The kitchen is the heart of the home. Every day our kitchens pulse with a rhythm of cooking and cleaning, creativity and nourishment. It’s not just about the need to eat. There’s a special alchemy that happens in the kitchen, the kind of work that can transform ordinary food into a feast. And feasting from time to time is a ritual that can transform ordinary moments into memories and ordinary people into friends and family.
Of course, this important work requires the right tools. It seems like there’s a “perfect gadget” on the market for every little task in the kitchen. In my experience, this is can be more overwhelming than simplifying. I don’t need to have every new milk-frothing, carrot-juicing, cheese-crumbling, spiralizing, emulsifying, super-calibrated food robot in my kitchen cabinets. In fact, I hate having to root through a drawer full of extremely specialized tools just to find a wooden spoon or a paring knife. My preference is for a few very effective pieces, which I can care for well and use for the long haul. In my kitchen, I prefer cast iron, glass, stainless steel, and wood pieces.
Cutting Boards are a useful and versatile surface for any kitchen. Smaller sizes are great for serving cheese and fruit, while a big slab is great for kneading bread or chopping lots of vegetables. Many people are concerned about sanitation when it comes to the question of plastic vs. wood. My preference is always toward natural materials and away from plastics. One great disadvantage with plastic is that a good knife will make significant dents and grooves in the surface. Once bacteria and grime get into these cuts, they’re very difficult to clean out. Regardless of the materials you choose, it’s always important to sanitize and dry out your cutting boards regularly, and to keep separate boards for animal products and vegetables and fruits. Whether made from one type of wood or several, cutting boards are attractive for hanging on the wall or stacking on the counter.
For the serious chef or kitchen remodeler, a chopping block is a wonderful investment. This gives you a big, heavy, stable surface right on your countertop. A chopping block is no more difficult to clean than a cutting board, but so much more useful for big jobs in the kitchen. Chopping blocks can be made about the size of a large cutting board (on legs), or you can have your whole counter topped off with a butcher block surface. This is a big project, but can be way cheaper than granite countertops, and lends a beautiful warmth to a kitchen space. Butcher block tops also turn your counters into giant cutting boards, which is both extremely practical and extremely attractive (once they’re cleaned, of course!). Butcher block tops are usually made of hard maple. This is a very dense hardwood that grows in Midwestern forests and is also often used for flooring because of its durability. A butcher block is either made with “end-grain” pieces or “edge-grain” pieces.
Edge grain tops are generally less expensive than their end-grain counterparts, though they may be a bit harder on the edges of your knives. Cutting surfaces are not finished with varnish like other furniture in your home, but are simply sealed with mineral oil, so you have to be sure to clean and condition them regularly. There are many resources online which detail different methods for cleaning and sanitizing a natural-wood butcher block countertop. My suggestion is to wash down the whole surface with warm soapy water and a firm-bristled brush, sanitize with a vinegar spray, scrub with a mixture of lemon and salt (again using your firm-bristled brush), and then finish with a food-grade mineral oil to seal. This method is outlined more completely here. For a very thorough cleaning, you can also start by scraping a very sharp metal edge along the whole surface, to remove the very top of the board (less than a millimeter) without splitting the grain. This is the method often used by butchers to clean, sanitize, and seal a wooden surface for food safety.
For those whose space allows, a kitchen island is one of the most wonderful features a home can have. The island provides ample storage space, and can offer an extra food preparation surface as well as a nice seating area. Fancy islands often have sinks and power-strips installed. More modest versions are often just a simple storage cabinet with a butcher block top. Islands can be made big or small enough for any kitchen, and some even come on wheels so they can be stored out of the way. If you’re thinking about remodeling your kitchen, or investing in a sturdy piece that will last a lifetime and increase the value of your home, I highly recommend looking into an Amish-made kitchen island.
I have to admit, I am extremely partial toward wooden spoons and utensils in my own home. Some of that is probably subjective; the shape and touch of a wooden spoon make for a pleasant tactile experience, especially when stirring a dish for a very long time. Wooden spoons smell good, in a subtle way. Wooden spoons look great, too, whether they’re hung from the wall or stored upright in a jar. Neither too “country” nor too fancy, this is the essential utensil for every kitchen (perhaps second only to a good chef’s knife). Wood is the perfect material for food preparation. If you are using acidic ingredients, metals and plastic can react to your food and create an unpleasant taste or color change. Wood is non-reactive, and safe to use with anything that’s safe to eat. If you like preserving or fermenting food, wood is an absolute must! Metal of any kind will completely ruin your sourdough starter or homemade sauerkraut. A wooden spoon won’t scald your hand, scratch your favorite pan, or release toxic chemicals into your soups and sauces. I seriously can’t say enough about the advantages of wood in the kitchen (and generations of people from all over the world would agree with me!). Wooden spoons are no more expensive than their new-fangled plastic and metal counterparts. Because this is a (tragically, somewhat forgotten and abandoned) tool that will never need an upgrade, the price tag is often very low.
In favor of food, in favor of wood
I love to cook. I know that not everybody feels this way, and not everybody has the time to cook how they’d wish to. I think that ideas like the Slow Food movement have great value in American society (and great resonance with the values and lifestyle of the Amish). Whatever your budget, whatever your relationship to food, I encourage you to consider incorporating wood into your kitchen. To honor your family, guests who will eat from your table, and yourself as the chef, I ask you to think about bringing the wisdom of generations and the lasting beauty of natural materials into your home. It’s not just a surface-y aesthetic choice; it can change your whole relationship to food, and to sitting down at table together.