Kitchen game-changers: The tools that will take your cooking to the next level


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service


PHOTO CREDIT: Tribune News Service

Chances are you’ve spent more time in the kitchen this past year. And the COVID-19 cooking craze hasn’t only been about putting dinner on the table; it has been a great way to tune out and decompress from the stress of living through a pandemic. Now that you have (almost) perfected your sourdough, it’s time to take your cooking game up a notch or two with a few simple tools.

Shelley Young, founder of Chicago’s famed recreational cooking school The Chopping Block has been teaching the basics to beginners and challenging seasoned cooks to expand their culinary universe since she opened in 1997. Her Culinary Boot Camps cover culinary school basics like knife skills, fish butchery and emulsions in just one week to help build a solid foundation.

“Teaching virtually means that we are actually in the kitchens of our customers, so I can see quite literally what they have and what they don’t have and what their challenges are,” Young said. “It’s just fascinating.”

Here, Young shares a tips about kitchen tools that will take your cooking game to the next level.

A hand-crank pasta machine

Craving stinging nettle ravioli or ramp fettuccine? Infuse your pasta with the fresh flavors of the season with a hand-crank pasta maker.

“There’s certain pasta you buy dried, even in Italy, and certain pasta you make fresh,” Young said. “I think that a lasagna made with fresh pasta — that is something that people don’t really even think about. That is a game-changer to me. The way that those layers adhere together. Oh my gosh, it’s like tight and right.”

The Marcato Atlas 150 Aluminum Pasta Maker puts out perfect linguine, spaghetti and lasagna noodles in minutes — and is a great countertop presence. $84.95, crateandbarrel.com

A razor-sharp chef’s knife

If you have ever tried slicing a ripe tomato with a dull knife, your tomato quickly can become tomato puree.

“A sharp knife doesn’t mutilate your food, which is what people struggle with when their knife is dull,” Young said.

“It’s more than having a good knife; it’s actually the sharpening. A lot of people have good knives but they don’t know how to take care of them,” she said. “For example, when you chop your herbs and your cutting board is completely green at the conclusion, the goodness of the herb is now in your cutting board. A sharp knife doesn’t hurt the integrity of the food. There’s a visual component for sure, but people don’t care as much about that, people want things to taste good. So keep the juice in the food.”

The Shun Sora Chef’s Knife delivers smooth, razor-sharp cutting and a lightweight feel that’s easy to control. $79.95, williamssonoma.com

A multitask blender

Having tools that multitask, like a handheld blender, make kitchen work more efficient and save counter space.

“I’m an avid gardener, and I grow a lot of tomatoes and I process a lot of them, so I use the blender a lot,” Young said. “If you get a high-powered hand blender or Vitamix, it purees the skin and the seeds. For me, that’s where I find it like a game-changer. We have a few great blogs on this subject, you know like making homemade pate in a Vitamix. I mean, that’s so cool. Ice cream just right in there.”

Vitamix professional grade 7500 blender, $529, Breville Control Grip Immersion Blender, $99.99, amazon.com

A cast-iron skillet

If you haven’t been able to get the perfect golden-brown sear on scallops or a charred crust on a steak that stays a perfect medium-rare inside, swap out your nonstick skillet for a raw cast-iron pan.

“What I liked about cast iron is that they are affordable and heavy-duty and I can get a great sear on them,” Young said. “The nature of a raw cast-iron skillet is that it can be heated to a higher temperature. Most people are cooking with nonstick, which doesn’t handle a hotter temperature.”

Young also recommends investing in both a surface and meat thermometer.

“Generally, people don’t own these, but they transform your cooking from here to there so quickly. A properly heated pan is what keeps your food from sticking and is what creates the sear — almost more than the pan itself,” she said. “For a home cook, I recommend a 425 to 450-degree pan for searing a steak, searing chicken and sauteing mushrooms. Put a surface thermometer in your pan and you know that it’s 425 to 450 degrees before you put your steak in.”

Lodge has been producing cast-iron pots and pans since 1896. Its heat-retaining Blacklock cast-iron skillet comes triple seasoned and ready to use. $29, williamssonoma.com

The chef-y finishing touches

Some of the most important tools come into play after the dish is cooked. A sprinkle of flaky Maldon salt brings out the full flavors of a grilled steak or fish and a splash of high-quality olive oil or vinegar adds brightness to a sauce.

“A good quality vinegar and oil take your food from A to Z with no effort,” Young said. “I use grapeseed oil to saute in, but for finishing — that’s where the quality matters. Ingredients used in the cooking process don’t have to be a $50 bottle of olive oil or vinegar, but, when you add a splash of that really great olive oil to a tomato sauce when it’s done, or a splash of really good quality vinegar in your soup toward the end of the cooking time, those kinds of things really make a difference.”

Frantoia Barbera extra virgin olive oil has a delicately fruity flavor, $24.41; O white balsamic vinegar has notes of apple, pear and almond, $12.83; Maldon sea-salt flakes add a slightly salty, slightly sweet crunch to everything from a steak to chocolate chip cookies, $6.19; amazon.com

David Syrek writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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