An array of tools I didn't want to be without when I arrived in an unfamiliar kitchen.

If you’re on the road and will be cooking in unfamiliar kitchens, what are the essentials you cannot afford to be without? Thomas Keller once told me he always brought three things, kosher salt, string, and his pepper mill.  Everything else, a restaurant kitchen was likely to have. But what about when you’re traveling to a rental house, as I did last week. A rental house you count on providing you with one crappy non-stick pan, a small plastic cutting board, a cheap pot just big enough to cook a box of spaghetti in, and an array of dull and serrated knives.

Donna photographed the tools I brought with me to Key West to cook 9 consecutive dinners for 16 people.  A big cutting board is the first thing I set out. You’re badly handicapped without it. Sharp knives, flat-edged wood spoons, a perforated spoon (this is the best one made on earth, IMHO), and a basting-tasting offset spoon.  That old basting brush of my dad’s was a last minute addition, but I’m really glad I brought it as we grilled a lot and basted a lot. It fell apart on the last night. (All the linked tools, and other kitchen essentials, are at my Opensky store.)

Vessels, strainer, immersion circulator, and Lexan tub

Didn’t want to be without a really good saute pan, a sauce pan, and big vessels, the big pot, and my invaluable and trusty Le Creuset Dutch oven. The surprise was the grill basket. We used it to reheat big batches of green veg over hot coals, and it doubled as a big colander. The immersion circulator is from Polyscience. It’s old; their new ones are sleek BMWs compared with this Buick, and available for half the cost at Williams Sonoma). But it worked great, allowed me to cook big batches of proteins to specific temperatures (lobster tail, short ribs) and hold them there till I wanted them; I also reheated duck confit and simultaneously cooked 16 eggs in the tub. A huge help when cooking for a lot of people.

On Monday I’ll write about strategies I used in planning these menues and for cooking for large groups.

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41 Wonderful responses to “Cooking On the Road (Tools I Traveled With)”

  • Chef Jim

    Enjoyed seeing you “travel kit” mine is more extensive because I try to be prepared for anything, although I don’t have the immersion circulator, green w/envy for that! I always have 1/2 and 1/4 sheet pans for roasting and cooling product with ice blankets.

    • ruhlman

      I forgot the sheet pans!!! I had to buy down there. Happily there’s a great kitchen store a few blocks from the house.

    • ruhlman

      Yeah, that’s funny. I don’t know why I brought them. I didn’t use them. Habit from showing up in restaurant kitchen and not wanting to have to find someone elses when I was given a specific recipe to do.

  • Deborah Horn

    We rent four different houses/cottages/apts. every summer. (a week each) Most of the time in Europe or Eastern Europe (this summer will be Slovenia & Frulli). The one issue I spend an extraordinary amount of time on when searching for these rentals is the kitchen equipment. I have gone so far as to ask the owners to email pictures of the cooking equipment spread on a counter. Now I can simply email a link to this blog post and ask them to tell me how they stack up! Thanks, Michael!

  • Richard Scholtz

    The most I’ve cooked for at one time is 12 people, and for someone that’s not professionally trained, that can be a daunting undertaking. I always take my knives, kosher salt, my pepper mill, olive oil, a large cutting board, a big stock pot (they are invaluable), and lots of small plastic-ware containers. They are great for holding mise in place, storing leftovers, and I don’t have to fret over leaving some behind.

  • Victoria

    Good tips. I have to think about what I could not do without. And I could not agree with you more about that spoon. It is THE BEST! What about a ring for Thomas Keller’s quiche and a stainless steel tamis? My tamis (2 sizes) are from E. Dehillerin. I find them indispensable for making sublime pureed potatoes, and I used one to sieve a parsnip/potato puree for Christmas dinner.

  • John in Seattle

    For mise in place I use those small paper boats usually intended for french fries. And most times when I go to cook in an unfamiliar situation I drag out the portable induction burner.

    • allen

      I love those paper boats for mise en place and casual snacks. My one person staff (me) really appreciates not having to wash, dry and store a dozen containers every time I want to have an assortment of condiments or pairing items. And the checkered red on white color adds just the right amount of fake Italian diner atmosphere

  • Beck

    I recently visited a cabin for a few days and was told the kitchen was well-stocked, which it was for the most part. In addition to what’s pictured below, I also brought eggs, bacon, a whole chicken, several vegetables, butter, cream, cheese, garlic, some fruit, a loaf of bread, coffee, a small mixing bowl and a cast iron pan.

  • Kathy

    I’m a pack-it-all-just-in-case kind of person, so I was going to ask if you actually used everything you brought. I see above that you didn’t use the measuring spoons — anything else? I always kick myself when I bring a ton of stuff that stays in the suitcase, but then again, if I HAD needed it, I would’ve been glad I had it!

