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As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities—but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.
Today: The authors of The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket write about what they know best.
If you delight in picnicking as much as we do—and boy, do we; we wrote a book on it—then consider keeping your picnic basket at the ready, packed with the essentials. Above all, a picnic should be easy fun, and nothing squelches spontaneity faster than scrounging for supplies. These are a few of the critical tools we keep at the ready.
Quite literally the foundation of your picnic, a blanket is the first thing we pack (after the food, of course). Since every picnic involves a certain degree of unavoidable carnage—spilled wine, squished deviled eggs, good old dirt—spreads you can toss directly into the laundry are the best choice. Think cotton throws, Turkish towels, tablecloths, and sturdy quilts.
More: Picnic anytime, anywhere, even in the rain.
We’ve used many a creative carrier in picnics past—laundry baskets, stockpots, tin pails, canvas totes, strollers, and our trusty little red picnic wagon—but our top schlepper is a woven-wood picnic basket, preferably one with a flat-top lid so that it can double as a miniature tabletop for drinks once everyone’s on the blanket. (As an alternative, bring a tray or two.) We like the classic, American-made Peterboro Basket Company's wares, but keep an eye out while hopping estate sales and flea markets; some of our favorite baskets have been secondhand. The golden age of picnicking is making a comeback.
3. Place settings
When choosing a place setting, your number-one consideration should be weight, because these dishes aren’t going to dash off to the park by themselves. If you’re dining à deux, then do it up—with silver-plated flatware, china plates, wine glasses, and linen napkins. If you’re throwing a big ol’ bash, however, avoid perishing before the picnic by bringing lightweight, disposable utensils, dishware, cups, and napkins. Just make sure they’re compostable. It’s always a good idea to be kind to Mother Earth. After all, she’s hosting the party.
Mason jars are overplayed, you say? We hardly noticed, we’re so busy reveling in their utility. (Please place your gingham-ribbon bookmark at the section of our book titled “99 Ways (and Counting) to Use a Mason Jar” for added inspiration.) We use Mason jars to layer salads, bake tiny blueberry crisps, and house banana pudding parfaits. We also rely heavily on Weck jars, which get extra points for adding a touch of industrial flair and coming in an inspiring array of shapes and sizes. For pâtés, pickles, and our Chicken Liver Mousse with Lillet Gelée, the hinge-top closure of a French Le Parfait jar is perfect, and you’ll never lose the lid.
More: You can pack your whole lunch in a Mason jar. Here's how.
These intrepid lunch pails serve as stackable super-organizers for the creative picnicker. Stock each compartment with a different snack: nuts, olives, popcorn, dips, and crackers. Or separate salad components, as in a salade Niçoise, by storing a different ingredient in every layer and preventing the tuna from overpowering everything else en route. And for a surprise sweet ending, layer each level with an elegant assortment of petit fours, Alma Chocolate bonbons, and macarons.
6. Common Condiments Kit
Sometimes something gets a bit lost in translation when food travels from kitchen to blanket, so we always pack a CCK—Common Condiments Kit—to freshen up dishes upon arrival. Ours includes freshly ground black pepper and a slide tin of Jacobsen Salt, lemon wedges, a miniature bottle of Oregon Olive Mill olive oil, and a small bottle of Marshall’s Haute Sauce or Tabasco.
If you don’t still have your dad’s vintage Stanley lying around, it’s worth investing in a good thermos. In the fierce heat of summer, it’ll keep lemonade, iced tea, or our Mint Juleps en Masse frosty. And, should you embark on an Alpine-themed snowshoeing picnic come winter, it’s perfect for keeping the tomato soup or coffee piping hot.
More: You've got your picnic basket. Here's what to put in it.
8. Opinel folding knife and a cutting board
Even the most compact picnic has room for a small cutting board and a folding knife. When it comes time to divvy up that stick of Olympic Provisions salami, slice limes for the G&Ts, cut the pie, or ward off an inquisitive honey badger, you’ll be supremely glad you packed the small but mighty Opinel.
There are also times when the kitchen-scale versions of these items are a better choice. We love it when a dish can be finished, or even entirely assembled, al fresco. With a generous cutting board and knife, you can transform a baguette, a hunk of Camembert, and a pint of strawberries into a sandwich, chop fresh herbs to garnish a dish, carve a roast chicken, divide a tart, stage decadent cheese and charcuterie boards, slice up a watermelon, or even provide a steady surface for one’s glass.
9. First aid kit
When badminton rackets and croquet mallets start flying, anything can happen. Fill a resealable bag with Band-Aids, aspirin, tampons, sunscreen, anti-itch cream, dental floss, antacids, an EpiPen, and $20 in case the ice cream man tootles past in his truck.
Last but most definitely not least, the corkscrew is the one picnic tool that can bring the festivities to a screeching halt should it be left off the packing list. Cover your bases by keeping a waiter’s tool in your basket full-time, and a backup wine key in your glove box, handbag, or even your cooler, since that’s where the rosé and Champagne will end up anyway. Speaking of which, remember the ice... And if you’re really ready to take your picnic to the next level, Bull in China’s handmade black walnut and maple ice mallet.
Photos by James Ransom, the Food52 editors
What are your picnic must-packs? Tell us in the comments.