The Ideal Kitchen: How to equip your kitchen
By: Chef Cristian Feher
One of the questions I get asked most often is, “What is my kitchen missing?”. As a personal chef I’ve cooked in over 400 different kitchens, both in the US and Canada. And I didn’t realize until recently that I’ve been sitting on a very interesting pile of data. So I have compiled this article, using what I have observed from all the kitchens, to come up with a guide that will show you how to equip your kitchen for optimal use. In writing this article I have focused on equipment, time and functionality. You can use this as your benchmark to measure how your own kitchen stacks up.
Knives - The chef’s knife is the piece of equipment that would get the most use in a kitchen, as a chef does 80% of his cutting with a chef’s knife. It’s best to buy your knives individually, as I’ve never seen a set of knives that I would be completely happy with. So choosing each knife individually would furnish you with a set that would be as functional as it would be comfortable. Much could be written about how to choose a knife. The length of a chef’s knife is proportional to the height of the chef. A shorter chef might use a 6 inch chef’s knife and a really tall chef might use a 12 inch knife. Most people feel comfortable with an 8 to 10 inch chef knife. A chef’s knife is never serrated. The minimalist knife set should include an 8 inch chef’s knife, a serrated bread knife, a small parring knife, a carving knife and a 6 inch serrated utility (or vegetable) knife. A steel (more accurately called a rectifier, as it does not sharpen a knife, it just keeps the edge straight after you’ve sharpened them) should be handy, and you should buy a small electric knife sharpener to keep them sharp. How often do you sharpen them? As often as is required to keep them sharp. You don’t let your knives get dull. Your knives are best kept on the counter wall stuck to a magnetic strip, but look best kept in a nice wooden knife block.
Cutting Boards - The person that invented glass cutting boards should be lined up and shot - better yet, they should be sentenced to cutting 1000 onions on a glass cutting board with a dull knife. They are noisy, they are slippery, and they dull your knives faster than anything else I know of. The same can be said about stone cutting boards. Please do yourself (and your personal chef) a favor and dispose of them quickly. Having gotten that off my chest - You should have a large wooden cutting board to do most of your chopping on, and a few different sized plastic boards to cut meats on. You want to keep juicy meats off wooden boards as they can soak up some blood and bacteria and be harder to sanitize than plastic boards. Wood and plastic are knife-friendly. Your knife doesn’t slip while you’re cutting and the blade does not dull. Keep a rubber mat, or a wet paper towel under your cutting board so that it won’t move around on the counter. You should have at least three boards - A big wooden one for most of your chopping, a medium plastic one for meats and fish, and a small plastic one so that more than one person can cook in your kitchen at the same time.
Preparation Bowls - I can always tell a person who doesn’t cook by the lack of prep bowls in their kitchen. These are probably one of the most needed items. You should have a large assortment of them ranging from 3 inch to 20 inch bowls. Metal and plastic are far easier to use than ceramic and glass, as they are lighter and will not break if you drop them. Rubber bottoms help the bowls keep in place on your counter when stirring, kneading, or mixing the contents in the bowls. The minimalist cook should go to the nearest dollar store and spend $20 on assorted plastic prep bowls.
Kitchen Towels - Yes, they’re important. You can use them to dry your hands, wipe the counter top, wipe your knives, clean the kitchen, quickly soak up a spill and you can even fold them and use them as oven mitts to handle a hot pot or baking sheet. You should have a drawer full of them. Get an absorbent cloth like cotton. Polyester and fleece tend to repel liquids rather than soak them up and the fleece towels tend to leave a trail of fibers behind. The same guy who invented glass cutting boards must have come up with these too. Avoid piling up oily rags together as they have a tendency to suddenly burst into flames - I’m serious. I’m not sure what the science behind it is, but I've seen it happen first hand.
Strainers - You should have a large and small strainer on hand. And if you can avoid mesh strainers you will save yourself some headaches when it comes to cleaning them. A simple perforated plastic or metal strainer is just fine. It’s actually more hygienic. The small one should have a long handle and the big one should stand on a base so that the food is elevated from the bottom of the sink.
Spoons Etc - The following is a list of tools that should be kept in a drawer(s), or in a counter top bucket of some sort: Wooden spoons, a rigid spatula, a soft spatula, a silicone mixing spoon, a soup ladle, 2 serving spoons, a whisk, a potato masher, short and long tongues, and bamboo skewers (I always seem to find uses for them). The plastics should be rigid (not flimsy) and the silicone spoons should be heat resistant. Metal spoons are also good unless you’re using cooking pots with non-stick coatings that can get scratched easily.
Pots and Pans - Much could be written about pots and pans, but you should have two large soup pots, a stock pot, a wok-type pan, sauce pans, non stick pans. I don’t see the point in having tiny pots. Go for big pots, you might have company over one day. The heavier the pots, the better. Look for pots with metal plates stamped on the bottom. These plates will distribute the heat more evenly and keep your food from burning to the bottom of the pot. Stainless steel is generally better than aluminum. But thick aluminum is not bad, as long as it has a metal plate stamped on the bottom. Handles should be metal or heat resistant so you can put them in the oven. The lids should also be oven proof. I once incinerated mushroom sauce in a glass pot which made the entire meal for the dinner party taste like cigarette ashes. Don’t buy glass pots unless you want to get into the cremation business. There is no sense keeping flaking or peeling pots around either. Please throw them out and get new ones. You know who you are.
