When it comes to cooking equipment, a minimalist approach is often best -- especially for the small things. If your drawers are cluttered with unused hand tools, it's probably time for you to take inventory and pare down.
The things that have been around for years are often the best (such as wooden spoons and box graters). Some new gear is also good (such as silicone spatulas and Japanese mandolines), but most of it is a reinvention of items you probably already have. Though it's tempting to buy ''new and improved" kitchen gadgets, you will most likely find yourself reaching for the time-tested basics when you cook.
Everyone should start with a few good knives. It's worth splurging on high-carbon stainless steel. Next, choose tools that can serve multiple purposes: a peeler, a whisk, a melon baller.
Then clear out everything you thought you needed but don't, and make room for the essentials that can tackle almost any cooking task with ease. Here's a list to help get you started:
1. A serrated bread knife is good for slicing more than a crusty loaf. It also finely chops chocolate bars without making a mess.
2. A Japanese mandoline not only does knife work lickety-split, it creates uniform pieces. It slices (very thin to very thick) and juliennes (fine to large). Great for gratins, fries, salads, and more.
3. Invest in high-quality stainless-steel kitchen shears. Use them to cut foods such as lobster, chicken, and chives or to snip twine and parchment.
4. Choose an all-steel, U-shaped peeler to peel vegetables and fruits, shave cheese, and curl chocolate.
5. Cotton flour-sack towels dry lettuce and other produce well. Wrap just-steamed vegetables in them so they stay hot. Use them instead of cheesecloth for straining.
6. A stainless-steel footed colander with abundant big holes is invaluable for draining pasta and vegetables. Stainless steel doesn't react with acidic foods.
7. Use a spider strainer or shallow skimmer when blanching vegetables. It scoops out copious amounts at once, which keeps the water boiling and ready for the next batch.
8. Stainless-steel nesting bowls with generous widths are good for prepping, folding, and mixing. Get at least five sizes, so you can do more than one job at a time.
9. Box graters work for hard cheeses and vegetables. Microplane zesters grate citrus and nutmeg.
10. Tongs have endless uses: tossing, roasting, lifting, even reaching onto high shelves to grab something.
11. Basic metal whisks whip cream, make dressing, and beat eggs. They also break up ground meat for sauces and chili.
12. Whether you prefer plastic or wooden cutting boards, you will need one for raw meat and another for produce. It's good to have a large one and a small one. At a home-supply store, buy a roll of rubber matting. Cut a piece to fit under each board to keep it from sliding.
13. You will need a few inexpensive stainless-steel spatulas. Choose at least one thin, flexible spatula and one or two long, wide, heavy-duty models. Use the flexible one for turning pancakes and removing cookies from cookie sheets. Long, wide ones are ideal for lifting fish out of a pan and moving it to a serving dish, or for transferring a decorated cake onto a cake stand.
14. Even the best knives won't work properly if they aren't sharp. A V-style sharpener and a honing steel will do the job -- and will last for years.
15. Silicone spatulas can be used on high heat and won't melt while cooking. They don't dry up quickly, get stained, absorb flavors, or lose their shape. Purchase two sizes: a large one and a small one (for narrow spaces), both with long handles.
16. Have two round wooden spoons with long handles on hand so that you can stir all the way to the bottom of deep pans. One should be for savory foods and one for sweets.
17. Every cook needs a glass measuring cup for liquids and nesting sets of spoons and cups for dry measures.
18. An oven thermometer is critical to successful cooking, especially baking. Oven thermostats can be off enough to affect results dramatically.
19. Digital timers that hang on the refrigerator by a magnet or that clip onto an apron are useful when you have multiple dishes cooking simultaneously. Label each timer with a piece of masking tape.
20. Lots of cooks have citrus reamers, but a citrus press gives you more juice with less effort.
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living Magazine. Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42d St., New York, N.Y. 10036. Questions may also be sent by electronic mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, address, and daytime telephone number. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit www.marthastewart.com.