I know some chefs, quite a few actually, who argue that details such as the carbon content of a knife or the construction of a skillet don’t matter. What matters is the chef’s knowledge and skill. It is the culinary equivalent of the old saw that, “It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.”
In point of fact, these chefs are correct. A cheap knife skillfully wielded, a thin aluminum pan properly used, even a half-rotten carrot carefully encouraged can yield an exceptional meal. Knowledge, skill, and technique matter most. But even a skilled chef can develop sepsis from a dull knife that slips on a half-rotten carrot and cuts a finger to the bone, and even a technically expert chef can be distracted and allow a thin aluminum pan to burn a trout fillet when the station next to him suddenly billows with ten-foot flames. The problem with cheap tools is they give you no leeway.
This was brought home to me as I prepared a dinner party for a client the other night. Although I’d brought some equipment, I decided to be lazy and rely on the client’s pots and pans for the most part. I was making a gastrique and began by melting some butter in a small sauce pan — a thin, stainless steel sauce pan. I turned my back on the pot for a few moments and when I turned back the butter had already burned. No big deal, I wiped the pan out and started over. But this never would have happened with my cookware, at least not that quickly.
A few months ago Mark Bittman, a food columnist with the New York Times, published an article about outfitting a kitchen cheaply. Bittman is correct in his premise that you don’t need to spend $500 on a set of All-Clad cookware to turn out great meals, but you do need pots and pans with thick bodies to minimize hot spots. And you need at least one heavy stainless steel or enameled cast-iron skillet for producing pan-sauces. This is because a good pan-sauce requires that bits of food stick to the skillet (this is called fond). You can’t get a good fond in a non-stick skillet. Additionally, aluminum, cast iron, and ordinary steel aren’t good choices for cooking anything acidic in. I use a set of multi-clad, stainless steel pots and pans by Cuisinart. They cost about half as much as a similar All-Clad set and cook beautifully.
The other big issue with pots and pans is how the handle is attached. Having had pans with spot-welded handles, I guarantee you want handles that are connected with rivets. And please, examine the rivets closely; some no-name brands aren’t as careful about snug joints and food can build up in the crevices — not sanitary.
As for knives, I have to disagree with Bittman. He recommends the Dexter-Russell knives, and writes, “Go into any restaurant kitchen and you will see most of the cooks using this same plastic-handle Dexter-Russell tool.” Of course you will, line cooks are cheap and easily replaceable and so are these knives.
But I’ve used similar knives and I don’t like the feel of them in my hand, don’t like their balance, and find them difficult to sharpen: dull knives are dangerous, uncomfortable knives are dangerous. I’ve probably got over 20 knives from various makers of which I regularly use four at home and four others when I’m cooking elsewhere. My favorite is a nameless 7″ chef’s knife from Spain that feels like an extension of my hand. Most of the others I use are Wusthoff. They also feel good in my hand and are relatively easy to sharpen. They aren’t cheap, but they’ll last at least 20 years and if you amortize their cost over that length of time the price is reasonable.
My point here is that quality matters both in ingredients and in tools. A good tool won’t make you a good cook, but it will make your cooking easier and allow you to cook more effectively by concentrating on ingredients and not tools. If my house burned down and I had to re-outfit my kitchen from scratch it would cost $1000. I know this because this is roughly what I spent three years ago to equip a portable, professional kitchen for me to use at client’s homes. The second point is that quality isn’t necessarily equivalent to expensive — but it may be.
If you’d like advice on kitchen equipment, drop me a note. I’ll respond directly and post the questions and responses in a later column. (You can read more on this topic at a previous column, “Tools of the Trade”.)