So you’re ready to trade in that ancient hand mixer or rusted potato peeler for some cool, new-age gear.
But when you get to the cooking store, the never-ending options make you feel totally scrambled.
Between woks, silicone egg poachers, wine decanters and ergonomic mixing bowls, there’s a hyper-specialized gadget for doing just about everything in the kitchen. Which tools are worth your money and counter space?
To separate the necessary from the needless, we asked four North Shore chefs to weigh in on the tools they can—and can’t—live without.
Gale Gand, executive pastry chef and partner, Cenitare Restaurants (in The Westin Chicago North Shore, 601 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling) and Tru (676 N. St. Clair St., Chicago 312-202-0001), author of 7 cookbooks and formerly host of the Food Network’s “Sweet Dreams”
- A panini press. Gand began experiencing “panini-grill envy” shortly after buying one as a gift. “Everything tastes better when it’s been panini-ed,” she said. Even plain buttered bread becomes a crusty, melted delicacy in the machine. Hers is a Krups and cost about $150, and she recommends shelling out as much for a heavy-duty press if you’re a sandwich nut.
- A turkey baster. It’s not just for the birds. Gand uses hers to re-dress salads, sucking up dressing from the bottom of the bowl and re-distributing it over the greens—a trick she learned from Julia Child. She recommends not-too-fancy basters from Dominick’s (less than $10).
- Drip coffee makers. The water doesn’t get hot enough, and the coffee just sits in a pool of water, Gand says. “I don’t think gravity is enough to draw the flavor out of beans. You need pressure,” she says. Like most coffee purists, she prefers a French press ($10-90).
Peter Balodimas, executive chef, Quince at the Homestead (1625 Hinman Ave., Evanston, 847-570-8400), previously chef and owner of the critically acclaimed restaurant Fahrenheit in St. Charles and executive chef at Spiaggia
- A good set of knives. Most chefs recommend trying out some knives at the store until you find ones that feel comfortable in your hand. Balodimas’ knives come with a touch of nostalgia: The set of 20 belonged to his grandfather, who owned several restaurants in Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s—which tells you something about how long good knives last.
- A Vita-Mix blender. Chefs swear by these expensive, powerful machines ($400 to $2,000 for professional, or $350 to $500 for the home series) that turn just about anything into a “velvety smooth” purée, as Balodimas says. He uses one at home to make soups and one at work to purée fruit for sorbets and gelatos.
- A radio. “It takes away from the focus, the concentration on the food,” Balodimas says. For him, cooking is a thoughtful—almost meditative—act. So he doesn’t allow music in the Quince kitchen, and his home kitchen is a quiet sanctuary as well.
Sarah Stegner, Evanston native, co-chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Café (601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook, 847-205-4433), winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Midwest award in 1998 and the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence in 1995
- A 12-inch copper-bottomed pan. The copper distributes the heat evenly. She uses hers, a brand that’s no longer available, to sauté vegetables, fish, meat, eggs—you name it. For a really good pan, she recommends spending close to $200. You just need one, she says.
- A good pair of metal tongs. “They are like an extension of your hand,” Stegner says.
- A garlic press. Mincing garlic evenly with a sharp knife is much better. With a press, people tend to get overzealous, Stegner says, letting all the garlic that comes out fall right into the pan. “People lose the balance” in their dishes this way, she says.
Michael Gottlieb, executive chef at Bank Lane Bistro (670 N. Bank Lane, Lake Forest, 847-234-8802), previously worked at Cenitare Restaurants in Wheeling, The Palm in Northbrook, and at Carlos’ and Gabriel’s in Highwood
- An Asian mandoline, a.k.a. a countertop slicer with a variety of interchangeable blades for cutting vegetables thinner than you could with a knife—for, say, that coleslaw for a summer barbeque, homemade potato chips or soup garnishes. Gottlieb uses a Benriner Japanese mandoline ($22), which he says lasts forever despite its light price tag. “It cuts veggies perfectly,” he says. It can also perfectly take your finger off—so take your time.
- A sharp peeler. Gottlieb uses a Swiss Kuhn Rikon ($3.50 each, in a variety of colors) to peel everything from tender peaches to tough-skinned potatoes. “It’s insanely sharp,” he says.
- Plastic wrap. Though he has to use it occasionally, Gottlieb hates the way plastic wrap gets stuck to itself and those devilishly sharp fangs on the box. “It’s evil,” he says.
You can find the cooks’ tools in this article at these retailers:
Vita-Mix Blenders: Available online only.
Benriner Asian mandoline: Available online.
Crate & Barrel (carries all items except panini press, Vita-Mix and Benriner mandoline)
Plaza del Lago
1515 N. Sheridan Rd.
4999 Old Orchard Ctr.
1775 Lake Cook Rd.
Williams-Sonoma (carries all items except Vita-Mix and Kuhn Rikon peeler)
1866 Second St.
4999 Old Orchard Ctr.
271 Market Sq.
What kitchen tools do you love, or loathe? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.