  • big green eggic

    Kind of off topic, but is that a thermopen I see in the pic? I was thinking about getting one but have heard both good and bad things. Was wondering what your take on it is..

  • Deanna B.

    When I travel I repack my knife kit from school, kosher salt, finishing salt, and a couple hot sauces, usually garlic Tabasco and Sriracha.

  • leah

    I’m not a chef so the first thought that came to mind when I saw the picture above was — how the heck does Ruhlman get past the TSA? Do you send this stuff by fedex ahead of time?

  • karen downie makley

    the back of my car is better-equipped than my home kitchen since i often have to bring all of my own cooking supplies. my absolute essential faves are 3 good knives (sm., med., and lg.), 2 good cutting boards (1 for produce, 1 for meat), cast iron pan, and a stock pot. A food processor is my little extra I don’t have to have, but really like to. lugging it around is a pain, but it’s invaluable for a lot of sauces, and it keeps the tendonitis at bay.

  • Baydog

    I always bring a boning knife, slicer, offset breadknife, steel, a nylon cutting board (glass cutting boards are useless and it’s surprising how many people have them) and lots of kitchen rags and mops. My relatives don’t even roll their eyes any more when I visit!

  • Patrick Barnes

    We usually rent houses/condos/apartmants when we are staying for more than an overnighter. Several years ago we bought a picnic basket on deep discount. We started adding/subtracting things that we wanted to have for sure at a strange place. Sharp knives were the first thing. Some good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. My homemade seasoning mix. Some kosher salt and two small pappermills,one with black,one with white. A small whisk for salad dressing. A small cutting board. A good wine opener. The equipment varies from trip to trip but most of it is dedicated to the picnic basket and stays in it. This keeps form having to keep moving it in/out which makes it easy to forget. This past year we found a small basket for short trips. A couple of knives and some other basics.
    Pat Barnes

  • james

    Wow, it’s nice to see i’m not the only one that goes to extremes bringing half my kitchen gear on vacation. i used our second vacation as an excuse to get a second “travel” chef knife (forschner–great value) so i wouldn’t be paranoid of losing my MAC. i’ve brought sheet pans, saute pans, the le crueset, boos block, tongs and an assortment of other tools. one year i thought i could get by with just the chef knife, i ended up buying a cheap serrated knife for all the bagels we got. that will teach me to pack light!

  • hilary.e

    This is a great post – friends/family have remarked on how strange it was that I would vacation with my kitchen equipment, but to me it seems to defeat the purpose of renting a house with cooking space if you absolutely *hate* cooking there. Or can’t for lack of useful tools. I always bring my knives and my microplane grater. Even when I fly.

  • Gemma Seymour-Amper

    Interesting choices! I myself haven’t rented a place where I was going to need to cook, but I do go camping. Perhaps some of my camp kitchen supplies might provide inspiration.

    I have a Henckels 6″ chef’s knife and 4″ paring knife that are set aside for camping trips only. I also have a small cutting board and a ceramic crock stick sharpener.

    My cookset is an MSR Alpine stainless set with 1.5 and 2 liter pots with a shared lid that can double as a frying pan, and an MSR Blacklite non-stick frying pan (which really needs to be retired at this point). I carry two each of the MSR Alpine stainless plates and bowls, which can double as cooking vessels if needed, as well as two Evernew stainless Sierra cups that can also double as cooking vessels in a pinch. For utensils, I bring four sets of Snow Peak titanium flatware (fork, spoon, knife, spork), and four pair of generic hollow stainless chopsticks I found at a local Asian grocery. These all double as cooking utensils.

    I very carefully pack my favorite Denby stoneware mug for my morning coffee. Steel Sierra cup plus hot coffee equals burned lips. I’m in the process of switching over the cookware to Snow Peak titanium ware for the weight savings.

    I have a small bottle of Simple Green (biodegradable and rinses clean), and a half of a Scotch-Brite sponge for cleanup. I used to bring measuring spoons, a gorgeous set from Oneida with 1/4 t, 1/2 t, 1 t, and 1T, plus a separate, but matching, 2T coffee measure, but I realized that I didn’t really need them that badly, so really I’m just carrying them for good luck, I suppose.

    I always bring, as staples: sea salt in a grinder, black pepper in a grinder, red pepper flakes, ground ginger, EVOO, and sugar. I save the real soy sauce packets from good sushi takeout places, and Heinz Ketchup packets from everywhere. I also like to collect Grey Poupon packets when I can find them, since it’s a passable dijon-style mustard (you can buy them through Amazon, where you can find an amazing assortment of gourmet condiments in single-serving foodservice packets). One indispensable item I now bring is little packets of Savory Choice stock concentrate. Having a passable stock concentrate in the woods is pretty nifty.

