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Ask the Test Cooks

What Do Cook’s Country Editors and Test Cooks Bring on Summer Vacation?

Make like a pro and bring the essentials on your next trip.
By Published July 29, 2022

Whether it’s the salt-in-your-hair and sand-between-your-toes kind of getaway or the s’mores-by-the-campfire and hike-up-the-mountain kind, there’s always a reason to make sure that you’re equipped with your favorite kitchen tools.

I don’t mean lugging your KitchenAid across the shores of a beach or searching for an electrical outlet in the middle of the woods, but rather the small, meaningful items that can make your cooking truly worthy of vacation status.

To help you get an idea of what kinds of kitchen items you should be bringing with you on your summer vacation, the team at Cook’s Country has shared their favorite tools and ingredients.

A Good Knife

For me, cooking on summer vacation needs to be equal parts simplicity and comfort. What does this mean? Anything I cook needs to have minimal ingredients (preferably fresh) and not require a large investment in time, unless it’s passive. I’m trying to fully immerse myself in “vacation mode” after all! Walking into an unvetted kitchen can cause all kinds of stress, so to help avoid this, I make sure to always have a few things on hand: a sharp Japanese chef’s knife, a bench scraper, a wooden spoon, a rubber spatula, and a small bamboo cutting board that can double for serving charcuterie in a pinch. This list of necessities might not seem like much, but in the past, I’ve found that there’s nothing worse than losing your “chill” over dull knives and other underappreciated kitchen essentials. This small preparation ensures that I feel at home in pretty much any kitchen, and once that happens, I’m able to comfortably cook anything I need to for myself and other vacationers. – Lawman Johnson, Senior Photo Test Cook

For me, cooking on summer vacation needs to be equal parts simplicity and comfort.”

A ThermoWorks Thermapen

​​My close friends and family all know that I can be a bit of a control freak in the kitchen. Even on vacation, it’s hard for me to sit back and let someone else take the reins. In the name of self-care, though, I’m trying to be better. And the tool that best allows me to delegate? My ThermoWorks Thermapen. These days, I’ll hand over a tray of seasoned or marinated proteins to whoever has most recently asked “Are you sure there’s nothing I can help with?” along with my trusty T-pen, give them guidance on what temperature to cook to, and send them out to the grill. Then I can stay inside and finish up sides and desserts, feeling confident that the entrée will turn out perfectly cooked. It’s my way of micromanaging from a distance. (I’m a work in progress, OK?) – Jessica Rudolph, Senior Editor

“The Lot”

My partner and I do a lot of camping (and “glamping”). When I’m loading up my car instead of my hiking backpack, getting a little carried away with what we bring is easy. I keep a knife roll packed and ready to use at any time in my car. Along with that, our good old-fashioned road trip staples are a metal fish spatula, dish towels, a pair of 12-inch metal tongs, a chefs knife, a medium cutting board, and a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven with a lid, depending on the menu. Oh, and reusable silicone bags (perfect for packing food in a cooler and reusing them if there are any leftovers). Each of these items allows us to cook in whatever location we are in, whether it is a cozy cabin or around a campfire. – Amanda Luchtel, Test Cook

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Immersion Circulator

While it might sound pretentious and chef-y, my favorite kitchen gadget to take on vacation is my immersion circulator. Summer vacation usually means a low-key trip to a sleepy beach town, and the last thing I want to do is sacrifice hard-earned beach time to cook a dinner for my hungry family. With the circulator, I can season and marinate proteins, set up the water bath, and have dinner ready to go whenever we want it. There’s even an app that I can use to monitor the cooking progress. I also don’t travel during the summer without a good oyster knife. We’ll procure a few dozen oysters, garnishes, and platters of ice and get to shucking. In recent years it’s become a new family vacation tradition that everyone takes part in and a highlight of my year. A fancy apron also helps me keep in style when cooking for a crowd; after all, “you gotta look good to cook good.” – Mark Huxsoll, Test Cook

DIY Essentials Kit

There is nothing worse than a vacation kitchen that lacks a good knife. Or solid tongs. For gear, I travel with a plastic cafeteria tray with the following duct-taped (no, really) to it for easy transit: a sharpened and honed chef’s knife, an instant-read thermometer, 12-inch tongs, and a fish spatula. The cafeteria tray can be used as a cutting board or to transport items to and from the grill. I also pack a small paper bag filled with all my seasoning needs: a container of kosher salt; a good (and full) pepper grinder; and jars of (at minimum) garlic powder, smoked paprika, cumin, ancho chile powder, cinnamon, turmeric, dill, and thyme. – Scott Kathan, Executive Editor

Electric Kettle

I grew up in a family of light packers and foodies alike who often stayed in tiny hotel rooms with no kitchens, so cooking gear was always a precious commodity. One item that always makes the journey is an electric kettle—we keep a lightweight one just for travel and clean it thoroughly every time—for cooking or blanching low-fuss items directly in the vessel to pair with other dried goods and fresh items we packed. My favorite hack is when we boiled eggs directly in the kettle; shockingly, the yolks came out perfectly golden and runny. And when I have some more packing space, an induction burner is a must-have, preferably one that has a pot already built in that can be plugged in anywhere. If I could make chicken fajitas in a rural Tennessee motel, you can do anything with an induction burner. – Kelly Song, Test Cook

An “Umami Pantry”

Does spicy chili crisp count as a kitchen item? Seriously though, a quick punch of umami goes a long way when preparing food on the fly in an unfamiliar environment. So I always remember to bring a collection of several shelf-stable ingredients that are a surefire way to add irresistible flavor. I call it my “umami pantry.” 

  1. MSG: Pure granulated umami, I keep it in a pint-size plastic container labeled “secret salt” and add it to spice rubs for all grilled and smoked meats.
  2. Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp: Good on everything from ice cream to scrambled eggs, I love to stir it into the mayo for our summer BLTs.
  3. Red Boat Fish Sauce: Think salads aren’t exciting? A couple of splashes of fish sauce in your dressing will awaken your appetite for all those fresh summer veggies.

With those three ingredients in tow, even if I’m traveling light, I know our vacation won’t be light on flavor. – Matthew Fairman, Senior Editor