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Holiday cooking and baking can be a stressor to our kitchens (and our emotions!). This year, as many of us cautiously venture back to holiday gatherings, we need to get reacquainted with cooking for more than our immediate household. With lots of food to prepare, and maybe even a kitchen crowded with additional cooks, our normal stash of tools can feel inadequate. It’s often the basic little tools that seem shortest in supply when you need to make mashed potatoes for 12 or brunch for a house full of guests. Here then is a list of tools so handy and versatile that it truly helps to have a back-up or two, especially as the prep dishes pile high in the sink. And if you aren’t the holiday host, but a guest instead, these utensils make wonderful gifts (along with a cheerful offer to wash dishes). You can be sure that these items, which range from stocking stuffers to more weighty offerings, will be useful—if not necessary—even if the recipient already has one in their drawer.
A single chef’s knife should suffice for each active cook in the kitchen. It’s a worthy investment and should be carefully purchased and maintained. But paring knives are a different story. Paring knives are easy to lose, easy to get dulled, and harder to sharpen than big chef’s knives. I prefer not to get too attached to them, nor spend too much on them, since I know they can be quickly replaced. I always have a couple on hand, and they are extra helpful to hand out to holiday visitors when a mountain of apples need slicing for that deep dish pie. Opinel makes such a classic, simple design in the most delicious colors, so there is no reason not to buy them two at a time.
As much as I love French paring knives, I have never gotten the hang of old school knife-like peelers that are standard in the French kitchen. Instead, I love a y-peeler, with its strong tiltable blade strung perpendicular to the handle. It’s a workhorse that peels everything from carrots to lemons, destrings celery, and shaves Parmigiana Reggiano and chocolate. Because I might be using my peeler for both savory and sweet preparations in a single meal (and also, I’ll admit, because you never know when one will accidentally go in the garbage), I like to have two on hand at all times.
Wooden spoons are essential even in a high-tech kitchen—they are stiff enough to push around heavy biscuit dough and soft enough to be safe on non-stick surfaces. Most importantly, they serve as an extension of the cook’s hand. With more potential helpers in the kitchen at this time of year, it’s always handy to have an extra. I love that each spoon brings its own quiet, unique organic beauty—from the color of its wood to the knurls and birdseyes in the grain. I find two shapes to be most helpful for cooking (as opposed to serving, where the sky is the limit on form). A classic round-bottomed spoon with a narrow but sturdy handle, like this one, is just right for mixing chocolate chips into cookie dough in a round-bottomed bowl. You should also have a wooden spoon with a flattened bottom, like this one, to stir in flat-bottomed pots—this spoon will serve as your risotto stirrer, your deglazing scraper, and your probe to see if the veggies are sticking at the bottom of the soup pot. Doubling up on each style is an easy investment to help stir all the simmering pots on a busy feast day.
From flipping a celebratory tenderloin as it sears to turning over roasting potatoes or twirling spaghetti into a bowl, tongs are incredibly useful. But I tend to misplace them more than any other tool. They travel outside to the grill, they perch on oven door handles, they slip onto my apron strings. It’s primarily for this reason that I think a two-pair policy makes sense in the kitchen. I suppose it’s also nice to have two different length tongs: one long set for grilling and one shorter for cooking inside with pans. (Truthfully, I use mine interchangeably). I like tongs like these that close and lock for storage, and prefer ones with metal edges to those with nylon or silicone tips. (To wow the most gear-headed cooks, this fancier pair unlocks slickly with a single hand.) I also like to keep around a pair of rather more elegant wooden “dress tongs” for serving slippery green beans or slices of carved turkey. (The wood makes them the safest bet to remove a bagel stuck in the toaster, too.)
The world of whisks is a marvelously esoteric one, with specialists for egg-white whipping and in-pan emulsifying and matcha tea swirling. But in the end, I hold onto the most versatile whisks. I like a big stiff, no-nonsense whisk for jobs that need some muscle—like custard and gravy stirring on the stovetop . I recently incorporated a more delicate, narrow one, similar to this one into my collection, and it has become a favorite. It can pop into a jar of separated salad dressing, scramble two eggs for breakfast, and sneak around the chicken in a pan to stir the coconut milk into a curry.
