Tarts tins. Ring molds. Loaf pans. Mini tart tins. Pastry bags. Pastry tips. All of varying sizes and shapes. Cake plates. Pie plates. Muffin tins. Madeleine tins. Bundt pans. Sheet pans. A multitude of small wares for manipulating fondant. Cannoli tubes. Chocolate molds. Silpats. Rolling pins. The list goes on, but you get the point that being a pastry chef usually comes with a need for a hoard of equipment.
My collection has grown since I opened my own pastry business. Where one of any particular tool was once acceptable, now 10 are needed. My fiancée shakes his head as he hauls another box of equipment to my commercial kitchen. I always find myself excusing the purchase with a "but I really do need it."
The truth is, I could get by with less.
In my last place of employment as executive pastry chef, I had to learn to work with less equipment, and it was definitely a challenge. For your ideas to become reality, you must look at each item you wish to make with fresh eyes, and puzzle together how to execute. While most dream of having a plethora of amazing equipment at their fingertips, I have to say that I learn a lot more when I have to push myself using less.
We do, however, need basics. You may see chefs roaming around with a knife roll over their shoulder. Most have their own knives, but what else do we tuck into our arsenal to be able to do our job? Ask any number of pastry chefs or chefs what their five must-have tools in the kitchen are, and each will give you a different answer. It's a matter of training, preference, as well as the varying restaurant concepts in which we work.
These are my five must-have pastry tools that I always, no matter what, like to keep on-hand in my knife roll.
Scale: While you may think it is weird to stuff this into my knife roll, I should warn you that measuring cups are horribly inaccurate. When I teaching baking classes, the first thing that I do is to have everyone scoop a cup of flour and weigh it. We then all compare our cup of flour weights, which often vary from one to three ounces. Often in baking, when you start to see problems with consistency in your product, it comes down to accuracy in the measurements.
There are great digital scales out there for around $40, or you can go old school with one that uses weights. Either way, it is the best way to bake.
Microplane: I use a lot of citrus zest in pastry, and having a microplane makes my job at great deal easier. You can buy a knock-off or a cheese grater and get pretty much the same results, but what I love about the microplane is that it produces a fine zest that I don't usually need to chop more finely. It also is fabulous for grating cheese or spices, as I often use mine for nutmeg.
Bench knife: For the baker, these are invaluable, but I find myself using a bench knife for many different uses, including cutting up butter for various pastries. Some might feel a knife is a better butter-cutting option, but personally, I like the sturdiness, control, and lack of a super-sharp edge when cutting something as slick as butter. Bench knives can be used to cut small hunks of dough off a larger mass. I use it to transfer pastries to and from sheet pans or from my worktable to a sheet pan. I mix nuts or granola in the oven with them. They are really a multiuse tool and can be picked up for under $10.
Palette Knife (a.k.a. metal spatula or off-set spatula): Palette knives come in all shapes and sizes. You will hear them called off-set spatulas, metal spatulas, etc. But I have always referred to them as palette knives, as they do resemble the tool used by painters (and some painters use this tool for that purpose). Palette knives are essential in frosting cakes, spreading creams or fillings, transferring items off sheet pans, to assist in decorating techniques . . . The uses are endless. You can pick one up in a number of sizes and blade shapes, which run anywhere from $5 to $20.
Chef Knife: Pastry chefs aren't known for having amazing knives. Many I know have cheap kitchen knives that they use and abuse. I learned early on, working with some amazing savory chefs, the value of having and keeping your knife in good condition.
I purchased my knives from the Phoenix Knife House. After talking with owner Eytan Zias and handling quite a few, I found the knives that work for me. Don't be intimidated, even if you aren't a professional chef, from purchasing a good knife.
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In pastry, I use my knives everyday. I chop fruit, veg, and even cut proteins for various pastry and quiche. I use my knives to cut rounds from pie dough as well as slicing off cookies from a log of dough. Having a sharp knife makes for a much easier job. I still haven't mastered sharpening my knives, so I take them regularly to Phoenix Knife House to be sharpened for a small fee. Knife prices vary, based on what you want. They aren't cheap, but for what they are and how often I use mine, they are worth the price.
These are my five must-have tools that I take with me on every job. Ask any other chef what they have in their knife roll and they will unfold different tools with a story as to why each earned its spot.
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.