“Kitchen shops today are wonderfully exciting places to browse through,” the Boston Globe Cookbook stated, somewhat unhelpfully, in the 1980s. It’s a reminder that there was a time not long ago when cookbook authors were loathe to tell readers how to outfit their kitchens.
“Cooking utensils and equipment are extremely individualistic and personal items,” the Globe cookbook continued, devoting only a single paragraph to the type of gear a cook might need. In fact, readers were told to figure out what they needed, buy the best they could afford, and put it to good use—advice that seems as foggy as Boston Harbor in January.
How things have changed. Cookbooks are no longer simply instruction manuals focused on recipes. These days, authors are recommending the gear and ingredients to buy in order to achieve the best results.
“The recipes in this book are designed to increase the tools in your tool box, one by one,” declares Greg Wade, author of Bread Head and the James Beard Award-winning managing partner at Chicago’s Publican Quality Bread.
Wade is among the authors and chefs who devote ample space in their books to guiding readers toward the ideal gear and ingredients. Sometimes, these suggestions come early in the book, before they get down to recipes; other times, they’re tucked in the back.
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I looked through five cookbooks published this year to see how their recommendations compared with each other. Those cookbooks are:
- Bread Head by Greg Wade
- Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes by Aleksandra Crapanzano
- Cook What You Have by Christopher Kimball
- I Am From Here by Vishwesh Bhatt
- Pour Me Another by J.M. Hirsch
Here’s what today’s cookbook authors want you to keep stocked in your kitchen.
Basic kitchen equipment
Each of these cookbooks includes a section on the type of cooking equipment (or, in Hirsch’s case, drink mixing accessories) that you should have on hand before you plunge in.
Crapanzano and Wade agree that fledgling bakers need to have a stand mixer, kitchen scale, and an oven thermometer. Wade wants bread bakers to have a clay baker or a cast iron bread pan. Crapanzano lobbies for loaf pans in a standard (8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches) and large size (9 by 5 inches) as well as round cake pans that are 8, 9 and 10 inches around.
Hirsch thinks a basic bar should have a two-ounce jigger, a shaker, stirring glass (so you drinks can be either shaken or stirred), three kinds of strainers, a muddler, and a selection of glassware.
The most important pantry items
With a magazine, radio program, television show, and online instruction in the vast Milk Street portfolio, Christopher Kimball’s enterprise keeps a pantry in Boston that’s constantly stocked with essentials like canned tomatoes, tuna, grains and beans. But Kimball says those kitchen heroes “sometimes need a little help.”
Cook What You Have includes a list of 25 essential ingredients Kimball thinks home cooks should have on hand, such as anchovies, bacon, capers, sesame seeds, tahini, and plain rice vinegar.
Bhatt does him one better. I Am From Here includes three pages of recommended spices as well as recipes for making the spice blends used in his recipes. He also counsels cooks to have a supply of peanut or canola oil, and they’ll need a stock of rice. He prefers basmati because of its aromatic quality, but any long-grain rice should do.
This shopping list might seem daunting if you are new to the Indian-Southern fusion style in Bhatt’s book, so he helpfully provides a short version.
“Don’t let a missing ingredient stop you from trying a recipe,” Bhatt writes. “In most recipes I suggest the best pot or pan for the task at hand. If that’s not on your shelf, use what you have and cook on.”
The best type of flour, according to the experts
These cookbooks offer a way for you to sample that the end result is supposed to taste like, even if you can’t visit Bhatt in Oxford, Mississippi, take home Wade’s bread from Chicago, or catch up with Crapanzano in Paris or New York. These writers all have a key ingredient in common: top-quality flour.
Reflecting the wide range of his recipes, Wade shares his thoughts on different kinds of grains—rye, millet, buckwheat, rice, corn, sorghum, spelt, oats, and, naturally, wheat. Then within wheat, he expounds on cake flour, pastry flour, all-purpose flour, bread flour, and high-gluten flour.
Since Crapanzano focuses primarily on cake, her flour selection includes all-purpose, cake, and nut flours (almond and hazelnut, which she keeps in her freezer). Crapanzano cautions that American flour and French flour are different: There is no such thing as all-purpose flour in France, and cake flour and pastry flour are different things. To keep things approachable to the average baker, she sources her flours from King Arthur Baking.
Bhatt makes a case for keeping chickpea flour on hand—“I love its nutty flavor,” he writes. Often, chickpea flour is available in coarse and fine grounds. If you have a choice, opt for fine.
How cookbooks offer variations on a theme
Beyond their suggestions for particular pantry items and kitchen tools, these books share one reassuring similarity: They present basic recipes, then offer variations so that the user can dress them up as they see fit.
One of the first recipes I learned to make from my French family was the classic yogurt cake, in which a small yogurt container is used to measure things like flour, sugar, milk, and, of course, yogurt. Crapanzano goes a step further with more than a half dozen versions of yogurt cake, including flavors such as orange, almond, lemon, and menthe, and she has a yuzu version, too.
Bhatt actually organizes his book by ingredient, so you’re getting numerous suggestions for what to do with, say, your tomatoes, including multiple soup recipes, Turkish tomato salad, tomato chutney, and his tasty green tomato pie.
Right on his book jacket, Kimball tells readers they’ll be able to “make a meal out of almost anything.” And he proves it by showing how frozen corn and green peas can be transformed into Japanese-style rice or a delicate risotto. Unlike the aloof cookbook authors of the past, you get the feeling that Kimball would walk you right to the freezer section and start tossing bags into your cart—just as Wade would guide you to the right flour, or Crapanzano would cheer you on making a dinner party yogurt cake, exactly as you deserve.