Professional cooks are hyper-organized, quick on their feet (which they stand on for literally hours on end), and capable of tremendous precision and artistry at the same time. Crucially, pro cooks also use only the most functional tools available, and the experience they've accumulated over their years working in kitchens has allowed them to develop systems that make getting food from the walk-in to the fire to the table as quick and efficient a process as possible. Just take a look at how they set up their prep stations, and you'll get a taste of how much we as home cooks can learn from them.
Our lesson today is about the equipment professional cooks rely on that can make cooking at home easier. Sure, at the end of the day, you're not getting paid to cook; you can stand in the kitchen in your pajamas, not whites; and you can watch The Great British Baking Show while you prep. But when you're armed with these tools, you'll find you can complete everyday cooking tasks faster and more precisely.
Tools and Utensils
A Food Mill
There's so much you can do with a food mill: It'll plow through tomatoes (even the skins!) for a super-smooth tomato sauce and make quick work of mashed potatoes for a crowd without requiring too much effort. But most food mills designed for home cooks just aren't up to the task—they're frequently either too small or not strong enough.
A Sauce Spoon
When I started culinary school, we were required to buy an assortment of tools, and a lot of them made perfect sense: a knife kit, tongs, a fish spatula. More perplexing to me was the inclusion of a sauce spoon: Why on earth did I need a utensil that was too small to be a serving spoon and too large to use for soup?
The answer is that sauce spoons, which have a normal spoon handle and a slightly larger bowl, get heavy use in restaurant kitchens for basting proteins and taking quick tastes as you season a dish. Grab a few basic sauce spoons, plus a perforated one for scooping up beans, vegetables, and chunks of meat from cooking liquid. When they're not in use, toss 'em in a nice big bain-marie (more on that later).
An Offset Spatula
You'll most often see offset spatulas used for frosting a cake, helping to get each layer smooth and tidy. But they're also perfectly adept at flipping small items in your sauté pan, like scallops or blini. While normal kitchen spatulas are often too large and clumsy to flip these delicate items, an offset spatula gives you control and precision when you need it most.
I didn't know there were tweezers other than the ones for my eyebrows until I came to work at Serious Eats. And damn, are they ever useful. There are many reasons why cooking tweezers are great to have: Use them to lift a perfect pasta twirl, to fish individual capers out of those skinny jars, or to get a rogue bit of eggshell out of a hot pan.
We recommend picking up extra-long tweezers for work with larger items, like maintaining a tight grip as you flip a steak, and fine-tipped ones for more detailed tasks with smaller objects. Store them on your wall-mounted magnetic knife rack to look like a real, professional badass.
A Coil Whisk
We've written extensively about all the different types of whisks out there, but here's one we have yet to cover: the coil whisk. This tool, which looks a bit like an oversize milk frother, is ideal for whisking gravy and emulsified pan sauces because the coil lies flat in the pan, while the rounded edges get right into the corners.
Fine-Mesh Conical Strainer
A fine-mesh conical strainer is one item I've never seen in a home kitchen, though they're commonly found in restaurants. Why? For one thing, a good one is expensive. But if you want ultra-clear, restaurant-quality stocks and perfectly smooth purées, a conical strainer will do the job. Simply pour in the liquid and press it through with a ladle or spoon—the results will be silky-smooth every time.
A Bench Scraper
There's a reason bench scrapers made it into the list of tools in our kitchen starter kit. They're certainly useful for baking-related tasks, like portioning dough, but they're also great for moving piles of chopped vegetables from the board to your skillet or for cutting lasagna into perfect squares. Use them to clean up your workspace, too, and check out the handy ruler on our preferred OXO Good Grips scraper if you need to do some quick measuring.
A Flexible Slotted Spatula
A flexible slotted spatula, a.k.a. fish spatula, is different from your run-of-the-mill spatula: It has a short handle and a sharp, offset metal flipper with large holes. Unlike thicker silicone spatulas, this flipper is specifically designed to easily slip under pieces of food without turning them to mush. This helps enormously if you're trying to flip a piece of fish or chicken that has stuck to the pan a bit.
