we outfitted Westchester Magazine’s semi-pro kitchen, and supply information on local sources.
The Basic Blades
While you can always embellish your col-lection with boning, bird’s-beak, granton-edge, and slicing knives, the following minimalist trinity will accomplish most tasks. Before you branch out with extras, be sure you have these basics covered. PS: we didn’t give prices here, as the differing lines at our two outlet stores vary considerably in price and quality, and frequent sales offer unpredictable reductions.
|8” Cook’s Knife This deep-bellied, arc-edged knife is a utilitarian blade that will find its way into your hand and never leave. It’ll slice, chop, carve—you name it. Since it’s virtually indispensable, it’s great to have two or three on hand, so that when company comes to cook—or you’ve allowed number one to become dull—you’ve always got another within reach.
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8” Bread Knife About an inch-wide, this serrated-edged, rigid-bodied knife will slice the crustiest loaf of bread without compressing tender crumbs. It’s also the best choice for ripe, bursting tomatoes and cracker-crisp dacquoises.
|3½” Paring Knife Only about as long as your index finger, this short blade goes where other knives become unwieldy—
it’s a strawberry-huller, pastry-trimmer, Brussels sprout peeler, and apple corer. As with the cook’s knife (and for the same reasons), it pays to have two or three on hand.
Steel Despite the old Ginsu knife ads, all non-serrated knives require honing. When you buy your knife, be sure to pick up a rod-like steel, and ask the salesperson to teach you how to use it. (This is another reason to buy from knife specialists.) When you can no longer bring your edge back with a few swipes of your steel, then you’ll need to sharpen your knife. While home sharpeners are popular, many remove too much metal. The same goes for most pro grinding services. To extend the life of our own blades, we visit Henckels or Wüsthof during their sales: sharpening is speedy, discounted, and these fetishists won’t whittle off too much steel. And remember: never throw your knives in the dishwasher! Rattling against each other in the baskets, their fragile edges become nicked.
If you emerge with only one idea from this article, let it be that sets don’t pay. Take that knife block sucking up prime real estate on your counter. Chances are you only reach for one or two, while the others have become coated with greasy dust. And, fascistically, the block determines your knife collection—if your family cooks together and needs two or more cook’s knives, there’s room for only one in the block. Meanwhile, if someone mistakenly slid a long bread knife in a short slot, your counter is probably gouged from the mistake. And, obviously, that didn’t do any favors for your blades.
Rather than commit to (and store) what you don’t need, we recommend that you buy only what you use. And consider this: Westchester is home to the U.S. outposts of two famous German cutlers, Wüsthof in Briarcliff Manor, and Zwilling/J. A. Henckels in Hawthorne. Both of these cheerful competitors operate discounted Westchester showrooms, which offer excellent sharpening services, and regular—often concurrent—warehouse sales (usually mobbed by pro cooks). Best of all, both Wüsthof and Henckels have specialists on staff to help you find the best knife for your needs.
Pots and Pans
Pot and pan sets are gleaming, seductive, and offer the illusion of completeness—but remember, as with knives, sets don’t pay. When it comes to outfitting a high-functioning kitchen, no single material can do it all. Stainless-steel pans are wonderful, but you probably want the slip of nonstick for fragile fish filets. On the other hand, nonstick surfaces are useless for making caramel: their black bottoms mask the moment the sugar turns brown. Of course, neither stainless nor nonstick surfaces are as efficient as cast iron for crisping crust—we wouldn’t roast a chicken without it. You get the point: all-inclusivity is an illusion—serious cooks need different types of pans.
Here’s how we’ve equipped our own kitchen—but remember: every cook’s needs are different.
Stainless Steel An all-around great material—it’s non-reactive and, depending on quality, nearly indestructible. Unlike nonstick or enameled cast-iron pans, stainless steel tolerates the high heat of deep-frying or broiling, and then it pops right into the dishwasher. Stainless is a great choice for saucepans and a single large sauté pan. Look for riveted, heatproof handles that can go directly into the oven. Also seek out massy, heavy-duty weight, which helps to evenly distribute heat. We like All-Clad, Calphalon, and pro-grade Sitram—all quite pricey—but Ikea’s All-Clad-like Favorit line is gaining fans on a budget. Another budget pick is Lincoln’s pro-grade Duraware, available at Harris Restaurant Supply in Port Chester. Lincoln’s $58.25, 10” sauté pan (4) is what line cooks use at super-trendy Tarry Lodge.
