A lot of people think that in order to pursue any level of baking or pastry-ing they need a wide array of new and expensive equipment. While it’s true that like any craft, there is a world of gadgets to own and use (I definitely have my share), it’s also true that with a relatively simple and inexpensive set of tools you can make virtually any recipe. But what do you need? What should you pass on? How much should you pay?? All good questions, so let me give you some answers. Keep in mind that most of the tools mentioned can just as easily be used for cooking savory food as well, and when you purchase a quality item, it can last you a lifetime, making it a great investment.
I simply cannot say this enough: To get the best and most consistent results for any baking or pastry project, ditch the cups and tablespoons and get a gram scale. I am so passionate about this fact, that I’ve written an entire post on the subject. You can get all of the gram scale details there, including what to look for and how much to pay. Spoiler alert: here is the scale I use.
I cherish the offset spatula I’ve owned since the beginning of my career. If I was in some obscure scenario where I had to bake on a desert island, I’d make sure to have an offset with me. I use mine for spreading batter, frosting, glaze, chocolate, etc. not to mention lifting delicate pastries to and from sheet pans to plates and back again. Think of an offset spatula as a more elegant hamburger flipper. I recommend owning two – one large spatula between 10-12″ and one small, which is usually around 4″. I really like the Victorinox Forschener brand for a full size offset. You may be saying “that’s a lot of money for a spatula” and you’d be right, but I’ve had mine for 15 years, so it was money well spent. Still, if you want something a little more price conscious then Ateco makes solid spatulas too. This is the small version I’ve always used.
Whichever spatula you choose, consider how thick the actual blade of the spatula is and how much flex it has. A blade that’s too thick is tough to slide under product, and if it’s too flexible, it isn’t much good at moving heavier cakes and objects.
As any cook in any kitchen will tell you – A good set of knives is crucial. However knives are like the cars of the culinary world; the market is full of bells, whistles, styles and brand names that translate to more money out of your pocket for stuff you don’t really need.
That being said, in general you get what you pay for. A cheap price that seems too good to be true usually is. If you can help it, don’t go to a name brand big box store to buy your knife; they’ll charge a cruel markup and have only limited knowledge of the knives they sell. Plus it’s in their best interest to sell you the most expensive knife, not necessarily the one you need. At the very least test some knives out in the store and then buy it cheaper online. Best-case scenario is to go to a legitimate local culinary/cutlery store, where the employees have real knowledge and take real care.
I won’t go into too much knife detail here, but for baking and pastry (and most all other cooking) you really only need three good knives.
This is the classic. It’s the knife you likely see in your mind’s eye when you picture a stereotypical chef. It should be a full tang knife – meaning the blade continues all the way down through the handle to the base – and at least 8” in length to be of the most use. That’s what she said. I wouldn’t spend over $180 on this knife (and you can get a very good one for much less) and beyond that the brand and styling is all up to what’s comfortable to you. I have way too many chef’s knives, but this is what I use in my kitchen at work.
serrated bread/cake knife
Pretty obvious here, these knives are perfect for cutting cake, bread and anything with a delicate or soft texture. The serration of the cutting edge (that wave pattern that creates lots of little “teeth”) works like a saw and applies a lot of cutting pressure at the points of those teeth. This helps it cut into and slice through product that tears easily. To be perfect for pastry it should be 10” or longer with smaller, more compact teeth that are great for cutting cake and soft bread. A bread knife with larger teeth that are more spread out is better for hard crust breads and might tear up a delicate cake. There are tons of decent bread knives out there, a lot of them really cheap. I’ve never really found an absolutely perfect bread knife. It’s kind of like my cutlery white whale. I have and do use this one often, and for the price it’s great.
Sometimes called a utility knife, the paring knife is the thankless workhorse in the kitchen. Your paring knife is perfect for all of the delicate tasks that baking demands. Get a nice one you can keep for cutting produce with and keep it that way! Because of its versatility, it’s tempting to use your paring knife for all sorts of things guaranteed to ruin it, but that’s why you have your…
Ok so technically this makes four knives, not three, but having a beat up paring knife is really, really useful. I have a little $3 paring knife that I kick the crap out of for jobs like cutting cakes out of cake frames, chocolate and sugar decoration, cutting open boxes, etc., so that my expensive paring knife stays in good shape for cutting and dicing food.
There are more crappy and overpriced thermometers out there than I can even comment on. The best and only type of thermometer to own (in my opinion) is a digital probe thermometer. Get one with a cord probe and avoid the flip-open-instant-read variety. Also make sure the cord is either braided metal or heat resistant silicone. Thermoworks and Taylor both make solid versions.
A bench scraper is so versatile. You can use it to scoop ingredients, smooth out frosting, cut doughs…and more! Try and find one that is simply a rolled piece of steel, and doesn’t have any type of protruding handle, like this one. The rolled steal variety allows you to place the bench scraper square on a surface to create a clean, smooth finish to cakes.
good rolling pin
Notice I say a “good” rolling pin. What I do not mean is that old school, handle and rod style pin that every grandma in America owns (no offense grandma. well, maybe a little). Hard truths here – those pins really aren’t great. They are overly heavy and clumsy, the center rod inevitably starts to loosen and wobble, and in general these pins offer no finesse. I live by a straight, solid pin which has all the feel and finesse a bulky hollow pin doesn’t have. A “French” pin is a solid pin that tapers at the ends to make it easier to roll dough into a round shape, which it does, but makes it not great for any other tasks so I stay away from them.
piping tips & bags
So although baking and pastry is a lot more than piping pretty designs with icing, there is a fair share of piping pretty designs with icing. For that you’re going to need some piping tips. And those tips are the must have for piping really anything from macaron shells, éclair, cream puffs, etc. While there are hundreds of different tips and sizes available, starting with a standard set of round and star tips gives you huge versatility. Wilton may own the commercial real estate in terms of brand recognition, but in the professional world it’s all about Ateco. Ateco tips are high quality and usually cheaper than Wilton, so I’d start there in your search.
As for piping bags, disposable is the way to go. Don’t even think of pulling a sandwich bag out of the drawer and pipe with it, that’s for the wannabes down the street. Cloth and canvas bags are even worse. They harbor bacteria, odors and flavors, no matter how clean you think you get them. Disposable bags aren’t going to break the bank and are clean, easy to use and durable.
Hopefully by this point you’ve figured out that the name of the game is versatility. I’m always put off when I need to buy a tool that has only one function. A set of ring cutters, thankfully, has lots of versatility, and we use them every day in the kitchen at work.
Every professional kitchen, everywhere in America uses this style of sheet pan. They are relatively cheap, made of aluminum, which is a great conductor of heat, and have a rolled edge which traps liquids and overflowing batters quite nicely. If you’re thinking of getting some for home use and have a standard oven, then choose the ½ and ¼ sheet size.
This may cause some contention among other professionals, but when I can help it I don’t use enclosed cake pans. Sometimes they’re a necessity (like for cakes of a large diameter), but again, I like the versatility and flexibility of using open rings.
Cake rings make removing a baked cake super simple but more importantly provide you with a mold to cast everything from mousse to creams to chocolate. These are the standard issue tool for building entremet. Cake rings come in a wide variety of diameter and height and owning a few rings of diminshing diameter is best if you plan to use them for entremet.
go bake something!
I hope this has helped you to start a collection of tools to tackle any baking or pastry project you might have your sites on. Obviously I couldn’t put everything under the sun on this list, but if there’s something crucial you think I missed, let me know! And as always, I’m happy to answer any and all questions you might have in the kitchen.
Cheers – Chef Scott