The Tools You Need to Vacation like a True Home Cook

Here's what you need to cook what you want, when you want—even in a vacation home.

Published Oct. 23, 2018.

When most people go on vacation, they look forward to stepping away from the kitchen, spending a fair amount of time eating out and enjoying the fruits of someone else's skilled labor. After all, as a good friend of mine says, “If there was ever a true reality show about traveling with kids 75 percent of the footage would be loading and unloading the dishwasher. The other 25 percent would be clearing the table and asking yourself, ‘why am I the one doing this?’”

I know my knives. We’re in a relationship. They’re familiar, comforting even. And 9½ times out of 10 they’re better than the alternative.

But I enjoy cooking, especially when it entails digging into local produce, dock-fresh seafood, or the specialty butcher's case. Grilling on someone else's well-worn setup, cooking over open flames, and experiencing the quirks of a new stove (hopefully one better than mine) are exciting challenges to me. And through all of my travels, I've learned that there are a few pieces of equipment I won't leave home without. Here are the tools I always try to remember and immediately regret when I forget.

First off, my fish spatula. This ain't your grandma's pancake flipper. No, this is a highly intelligent, technically correct, utilitarian piece of equipment. The tines are thinbut stiffwith just the right amount of give. And its angled tip makes it possible for you to easily position and maneuver salmon on the grill. Despite its title, fish spatulas are in no way restricted to fish. Given my dueling proclivities for laziness and innovation, I've used a fish spatula to beat eggs, shred braised pork (with short jabbing motions), mash potatoes, and open a beer. Don't leave home without it. You never know when you might get thirsty. (Editor's Note: Read "Getting to Know: Beer" to learn all about the different types available.)

The Best Fish Spatula

Wüsthof Gourmet 12″ Fish Spatula

This essential tool can be a cook's best friend—but only if you choose the right one.
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Another indispensable piece of equipment to have with you if you decide to cook while on vacation is a sturdy set of tongs. You never realize how badly you need a great pair of tongs until you’re watching flames engulf your grilled rib-eye, while you stand there helplessly with a tear in your eye. I've run across all manner of tongs in my travels, like those big bear trap looking jobs that come in hardware store "grill kits" . . . these are better used to fend off desert coyotes. Or those old school scissor tongs void of gripping power. I’ve even owned a pair of flimsy aluminum tongs that look great until you actually apply pressure and permanently forge the metal into your fist. A good set of tongs will make your time in the kitchen (or at the grill) that much more enjoyable. I don't bother with multiple sizes for different tasks. I take a one-size-fits-all approach with a pair of OXO Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs. And because I know you're wondering, yes, you can even open a beer with them.  

The Best Tongs

OXO Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs

If you're looking for precision and comfort, this pair of tongs won't disappoint. 
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Of course, the aforementioned pieces of quality equipment are moot if you don't have a good knife alongside you in the kitchen. I always travel with several knives when I hit the road, ready to attack just about any job at hand. I know my knives. We’re in a relationship. They’re familiar, comforting even. And 9½ times out of 10 they’re better than the alternative. At the very least, I'll pack a good quality hybrid-style chef's knife (I'm personally partial to Mac knives) and a paring knife. In my opinion, the brand is less important than sharpness. Don't forget to bring along a good quality pocket knife for when you're out at the grill, on a trail, or in a dark alley. Keep it sharp. Keep it clean. Keep it close.

The Best Knives

Masamoto VG-10 Gyutou, 8.2"

A good chef’s knife serves as an all-purpose tool for cutting, slicing, mincing and chopping everything from herbs to vegetables to meat. 
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The Best Knives

Mac Professional 8" Chef's Knife with Dimples

This knife has the ability to cut squash “like a hot knife through butter,” with “perfect control.”
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The Best Knives

Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 3 1/4" Spear Point Paring Knife

We choose a paring knife over a chef’s knife for three primary tasks where control is paramount: poking things, surgical incisions, and peeling fruits and vegetables.
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Cookware is the great equalizer in the kitchen. A set of thin, flimsy pots and pans leaves your food susceptible to burning, sticking, under-browning, and over-browning. In other words, you're left with food that's barely edible. While I can't bring a set of pots and pans on the road with me, I do try to bring one good quality skillet suitable for almost anything. Enter the 12-inch carbon steel skillet. After repeated use, it becomes seasoned and relatively nonstick. The absence of a plastic handle means it's oven and broiler safe. And if I'm feeling wild, I could even use it directly over a campfire. Just for the record, I do often feel wild.

The Best Skillet

Matfer Bourgeat Black Steel Round Frying Pan, 11 7/8"

A good carbon-steel skillet can literally do it all: You can bake, broil, sear, and stir-fry in it. Plus cook delicate foods, like eggs and fish. 
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Finally, if I was the type of guy who was a big fan of keeping cold food cold and cold drinks even colder, I might be inclined to pop a Yeti cooler in my trunk. Test kitchen legend has it that this bad boy once held ice frozen for 10 days straight! Maybe that's overkill, but I like to be ready for anything.

The Best Cooler

Yeti Tundra 50

This sleek cooler proves that it's worth all the hype. Ice lasts a full 10 days in it and the cooler kept our beverages under 50° for five days.
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If you’re looking for more equipment recommendations, check out the articles below.

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