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L’armement du cuisinier

Look in the drawers and cupboards of the average cook’s kitchen and you’ll find a plethora of tools designed for food preparation. Some of them are useful; many sit unused. Some were purchased on a whim; some were acquired through necessity. However they got there, and whether they are ever used, these tools are the set that this cook has available to use—his or her “weapons of choice.” In a small way, the tool set available to a cook, along with the cook’s experience, defines the dishes that individual cook can prepare.

A few of the tools in my kitchen date back to my days of cooking Chinese food, but most have become part of my armamentarium since I developed my interest in French cooking. Some of them I acquired with particular uses or dishes in mind, but many of them I purchased after using similar ones in restaurant kitchens in France.

The earliest French book I’ve found that provides a list of recommended kitchen tools is Le Livre de cuisine (1867) by Jules Gouffé. This also may be the first French cookery book that has a recipe section specifically intended for the home cook, and perhaps that is why the author felt a need to describe the minimum set of tools required for food preparation in the home. In the 135 or so years since this book was published, only a few other books have provided a list of tools required for the minimally equipped kitchen.

The following list is my take on the tools required by a cook for the preparation of French food. The list is divided into four sections: very useful tools, somewhat useful tools, seldom used tools, and rarely used tools. The very useful tools are those that I cannot live, or at least cook, without. Without them, I would find most cooking tasks difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. The somewhat useful tools are those that I can live without for many dishes but that I still use on a regular basis. The seldom used tools are tools used infrequently but which, when needed, are very useful. The rarely used tools are ones that I bought for reasons I often no longer remember and probably would not replace if they were lost. The list includes only hand tools—no electric appliances, no saucepans, etc.

Very Useful Tools

couteaux primaires

(primary knives)

When I step into my kitchen to cook, the first thing I do is take my chef’s knife and my paring knife from their drawer, remove their sheaths, and true their edges with a steel. For me, there are no more important kitchen tools than these two knives. I like a large chef’s knife with a blade longer than 26 cm (10 in) and a small paring knife with a straight cutting edge and blade less than 10 cm (4 in) long. Although other knives sometimes are useful, with these two I can accomplish just about anything in the kitchen.

fusils de cuisine et pierres à aiguiser

(steels & stones)

To renew the cutting edges of my knives I use a steel. As a knife is used, the extreme edge of the blade “rolls” over to one side or the other. A few passes with the steel realigns the edge. When the edge begins to dull, a little time spent on the sharpening stone brings it back to life. I don’t use either of these tools directly to prepare food, but they are still quite important in my kitchen because they help to keep my knives functioning at the top of their form.

pinces

(tongs)

A kitchen can never have too many tongs—five or six pairs at a minimum. These inexpensive tools are used to move hot food around, whether in a pan or from the pan to another container. Tongs allow you to do with a single hand things that might require two hands by other means.

spatules en bois

(wooden spatulas)

Like tongs, you can never have enough wooden spatulas. These are ideal for stirring and scraping. The wood doesn’t scratch the surface of pans. They are easy to clean with just hot water. Even caramel comes off with a little soaking. There are now versions available in France made from synthetic materials, but these do not seem to wear as well as wood does.

Somewhat Useful Tools

balance culinaire

(kitchen scale)

Nowadays, the primary means of measuring significant quantities of ingredients is with an electronic scale. There is no more accurate way to reproduce consistent results. Sure, in a professional kitchen measuring is often done by sight, but the cook uses a scale when proportions are important.

bassines

(bowls)

If you are preparing your mise en place for only one dish, then it is often possible to leave all the ingredients on the cutting board or a plate. But if you are preparing for a number of dishes, a good set of bowls of various sizes for temporary storage is most helpful. The bowls are also convenient for mixing ingredients. I find that having six of each size, from small to large, is very convenient. My preference is to have all metal bowls, but glass bowls also work—especially if they are tough enough not to break when dropped.

cuillères

(spoons)

A variety of sizes of spoons is required for mixing, stirring, and serving. It is also very helpful to have a couple of slotted spoons for serving solid items separate from their cooking liquid. Spoons are often the best choice for removing friable items from a pot or bowl without damaging them.

cuillères mesureur

(measuring spoons)

For measuring small quantities, measuring spoons are ideal. Often, with experience, cooks measure out small quantities by sight rather than with a spoon, but for absolute repeatability spoons are better. Although many sizes are available, the essential sizes for my cooking are the cuillère à soupe (tablespoon, 15 ml) and cuillère à café (teaspoon, 5 ml), along with half-tablespoon and half- and quarter-teaspoon sizes. The other sizes available are helpful at times, but not essential.

