Too Many Gadgets Spoil the Kitchen

The essential bridal registry list.

Click hereto read more from Slate’s wedding issue. 

Before we became the blissfully married couple we are today, my soon-to-be husband and I had our fiercest fights over stuff—whether to dispose of it or acquire it. This stuff included a futon, some mugs, a shoe rack, and a chips-and-dip plate featuring a three-dimensional lobster. Venal as it seems, the merging of said stuff when starting a home together can be hugely contentious. Mugs are no longer mugs, but fragments of one’s soul. Because of this, registering for wedding gifts can get complicated.

When we got through most of our bickering and decided to get married, we contemplated a gift registry. Like so many elements of weddings today, it all seemed uncomfortably acquisitive. In the end, though, we decided that if wedding guests—some of whom we didn’t know very well—would be giving us gifts, we might as well give them a sense of what we’d use. The old sparring over possessions remained an undercurrent as we made our list. I remember a certain glee when I realized I could toss my husband’s mismatched, circa 1982 Mikasa once we received the pristine set of white porcelain on our registry. Andrew got his dig in at my quest for purity by registering for a bright orange phone that to this day sings out “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”  every time we receive a phone call.

Household gifts have long been customary at weddings, but back in the old days, you’d never know if guests’ gifts would clash. According to the Bride’s Book of Wedding Traditions, order was imposed on that process when in 1901 the China Hall of Rochester, Minn., invented the clever notion of a list of the bride’s desires, to be checked off as well-wishers bought presents. Department stores like Chicago’s Marshall Fields soon followed suit, outfitting the well-heeled with their home-entertaining needs. By encouraging guests to give a single place setting, it became feasible to get a whole set of pricy tableware. In the 1960s, Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma, helped shift the focus of the registry from fine china to everyday items.

Now, of course, virtually every housewares store, from your cutesie local cookware shop to Crate and Barrel, is eager to fulfill your gifty desires, complete with Web sites that allow you to monitor your registry midstream, adding to it if your guests need more choices. Because of this ease, the temptation to overlist is great. Here’s a rare chance to receive pretty much everything you want—shouldn’t you take advantage of it? Why not get the bigger Kitchen-Aid stand mixer—isn’t bigger better? Of course you’d like to whip up crème brulée for a dinner party, so don’t you need a minitorch and 10 matching ramekins?

No. I urge a certain caution, both for the sake of modesty, and for the sake of sanity. The truth is, space, at least easily accessible space, will always be an issue, even in a dream kitchen. Don’t plan for the unlikely eventualities—the huge buffet that calls for chafing dishes. Instead, look at the realities of your life in your near future. Kitchenware stores are endlessly tempting with their hyper-specific appliances (like this margarita maker), but in most cases, something else more all-purpose—in this case, a blender—can do the job perfectly well. Value and versatility should be the ultimate litmus test for whether something belongs in your kitchen. If for some reason you suddenly find yourself in need of your own meat slicer, invest in it then.

While registering for your home is largely a question of personal style, I can tell you some of the anchors of your starter kitchen. In the New York Times a month ago, Mark Bittman did a bang-up job (article purchase required) of stocking a bare-bones kitchen for less than $200. But here are some crucial items worth investing a little money in—yours or somebody else’s—as well as some sidebars on additional pans, utensils, and appliances worth considering.

Plenty of people opt for cookware sets, but I’ve found it’s best to cobble together your own set, full of pans you’ll use regularly. (Added bonus: No single person is on the hook for a several-hundred-dollar set of pots.) My own desert-island pan would be a braising pan (aka wide sauté pan, aka sauteuse). These are the kind of pans that we fought over when I worked in restaurants. It should hold 3-4 quarts, be about 12 inches in diameter, and have sides 2-3 inches deep. The wide surface area means fewer batches if you are going to be browning ingredients, and faster reduction times if you’re a cook of the saucy variety. The medium-deep sides are good for catching spatters and hold a fair amount of liquid if you’re braising, say, a panful of chicken thighs in a green olive and preserved lemon sauce. You can even shallow fry in a pan like this. These pans often come in two configurations—with a single long handle, or with two shorter loop handles. Both have their advantages: The long handle is better for shaking the pan on the stove, and the short loops are easier for transferring into the oven. Splurge on this pan (or, rather, let someone splurge for you)—you want solid construction, a lining that won’t react with acidic ingredients (I like stainless), and most importantly, handles that can go into the oven. For a list of other pots I recommend, click here.