Liquid measuring cups
The Pyrex measuring cup is a classic of American design. They’re wonderful for measuring liquids, as well as for things like scooping hot chicken stock out of the stockpot to pour into the roasting pan to make gravy. They’re not, however, the easiest thing to store: multiple cups don’t really stack, and they don’t bend, so there are only so many you can fit in a cabinet or a drawer. Still, when holiday cooking finds you measuring the wet ingredients for gravy, dinner rolls and cranberry cake all at once, extra measuring cups become very, very convenient. I’ve grown fond of the flexible silicone measuring beakers that make a handy pouring spout when they are pinched. They stack for storage and even come with lids (handy for prepping recipe components and storing them for next-day cooking).
I always have two brushes on hand as well. One is for basting the turkey or patting on barbecue glazes and will be in touch with meat and smoke and heat. The other is for pastry operations: dusting away flour, glazing my holiday pies with egg wash or coaxing a glaze across the top of a tart. (If I were a more precise pastry chef, I might keep a separate wet brush and dry brush, too). In theory, a silicone brush won’t melt or burn with the heat of these operations, but I don’t feel like they give me enough touch. I have always preferred the feel of a wooden handled brush, ideally with natural bristles that are more heat resistant than plastic. I write “grill” or “pastry” on each one with a Sharpie. Though there are many admittedly cheaper options for pastry brushes, this handmade brand from Sweden, which supports the work of visually impaired brush makers, is my favorite and makes a lovely gift.
Digital thermometers are an incredible innovation: they are very fast, accurate, and easy to read even as my reading prescription gets more intense. They are also brightly colored and harder to lose in the drawer than their analog predecessors. If I were to urge you a single thermometer, it is the classic Thermoworks instant read thermometer with a folding probe, which works for turkeys, rib roasts, as well as jam, candy and bread-making. Why get a second thermometer then? First, the Thermapen needs lithium coin cell batteries, which always take me a while to replace (versus the stash of AAAs I have handy). It’s great to have a backup. Second, with bigger roasts (like that turkey) or barbecue projects, its handy to have an evolving snapshot of the cooking progress. A probe thermometer, which stays in the meat while it cooks and shouts at you when a key temperature is reached, helps on big days when I’m juggling multiple projects.
Nothing says “thanks for getting to work on those brussels sprouts” or “come help me with the onions” like setting up a cutting board for a visitor to your kitchen. That’s why having at least one simple, elegant extra cutting board is so helpful. I’ve grown picky with my own choice of cutting boards: I don’t like plastic boards, which don’t feel great under my knife and tend to fuzz up with age. But wooden boards can get really heavy and hard to wash, especially the bigger, most versatile ones. I’ve settled on hinoki wood boards, a kind of delicious smelling Japanese cypress that is relatively light and less damaging to knives than harder substances.
In ordinary life, I basically lean on a single baking dish—my old-school Pyrex 9 X 13 — for rustic cakes or enchiladas, but if I am cooking for guests, I find it’s essential to have extra baking dishes on hand. They shelter make ahead dishes like stuffing and braised brussels sprouts and can pop back in the oven when it’s time to heat for serving. I can prep an eggy breakfast strata with leftover side dish veggies and bread and put the baking dish full of it into the refrigerator overnight, to be baked in the oven the next morning when everyone starts moving. And they are attractive enough to put on the buffet as serving dishes, too. Because they are lovely in deep colors and crisp white alike, good ceramic dishes also make a great gift.
Obviously not every kitchen tool needs backing up: redundant tools cause clutter and eat up valuable storage, so it pays to be thoughtful about gathering too many gadgets. Unless you’re a caterer or a truly large-scale cook, you likely only need one of most things: one big pasta pot, one bundt pan, one microplane, one mixer. But I’d argue that one of the more disheartening aspects of prepping a big meal is the inevitably sticky-handed hunting for and washing of tools in the midst of everything else. Ceding a bit of your drawer space to the duplicates of the handiest tools can help keep your celebratory preparations—and your relationship with your kitchen visitors—a hair more jolly.