Long-handled spoons, assorted mixing bowls, pots and pans—you can't cook without them. But what other items really stand out in a kitchen? What makes cooking easier, faster, and more fun? We rounded up some of our favorite food writers, recipe developers, food testers and food stylists and asked them to share their can't-live-without gizmos.
Cherry Stoner/Olive Pitter
It's a really fun gadget that I use all the time. Good-quality olives almost never come pitted, and I frequently use them in cooking. For instance, I use a ton of olives in my puttanesca pasta sauce and in vegetarian niçoise salad. Before I got the pitter, it took forever to hand-pit enough for either recipe. And in the summer, I eat cherries nonstop. But I never used to cook with them because if I pitted them with a knife, they'd look squished and flat, not like juicy round orbs. But all last summer, I made cheesecakes and covered the tops with loads of fresh (pitted!) cherries. It has actually inspired me to cook more. I use a Leifheit stainless steel handheld model. I just adore it.
—Robin Robertson, Food Writer and Recipe Developer
I can't really relax if I'm not wearing an apron. I've got to suit up to cook! I need to be able to focus on what I'm doing, and I can't lean against the counter if I'm worried about my clothes. In a pinch, I also use it as a pot holder, a hand towel or a basket—I pile potatoes and lemons in it peasant-style if I'm walking from one side of the kitchen to the other. I always buy aprons with pockets so I can carry a pen (for adding to a shopping list as I use up an ingredient or for making notes on a recipe). And I prefer black ones because they stay clean-looking a lot longer. I buy mine from the Chefwear catalog.
—Lisa Cherkasky, Food Stylist
Electric Knife Sharpener
You just turn it on, swipe the blade through and you've got a sharp knife. There's no worrying about the right angle for the blade; it has magnets that hold it in place. For a tiny bit of time—seconds—you get weeks of value. Sharp knives make such a difference. Dull knives are dangerous too: They're more likely to slide off the food and cut your fingers. If you have a good knife, I highly recommend a sharpener to keep it good for years. I use a Chef's Choice electric sharpener.
—Ken Haedrich, VT Contributor, Food Writer and Recipe Developer
It's just so handy. For example, when you're puréeing soup, you don't have to transfer food from a pot to a blender and then back again. You can just stick the immersion blender directly into a pot and whir. And you don't have a whole blender to clean after you use it, just the blade. It saves time, saves steps. I use it to make sauces, dressings, smoothies and puréed vegetables as well as soups. And it doesn't hog counter space—it's little, so I tuck it away in a cabinet. I use a basic Hamilton Beach.
—Kathy Farrell-Kingsley, VT Contributor and Recipe Developer
I use my mezzaluna (a half-moon cutting blade that comes with a concave cutting board) for cutting herbs and seeds like cumin and coriander. I first fell in love with it when I was working in restaurants: I had to finely chop bunches and bunches of parsley. When I found the mezzaluna, it made life a lot easier. The concave board contains the food, so nothing rolls off it. The curved blade lets you chop really fast and beautifully. You can also use it for scallions, garlic, nuts—anything that needs to be chopped. I take my mezzaluna with me on every photo shoot I do. I can't live without it. You can find one at any fine cooking store. (This one from J.K. Adams is $72)
—Frank Melodia, VT Contributor, Recipe Developer and Food Stylist
Nylon Flexible Spatula
I love my Oxo Good Grips spatula because it's safe for nonstick pans, and it can withstand high heat. It's strong enough to lift foods, but it's thin and flexible enough to turn eggs and crépes. It's really great for cookies—it doesn't smush the edges while they're warm. It's super-flexible, easy to clean and oddly sharp (you can scrape it against stuck-on food without scratching the pan). It also comes in fun colors that don't get lost in your drawers. I have lime green and hot pink. It's cheap too. Who needs a $25 stainless steel spatula?!
—Mary Margaret Chappell, VT Food Editor
I couldn't live without it. I use it to make breadcrumbs, puréed vegetables, puréed tofu, ground nuts and even bread dough. In fact, I really like the way it kneads bread dough. The time it saves is the biggest benefit—I like to do things fast. My machine's at least six years old. I replaced the blade recently; after years of almost daily use, it had gotten a little dull. Otherwise, it's still going strong. I use a 14-cup Cuisinart.
—Akasha Richmond, VT Contributor, Food Writer and Recipe Developer
Mortar & Pestle
A lot of people think these are for gourmet cooks only. Not at all! I use it the most for mashing garlic. If I make a vinaigrette, I put it together in the mortar bowl with the mashed garlic. It's also great for crushing sturdy herbs such as rosemary. I like really large ones, big enough not only to make a salad dressing in but to double as the salad bowl. I have an old mortar and pestle that I bought in Spain years ago for just a few dollars. (Here's one from Typhoon)
—Patsy Jamieson, VT Contributor, Food Writer and Recipe Developer
It's a chopper and dicer, not a food processor. You push food through it, and it spits out chopped vegetables. It's the biggest time-saving device I've ever used. I get industrial ones for my restaurant, but home cooks can get smaller models for their own kitchens. I use it to dice veggies for soups, salads, salsas and garnishes. You can also get blades that will wedge tomatoes, lemons and limes. Large industrial ones are sold at restaurant supply stores or online. Cuisinart makes a small chopper for home cooks.
—Greg Wenger, Recipe Developer
I use my blender more often than anything else. I love Asian food, and when I make Asian curries, a food processor doesn't mince vegetables small enough. But my blender does! Most Asian cooks I know use a blender to get food really small, which maximizes the flavors. I also swear by my blender because it makes a fine purée, essential for a creamy soup base. I use a Waring model.
—Alexandra Greeley, Food Writer and Recipe Developer
Many chef's knives are made for big male hands. This one fits perfectly in my hand—and almost every woman's hand. It's the first knife I reach for when I'm cooking. It's the love-child of a classic German chef's knife and a traditional Japanese knife—it's a little shorter and wider than a typical chef's knife. It's stainless steel and totally all-purpose: I use it for fine chopping, rough chopping, dicing, slicing, you name it. And it's perfectly balanced; use it once, and you'll be convinced. It comes in a plastic sheath, and I always put it away in the sheath so it won't rub against anything to dull it. That underscores its specialness to me. (The Henckels Twin Four Star II 8" chef knife is highly rated.)
—Deborah Krasner, Food Writer and Recipe Developer
It really retains the flavor of food. You can wash your vegetables and put them in the pot damp—you don't need to add any oil or more water. The water clinging to the vegetables is enough to cook them, so nothing dilutes the taste. I was given a set more than 15 years ago and have used it ever since. I'll put onions and garlic on the bottom of the pan with a splash of balsamic vinegar, then pile on other veggies, put on a lid and let it cook. Because I'm not adding any water to the pot, the onions develop an almost caramelized flavor. My cookware comes from Health Craft. This 1-qt. covered skillet is pricey but lasts forever.
—Vicki Chelf, VT Contributor, Food Writer and Recipe Developer