The Sharpest Tools

October  1, 2012

Food52's Editorial Assistant (and college student) Brette Warshaw is curating her very own first kitchen -- and she needs your help. Today: Brette tackles the sharp kitchen tool family: the mandolines, microplanes, and box graters.

Sharp things

Look at the hands of any cook -- a home cook, a line cook, a chef de cuisine -- and you’ll see a story.

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You’ll see, maybe, that time that cook made a dinner party for ten, and nicked their hand on the top of the oven when pulling out the final dessert. Or you’ll see that time the cook chopped mountains of onions, and when one little fingertip got in the way. Or, perhaps, you’ll see that time a young home cook staged in a restaurant kitchen, and proceeded to slice through each of her fingers, one at a time.

Cooking, sometimes, can be dangerous. That’s part of what makes it fun.

Knives, sure, are dangerous, thrilling. But they’re not the only sharp things in the drawer -- not the only tools with which to be careful, to be patient.

Enter: the mandolines, microplanes, and box graters.

These handy, handled tools do the jobs that my two awkward, clumsy hands can’t. They grate, they zest, they slice food into paper-thin pieces; they make prepping and garnishing and salad-making into a fun, gleeful exercise. The food that comes out of them is just so, well, perfect. So thin. So small. So not what I’m used to.

And -- if I’m careful, of course -- I’ll need them for my first kitchen.  



Mandolines come in two styles: the classic, French version with straight, serrated, and comb blades (so fancy!), and the hand-held slicers that are simply straight-bladed. 

Can you guess which one I’m leaning towards?

The decision, though, is not that easy. The simple, straight-bladed mandolines can be both dangerous and counter-productive; a v-shaped or diagonal blade allows for cleaner, more precise cuts. Luckily, these exist for a not-too-high price; the Kyocera Adjustable Ceramic Mandoline Slicer, for instance, is $22.45. The fancier, multi-bladed French versions, like the OXO Good Grips V-Blade Mandoline Slicer, is $39.99. And while it may be fun to cut things into waffle-shapes and perfect matchsticks, it’s not really necessary for my first kitchen. Clean, straight, perfect cuts are what I’m looking for.



It seems simple enough: grate through hard cheese, zest, horseradish, ginger, garlic with ease. Have plenty of teeth, straight and sharp. Be safe enough that I don’t grate away my fingertips – and please, don’t be heavy.

But there’s much room for failure with microplanes. Some are so sharp that they grate through to the pith of citrus; some are so dull that it takes real muscle to grate a hunk of cheese. Just like everything in the kitchen, a microplane takes balance. 

What kind do you use, and would you recommend it for my first kitchen?

box grater

Box graters

It’s easy to lump the classic, four-sided box grater into the kitchen essentials category. ‘Four tools in one!’ it screams. ‘Perfect for a first kitchen!’

But the folks over at Cook’s Ilustrated have a point: how often does one use the pinhole-sized bumps and the slicing sides? Does a one-sided coarse grater make more sense? 

For storage, it certainly does; a box grater is a tall, hulking kitchen tool. But as for price, they’re essentially equal: the Rosle Coarse Grater, for example costs $39.99, while the Cuisipro Box Grater with Bonus Ginger Base costs $33.99. With a one-sided paddle, am I missing out on more sharp-edged glory? Will I find myself yearning for the classic four-sided model, its sturdiness, its ease?

What are your most essential sharp kitchen tools, and what would you recommend for my first kitchen?

As usual, I'll be pinning everything I'm coveting to my First Kitchen Pinterest board, so check it out!

Email me at [email protected] with your First Kitchen recommendations -- your favorite tools, your favorite cookware. All wisdom is appreciated.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • LetaBee
  • witloof
  • Rhonda35
  • Sigita
  • AntoniaJames
Brette Warshaw

Written by: Brette Warshaw

I'm a reader, eater, culinary thrill-seeker, and food nerd.


