Okay, you want to cook like a chef, or impress the geek you’re planning to bring home. The trouble is that while you can buy some delicious food to cook, you really just don’t have the materials in your kitchen to prepare it. So you’ve got this big empty kitchen, and you want to get the gear you need to stock it, but you don’t want to buy a bunch of overpriced kitchen gadgets that are only useful when you’re making one kind of dish or that only do one thing.
I had the privilege of moving into a new place about a year ago, and with that came the chance to re stock my kitchen from the ground up, keeping some of the gear that I had kept through the move, but also the opportunity to pick up some basics of my own that I needed. Sure, you’ll probably spend some money if you go for the top of the line stuff, but there are a few things that just about everyone needs in their kitchen, and I’m not talking about a coffeemaker (although I could never survive without one) or a fondue pot.
If you’re moving out on your own or just want to revisit your kitchen with a fresh eye and pick up some highly useful kitchen basics, or maybe you’re fresh off a bout of spring cleaning and you’re looking for the best kitchen gadgets to replace all of the junk you threw away while you were cleaning up, let me walk you through a few products you’ll never go wrong with having close at hand while you’re cooking – items you’ll find many many uses for.
Let’s get started behind the jump.
Good, Sharp Knives – This is probably the most important item on the list, if you ask me. If you have a good solid chef’s knife or santoku, you’ll be a very VERY happy cook. And when I say “good, sharp knives,” I don’t mean run out and spend a lot of money on a knife set with a block and everything – one thing I’ve learned very well from Alton Brown is that the trouble with sets is that manufacturers usually toss in one or two good items that draw you to the set and then a bunch of other low-quality crap to justify the price that really isn’t worth anything, much less the money you spend on it.
When it comes to knives however, there are a couple of knives I’d suggest any beginner get their hands on: a good chef’s knife, a Santoku, and a smaller paring knife that can serve multiple purposes. Some people will suggest either a chef’s knife or a Santoku, but I personally find good uses for both, and actually use a Santoku for most common kitchen purposes and a chef’s knife for meats and more difficult cutting jobs.
Looking for brand recommendations? Some of the finest brands I’ve ever cut with are J. A. Henckels and Wusthof if you’re planning to spend some money, but if you’d like to save some cash and still have a really solid knife in your kitchen, try Victorinox, also known as the makers of Swiss Army knives. Their kitchen blades are both affordable, super sharp, and high quality. Don’t skimp on these either – price may not be necessarily the indicator of quality, but not all brands are made equally, even though some may be priced as such. Find a solid quality knife with good heft or comes highly regarded by people who own them.
Bamboo and Plastic Cutting Boards – Some people will just suggest that you pick up a good thick wood block cutting board, or a couple of plastic or composite cutting boards and call it a day. I would almost suggest you only get a couple of different plastic cutting boards for different purposes because plastic is cheap, easy to clean, and when it’s wrecked and all sliced up you can recycle it and buy new ones without the price premium, but there’s something to be said about a good solid wooden cutting board that you can keep on the kitchen counter for light duty that’s hard to replace.
Here’s my opinion: the trouble with lots of wooden cutting boards is that once you slice into them and start cutting into them, it’s really difficult to get those tiny cuts and slices clean. I would propose you get a nice solid bamboo cutting board (mostly because bamboo is affordable, sustainable, and easy to care for) and use it for vegetables and breads and other light duty. That means no sloppy wet cutting and absolutely positively no meat. When you cut into the cutting board, the last thing you want are the blood and juices from raw meat getting into those little cuts and then getting onto your veggies, breads, or heaven forbid, your cooked meats after they’re finished. If you take no other part of this advice, get separate cutting boards for uncooked meat, cooked meat, and vegetables, and never mix them up.
I like affordable plastic cutting boards – the heavier the better but don’t spend a ton – for meats (raw and cooked, as long as they’re separate) and for heavy veggie slicing. With plastic cutting boards, you can toss them in the dishwasher to sterilize them. Wooden cutting boards look great, but even with bamboo, which is remarkably durable, you’ll still need to rub it down carefully with soap and water, then a bleach and water mixture, and then mineral oil to keep it looking good and prevent drying and splintering. In the end? Wood for show and light duty, plastic or composite synthetic materials for heavy use. Brands aren’t really important this time around, I don’t think.
A Blender – Handheld or otherwise, you definitely need something in your kicthen you can use to mix stuff up. I’ve found more use for a traditional standing blender than a hand-held immersion blender, but I can see the use for both, and while the former can run you a bit of money if you spring for a good one, the latter can be found relatively affordably.
Some things to look for in a traditional blender? Look for a powerful motor (but nothing over the top – more wattage to the motor may mean more power, but power doesn’t translate to torque, which determines how well that thing will chop up frozen fruit and ice into a smoothie, for example) and a nice, large glass carafe that looks large enough for what you’d like to make and is easy to clean. Also, look for a blender with controls that have actual physical switches as buttons, instead of little embedded buttons that are under a plastic label. When your hands are covered in goop from blending something, you’ll be glad you have an actual switch to depress or dial to turn instead of those little embedded buttons.
