Kitchn Love Letters

The Surprising Cooking Essentials I Refuse to Travel Without

published Jun 8, 2023
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man cutting papaya
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Whether you’re embarking on a road trip or taking to the skies, we have ideas for making your vacation as stress-free as possible. This content is presented in partnership with Hampton by Hilton; it was created independently by our editorial team.

Immersing myself in a new city’s food scene is one of my favorite ways to get to know a culture. 

As an avid cook, offer me a chance to discover new restaurants and exciting cuisines. When I arrive at a new destination, I like to explore nearby markets and grocery stores as an organic way to get to know whatever place I’m in. When possible, I try to find a rental or hotel room that includes a kitchen so I can cook with local ingredients I find.

Sadly, most rental home kitchens are abysmally stocked with flimsy pans, dull knives, and an utter lack of spices. After a 2006 trip to the mountains of Virginia where the kitchen in our rental had the most beat-up skillets and dullest knives I’d ever seen, my husband and I started packing a portable “chef’s kit.” From Hawaii to the English countryside, we take it with us almost every time we travel. We even once packed an entire kitchen suitcase to cook an American-style Thanksgiving dinner for more than 20 friends in Zagreb, Croatia. 

I love taking this kit of essential kitchen tools and spices when I travel because it’s affordable, portable, and produces great results no matter where I am. It helps me create incredible meals by allowing me to explore local cuisine and , and it brings a sense of home to an unknown destination.

Here’s what you’ll find in my kit whenever I go on vacation.

Credit: Matt Lardie
1 / 8

I love this cross between an Asian-style cleaver and a European-style chef’s knife. It’s incredibly sharp, and the wide blade can be used as a scraper to easily scoop and dump what you’ve chopped into a pot or skillet. It’s also very affordable, which is key because things get lost on vacation! I leave my more expensive Wusthof knives at home knowing that if I lose this chef’s knife it can be easily replaced. (Note: If you are packing a knife to fly, you’ll need to check your chef’s kit.)

2 / 8

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a rental kitchen to find they only stocked one large chef’s knife. Try peeling a potato with that! These paring knives come in a pack of four and are very affordable, so I’m not too upset if one gets lost or damaged.

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Also called a fish spatula, this is a must-have for any kitchen. It’s thin and somewhat flexible, making it perfect for sliding under delicate fish fillets. It’s also extremely versatile: I use mine for everything from flipping fried eggs to making pancakes. Because it’s metal, it’s also great for the grill. Once you have a fish spatula in your life, all other spatulas will pale in comparison.

4 / 8

Tongs are a kitchen hero. I use them for quickly plucking a piece of pasta out of boiling water to test for doneness, reaching into a hot oven to flip roasting vegetables, or to help me transfer marinating meat from the bag to the skillet without getting my hands dirty. Even in rental houses with grills, you’re not guaranteed to have tongs, so I always toss a set into my chef’s kit.

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One of my most-used kitchen tools, this spatula can be used for mixing batter, folding together a dip, stirring a soup, and more. Unlike a rubber spatula, the silicone is virtually heat-proof and can be used on a hot skillet or pan without having to worry about it melting. I like the Le Creuset spatulas for looks, and the head pops off easily for cleaning, but any silicone spatula will do.

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Traveling for someone’s birthday and need to frost a cake? You’ll want an offset spatula. While sometimes called icing spatulas, they are so much more than that. The long, thin blade is perfect for popping hot muffins out of a tin, carefully lifting a perfect brownie square out of the pan, or spreading mashed avocado over bread for avocado toast. This set of one 8-inch and one 6-inch offset spatula gives you great versatility for an affordable price.

7 / 8

I can be a bit of a hurricane in the kitchen. Spills and splatters happen, and it’s nice to have a few extra kitchen towels to quickly wipe up messes. Most rental kitchens have maybe one or two decorative towels, but I prefer these terrycloth towels (also called bar mops) for their durability and utility. I always toss two or three into my chef’s kit. Pro tip: Your towel can serve double-duty when you wrap your knives to protect the blades.

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Spice Kit

I assume almost all rental kitchens will have salt, pepper, and cooking oil and build from there. Your spice kit might be different than mine, but I’ve always found it helpful to pack something for heat (cayenne, red pepper flakes), citrus notes (cumin, coriander), umami (MSG, mushroom powder), and warming spices for baking (cinnamon, nutmeg). I also always bring flaky Maldon sea salt for sprinkling over a dish, curry paste, and an all-purpose seasoning called Vegeta that I fell in love with in Croatia. Lastly, I use miniature jam jars from a Bonne Maman advent calendar for my traveling spice kit. They’re small and compact — perfect for a week’s worth of spices.