As the summer comes to a close, University students — myself included — are sure to be feeling the magnetic pull of college life becoming stronger. Although COVID-19 is still a looming concern and the prospects of returning to Grounds remain uncertain, thousands of students plan on returning to Charlottesville for the fall semester. Those moving out of dorms and into new spaces face the challenge of what tools are needed to create an adequately furnished kitchen.
While no kitchen is complete without assorted pots and pans, a seemingly random group of cooking utensils and mismatched 20-year old tupperwares, there are quite a lot of less popular tools that help one cook with more confidence and ease. The five items below are incredibly helpful with the cooking process or the cleanup required afterwards. They are also all relatively inexpensive to prevent your bank account from seeming that extra bit lighter — I’m looking at you, stand mixer.
Often mistaken as the helmet of extraterrestrial beings, the colander is a well-known tool by all but far underappreciated by many. Those of us who have been raised with one of these in the kitchen know nothing of the pain that is draining your spaghetti noodles with the lid of the pot. Trust me, the risk of burned fingers does not justify a “reward” of a quarter of the pasta water still being in the pot. Colanders also serve as the perfect vessels for washing any produce too — a practice particularly important during this pandemic.
Colanders come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from small collapsible plastic ones to large durable stainless steel. Every kind of colander will achieve the same end result, but I would recommend sacrificing some of your cabinet space for the metal version as the durability is unparalleled when prepping for a few days worth of food.
I have been able to find colanders pretty much everywhere cooking supplies are sold, but the cheapest ones I’ve seen have been at Target. Even though I can’t vouch for the quality of the tools, if they’re anything like the one my mom has had for years, yours will probably outlive you.
Water bottle brush
This one may seem redundant because of the presence of dishwashers in most kitchens, but those who operate under that assumption will be sorely mistaken. As it happens, many apartments and houses on- and off-Grounds are missing this crucial player in kitchen cleanup, and without such a thing, you’ll find that your water bottle’s cleanliness falls short since getting a sponge to the bottom is near impossible.
With sustainability being one of the pillars of life at the University, reusable water bottles are found everywhere to quench your thirst and protect the environment. But with so much use, they run the risk of becoming particularly disgusting if left to their own devices. That’s where the water bottle brush comes in. Cheap and ridiculously easy to use, they are the only way to ensure that your favorite Hydro Flask tastes as clean as the stickers that adorn it.
A water bottle brush is a little more on the cleaning side of cooking, so I would suggest the wide array of options at the Bed, Bath, and Beyond closest to you.
Microplanes are a little more specialized than the other items on this list, but with that specificity comes a whole new avenue of cooking that isn’t accessible without one. A microplane is a tool — usually the size of a school ruler — used for zesting and grating foods.
For anyone interested in pursuing baking of any kind, a microplane is essential as it is the best and most efficient way to zest fruits when required. It is also the best way to thoroughly grate garlic, an important step in recipes that you shouldn’t overlook — no one wants to take a bite and find a surprise garlic chunk. You can also use it to grate cheese for a pasta dinner with your roommates or create chocolate flakes to sprinkle onto your morning oatmeal or yogurt.
The cost of such a tool is quite cheap, so you would be hard pressed to find a reason not to pick one up the next time you’re in Bed Bath and Beyond. There are also microplane sides on the vast majority of box graters, but I would still recommend getting a standalone microplane. They allow you to grate the ingredients directly into the dish and are much easier to clean.
Microplanes are going to be about the same price everywhere you look, so I would recommend getting them at your local Harris Teeter or Kroger.
Ah yes, the kitchen tool famed with having a bounty on fingertips. A mandolin is basically a flat surface with sharp grooves for cutting and slicing foods. It can be one of the most useful tools if treated with respect and caution for it allows quick, clean and consistent cuts on anything that runs over its blade. Mandolins are especially useful for jobs that require lots of cutting when one's knife skills aren't quite up to snuff yet.
Once you become habituated with the motion of using the mandolin, you have to pay special attention to just how much length the item you’re cutting has left. Because of the ultra sharp blade of the mandolin, if not handled attentively, you run the very high risk of finding a fingertip resting among your julienned carrots.
Mandolins are one of the more pricey instruments on this list, but I have been able to find some cheap yet sturdy versions on Amazon. The last thing anyone needs is a blade to break while slicing some potatoes.
Instant read thermometer
This final tool can be, quite literally, a life saver and is probably one of the most useful ones to have. One of the big struggles when learning to cook — especially meat — is knowing when things are finished. An instant read thermometer takes all of the guesswork out of seeing if your chicken breast is still within the danger zone.
Instant read thermometers — much like microplanes — also open up a whole new avenue of cooking. They are absolutely mandatory for anyone wishing to conquer a complex task like tempering chocolate or blooming yeast, and if the quarantine hype of breadmaking continues, there will be a scramble to get one. There are high-end thermometers that can cost you a pretty penny but are ultimately a waste because any one that can give you continual temperature feedback will do just fine.
You can find thermometers of all sorts anywhere cooking items are sold, but I would recommend looking on Amazon that way you have the widest selection to make sure all your requirements are met.
Without the tools listed above you can do just about any kind of cooking, but they sure do make it a more enjoyable experience. The less time spent stressing over how much chopping has to be done or whether or not you'll get food poisoning is more time to spend with the people you’re cooking for or even with. So why not go down a few extra aisles the next time you’re perusing for house furnishings?