There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of preparing your favorite recipes for family and friends to enjoy. However, choosing items that simplify your time in the kitchen can be confusing. At BestReviews, we understand the challenges that home cooks face in making their purchasing decisions. That’s why we turn to our cooking and baking expert Andrea Boudewijn, who has a passion for culinary arts.
A Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef, Boudewijn owns and operates Superfine Bakery out of Los Angeles, California. She specializes in wedding cakes, with a focus on modern design and structural artistry. Boudewijn has taken classes in sugar flower-making from renowned pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel, as well as various other cooking classes including bread making from The Gourmandise School in Santa Monica. She has shared her expertise by teaching classes on cake and sugar flower-making, and has been featured in The Knot, Brides, and Martha Stewart Living magazines.
AB: I love to cook, but I had to teach myself how to cook. I wasn't allowed in the kitchen as a kid, so I had to teach myself at age 24 how to boil an egg, how to make rice, all that stuff. The one thing I didn't really know how to do was bake. I became curious about that. So I would work a long day, and then I'd come home at night and bake.
I started culinary school in 2009. I had started baking in 2008 and began getting into the more complex stuff, and understanding how wedding cakes are structured. I'm also a big architecture geek too, so it really appeals to me from an architecture perspective. A lot of my cakes tend to look more modern, as you can see scenes, you can see structure, and I think that's beautiful.
When I was in school at Cordon Bleu, I decided to start this blog called Superfine Bakery so my friends and family could see what I was producing. Then random people began writing to me asking me to make cakes for them, so I started making cakes for people. About four months after I got out of school, I decided to to set it up as a proper company. I chose wedding cakes to specialize in not only because I was just attracted to them aesthetically, and they were an engineering challenge, which I love. I love fine detail.
AB: Oh, interesting. Don't be afraid to return. That's number one. A lot of people are afraid to buy now because they're like, I’m spending $400 on a KitchenAid stand mixer, and I don't know if it's the right one. I don't know how often I'm going to use it. Buy it. Try it. Don't be afraid to purchase things that you want to try.
I would also avoid single-use items. And that would be something like an avocado slicer. You don’t need that. All you need is a good knife and a good spoon to scoop out the good part. Also go for sturdy items, like those made of stainless steel, so you make the most of your dollars. Multiuse items are also great — ramekins, for example.
They are typically white ceramic round bowls with straight 90° sides. And they come in all sizes from very, very small that hold about an ounce or two ounces of liquid; a large up to the size of a casserole. They really come in handy, for not only making different things like casseroles, but also for various uses in the kitchen.
AB: The further along you get with baking or cooking, you're going to fine-tune your skills, so you're going to fine-tune your understanding of all of your appliances and tools.
When I think about the fine details of a cake and a certain cake design — whether it's painted or it's textured, fondant, buttercream, ganache — it is going to be on the exterior. I always think about the kind of tools I'm going to use on it and what sort of details I have to be able to put on that cake and then preserve those details.
When I first started cooking and baking before I went to school, the durability of the tools that I bought wasn’t even in my mind. And now it's very important because they have to last a long time and they have to perform. As an example, I have these long thin metal spatulas, and if they get bent or nicked at all, it's not usable to the top of a wedding cake or the sides because that nick will show up in the pattern of the butter. So you have to be very, very careful about what you're doing and buying.
AB: I think my expertise enables me to advise readers because I've put about 10,000 hours plus a lot of practice doing wedding cakes and baking and cooking.
I'm able to tell the readers, “Hey, I've used these eight spatulas. These two are the best and here's why this one's dishwasher-friendly. This one, if it gets dropped on the floor, it's not going to bend, it's not going to nick the floor or the spatula, because I've used them a million times.”
Because of my experience, I can recommend the best tools that people can use that are going to be durable, that are going to last a long time, and always work well. I think it really aligns with BestReviews’ mission to simplify the public's purchasing options or decisions. Because they don't have to do the same research I have. My expertise allows me to tell them, “Hey, this is going to be the best one for you. And here's why. It may be a little more, you know, a dollar or two more than you thought you needed, but it's going to be cheaper in the long run because it's going to last.”
AB: So, when you're first starting out, there are basic items you should have in the kitchen that are general use, multiuse tools. For example, cookie sheets are not just for cookies, so you can use those to be creative and think about other ways to use them.
But really, it's very personal. It's about how you use your kitchen, meaning whatever you like to cook, that's what you should start building your set around. So if you love doing pancakes and you regularly make casseroles on Sundays, then you know invest in a good set of casserole dishes, and for pancakes, get a couple of great pancake flippers, a flat griddle, even sometimes a really nice stovetop pan is great for pancakes. So try a couple of different things before you settle on one and you'll be able to really succeed a lot better, I think, with a good tool.