Nonstick This is a slightly less resilient material than stainless steel: it can’t go under the broiler, is prone to scratches, and is not recommended for deep-frying. (Plus, if you really want it to last, you should probably wash it by hand.) Yet, even with the restrictions, some cooking situations demand nonstick: it’s a must for fragile fish filets and tender blini. We own a single 10” All-Clad nonstick fry pan (5) (a hand-me-down, though Amazon.com offers a similar version at a cool $124.95), while Harris Restaurant Supply carries a 10” Lincoln CeramiGuard nonstick fry pan (7) for $45.78.
Cast Iron Even more demanding than nonstick, this rust-prone material requires pre-use seasoning, and then afterwards, constant maintenance. No dishwasher, no detergents, no acidic foods, no drying in the dishrack. Yet cast-iron pans can be cheap (a 12” Lodge skillet (6) goes for $18.99 at Target, whereas similarly sized pans from All-Clad, Calphalon, and Sitram run into the hundreds), and they’re absolutely ideal for certain tasks. With an evenly radiating mass, an ability to sustain screaming-high heat, and a porous surface ideal for crusts to grab onto, cast iron is the best meat-searer we know. It’s also good for deep-frying and baking: nothing makes better fried chicken or cornbread. We own four cast-iron pans, all family heirlooms, because, if scrupulously maintained, this cookware is indestructible. After all, it’s the traditional material of cannon-makers.
Enameled Cast Iron By coating cast-iron pots with enamel, makers like Le Creuset and Staub have eliminated some of iron’s major drawbacks: there’s no need to season your pot, and it no longer reacts to acidic foods like tomatoes. Yet the enameling process also eliminates the cast iron’s porosity, along with its ability to create the perfect crust—plus, some remaining exposed iron means you’ll still need to wash and dry these heavy beasts by hand. Nevertheless, enameling creates the ideal low and slow cookware, since the iron’s weighty mass spells uniform temperature release, and its coating is non-reactive. This is the pan we reach for when we’re cooking for a crowd…but it’s not cheap: a Le Creuset 9-quart Dutch oven might set you back $250, and a Staub 8¾-quart (9), $280, at Amazon.com
Professional-Grade Aluminum The shelves of restaurant-supply houses are lined with aluminum pots and pans because it’s an evenly heating material that’s also cheap. You can chuck it in a dishwasher, it won’t rust and, if it’s sealed by anodization, it won’t react with food. The cons are that aluminum scratches, stains, warps, and builds up an intractable brown glaze of burnt-on grease. Its very ugliness makes it undesirable for most home cooks, though check out the cooking stations at most restaurants: dinged-up aluminum pans are usually what you’ll find. Since it’s one of the least expensive materials, and difficult to keep sparkling, we save aluminum for infrequent, high-volume tasks. We own a huge, 24-quart Winco stockpot ($33.50 at Harris Restaurant Supply) that also does duty as a corn-ear boiler and lobster steamer. In contrast, All-Clad’s tiny 8-quart stainless stockpot (8) runs a whopping $265.99 at Chef Central.
Sources: All-Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset, Lodge, and Staub cookware is available in most department-store kitchenware aisles, as well as at specialty purveyors like Chef Central and Williams-Sonoma—yet we found that Amazon.com offers better prices on almost all the items we describe. To-the-trade brands like Winco and Lincoln Duraware are available at Port Chester’s Harris Restaurant Supply (25 Abendroth Ave, Port Chester 914-937-0404), while we bought our Sitram evasée at Manhattan icon (now in East Hanover, New Jersey) Bridge Kitchenware—though Amazon.com now sells it cheaper. Amazon.com also sells Lodge cast-iron cookware, though we found a good selection available for immediate pickup at Target (multiple locations throughout Westchester). Budget Ikea Favorit cookware is available at Ikea stores in Paramus and Elizabeth, New Jersey, and New Haven, Connecticut.