écumoire

(skimmer)

Nothing works better for removing a poached egg from its poaching water than a perforated skimmer. With its almost flat surface, this type of skimmer can also be used for removing fish from poaching liquid. A mesh-type skimmer is great for removing blanched vegetables from boiling water.

économe (couteau éplucheur)

(vegetable peeler)

Now that very sharp plastic peelers are commonly available for little money, I wonder why anyone would still use an old metal one that is dull and uncomfortable to hold. (It’s happened to me so many times in kitchens in France that I am now tempted to travel with a plastic peeler.) There are two basic styles available: those held and used like a paring knife and the yoke-style peelers that are pulled over the surface of the ingredient being peeled. Some peelers are now available with a serrated cutting edge that makes peeling soft fruits and vegetables a snap.

fouets

(whisks)

Whisks vary in size and shape. The rounder “balloon”-type whisk is ideal for beating egg whites and for whipping cream. The narrower style is great for other needs. When choosing a whisk, look for a handle that’s well sealed where the wires are attached and that has a comfortable feel. Then all you need is a limber wrist.

louches

(ladles)

Ladles are not just for soup anymore! I think every kitchen should have a variety of sizes. Ladles are great for portioning liquids, especially when filling ramekins or portion cups, or for skimming stocks. Sometimes long handles can get in the way, so short-handled ladles are good to have. But sometimes a longer handle is required, so you should have both types.

passoires et tamis

(strainers & sieves)

Sieves are the classic tool for pureeing soft foods. Using a wooden pestle, or even a rubber spatula, foods can be pushed through the mesh. When you puree foods with a food processor or blender, strainers provide an effective way of removing food particles that do not get pureed. Strainers are also convenient for separating boiled foods from their cooking liquid. A variety of sizes is very helpful.

pelles & spatules métalliques

(metal spatulas)

Flexible straight and offset metal spatulas are useful for shaping and spreading. Rigid slotted metal spatulas are convenient for moving items in a frying pan that are too fragile to be turned with tongs, such as croquettes and steaks hachés (hamburgers).

raclette en caoutchouc ou plastique

(rubber or plastic spatulas)

Inexpensive rubber spatulas in multiple sizes are items that every kitchen should have in quantity. Although great for scraping, cheap rubber spatulas melt at cooking temperatures just above boiling. So it’s helpful to also have a few nylon spatulas that can easily handle temperatures up to 250 °C (500 °F). I use a small nylon spatula to lift the edges of crêpes so I can pick them up with my fingers to flip them.

râpes

(graters)

Graters are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, and coarsenesses. Unless I have to shred a large amount of an ingredient, I generally prefer to use a manual grater over a mechanized one, such as a food processor fitted with a grating disk. I find the resulting product more consistent in size and shape and cleanup less of an effort. For fine grating, such as for ginger, garlic, chocolate, or lemon zest, I prefer the flat, Microplane®-style grater without a handle.

thermomètres

(thermometers)

Digital thermometers are de rigueur in professional French kitchens. Everywhere else it seems, small, crappy, slow-reacting dial thermometers are used to measure the internal temperature of cooked meats. For monitoring the temperature of cooking oil or when making candy, a caged spirit thermometer is very helpful. I do not like dial thermometers that use a bimetallic ribbon to move the dial because these tend to react slowly and suffer from hysteresis. (I really don’t know why I haven’t tossed out my old dial “instant-read” thermometer.)

verres mesureur

(measuring cups)

In the old days, liquid quantity was specified by the verre (glass) or tasse (coffee cup). The latter term was often further defined as tasse à café (coffee cup) or tasse à thé (tea cup). Nowadays, recipes are more likely to use décilitres (one tenth of a liter, a bit less than one-half cup) or centilitres (one one-hundredth of a liter, or two-thirds tablespoon). Just convert these terms to millilitres and a standard liquid measuring cup becomes very useful.