Again, don’t go for a set. Unless you’re a knife geek (a wonderful thing to be) or a hunter, you really need only three kinds of knives: a make-you-giddy chef’s knife at least 8 inches long; a good bread knife; and a small, inexpensive paring knife. Spend good cash—yours or your wedding guests’—on the chef’s knife: You will use this for everything. The money will buy you a good factory edge that’s easier to revive with sharpening, too. In general, the now-standard German knives have been outflanked by thinner, more elegantly designed Japanese knives (even German giant Wüsthof now makes snub-nosed Santoku-style knives). Thinner knives make thin slices much easier. Although the highest-end Japanese knives are breathtakingly expensive, there are some great less-expensive options, including those from Mac (their swordlike bread knife has me in a thrall) and Ryusen. If you and your partner like to cook together, you might want to splurge on two chef’s knives. A great deal of superstition surrounds giving knives to newlyweds, but that’s plain silly, right?

Hand tools
The most useful kitchen tool is a pair of 9-inch tongs. With them you can flip meat, toss salads, turn a pan around in the oven, and twirl elegant piles of spaghetti. Over the years, I’ve been perfectly happy with plain stainless tongs, but now that I’m retired from restaurant kitchens, I don’t mind having a little rubber to cushion the grip. Make sure the blades aren’t easily bendable and that the tips meet snugly and securely. In general, kitchen utensils make great lower-cost gifts for your registry: For many more tool recommendations, click here.

Cutting Boards
One area where bigger is better: cutting boards. Get one as big as your cabinets and sink can bear. When chopping, you want to be able to move aside the food you’ve already cut, something you can’t do on a dinky cutting board. Get a thick board, too—at least a half-inch thick, so that it’s less inclined to slide around. As for wood/bamboo or plastic, it’s something of a draw (wood draws microbes away from the board’s surface, plastic can generally be sterilized in the dishwasher). I prefer wood because it’s more attractive, and it doesn’t get fuzzy with use. Go ahead and get one smaller cutting board, too, for those times when you need only to slice a strawberry. Flexible plastic mats aren’t really shock absorbent enough on their own, but they are effective, dishwasher-safe liners to use when cutting raw meat on your board.

The glass or ceramic 9x13 pan ties, in my mind, with the Bundt as the most American of pans, but it’s far more versatile. Old 9x13 is good for casseroles, slumps, buckles, and grunts, good for sheetcake, baklava, and braised shortribs. It may be breakable, but it’s fairly sturdy, and it looks pretty on the table. In general, this sort of bakeware is a good investment because it can double up for serving, so you might indulge in a few other shapes as well. Click here for more baking suggestions.

Kitchen linens
How can people buy so many fancy linens that don’t dry a drop? I highly recommend terry bar towels, which do clean up spills, and (when dry) function as excellent pot holders. Bonus: When stained beyond redemption, they can move to the rag bin and be cheaply replaced. For drying wine glasses, admittedly, you want something less napped: Splurge then on flour-sack towels. Save the cute linens for your placemats and napkins. Other drying notes: Do get a strong drying rack. You will need it even if you have a dishwasher.

I love appliances and can’t bear to part even with those I use but once a year. But think long and hard about each new appliance you introduce to the kitchen. Although my food processor is great, I still mutter whenever I have to pull it out of its above-the-fridge cabinet. If I had to choose only one, I’d go for a very high-end blender. (Yes, the price is obscene, but have you ever felt a 2 horsepower motor whizzing away in your hands?) Unless you use the slicing/shredding blades often, blenders and food processors serve a similar purpose—and blenders have the edge in pureeing the hell out of liquids like soups and sauces. They are also a little easier to clean (fill your blender with water and a drop of soap, run it as if you were making a milkshake, and rinse). I do enjoy my food processor for certain jobs, like truly lazy shredding and hummus-making, though. Click here for additional thoughts on appliances.

I have a dark and ominous Lazy Susan cabinet jumbled with spice jars. Growing up, my mother had a dark and ominous Lazy Susan filled with spice jars. It is hereditary, perhaps, but not my proudest inheritance. I wish I had considered my spice problem more thoroughly before I settled into my home. You should, too—register for a spice rack that makes sense for your space, whether that means a sleek countertop solution or something that fits in a drawer. All jars must have airtight seals. Also, gift givers, a particularly lovely extra gesture would be to send high-quality spices to fill those jars.

A registry gives you a fantastic head start on a kitchen, but the truth is that the best kitchens evolve a little at a time, after you observe what you use constantly, and what’s gathering a thick coat of greasy kitchen dust. Nothing gets a shared household off to a worse start than an argument over where to put the goddamned wok.

For a complete list of items mentioned in this article, click here.