LetaBee October 14, 2012
My favorite mandoline is Zyliss: it has a finger guard, a blade guard for storing, has a assortment of blades. I have been using it for over 10 years.
Don't laugh but my favorite grater is'Chosigt' from Ikea. The small grater for zesting lemons, grating nutmeg or ginger; and the large one for cheese, butter and potatos. And I love that it has a bowl to catch it all. http://www.ikea.com/au/en/catalog/products/10163303/
witloof October 7, 2012
I have an OXO mandoline and have removed the tip of my forefinger twice. I still use it regularly but with extreme respect and mindfulness. I also have a Microplane basic grater, and use it constantly. For coarse grating I have a Microplane box grater that works very well but is a total pain to clean, because it has a complicated plastic handle and shreds get stuck in the crevices. I also have a very expensive Swiss flat grater that rarely use.
Rhonda35 October 7, 2012
I think I need a course in mandolin usage. First of all, I'm terrified of mine, so I rarely pull it out of its cabinet. Secondly, when I do use it, I think I must be doing something wrong - my slices never seem to come out all that thin AND I have a lot of waste because I can't seem to figure out the finger guard and, therefore, only slice about half of the vegetable before I am afraid to go any further. Pathetic, I know! Mine is made by Norpro and has the straight blade - perhaps that's why I am having problems - the blade isn't on an angle? Maybe I can find something on YouTube or maybe you food52 peeps could make a tutorial for the mandolin-challenged?
Sigita October 6, 2012
Just purchased a replacement Microplane grater- so many more choices now - after a few years they do get dull..... so next time you use it - see if you might be ready to get a new one.
AntoniaJames October 4, 2012
I really like the medium grater by OXO. It's well designed (like everything OXO makes!), with an offset handle and double sided blades, which means that it cuts on the upstroke as well as going down, so it works twice as fast. I use it for grating frozen ginger (a trick I picked up from a comment during the Kitchen Hacks competition here) and also for hard cheeses like Pecorino and Parmigiano; in each case it produces exactly the result I want. I own a box grater but only use the side with the very large holes. Although I've owned it for decades, I'm seriously considering retiring it forever, if I can find a substitute for it that I like as much as the OXO I just described. And I use the grater attachment on my Cuisinart for big jobs, e.g., a 10-12 carrots at a time. ;o)
Melissa M. October 2, 2012
You should try a new zester by Edgeware. The teeth are very fine but work amazingly. Super smooth with a non stick coating on the blade. It's pretty much impossible to grate into the pith at all with this zester. ( and it's pretty easy on your fingers too)
Melissa M. October 2, 2012
You should try a new zester by Edgeware. The teeth are very fine but work amazingly. Super smooth with a non stick coating on the blade. It's pretty much impossible to grate into the pith at all with this zester. ( and it's pretty easy on your fingers too)
Lisa C. October 2, 2012
I agree with the Benriner mandolin choice. The mouli grater is perfect for grated nuts (flourless nut cake) and grated chocolate. Ditto the microplane grater--mine has a handle. But my most frequently used grater is my food processor--especially for hard cheese and root vegetables. I was afraid to use the attachments for several years, but have gradually warmed up to it. Now, I am considering buying a second bowl. The box grater is a waste of space in my kitchen.
JustSomeCook October 2, 2012
The Benriner Asian Mandolin is the restaurant kitchen standard, they are all but bomb proof and within your price range. The standard chunky plastic handle microplane is the best kind, the fancy/silly looking ones are mostly useless and lose their edge easily. As for a box grater, you should just find one at a thrift store for a couple of bucks or steal your grandmas as they really have not improved on the design since the 1950s.
calendargirl October 1, 2012
Adore my Mouli Grater too, drbabs! It was my mother's favorite, as well. It is made by Moulinex, and I believe if you cannot find them now that Cuisipro and Zyliss both make them. If you look for something called a "rotary style grater" you should be able to find one. My microplane grater gets used almost every day.
smslaw October 1, 2012
I love my basic (no handle) microplane (like the bottom one in your photo), but eventually, it gets dull and needs to be replaced.
aargersi October 1, 2012
Let me start with this - get kevlar gloves! Fancy experienced chefs slice away on their mandoline bare-handed and guardless and make it look soooo easy. The FIRST day I got Jaws (the OXO mandoline above which I LOVE by the way) I left a snack sized hunk of Bad Finger sitting on the slicer while blood and bad words flew everywhere. It hurt. Never again.

I also have an OXO box grater - LOVE - and yes I use the shredding side the most but it is a GREAT shredding side. I use the others less, but I HAVE used them. I wear the glove with this tool as well, it is SHARP

Microplane zester and nutmeg grater - both used at LEAST 1-2 times / week.

And - I am currently missing the very tip of my left middle finger, down into the nail bed - beet peeling injury - whole 'nuther topic. Should have worn the glove.
drbabs October 1, 2012
Oh, ouch, Aargersi! I hope your finger is better soon.

Being a die-hard klutz, I second the gloves. Every mandolins should come with one!

And I also am addicted to my microplane grater, but I don't have a box, I use a Mouli grater-- it was my mother's favorite tool, and I use it for coarse grating. I don't think Mouli (a French company) makes them anymore, but here's what the original looked like:
Kristy M. October 1, 2012
I love the phrase "die-hard klutz"!!
LucyS October 1, 2012
Congrats on getting back on the horse with your mandoline! I'm impressed. The very first time I used mine I ended up in the ER - I cut a big diagonal chunk out of my pinky, which will now always look slightly dented. Bandages on it for at least a month, the nerves still haven't totally grown back. I'm not usually squeamish at all but I haven't been able to look at one - much less use it! - without wincing ever since. I'm afraid I had to sacrifice it the next time I moved. Knives for me!
Sam1148 October 1, 2012
Mandolins always require a blood sacrifice.