Hardware-Store Finds That Make Kitchen Sense
|Taping knife—This drywalling tool does double duty as a bench scraper. Two swipes with one of these, and no more pasta or bread dough adhered to your counter. Fans also like plastic tape knives for moving chopped veggies from board to pan, and some even employ the stainless versions as cooking spatulas. (Workforce 6” metal-blade Flexible Joint Knife, $5.97, or Economy’s all-plastic 6” Putty Knife, $1.08 at Home Depot.)
|Propane torch—Skip the tiny butane crème brûlée torches sold at specialty stores: they’re expensive, underpowered, and slow. Pick up a cheap propane torch at Home Depot instead—it’s efficient and empowering; armed with one of these, you’ll feel like a dragon. (Bernzomatic UL100, $14.97, and Home Depot Striker, $2.69 at Home Depot.)
Razor blades—We use ours for slashing patterns in loaves of bread, but they’re also great for scraping burnt-on messes off of our black enameled cook top—though, to prevent scratches, we lubricate the cooktop well with citrus oil cleaner or dish detergent. (American Line Razor Blades, box of 100, $6.97 at Home Depot.)
Spray bottles—Devi’s Chef Suvir Saran spritzes his salads with lemon juice, while others squirt olive oil or even melted butter. Bakers spray cakes with liqueurs, but we fill our Home Depot sprayers with heavily salted water. Sprayed on baking bread loaves, it makes for a crisp, finely salted crust. (Home Depot 32-Ounce All-Purpose Sprayer, $.96 at Home Depot.)
|Wood rasp—This handy carpenter’s file is perfect for grating Parmesan cheese, making fluffy filaments out of even the hardest hunk. It’s also great for grating nutmeg and citrus zest, and for quickly mincing garlic and ginger. The secret’s out, so kitchen stores often carry Microplane’s ergonomically handled versions. (Microplane Grater/Zester, $11.99 at Amazon.com.)
Welding gloves—If you’re tired of inadequate patches of fabric, or mittens that lose their insulation in the dryer, then invest in a set of professional welder’s gloves. These suede gauntlets are perfect for high-heat grilling. Plus, they’ll keep your forearms protected when you’re reaching into a hot oven. (Lincoln Electric Welding Gloves, $13.89 at Home Depot.)
No-Slip Drawer Liner—This rubbery mesh was designed to keep tools from sliding around in the drawer. We never saw the point in that, but we love a square of this grippy stuff under our cutting boards. It prevents our work surface from slipping around on the countertop, and when it becomes dirty, it just goes in the dishwasher. As an added bonus, it’s great for getting a grip on recalcitrant jar lids. (Contact Grip Prints Liner, 18” x 8’ roll, $7.86 at Home Depot.)
5 Restaurant-Supply Items That We Can’t Live Without
Lexans These heavy-duty plastic containers look like Tupperware on steroids. With tight fitting lids and a space-saving square shape, they’re essential for storing bulk staples like flour. And since no one wants a pantry smelling of dog food, they’re great for those massive sacks of kibble, too. (Cambro 18-Quart Clear Storage Container, $19.25 at Harris Restaurant Supply.)
Bus boxes It never fails. By the time the doorbell rings on the night of your dinner party, your dishwasher is full from prepping. Cocktails and first courses only make the clutter worse, and, by the time you need to plate dessert, your sink and counters are jammed with dirty dishes. To keep our workspace sane, we clear dishes into two plastic tubs—one for plates and silver, the other just for glasses. We tuck the tubs out of prime real estate, then—when guests are gone—move the boxes to the sink to load the dishwasher at our leisure. And, FYI, they’re great for transporting food, too: you won’t have to worry that spilled bouillabaisse will soak into your car upholstery. (Tablecraft Products Heavy-Duty Tote Box, $11.25 at Harris Restaurant Supply.)
Parchment Paper Silicone-treated parchment paper takes the stick out of baked goods, while also folding into cornets for piped icing, and envelopes for fish en papillote. But unlike Silpats, which always need to be washed, you can discard the used parchment and place your still-clean cookie sheet back in the cabinet. This pastry essential has become common in supermarkets, but beware those short civilian rolls—the paper is fragile, curls up off the pan, and always runs out just when you need it. (Norpak’s 1000-sheet box of Half Sheet Liners, $33.75 at Harris Restaurant Supply.)