    All of the above fits into a backpack, but sometimes, the camping involves car camping, so I can bring red and white wine, fino sherry, beer, and the little Kikkoman Cap-Ace 180ml bottles of sake with a plastic sake cup over the cap. The pièce de résistance, however, is my 54 quart stainless steel Coleman cooler, filled with fresh meats, eggs, and dairy. Produce remains outside the cooler, as it will usually keep for a week, at least. I do not, however, trade in any of the above equipment for larger versions merely because I have more room. The more room is for fresher, better ingredients!

    If I’m really feeling masochistic, I’ll bring along my Lodge cast-iron hibachi. It’s big enough for 2-4 people, and nothing goes in that baby except real lump hardwood charcoal lit in a chimney by unbleached paper with no printing.

    Cool article! I’m enjoying reading other people’s choices for their portable kitchens!

  • Gemma Seymour-Amper

    I would like to mention two tools that I always take when I’m cooking at someone else’s house, that I forgot to mention before, and those are my two Chef’n Switchit silicone over stainless spatulas. I have the original designs, which I prefer to the newer ones. The originals were more sleek. They can’t be beat!

  • Saffoula

    I NEVER travel without my french press and coffee. Anywhere. In addition to the bare basics (less than what you and other folks), when staying in rentals, I ALWAYS pack my yellow dish gloves, sponges, Windex, paper and dish towels.

  • Dave Seel (@foodadventurer)

    Michael, what are your feelings on basting brushes? I’ve seen some silicone ones, are they worth purchasing or in the case is classic better? Thanks (and sorry you lost your dad’s brush)…

  • Dana N.

    Glad to see your spankies are as stripe-y as mine!! I do wish the small one’s handle was about 4 inches longer, though….

  • Chuck shaw

    Obvious that you drove Michael. What if you have to fly? Did you pack a whole separate suitcase?

  • Carol Ricketts

    I frequently head across the city to my sister’s home to cook for our family – for 2 up to 20 – and in my bag of tricks ( and I know my sister’s kitchen doesn’t have it) are Kosher Salt, Pepper Mill, Dijon Mustard, Red Wine Vinegar, balsamic glaze, a shallot or two – and for equipment, my immersion blender and heat proof spatula! Knives used to be in the kit but I bought her nice knives last year for Xmas :)

  • allen

    Maybe on a road trip in a car, but I fly light, usually just one small carry on.
    I always fly with a small spice kit I made from a case I bought at Michael’s craft store chain that holds 30 small containers.
    I fill it with of lots of good spices and dried herbs, stored alphabetically, 2 of which are veal salt, some are rosemary, lemon zest and salt for roasted chicken, I crack pepper and grate nutmeg right before I leave so they have plenty of kick, hard to find stuff that I don’t want to have to seek out, lots of dried chiles, cloves, curry so I can make whatever comes to mind and have plenty of flavor ammo.
    If I knew how to load a picture of the kit I would make a link, it’s very small in size, cost less than $10 and will hold plenty for a 2 week trip.

  • bryan

    “Tongs” are missing, from my days as line cook I can not survive without tongs I need something to spin in my hands while I wait. I only buy them from restaurant supply stores (Browne); I even bring them back country canoeing…Beck has some in the Cabin Photo..

  • rockandroller

    I have the same Q as a previous poster – do you box and ship this stuff via a courier service ahead of time? I would think if not and this is your “checked baggage” it would take up a whole piece of luggage, so are you taking 2 bags with you or what?

  • Epicuranoid

    Hehe nice post… I always find that winging it and making do is half the fun of cooking away from my home or restaurant, so I only bring good humor and patience :D

  • Andra@FrenchPressMemos

    Totally agree with the kitchen-heavy packing. We spent 2 days with in-laws who have a fabulously equipped kitchen. I planned fresh pasta for one dinner so I brought double zero flour and cheese broth. I failed myself: I should have also brought semolina for sheeting and cutting the noodles!

  • Epicuranoid

    Coming clean…my wife reminded me that I took tongs, french knife, & a rubber spatula to a trip to Spain where we rented, those, humor & patience.

  • Kitty

    Just curious, when you fly do you ever have difficulty? Even checked baggage with certain objects can be a problem nowadays. When I traveled for my job, the first thing I packed was my old Melitta one cup coffee maker. Measuring spoons would be a help when suffering from severe jet lag.

  • bobows

    My family couldn’t believe that I traveled cross coutry last summer with a cast iron Dutch oven, cooking utensils and spices. I changed their mind when the gumbo was served.

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