Equipping the Healthy Kitchen
Chefs and culinary experts weigh in on the top tools you
need to turn out healthful fare at home.
By Allan Richter
You want your meals made efficiently and fast. But you’ve had it with whatever is handy in the kitchen with little regard for nutrition and nourishment. No more mac-and-cheese dinners. No more stops at the fast food joint for a burger and fries. And pancake breakfasts are destined for extinction.
You want to have more control over what you eat, or maybe you want to save a few dollars, so you pledge to make fewer restaurant outings or cut them out altogether. But how do you make the transition to home cook? Setting the cooking knowledge you’ll need aside, how do you equip your kitchen with the right tools that ensure you’re turning out healthy fare for you and your loved ones?
We checked in with culinary professionals to see what two or three essential pieces of equipment they’d recommend. There was some overlap in the tools they say you’ll need, but there was also a good deal of diversity, particularly when it comes to cost. While all the tools the chefs we spoke with were geared toward helping the healthy home cook become more efficient, the price tags on the equipment they recommend range from just a few dollars to several thousand.
Josh Tomson, executive chef at The Lodge at Woodloch in Hawley, Pennsylvania, takes a nuanced approach. He keeps individual pieces of equipment on hand to closely match each food preparation job, making his approach more high-end.
He has a Waring juicer to make juices from harder foods, such as beets and carrots, as well as greens like kale. He also keeps a standard electric citrus juicer on hand—he’s not partial to a brand for this—for juicing limes, lemons, grapefruits and other citrus. “With the Waring you have to press out so much [pulp] it makes it more cloudy. With this, it comes out more clear,” Tomson says.
Rounding out what he says are his top three pieces of kitchen equipment, Tomson also has a Vitamix blender and a Robo Coupe food processor. “Different tools for different jobs,” he says. His No. 4 favorite is one he acknowledges most home cooks won’t go for—a Pacojet ice cream maker, which can run several thousand dollars. In the summer, Tomson makes olive oil-and-tomato sorbets with the device.
BLENDING FOR HEALTH
Several chefs interviewed recommend a piece of equipment—a blender, if it’s high-end—typically associated with smoothies but used for a wide variety of jobs, including chopping, and a diverse range of foods, including nut butters and milk, as well as juice, ice cream and sorbet.
These chefs, including Scott Uehlein, the corporate chef for the Tucson, Arizona-based Canyon Ranch resorts and spas, like the blenders for their versatility and power. Like other chefs interviewed, Uehlein cites the Vitamix and Blendtec brands for their strong performance.
“The first piece of equipment I recommend to people is a good blender,” Uehlein says. “You can get a real velvety creamy soup without adding a lot of cream or butter because it gets pureed so finely with these really powerful motors.” Uehlein makes custom gluten-free flour blends from buckwheat and other “offbeat grains,” he says, as well as soups and salad dressings.
“A good powerful blender will do lots of things for you and really produce a great texture; it really pulverizes and emulsifies,” Uehlein says. He uses roasted peppers or garlic, a little vinegar and water, and slowly drizzles a small, controllable amount of olive oil to make a dressing. “You don’t need an egg yolk, and you can make a much lower calorie dressing.”
David Joachim, author of The Food Substitutions Bible and The Science of Good Food (both published by Robert Rose), says a powerful blender became an essential tool with the advance of Nouvelle cuisine. The French cooking approach “replaced a lot of the heavy butter and crème sauces with vegetables and fruit sauces, like a raspberry coulis sauce, which is a puree of raspberries.”
Vegetables and fruits have pectin, which thickens the liquid that emerges from a puree and lends itself to a nice sauce texture, Joachim says. “It’s the same principle behind pureeing a potato to make a potato soup.”
Second on the essential kitchenware list of Canyon Ranch’s Uehlein is a high-end, sturdy set of pots and pans—“something with a thick bottom, something that will conduct heat very evenly.” Uehlein’s kitchens use All-Clad cookware, as well as Vollrath’s Intrigue line. “It’s actually designed for induction heat, but we don’t always use it on induction. We also use it on gas or electric.”
Because of his favored cookware’s even heating, very little oil is needed when preheating a pan. Uehlein sprays a little canola oil, lays his seasoned protein carefully into the pan and moves the pan slightly. “It doesn’t stick atall, and you get a nice brown sear,” he says.
“I even do fish with crispy skin. We’ll take the fish with the skin on it, a wild salmon, striped bass or red snapper. We’ll dry the skin really well, make a couple of score marks on it, get the pan hot, spray the pan and the skin of the fish, and lay it skin side down in the pan, and then just take it and put it in a 350-degree oven until it’s done. The skin is nice and crispy, the fish is cooked through, and you don’t need a lot of oil.”
Chef Barbara Rich of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York says she strives for “a simple kitchen, so I would say have a couple of good sauté pans of different sizes.” Have a small pan for eggs, medium for fish or chicken breast, and a 12-inch for a big dinner, says Rich, who is also a fan of All-Clad cookware for its aluminum and stainless steel pots and pans. “They are not cheap, but you will have them forever,” Rich says. “I have an All-Clad pot that’s going to end up going to the grave with me. It doesn’t matter what I do to it, I could never hurt it.”
Whatever the brand, among the most important features in cookware for a healthy kitchen is a small size—for portion control, says Maria Baez Kijac, food writer, historian and the author of Cooking With Ancient Grains (Adams) and The South American Table (Harvard Common).