Baking Surfaces - You need at least a couple of baking sheets with walls around the edges. The flat ones work for cookies, but prevent you from cooking anything that might be juicy. Rectangular ones are much more useful than round ones. Non stick doesn’t matter because you should always put a layer of tin foil on your baking sheet for easy clean up. Remember that the non-shiny side of the tin foil is the non-sticky side!
The equipment mentioned above should provide you with the basics you need to prepare really good meals. And you can build up from there.
Stoves and Ranges - The ugliest gas stove is still far superior than any other type of cooking stove you can buy. There is simply no other stove that can provide the heat control and quality that a gas stove can. Induction stoves are at the bottom of my list, as they are simply gimmicky - they offer very little functionality as you can only use them with certain metal pots. So we are left with electric stoves in the middle range. We have the electric coil stoves that most people have and we have the glowing element stoves too. I find the glowing element stoves to be horrible at being able to control temperature and they are hard to clean once you burn a good layer of food onto the glowing plates. If you don’t have gas, you’re better off with an electric coil stove.
Ovens - Conversely, gas ovens generally are bad at temperature control unless you buy yourself a restaurant quality gas oven. Electric ovens are best for homes. I have also found that about half of the people that own convection ovens don’t quite know what convection ovens are. Convection ovens have a little fan inside that circulates the hot air around the food, cooking it faster. Also, two ovens are better than one. So if you can afford it, I would recommend getting a standalone two-oven unit in your kitchen. Warming drawers are useless, and most people have never used theirs as anything other than extra storage for baking sheets and pots. Also, the stoves that come with those little “pizza ovens” next to the regular sized oven are a waste of money in my opinion - I don’t know about you, but if I make a pizza, it’s not just for one person and it goes into the big oven. So I’m not quite sure who had the idea for the little “pizza ovens”.
Counter Top Appliances - No kitchen should be without a food processor, blender, toaster, toaster oven, and rice cooker. A hand blender also comes in handy and stores easily in a drawer or cupboard. Your food processor and blender should have big, heavy, powerful motors. I actually go out of my way to buy vintage appliances from the 80’s because they were built with nice, powerful motors back then (1800 watts). Generally speaking, the heavier the appliance the more powerful the motor is.
The Kitchen Sink - Your kitchen sink may go overlooked, but it’s one of the most important parts of a functional kitchen. The ideal sink is large, has two basins, and is mounted on top or your counter top, not under. I have seen several expensive homes with sinks that eventually fall through down through the counter top because a lazy contractor glued the sink up into the counter, instead of properly setting it on top of the counter. The water spout should be detachable from the faucet, and you should have a powerful garbage disposal mounted under your drain to power away food. I especially like kitchens that have huge sinks made of a hard resin material that have high edges and keep most of the splash in the sink and not all over the kitchen - reminds me of those huge sinks you get in restaurant kitchens. So the lesson of the day for sinks is, the bigger the better!
Microwaves - There is very little to say about microwaves. Everyone knows that they are not that good for you, but we all use them. So you should have one.
The layout is probably the most difficult decision that a person can make when planning their kitchen or when renovating. Luckily I have seen enough layouts to tell you that there are basically three types of kitchens; 1)The social kitchen, 2)The functional kitchen and 3) The kitchen nightmare!
The social kitchen is for people that always seem to have friends and family over. And they tend to congregate in and around the kitchen. The social kitchen is all about roominess, looks, and counter space. You want enough room for people to be able to put their drinks and food down on the counter, and stand around chatting, eating, cooking and drinking. The social kitchen often sacrifices functionality for looks. I tend to spend 30 minutes to an hour extra in social kitchens when I cook as compared to functional kitchens. The reason being that I have to spend a lot of time walking from one end of the kitchen to the other to go from garbage, to fridge, to sink, etc. Social kitchens are and should be big!
There are people that have very functional kitchens and don’t know it. I often meet people who apologize for having such small kitchens. They get embarrassed. But I always tell them that their kitchen has the advantage of speed. In a functional kitchen you should be able to stand in the middle and have everything you need (stove, oven, sink, fridge, garbage) just one step away. I can cook much faster and more efficiently in a small kitchen that is well stocked. Everything is right there! I know a Chinese restaurant in Toronto that serves 15 tables from a kitchen that’s 5 foot by 3 foot! It’s all about organization. The only drawback about a functional kitchen is that it’s usually missing the space necessary to host a group of people. But don’t sell your small kitchen short, it can be very functional with the right equipment. And remember that counter space in a functional kitchen of the utmost importance.
A nightmare kitchen to me is a place that is overly large and is missing the necessary equipment to do a good job. It has islands with multi levels and awkward angles, no garbage cans in sight, tiny sinks, and too-low fan hoods or strangely placed cupboards and fixtures that I keep banging my head into. Luckily these are few and far between.
The ideal scene would be a kitchen that is both functional and social, and the many that I have had the pleasure to cook in have been a result of good planning and constant evolution on the part of the owner to build an ideal kitchen that suits their lifestyle. I hope this article will help you find some direction in planning your existing kitchen or starting fresh with a new one.