AB: So I believe in baking from scratch — it's what I do. Box cakes are great, don't get me wrong. But I prefer scratch just because I like to know where my food came from. And if you really want to take it up a notch, I think going healthier is the way to go. And when I say healthier, I don't mean pull the sugar and the dairy out of the cake. I just mean bake it from scratch with that ingredient.
Also, if your cake doesn't rise, check your baking powder dates. If your baking powder is expired, your cake will have a hard time rising and being fluffy. So if you've had baking powder in your cabinet for five years, replace it.
Most cakes tend to be like white or yellow. Take a knife and gently shave off just that brown outer crust. It makes for a much prettier slice when you put it on a plate because you don't have that brown crust interrupting either the mouthfeel or the flavor or the look of the cake. Once it's got someone's like trimming the crust off the edges of sandwiches, you know which they used to do at tea time and that sort of thing.
Also, consider using ingredients that maybe you're not familiar with. Make buttercream and maybe put a teaspoon or two of cardamom powder in there. It’s so cool to kind of force yourself to step outside your comfort zone and try different flavors like that and try new things, and you'll be so surprised at how delicious it comes out.
I also believe in the power of eight-inch cake pans. Parchment paper is really great for keeping the bottoms from burning. Cooling racks that actually fit inside your sheet pans are fantastic.
AB: If you have a small kitchen, there are a couple of ways that you can still build a fully functional kitchen in a smaller space. Get smaller appliances. For example, KitchenAid makes a 3.5 Quart Mini. It's called the KitchenAid Mini and it's a stand mixer. It's heftier than you think and you don't need the big huge one.
A countertop panini press for grilling and griddling in the summer keeps things cooler because you don’t have to turn on the oven. Mine actually opens completely flat and it has griddle plates that you can also swap out for flat plates so you can use it to make pancakes and such, so it's really a fantastic multiuse tool. Once you remove the plates, clean them off, dry everything off, and put it back together, it will stand up against the wall, so it saves counter space.
In terms of storage in your cabinets and in your refrigerator, I recommend getting something very simple called deli cups. They come in sets of roughly 25 with lids and they stack one on top of the other. When they're empty, they also nest for storage. When it comes to any type of bowls, those that nest save space.
AB: I think every cook should have a good set of pots and pans in the kitchen, and if you don't have any, buying a cookware set is the best way to go. I tend to look for cookware sets that are not all nonstick. I want them to have stainless steel inside, because you really don't need a nonstick soup pan and things like that. And there's a chance that the nonstick surface could get damaged and then the pan becomes unusable because the nonstick surface may peel over time, and you don't want that in your food.
However, that said, I definitely believe in having fry pans that are nonstick. I use them for eggs and bacon and stuff like that all the time, and I really need those to be nonstick, so I have a small one and a large one in my setup. If you're just starting out and you have a smallish kitchen, go for a cookware set that has maybe four or five pieces. Keep in mind that the piece count on the listing includes lids. So if it says 11-Piece Cookware Set, they're counting the lids.
I think every cook should also have a really good knife, maybe a 10-inch blade, something nice and long, just so you can cut through longer things like lasagna or pizza.
AB: There's a phrase called “mise en place,” which means it's basically prepping your ingredients before you start cooking. And if you're super busy and you know you've got to run off to work that day and you want to do a dinner party that night, don't try to come home with all your groceries and start chopping stuff then. Chop it earlier and put it in a deli cup with a lid and store it in the fridge.
I think prepping is key, though, and having everything pretty much ready. If you have sauces or soups, those can be made ahead. Soups are often better if they sit for a day because the flavors have time to infuse and relax and all that, so more flavor comes out.
I'm a big believer in the slow cooker. Just throw chicken in the pot with a bunch of vegetables, put the lid on, turn it on, and leave for work. When you come home you’ve got this incredible meal; you can use it in so many different ways. Just check the manual of the manufacturer and they'll have suggestions and sometimes recipes in there, which are great, too.
AB: One thing I think people should do if they're not feeling very competent in the kitchen is to find a good recipe and follow it. Go through it exactly as written the first time, and then once you see the final product, you can shift ingredients to make it less salty, make it more fruity, whatever you like. Also, take your time and don’t cook under pressure. Don't try if you have two hours to do a pot roast if you've never done one before.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that when most cooks try something new, the first three attempts often don’t turn out as expected. I can tell you that there have been many times that I’ve tried something new, and it didn’t work, and that was cool. I enjoyed trying it out. Just give yourself room to make mistakes.
Sign up here to receive the BestReviews weekly newsletter for useful advice on new products and noteworthy deals.
Jennifer Manfrin writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.