Seldom Used Tools

batte à côtelettes

(meat pounder)

To pound a slice of veal into a paper-thin slice, a meat pounder is a necessity. In a pinch, a heavy-bottomed saucepan can be used, but a meat pounder is really best.

brochettes

(skewers)

Besides their traditional use in preparing food en brochette, skewers are also helpful to seal a farce inside another food item for cooking, or simply just for holding food in a particular shape. See pigeonneau fermier rôti aux épices douces for an example.

ciseaux de cuisine et sécateurs à volaille

(scissors & poultry shears)

Although many cookbook authors recommend using scissors to snip herbs, I use mine for more mundane tasks. They are great for trimming poultry skin, especially thin skin like that of quail and squab. I also find them useful when cleaning fish to cut fins and bones when it’s difficult to get a knife into position. Poultry shears have only one use: to cut up cooked poultry(and for that they are pretty good).

couteau à huîtres

(oyster knife)

If you buy oysters in the shell, you really need an oyster knife to open the shell. In a pinch, a screwdriver will work, but an oyster knife is much better. If you don’t buy oysters in the shell, you have no need for this tool.

couteaux secondaires

(secondary knives)

There are many, many different styles of knives on the market. Most are really unnecessary. Four additional knives that I find occasionally helpful for certain tasks are a boning knife, a serrated bread knife, a slicing knife, and a fish knife. The boning knife has a flexible tip that can be helpful when separating meat from bone. The bread knife is great for slicing baguettes, but that’s about all I use it for. The slicing knife is great for carving meats, or even foie gras, because, due to the small contact area, it creates less surface tension between it and the food being sliced. This makes it easier to produce consistently even slices. The fish knife is helpful when filleting fish because of its long, thin, flexible blade.

cuillères portionneuses

(scoops)

A variety of different-sized scoops makes it easy to serve attractive portions. See goutte de foie gras de canard for an example.


fourchettes

(forks)

A straight-tined meat fork is the traditional French tool for turning meat in a frying pan. Nowadays, tongs have replaced the meat fork for many of its former uses, but it’s still helpful to have one handy. The curved-tined meat fork is helpful if you carve large cuts of meat—I haven’t used mine in 20 years! An ordinary dinner fork is still the best tool for beating and cooking eggs for an omelet.

mandoline

(mandolin)

The traditional French metal mandolin is a waste of money and space unless you like to use the waffle-cut blade to produce see-through potato chips. The modern Japanese plastic mandolin sold under the brand name of Benriner® works great and is the primary mandolin used in all the French restaurants I have worked in.

moule à pommes

(ballers)

I don’t think that food cut into little spherical shapes tastes any different from food cut into cubes, and it produces more waste, but sometimes round food is fun. And if you are going to make spherical food, you might as well have ballers in a variety of sizes.

moulin à légumes et presse-riz

(food mill & ricer)

A food mill works great for pureeing many vegetables. It even will extract most of the skin and seeds. But for potatoes, a ricer produces a nicer result. Both implements will produce more waste than a food processor or blender, but with those appliances you often have to strain the product afterwards and that means more dishes to wash.

ouvre-boîtes

(can opener)

I rarely have to open a can—maybe once a month—but when I do, I need a can opener. A simple, manual one is sufficient—no need for electricity here.


pinceaux

(brushes)

Brushes are tools that I have multiple copies of in a number of sizes. Besides using them to brush liquids onto solids, I also use brushes for cleaning small particles from other tools, such as when grating ginger with a Microplane.

Rarely Used Tools

canneleur droitier

(channel knife)

This channel knife is useful only for cutting decorative grooves into food. See puits de courgette aux escargots for an example. If you plan to make a lot of cuts like these, a V-shaped groove cutter from a vegetable decorating set does a better job. If you only do so occasionally, a small paring knife can produce an acceptable result. Don’t rush out to buy one of these.

ciseau à œufs

(egg topper)

I bought my first egg topper for an article I wrote in 2000. (See œufs aux deux chocolats and œufs brouillés au saumon fumé.) It cost a lot of money and didn’t work as advertised. So I bought a cheaper one I saw a TV chef use. It didn’t work any better. I don’t use egg shells as serving containers any more.

fourchette à pomme de terre

(potato fork)

My mother used a potato fork whenever she had to peel hot potatoes. When I saw one on an early trip to France, I bought it immediately. It was another waste of money. The potatoes fall off the fork unless it is held upright. I find it easier to hold a hot potato in a towel when I peel it.

zesteur

(zester)

If you want to produce fancy little curls of lemon, lime, or orange zest, than this is the tool for you. If you want to produce fine strips or cubes of zest without waste, use a peeler and a chef’s knife. If you want finely grated peel without waste, use a Microplane. Throw the zester away!

The author gratefully thanks Ken Broadhurst of Mareuil-sur-Cher, France, for his superb editing assistance with this article.
©2004 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.