“I like to have small saucepans (two cups size, four cup size), and I can make a cup of rice if that’s all I want to cook, or I like to do one cup of quinoa or amaranth,” Baez Kijac says. If she makes four cups, she sometimes freezes some in storage bags and makes it for cereal.
“To me what is essential is to have a good set of pots and pans, a knife, measuring cups for dry and liquid, measuring spoons, a small scale and a flat pan to grill things, nonstick if possible,” Baez Kijac says.
In addition to portion control, knowing where your food comes from is an important tenet of a healthy kitchen. And it doesn’t get healthier than if you make much of your food yourself. That’s why a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, and its various attachments, is among the top three essential healthy kitchen items for Canyon Ranch’s Uehlein. “If you’re going to buy only grass-fed beef, you can grind your own,” he says. “It comes with a grain attachment, and there’s a pasta attachment if you want to make your own pasta.”
The biggest item among those recommended by the chefs interviewed is a refrigerator. One with big drawers to hold more fruits and vegetables is on author Joachim’s recommended kitchen equipment list, simply because many refrigerators lack the space to store those healthful items.
“If you have not purchased a refrigerator yet, make sure you get one with a giant produce drawer,” Joachim says. “You can also buy a little dorm fridge as a supplementary refrigerator. Those are inexpensive and nice to have on hand in case you get overloaded with produce from farmers markets or a friend’s vegetable garden.”
The conventional wisdom that a knife is also an essential kitchen tool holds true for the healthy kitchen as well. “A knife is the most fundamental thing,” says Rich of the Natural Gourmet Institute. “I’ve been cooking for 25 years, and if my knife at home is dull I don’t feel like cooking. I feel it’s going to take longer, and it’s frustrating. It’s not as efficient. You’re going to be fighting the food, regardless of what you’re making.”
The important accessory for a strong, sharp knife—she recommends a 10-inch chef’s knife—is a strong cutting board, about the size of a legal pad. “I see people trying to use teeny tiny cutting boards,” she says, “and it’s very frustrating.”
Rich favors Wusthof knives, as well as products from J.A. Henckels International. “They have some medium-range prices; you don’t have to go high-end,” she says. In addition, Rich uses Shun knives.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, Joachim recommends a large knife even for smaller cutting jobs.
“For some people that will be a Chinese vegetable cleaver, which is lighter than an American cleaver,” Joachim says. “They are meant for cutting, chopping and mincing fruits and vegetables. It makes the simple act of dicing an onion a lot easier. It has a wide blade, usually three to four inches wide, which makes it nice to use as a shovel or spatula to scoop up right on the blade.”
Joachim also recommends Japanese-style knives, such as a Santoku or Usuba. “Get a knife that feels comfortable in your hand, the weight feels good, so chopping is not a chore and you are actually encouraged to prepare more fruits and vegetables. A good knife makes it a joy to prep vegetables and fruits. You get a sense of pride when you’re done and see a nicely diced onion on the cutting board.”
As Rich points out, you don’t have to empty your bank account for a good knife—or for other equipment that should make their way into a healthy kitchen for that matter.
Among the more affordable pieces of equipment is a pressure cooker. The device dramatically cuts cooking time, enhancing the cooking experience and making it more likely that you’ll enjoy time in the kitchen. Legumes are among the more nourishing foods, but they take hours of soaking time to prepare.
“It takes a long time to rehydrate these foods, and pressure cooking forces the liquid into the food much faster. You can make something like risotto in five minutes,” says Joachim.
Andy Yang, executive chef of Sachi Asian Bistro, a new restaurant in New York serving Southeast Asian fare, is also a pressure cooker fan. “Let’s say you want to braise something or cook something to a very soft point where it will melt in your mouth. You can braise beef in 30 minutes instead of a day or two,” Yang explains. “It’s a must-have piece of equipment. You only use a dash of oil, a little vegetable stock, and flavor will go into the meat for a perfect meal.”
Yang also recommends an electric combi tabletop oven, which adds moisture to the heat to help what you’re cooking retain its natural juices. Commercial combi ovens run in the five figures, but more affordable versions for homes are available, Yang says. You can add water in a conventional oven as an alternative, but the water could evaporate and you can overcook or burn your food if the temperature is too high.
Camilla Saulsbury, author of 5 Easy Steps to Healthy Cooking (Robert Rose) and other cookbooks, underscores the point that a healthy kitchen does not have to be a costly one. The essential items she recommends for a healthy kitchen each costs just a few dollars. At the top of her list is parchment paper, for lining cookie sheets and baking pans, and roasting vegetables. “You get all the wonderful bits and pieces of the roasted vegetables, and it’s very easy cleanup,” Saulsbury says.
Cooking in parchment paper, or cooking papillote, lets you cook, say, fish with vegetables at once. Wrap the ingredients in the paper, set the oven to 350 degrees, and “in 20 minutes you’ve got a great meal,” she says. “You don’t have to use much or even any oil. If you’re doing a piece of fish and put vegetables in there, it steams it as it’s cooking.”
Rounding out Saulsbury’s list of essential tools are a simple handheld chopper, the kind where the blade comes down in a plunger, and a basic steamer basket that’s either metal or silicone. She likes these tools for their versatility and ubiquitous uses.
Whatever tools you equip your kitchen with, make sure you are comfortable with them and not intimidated. Says the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Rich, “If you’re properly equipped, you can do really healthy food without a lot of fancy stuff. Cooking is a mental game, and if you feel like you have the tools to do it right, you’re going to want to do it.”