A Utility Knife
Of all the knives in a professional cook's kit, this is probably not the one you expected to see on this list, but utility knives are an essential feature of any restaurant kitchen. Use them to open boxes, slice off a length of painter's tape (more on that forthcoming!), cut parchment paper rounds, and even mince herbs or create fine dices for a truly professional-looking presentation.
A Chef's Press
Sasha is all about his Chef's Press, and you'll also find these weights exceptionally handy, allowing you to press down on whatever you're cooking to maximize contact with the pan and ensure better browning (or a crispier grilled cheese). Plop it on top of strips of bacon cooking on the stovetop to keep them flat, or use it to get a nice char on vegetables. Pick up one or two of these, and get ready for that sizzle.
I've seen plenty of professional chefs use torches to add charring to vegetables or get that razor-thin, crystallized topping on a creme brûlée. I've also seen my brother-in-law use one on a marshmallow, and it's pretty terrifying. Torches offer restaurant-grade firepower, but with all that power comes great responsibility. If you do decide to pick up a torch, be sure to use it carefully.
Both Daniel and Stella agree that the one thing you don't want to use a cake tester for is...testing the doneness of cakes. The simple fact that a tester comes away with no crumbs attached doesn't give you enough information to know whether the cake is overdone or perfectly baked. But these tiny pokers are useful to keep around anyway, mainly for testing roasted and blanched vegetables. You'll be able to see if your beets are perfectly tender without having to slice one in half and ruin your presentation.
Cheesecloth is useful for much more than cheesemaking—you can also use it to strain homemade yogurt or separate those pesky seeds out of puréed fruits. Buying commercial will save you money, getting you way more cheesecloth for your buck before you attempt that homemade ricotta.
A Counter Squeegee
Keeping surfaces clean is a must in restaurant kitchens, and a counter squeegee is more effective than a sponge or washcloth at getting rid of water puddles and mayo smears. Try enlisting your kids' help with this task—chasing down crumbs with a squeegee is sort of like a game, right?
Storage and Organization
Cambro Containers With Lids
We've long recommended Cambro containers for sous vide cooking projects. But when you're working in a restaurant and stocking a lot of many different types of ingredients, Cambro containers, along with their lids, can also come in handy for storage. Stock up on some two-, four-, and eight-quart square ones, plus some larger rectangular ones for sous vide recipes, and your pantry will look like a much more organized place.
Pint and Quart Containers
For storing smaller ingredients, stock up on pint and quart containers. These guys are perfect for home kitchen storage and organization; they nest neatly in a drawer when not in use; and they're dishwasher-safe, so they're completely reusable. I like to use mine to bring lunch to work, and for drinking water when I'm too lazy to grab a cup.
"Bain-marie" is kitchen-speak for a utensil crock. They're not quite as attractive as fancy ceramic crocks, but they're functional and very affordable. Pick up a few and toss in all your most-used utensils, making them easier to find and freeing up precious drawer space.
For very refined countertop organization or mise-en-place storage, pick up a yakumi pan, a set of stainless steel compartments to hold herbs and seasonings. If they get a bit dirty, simply load them into the dishwasher. Unlike other stainless steel appliances, these pans are pretty enough to be left out on the counter.
For slightly less glamorous ingredient storage, use hotel pans, which come in a variety of sizes and depths. Commonplace in every restaurant kitchen, they're the ultimate functional containers for holding mise-en-place ingredients. They're also excellent for storing stews and braises, cooked grains, and the like, and they're made of nonreactive stainless steel to boot. Keep them right in the fridge, wrapped in plastic and secured with a rubber band. When not in use, they can be kept nested and out of site.
Plastic Squeeze Bottles
I can say from experience that squeeze bottles are not only incredibly handy but fun to use, as well. In many restaurant kitchens, you'll find all sorts of sauces and cooking liquids stored in them—maybe blended oil or wine for making pan sauces, maybe homemade sriracha or ketchup. Just make sure you store them far from the stove, since they can melt.