¼ Sheet Pans These high-quality but miniature (9 ¹⁄â‚‚ ” x 13”) sheet pans are perfect for smaller uses—but unlike standard half-sheets (17³⁄â‚„” x12â…ž”) they fit in our narrow side-by-side freezer and also in our dishwasher. We love them for freezing blueberries in season, or for baking just a few cookies. (Lincoln’s ¹⁄â‚„ Sheet Pan, $6.99 at Harris Restaurant Supply.)
Really Big Bowl Everyone who’s ever tried to toss salad or make stuffing for a crowd has cursed the narrow confines of domestically sized bowls. Aside from salads and stuffings, we’ve used our restaurant-supply basin to make vats of caramel popcorn and to ice down beer and wine for parties. (Update 20 Quart Stainless Steel Bowl, $12.95 at Harris Restaurant Supply.)
Pennywise: When to spend (or save) big bucks
Pie Plates Fluted $40 Emile Henry pie pans are pretty, but $10 supermarket Pyrex plates—available at Target, Stop & Shop, and elsewhere—are the ones preferred by cooks.
Cake and Loaf Pans Cheap supermarket Eckoware—available at Stop & Shop and Grand Union—beats out pricey department store brands for even browning.
Baking Dishes For lasagna and casseroles, pass over elite ceramics by Le Creuset. The inexpensive glass versions available at most supermarkets (Pyrex or Anchor Hocking) outperform glamour pans at a third of the price.
|Wooden spoon Swirly olive wood is pretty, but the utilitarian beige wood lasts longer. We like a spoon with a squared-off tip that sweeps the bottom of the pan and digs into corners.
|Tongs Rubber tips are unnecessary, name brands are silly, and locking mechanisms only frustrate. Your best bet is multiples of no-name restaurant-supply tongs from Harris Restaurant Supply.
V-Slicer For waffle cuts and quick juliennes, Bron’s classic (and unwieldy) stainless-steel mandoline can cost $150, while a plastic “Little Beni” costs only $36.95 at Harris—and it goes right in the dishwasher.
Mixing Bowls Nests of English ceramic bowls are so pretty—and so expensive. Plus, they’re heavy, prone to chipping, and their glazes craze in the dishwasher. Instead, pick up cheap nests of restaurant-supply stainless bowls—you’ll never regret it.
|Spatulas Rubber heads degrade and stain, then pop off with minimal use. Bite the bullet and buy the cupped silicone version, which also takes the place of a kitchen spoon. (Le Creuset set of three silicone spatulas, $24.95 at Amazon.com)
Cookie Sheets Unlike stamped, cheapo supermarket versions, Winco’s heavy-duty anodized aluminum half-sheet pans with rolled edges won’t warp, crease, or rust. $8.99 at Harris Restaurant Supply
Silpat This squishy silicone mat is a necessity for bakers, eliminating the cement-like stick from toffee and caramels. It also eliminates the need to grease cookie pans, but a single liner will cost you $17.97 at Amazon.com.
Knives Forged, rather than stamped, steel knives are expensive—but they’re more comfortable to use and last longer than bargain versions.
|Roasting pans As with cookie sheets, quality pays. Look for sturdy handles and rolled edges so your $150 rib roast doesn’t end up on the floor. Also, quality pans can pop right onto the burner for de-glazing and sauces.
|Peelers Cheap swivel peelers are uncomfortable, rust, and are quickly blunted. Instead, check out the ergonomically designed peelers from OXO ($10.99 at Amazon.com), or the classic Zena Star Economy Peeler ($7.95 at simplygoodstuff.com).
|Pepper Grinders Budget grinders bog down, are difficult to load, and require constant adjustment. Suck it up and invest in a Peugeot or a Perfex, which can range from $50 to over $100, depending on source and model.
Source: Harris Restaurant Supply 25 Abendroth Ave, Port Chester (914) 937-0404.
Julia Sexton is an award-winning food writer, restaurant critic, and ex-professional cook. Her pupils markedly dilate when she encounters a restaurant-supply store.