The $20 Pro Chef Tool Every Cook Should Own

published Oct 28, 2018
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(Image credit: Hannah Puechmarin)

Restaurant kitchens and home kitchens are both designed for the work of putting food on a plate — but resemblances end there. Restaurant kitchens bristle with the industrial and the oversized: bowls you could bathe a toddler in, medieval vats of hot oil, flat-top griddles with the square footage of a very nice Manhattan kitchen.

Pro chefs cook on a larger scale, with tools that don’t always translate to home cooking, especially for a beginner cook who just needs to know the difference between sauté and braise.

But there is one extremely chef-y show-off tool that I deeply believe every cook, of every ability level, should own — and you’re gonna love it!

Every Cook Should Own a Cheap, Powerful Torch

That’s right. Every cook should own a FLAME THROWER. Isn’t that exciting?

And no! They’re not just for creme brûlée. This is of course the reason most cooks buy a torch — perhaps you too have fallen for the lure of a miniature butane torch on sale around Valentine’s Day, bundled with individual heart-shaped custard ramekins, of course. But this is not the best choice — these tend to be tiny fire-spitting toys, overpriced and underpowered.

You’re not going to find a torch like that in a restaurant kitchen. In fact, you shouldn’t look in kitchen shops at all.

But I got ahead of myself. Why do cooks need a powerful torch? I am so glad you asked!

A Powerful Torch Is a Powerful Learning Tool

A torch is the most direct, visible, and controllable method of applying heat to food. It’s pure flame in a way you haven’t experienced since lighting a marshmallow on fire at a summer camp bonfire.

Cooking at its heart most often involves applying heat to food — and understanding how that heat changes food, from browning meat to toasting bread, is essential to a cook’s education. Most of this transformative action happens where we can’t watch it — in the oven, under the broiler, in a pressure cooker. But the torch lets you transform food with nothing between you and the food but a flame. It’s primal and addictive, not to mention powerful. Which is why the torch and its cousins are so essential to restaurant kitchens, where chefs wield it like a finishing tool to deepen a sear, add a char, dial the flavor up to 11.

At home, a torch invites you to take a Brussels sprout or steak and transform it from soft and raw to blistered in a matter of moments, like watching an old-school time-lapse video of sunflowers turning towards the Kansas sun.

And yeah, you can make creme brûlée too.

The Best Kitchen Torch to Buy

You are obviously ready to take any excuse to have a powerful torch in your kitchen. So what to buy? First: Go to Home Depot or your local hardware store, not a kitchen shop.

What you want is a very simple, inexpensive propane welding torch like the one below — powerful, not a little spitter with a tiny cartridge of propane. A proper torch is just an ignition attachment on a can of propane.

You can spend a little more and get one that has a trigger to stop and start the flame instead of completely turning the gas off and on.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

First 3 Things to Do with Your Kitchen Torch

Once you have your torch, I propose three exercises that will both feel pleasingly educational and properly delicious.

1. Toast marshmallow strawberries: There’s nothing so fun to torch as marshmallow. These fun dipped strawberries will let you observe how sugar caramelizes and browns under a bit of heat.

2. Sear steak or chops: Have you ever made a stovetop steak or a pair of pork chops and wished that the crust was a little more crispy or golden? Use a torch to carefully, from a distance, fill in the sear.

3. Char vegetables: Want a little more crisp on some Brussels sprouts? Want to toast up the edges of some crash hot potatoes? Pull out that torch and observe how it can change (for good or bad) the flavor and texture of your veg.

And OK fine — creme brûlée is pretty good too.