Cookware and Appliances
Rimmed Sheet Trays and Wire Cooling Racks
We've said many times that rimmed sheet trays and wire cooling racks belong in every kitchen. Of course, you can use a sheet tray for baking chocolate chip cookies or roasting vegetables, but they're also helpful for saving your oven from an overflowing pie, or (when paired with a wire cooling rack) for brining, roasting, and resting meats.
While a half-sheet tray is the standard size for home ovens, quarter- and even eighth-sheet trays are good to have on hand for smaller projects. Buy a few, and, as with quite a lot of these cooking tools, nest them away when they're not in use.
A Sizzle Platter
About the size of an eighth-sheet tray, but rounded, sizzle platters are used for cooking one or two portions of vegetables or meat in the oven. As Daniel says in his love letter to sizzle platters, you'll often see these stacked at every station in restaurant kitchens. The best part? They're pretty handsome-looking, too, so you can take them straight from the oven to the table. (Just be sure to bring a little trivet with you, because these things get hot.)
You'll find a Vitamix blender in nearly every restaurant kitchen—they're simply better and more powerful than most other blenders. It's a pricey piece of equipment, but if you're in search of the most pristine purées or want to grind your own grains, a Vitamix will serve you more than well. (Read more about the benefits of this machine in our review of high-powered blenders.)
A Carbon Steel Pan
Daniel has long had the goal of introducing carbon steel pans into the mainstream. Carbon steel is much like cast iron in that it gets very hot and stays hot, so it's perfect for searing meats, and, with enough seasoning, it can become nearly nonstick. But carbon steel pans have sloped sides, making them ideal for pulling off that professional toss, and it's often lighter than cast iron. As someone who tires of hauling my 12-inch cast iron pan around, this is very, very appealing.
Bar Keepers Friend
Our culinary team calls this "the best cleaning product for stainless steel by far. It's really like magic." If you need more convincing, refer to our guide to cleaning stainless steel pots and pans.
Precut Parchment Paper
I love parchment paper, but I hate trying to tear it from a roll using one of those serrated box edges—it's nearly impossible to get an even edge. What a relief when I learned from the culinary team that precut parchment paper exists. These individual sheets will fit neatly in a half-sheet pan and won't curl up on you. Store a bunch in a sheet pan above the fridge, and grab a precut sheet whenever you need one, saving you lots of time and frustration.
Heavy-Duty Aluminum Foil and Cling Wrap
If you have space in your kitchen for them, these big boxes of plastic wrap and heavy-duty foil will save you plenty of headaches. Heavy-duty foil is exactly what it sounds like—it tears less easily and holds up better to use. And if plastic wrap gives you anxiety (it's not just me, is it?), this heavy-duty Costco-brand wrap in a box with a sliding cutter will make short, tidy work of all your coverage needs, all but ensuring that you won't end up crying on the floor with little triangles of plastic everywhere.
Permanent Markers and Painter's Tape
In a restaurant kitchen, Sharpie permanent markers and painter's tape are just about as heavily used as a good chef's knife. That's because labeling is essential to staying organized. If you're putting something in the fridge or taking something out of the fridge, it had better be labeled.
Writing directly on your containers with Sharpie will stain them, so, instead, cut a piece of painter's tape and write up an identifying label with the description, date, and time, if need be. When it's time to wash and reuse the container, peel off the tape and start again.
A Dry-Erase Board
Dry-erase boards are a great way to remind yourself what groceries you need to buy at the store or for writing down a dinner-party menu. If you want to also leave cute notes for your roommate or partner, go for it. Since you don't live in a restaurant kitchen, no one will be able to make fun of you.
A Recipe Journal
Professional cooks are always on the hunt for new recipe inspiration, and where does it go? Into a nice little notebook like this one. Carry one with you when you're out to dinner, or at the grocery store to take note of what you see and like. You can use any old notebook for this purpose, but a classic Moleskine recipe journal will give you extra style points.
Cotton Kitchen Towels
Cotton kitchen towels are the universal sign of a restaurant kitchen. They're cheap, they're useful both for cleaning and as potholders, and they can be tossed in the wash when they get dirty. Keep a stack of these at home, and everyone who comes by will know that you've got the inside scoop on how professional cooks get things done.