I know a few guys that would first chuckle at the idea, but your kitchen is very much a workshop. You have a place for your tools and a designated work area. The ease of your task can often be determined by the quality and variety of tools at hand, but by no means is every piece of equipment equal to one another. When stepping into your workshop you transform from ordinary human being into the role of artisan, and whatever your end project in mind may be, your carefully curated and reliable tools will get you there.
I believe that when you approach the kitchen, as a beginner or master, you should keep this perspective in mind. There are a few useful essential kitchen tools floating among a sea of niche purposed “unitaskers” (as the legendary Alton Brown terms them) and had I known what they were right off bat, I would have saved a lot of time and headache. Below is a list of absolute essentials that you should have before you even browse recipes if you want things to go off without a hitch.
As this blog develops and I encounter gear that I may review or discuss, I’ll create new “Tools of the Trade” posts, but for today, here are the basics.
Cast Iron Skillet
The cast iron skillet is the king of the kitchen in many ways, and in recent years is seeing a widespread revival of sorts. They are cheap, extremely durable and have more uses than almost any single piece of cookware you will buy. The Lodge 10.25 cast iron skillet is easily the best value at around $15 and is as good as any cast iron skillet of its size out there. They are oven safe, so you can bake in them. They become mostly non-stick when they’re well seasoned. They’re famously heavy, so if you need to fend off an intruder or politely annoying neighbors, it doubles as a weapon. They also have a lot of history and many foods seem to be destined to be paired with cast iron. Cornbread belongs in no other place than a cast iron skillet, as far as I’m concerned. They do require a bit of special care, but cast iron cookware will treat you as well as you treat it for the rest of your life. Seriously, your great grandchildren can cook with a skillet you buy today. It’s amazing to think about, yeah?
Contrary to what displays of 30-piece knife blocks will lead you to believe, you really only need 3 knives: a chef’s knife, a serrated bread knife, and a shorter utility blade. Of the three, the chef’s knife will see 90% of the use and if you have the funds to do it, buy a good one. Unless there is a stellar deal, do not buy knife sets, but better yet spend the money you would spend on a set on a single blade. It will last a seriously long time if you are taking care of it and a quality blade will hold its edge better, meaning better cutting and safer use. A sharper blade is a happier blade is a safer blade.
Personally, I have a Wustof Classic 8″ Chef’s knife. It has all the features you should look for in your kitchen workhorse: full tang, a solid bolster and a high-carbon stainless steel blade. It holds it’s edge well and is well balanced. I see them usually around $130-150, which seems like a lot, but they really are a joy to use.
If you’re on a tighter budget getting started, plan to spend $30-$50, still. Look for a full tang blade and find one that is comfortable in your hand. They do make a big difference and will save you (and your fingers) in the long run. The J.A. Henckels blades are well known in their class and will run you about $50.
If you are absolutely strapped for cash like I was at one point, this colorful Farberware 3 piece kit gave me everything I needed and actually is still holding up after a few years of misuse. They’re not balanced very well and they feel terrible compared to my Wustof, but they’re cheap and do the job. A cheap knife sharpener does a great job at helping them keep their bite.
A quick note: If in your cooking endeavors you find yourself processing meats and fish (and I hope you do), you will likely need to expand your knife selection. But for getting started and most purposes, the information above is enough.
Instant Read Thermometer
This is high on the list. You can NOT accurately tell the done-ness of a steak by feeling it, despite what your cavalier grillmaster of an uncle probably did at family cookouts. You can get a general idea, but if we want consistency, and we do, we will use a thermometer. Purchasing one that is instant read is important as well, as the time it takes for an analog thermometer to give you a hit-or-miss reading, the instant read has told you accurately in a quarter of the time. Meat will overcook and ovens lose a lot of heat in that missed time. Save yourself the frustration of watching you and your family and friends gnawing on overcooked pieces of meat because you wouldn’t buy an instant read thermometer. The ThermoPro model here is pretty inexpensive and while it isn’t the best, it will do what it needs to do.
Saucepans and Pots
You don’t need a terrible number of these, either. A few saucepans and and a decent stock pot with tight fitting lids are all you need. I prefer stainless steel ones, though they do tend to be less forgiving for heating mistakes on the stovetop, but they are much less easy to damage than non-stick pots and pans. Purchase accordingly.
Easily overlooked, cutting boards are key to safe kitchen practices and protecting your knives. I designate a plastic cutting board for raw meats, another board for veggies and cooked meats. Properly cared for wooden cutting boards are in fact safe for cutting meat, but having both plastic and wood helps me dedicate cutting boards to each to avoid any possible confusion. I prefer to use wooden boards (maple is ideal, but bamboo is very affordable) for my vegetables and other applications. Also, flexible plastic cutting boards are useful for transporting chopped items to pots and skillets.
