Essential Equipment for Cooking Comfort Food

We have all the equipment you need for perfect braises.

On cold winter days I like to make (and eat) comfort food—satisfying soups, stews, roasts, and braises. Braising in particular is hard to beat. It guarantees tender roasts and deeply flavorful sauces—all with very little hands-on cooking. I purchased our favorite Dutch oven when I started working at America’s Test Kitchen almost five years ago, and it’s never let me down. It has a wide cooking surface, so liquid evaporates and forms thick, glossy sauces. Our winning braiser provides many of the same functions, but it’s lighter and has great visibility due to its low sides. Cheesy as it sounds, cooking comfort food like this is like giving yourself and your loved ones a big hug—something we all could use.

—Carolyn Grillo, Associate Editor, ATK Reviews

Our top-ranked braiser had several features that contributed to a solid performance in test after test: a light interior that made it easy to monitor browning; a moderately thick bottom that helped ensure good heat retention and even browning; a generous cooking surface that fit every recipe from whole chicken to meatballs to pork ragu without crowding; and large, comfortable looped handles and a stainless-steel lid knob that gave us a secure grip, especially important when the pan was heavy and full of hot food. While pricey, this versatile braiser made great food, was easy to use, and looked good enough to double as a serving dish.

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This pan performed just as well as our favorite braiser but had smaller handles that were tough to grasp. Because of its thicker cooking surface, it took a bit longer to heat up and to brown chicken thighs. This braiser had the largest cooking surface area, which ensured proper liquid reduction and a rich, flavorful ragu. It was easy to clean and withstood being whacked with a spoon and having its lid slammed down repeatedly. This pan delivered excellent results at a bargain price.

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This perfect, pricey pot bested the competition again. It was substantial enough to hold and distribute heat evenly without being unbearably heavy. The light-colored interior combined with low, straight sides gave us good visibility and made it easy to monitor browning and thermometer position. The broad cooking surface saved us time since we could cook more food at once. The lid was smooth and easy to clean. This pot is expensive, but it was exceptionally resistant to damage.

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With an exceptionally broad cooking surface and low, straight sides, this 7-quart pot had the same advantageous shape as the Le Creuset. It was heavier but not prohibitively so. The looped handles were comfortable to hold, though slightly smaller than ideal. The rim and lid chipped cosmetically when we repeatedly slammed the lid onto the pot, so it's slightly less durable than our winner.

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Our new favorite won us over with its ultrasharp, moderately flexible blade, which made every task seem nearly effortless. It kept its edge throughout testing, even after deboning an additional 10 chicken breasts. Its slightly shorter length proved especially advantageous with finer jobs, giving us more control as we boned chicken breasts. And although we wish the plastic handle were made of a grippier material, its slim profile made it easy to grasp in different ways.

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Still the best—and a bargain—after 20 years, this knife’s “super-sharp” blade was “silent” and “smooth,” even as it cut through tough squash, and it retained its edge after weeks of testing. Its textured grip felt secure for a wide range of hand sizes, and thanks to its gently rounded edges and the soft, hand-polished top spine, we could comfortably choke up on the knife for “precise,” “effortless” cuts.

Update: November 2013 Since our story appeared, the price of our winning Victorinox Swiss Army 8" Chef's Knife with Fibrox Handle has risen from $27.21 to about $39.95. We always report the price we paid for products when we bought them for testing; however, product prices are subject to change.

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A model of simplicity, this clip-on probe thermometer has only one function—a high-temperature alarm—but it performs this function as accurately as our winner. Its stripped-down, three-button interface makes the alarm particularly easy to set; a display with large numbers makes it easy to read; and a pot clip, purchased separately, helps this thermometer fit on a wide range of pots and pans. Finally, it has a handy kickstand and a magnet on the back that allow you to place the interface on a variety of surfaces for handier reading.

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Right out of the box the base paired automatically with the receiver, making it ready to use in seconds. Both base and receiver had bright, clear displays that could be read easily in both bright and dim light; both also have backlights for operating in the dark. The unit maintains a connection for up to 300 feet and alerts you when you go out of range. When you go back into range, it automatically reconnects, and its alarms were loud and easy to set. While we used it primarily for grilling, this thermometer can read up to 572 degrees and transmits temperature data from the probe to the base in 8 seconds, which also makes it useful for candy making and deep frying. It can be made to work with a smartphone by purchasing the Smoke Gateway ($89); however, we found it difficult to set up and the app glitchy.

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With a roomy, medium-depth basket of very fine, tight, stiff mesh, this strainer removed lots of bran from whole-wheat flour and produced silky purees. A long, wide hook allowed it to sit securely on a variety of cookware, and while its rounded steel handle was a bit less comfortable than some, it was still easy to hold. This strainer’s sturdy construction makes it worth its high price: It looked as good as new even after serious abuse.

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With a large, tall-sided, highly perforated strainer and a well-controlled release valve, this bottom-draining model defatted the most stock in every test. And its detachable canister made it the easiest separator to clean by hand. It did have hard-to-read measurement lines, and superficial cracks developed around the drainage hole after 10 washes and 150 times opening and closing it, though it remained leakproof.

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Everything we did with this ladle felt easy and controlled, from scooping chunky stew out of a small saucepan to reaching into a tall stockpot to collect broth. The 45-degree angle of the offset handle put our arms and wrists at a natural angle, giving us full control. The slightly shallow bowl worked well for scraping the bottom of a pot, though it was less convenient for collecting and retaining springy noodles than a deeper bowl would be.

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The scalloped, uncoated pincers on our longtime favorite tongs felt very precise. This model was also comfortable to use, not only because of the silicone-padded handle but also because the tension didn’t strain our hands or wrists. These tongs struggled a bit when transferring ramekins, as the uncoated pincers didn’t securely grip the ceramic, but this is a less common use, and the tongs excelled at every other task. This pair felt like a natural extension of our hands.

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Testers raved about this classic wooden spoon. Light, long, and maneuverable, it kept our hands far from the heat, and its rounded, tapered handle was comfortable and easy to grip in a variety of ways as we worked. It also suited both right- and left-handed testers. The slim tip of its nicely scooped-out oval bowl was easy to maneuver under food for turning and scooping, and when angled slightly, the head provided sufficient area for scraping fond. Made of teak, the wood resisted staining or drying out, retained its color, and never became rough to touch, even after 10 cycles through the dishwasher. 

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Our winning spoons had a simple design that allowed for a continuous, bump-free sweep, with a ball-chain connector (similar to what military dog tags hang on) that was easy to open and close. This set's metal construction felt remarkably sturdy, and ingredients didn't cling to the stainless steel. And while the 1-tablespoon measure did not fit into all spice jars, it was a minor inconvenience for an otherwise easy-to-use set.

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This classic model was accurate and had bold, easy-to-read measurement lines that clearly corresponded to specific numbers. The handle, though small, was smooth and wide enough to be comfortable. We also liked that the glass resisted staining and was durable. Our one criticism: Using the cup properly requires crouching down and looking at the lines at eye level, which was uncomfortable for some. 

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This ball of 100 percent cotton twine tied and held foods without burning, fraying, splitting, or breaking. It made neat, even ties around braciole and whole chicken and stayed in place without slipping. Although any cotton twine might perform as well, this brand releases string from the center of the ball, letting us pay it out with no danger of it rolling off the counter.

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