For a hand-held blender, you’re looking for the same thing – an actual switch to press and a design that gives you a nice long neck (for deep pots of soup and such) but also looks easy to clean – the last thing you want is a blending blade at the end that’s so narrow you’ll never be able to get in there. Suggestions for brands? Kitchen Aid and Cuisinart, hands down. You’ll find lots of sales on things like this, but all it takes is for you to own a less expensive store brand that dies on you after 18 months to send you running back to the store to then make the decision of whether you spend less and get by again for another 18 months hoping your blender doesn’t break, or spend a 20% premium for a device that’ll likely last you twice or three times as long.
Seriously, the Oster blender/mixer that my mother handed down to me is older than I am and is still running smoothly. It just looks like it was made in the 70s, complete with mustard yellow/green case color. Ugh.
A Few Good Pots and Pans – This is going to be a toughie for me; normally I would tell you to get a small sauce pot, a small saute pan, a large sauce pot, a large saute pan, a tall stock pot with high walls for boiling large volumes of water or soup, a medium stock pot of the same type, a good large cast iron skillet, and a good non-stick skillet as well. Now I understand that your budget may not allow you to go out and buy all of that at one time, so I’m willing to compromise on some of these, but not all of them.
Saute pans and skillets are very different, but similar enough for the beginning cook that you may be find going for Saute pans (with lids) over skillets (without lids) or vice versa. I have skillets and not saute pans, and I’m fine with that, but sometimes I really wish I had a lid to simmer and saute foods in my skillets. Without that lid, you’ll need very fine heat control. Consider the types of foods you cook on the stovetop before you make the decision – if you find yourself doing a lot of frying, go for the skillets. If you find yourself doing a lot of simmering and cooking with sauces, get the saute pans, and make them medium sized; you probably don’t need multiple sizes to get started.
You’ll definitely need a good cast iron skillet though – a nice, large, tall-walled cast-iron skillet can be used for everything form searing and baking steaks to (and this may be blasphemy) cooking eggs and just about everything in between. Your cast iron skillet will likely be your go-to pan for just about everything, even those cases when you think you need a non-stick (a very hot cast-iron pan can sear meats and cook other things so fast they won’t have time to stick). Even so, I still suggest you get a nice non-stick pan for things like eggs, veggies, and for those times when you want to fry things more slowly over lower heat.
Stock pots you probably don’t want to compromise on either – a nice big one will probably be enough to get you started; you can always get something smaller later, but it only takes once trying to boil water for pasta in a pot that’s too small to make you wish you had a bigger one. Remember, you can always add less stuff to a big pot, you can never add more stuff to a small pot. Don’t get me wrong – that rule only works to a point, but in general it holds up. Once you have a few all-purpose pots and pans for the way that you cook, you can identify your particular pain points and go shopping for something that alleviates them.
Brands? All-Clad and Calphalon are recognized as industry faves, but let’s be clear – they make good stuff, but if you find something cheaper that feels right in the hand and looks like good quality? Snag it. Sometimes that $10 pan is better than the $50 pan of the same type if it works better for you. Oh, and that rule about sets from the knives section above? Stands here too – sets of pots and pans are generally awful.
Miscellanea – Now we’re on to the items that I think you should have, but brand and type aren’t horribly important. You probably know what I mean here – things like a good colander, a solid set of measuring cups (although I really like this Oxo Measuring Cup for just about everything) and measuring spoons, a cheese grater, a good set of mixing bowls, things like that.
There are a few other things you can give or take that I find are essential in my kitchen, like a salad spinner, microplane grater, a really good (and fine grinding) pepper mill, a cast-iron grill-pan that rests across multiple burners, a quality rice cooker (pricey, but I love my Zojirushi Neuro-Fuzzy, and good set of silicone-tipped tongs in at least 2 sizes. Take em or leave em, I don’t think I could live without them, but if those things don’t strike you as important, you can likely get by without them or adjust your cooking style to not need them.
Those are some of the things that I use in my kitchen on an almost daily basis. Whether I’m making salad or steak, I’m almost always using a cutting board, salad spinner, decent saute pan or sauce pot, my cast iron skillet, pepper mill, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, I cook a bit more than an a beginner who’s trying to wean themselves off of a Chinese takeout and delivery pizza diet, but I think this will definitely get you started, and give you a good idea of some great places to make an investment in your kitchen if you’re planning on doing more of your own cooking in the future, whether it’s for personal and health reasons or because you’ve got someone you want to cook for.
If you’re looking for more advanced tips, check out Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen, or Michael Ruhlman’s Essential Kitchen Tools (he diverges from me a bit, but we share similar tastes) to help you get started.
What are some of the essentials in your kitchen? What do you think I missed here that every amateur or would-be chef should have in their kitchen cabinets? Shout it out in the comments.