A quick note: I will mention this several times in my writing, I’m sure, but pay attention to a cutting board that slides on the countertop. Tough vegetables and fruits can cause the sturdiest cutting board to slide, which is dangerous. If you have a warped or sliding cutting board, just place a damp kitchen towel under the cutting board.
Get yourself a sturdy metal box grater. Your grocery store probably sells one that will suffice. Feel free to get fancy and buy one with little rubber feet to avoid slippage and save knuckles.
Simple enough, a set of measuring cups and spoons will do. I have a set that’s bound to a ring that ranges from 1/4 cup to 1 cup, and some spoons for teaspoons and tablespoons. I also like to use the clear, Pyrex volumetric measuring cups for liquid where I need to see through it.
Rimmed baking sheets serve plenty of uses, and are great for roasting vegetables and the like. I’ve also used them to roast chickens in the absence of a roasting pan.
Colander and Sieves
Buy yourself a mixed set of various sized sieves for straining finer things, and a colander for straining pastas. Better yet, if you buy a heavy duty salad spinner, you can use the internal basket as a strainer. Impress your friends with your kitchen versatility. Oh yeah.
Beyond forks and spoons for eating, make sure you have plenty of long handled, heat-proof mixing spoons, a soup ladle, a set of spring handled tongs, etc. Wooden spoons are cheap and work for almost everything.
Buy plenty and use these for two big reasons – you will use less paper towels for cleaning and they will come in handy for gripping hot containers, cleaning messes as you work, and even covering doughs while they rise or rest. Maybe even start a designated hamper for washing kitchen linens.
These are not 100% necessary but they will pay you back in interest if you stick with cooking thing.
I feel some would disagree with me in putting this on the non-essential list and the cast iron on the essentials above, but arguing for the the versatility of the cast iron versus the fragility of the non-stick is a winning argument, in my opinion. I don’t trust non-stick surfaces in high heat scenarios and you can’t make pan sauces in a non-stick skillet very well. However, when making eggs or more “fragile” foods where you can’t afford sticking, this is your ticket. I still make omelets in a cast iron, but they’re not as pretty as they would be in a non-stick. The T-fal Professional skillet is reliable and actually has a heat indicator in the center to let you know when it’s up to temp. Despite modern non-sticks stating that they are safe with metal utensils, I still can’t bring myself to use metal.
Pepper Mill and Salt Box
I’ll cover these more specifically when I write on spices, but buying a pepper mill and whole peppercorns is an immediate and noticeable improvement, whether you’re cooking with it or finishing a dish. A salt box also allows you to control the salt you add to your food much better than a table salt shaker, and you can’t look like #SaltBae with a table salt shaker. Buy one, fill it with kosher salt and thank me later.
Can be a little bit expensive, but I think the return on investment of these justifies the cost. A dutch oven is a cast iron, deep walled pot with a heavy lid. They are oven safe, have incredible heat retention and non-enameled ones can be used outdoors on a fire. For general use, an enameled dutch oven with an oven safe lid handle will do the job.
I have both styles and use them for frying, braising, baking breads and simmering sauces. Enameled ones come in many colors and are great servers for family style meals. The Lodge brand, again, reigns supreme considering cost and reliability.
Some items simply can’t be measured by volume accurately, with flour being a big culprit. Variables such as humidity and mill quality can result in no cup being equal. Measuring by weight gives you more control as a cook to get the right measurements the first time. Buy a digital scale that has a tare, or zero, function. I use this one, and it works just fine. I slept on the idea of a scale for so long. My friend and fellow homecook Nick recommended it once and I didn’t listen to him, and after having a few breads not rise or turn into weird bricks due to measurement conversion errors, you bet I went out and bought one. I didn’t want to tell him he was right and I hope he doesn’t read this.
Plenty of things can be baked in a casserole dish that can be cooked in a large cast iron skillet, but a casserole dish can be more presentable and also come in varying sizes for transporting to other places. Buy a good one and keep the mac and cheese warm for the party. If you’re lucky, you may even inherit one that’s been in the family for years.
It’s just a tiny grater, but for zesting lemons and smaller vegetables, it’s super handy. If you get into bartending, you’ll also appreciate it.
This list is not exhaustive, but if you’re following Shoestring Cookery because you want to become a better cook with me, you’ll at least need the essential tools to find yourself not having to rush to your local store on Sunday because you don’t have the equipment to make dinner. This is a great place to start, and as you develop and grow as a cook, you’ll learn what you prefer and collect more specific equipment.