Essential Cooking Equipment
I have said before that you do not have to rush out and buy a lot of fancy, expensive equipment just to be able to feed yourself and your family. There are some items that are absolutely essential, but again, these items don’t have to be expensive. When I divorced, I left behind a fully equipped kitchen, and over the course of the following summer I replaced the essentials at yard sales and thrift stores on a strict budget of not more than $30.00 per week. Check out Goodwill, Salvation Army, Dollar Stores and ReSource stores as well. It can be done, even if you don’t have a lot of money to play with. And if you are short on time, there are lots of affordable options online. Check out Amazon and E-bay.
If you are just starting out, or have little to no cooking gear on hand, this is the stuff you will need first. After that, I have included a list of things that are really nice to have, but less crucial. Use your own best judgement here and select what works for you.
Okay, so let’s get cracking.
Chef’s knife – Standard size is an 8″ blade. I use my German made Henckle every day. It’s not top of the line, but it sure gets the job done.
When shopping for a good knife, what you want is called “full tine,” which means the handle is assembled around the steel of the knife. Look for rivets in the outside of the handle that go all the way through the three layers. It’s all about stability. A blade stuck in a handle is just going to fall apart on you and then you risk injury as well as rage.
You want the blade or cutting edge to be smooth, not grooved. You can sharpen a smooth blade, but you can’t do a thing with the grooved ones, so, best to avoid those all together. You can sharpen a smooth edged knife by running the flat side of the knife edge in a circular or sweeping motion along the bottom rim, the part that’s not glazed, along the bottom of a plate or coffee mug. The best way is with a “steel,” a rod shaped instrument with a handle on one end. Check out You Tube for examples on how to sharpen a knife.
If you insist on using a knife block to store your knives, put them in the slot upside down so you don’t dull the blade. A magnetic strip on the wall is the ideal way to store your knives.
Paring knife or Peeler – If you have good knife skills, go ahead and use a paring knife to peel potatoes and carrots. If you are like the rest of us, it’s best to cough up a few bucks and get yourself a decent peeler. Spares you a lot of aggravation in the long run and it’s safer, so the kids can help out too. My favorite peeler is the “Y” shaped one with the straight blade across the top. Super easy to use.
I generally just use one of my steak knives for detailed work, such as removing the stem end from a tomato or sectioning an orange. Small knives are easily found and generally affordable. I’m betting that before too long, you will discover your favorite one. Over time, knives become like cars, so simple to control that they become an extension of our hands and bodies.
There are lots of knives made for specific purposes. One you might want to add to the list is a serrated bread knife for nice clean cuts without tearing that beautiful loaf that you worked so hard on.
Cutting Board – Please do not cut directly on the counter (insert eye rolling here). You will damage the counter and your knife. Don’t do it, okay? And speaking of damaging your knife, don’t bother with a glass cutting board either. Dumb idea, all the way around.
The best materials for cutting boards are plastic or wood. Both are very forgiving and can be scrubbed and bleached. I have a few of each but the ones I use the most are plastic. My favorite one measures 18″ x 11″ and has a little well carved around the outer boarder to catch juices. And you can pick up the whole mess and carry it to the sink for easy clean up. I have a smaller cutting board just like the large one that I mostly use for quick jobs, like citrus for my cocktails.
The benefit of the big board is that you have room to spread out; allowing you to push one pile of ingredients to the corner while you work on something else. Also, if you are short on counter space, a big board will span across one bay of your sink, creating even more work space. Just make sure your cutting board is thick enough that it won’t buckle and put a damp towel under the edges so your cutting board won’t slide all over the place. I have some lengths of that grippy rubber shelf liner that I use for this purpose.
Pots & Pans – You do not have to run out and buy the full set of matching Le Creuset cookware. If you can afford it, great, but the rest of us have made do with other affordable, yet serviceable options. I do not recommend the non-stick Teflon pans, however. Studies have shown that over time, those chemicals can leach out into your food. Not good. I do own one small enamel pan that I mostly use that just for eggs.
I inherited a cast iron skillet from my grandma Lucy that is perfectly seasoned (Nature’s answer to non-stick) and every time I use it I think of her. I found a couple of small cast iron skillets at a local flea market that are perfect for toasting nuts and other small jobs. I do recommend cast iron for it’s versatility and easy care. You can bake in it as well as fry – think corn bread, dump cakes and deep dish pizza. Also stupid easy to clean. Just don’t put it in the dishwasher. That would ruin the seasoning on the pan and you will have to re-season it. Can’t guarantee it will come out as good as it was before.
What we use the most are my stainless steel Emeril set that I brought into the relationship and Robin’s All-Clad that he had from before. Both have heavy bottoms that conduct heat evenly and are so sturdy that our grandchildren will probably still be able to get some use out of them. You will want at least one large frying pan or skillet (10 & 1/2 to 12 inch) and one small frying pan (about 7 or 8 inches). For sauce pans a large 3 quart is quite useful for boiling potatoes and making pasta. A smaller 1 & 1/2 quart is handy for heating up smaller portions. That will get you started and you can branch out from there.
Baking Pans – If I were starting from nothing, a couple of good sized sheet trays would be indispensable. Aside from that, a good casserole dish is very useful. I use my 8 x 8″ glass one a lot. After that, a 9 x 13″ metal roasting pan.
Utensils – The basics include tongs, a metal spatula, mixing spoons with long handles, a whisk, and rubber spatulas for scraping stuff from one place to another. Nice to have but not essential might include a slotted spoon, ladle, and spaghetti server. I use a bench knife frequently for scooping up piles of chopped veggies and such. Also nice for cutting and scraping dough when making bread.
Measuring cups and Measuring spoons – These usually come in stacked sets and they are not very expensive. Most Dollar stores carry them. The measuring cup set includes a 1 cup measure, a 1/2 cup measure, a 1/3 cup measure, and a 1/4 cup measure. Same with the spoons: 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, and 1/4 teaspoon. Also handy are the clear glass measuring cups with the gradations painted on the side. These are typically used for liquids and the other cups for dry ingredients.
Pot holders or extra Towels – In the words of one chef I know, “Fire make metal hot.” Keep it safe, Kids.
Stock Pot – A 12 quart pot seems to be the most useful size. You will need it for making stocks, of course, as well as mussels and lobster.
Mixing Bowls – At least three of them: small, medium and large. Metal, plastic, glass or ceramic are all just fine. We tend to use our metal ones more for prep work and the fancy glass or ceramic ones for baking and serving bowls.
Can Opener – You will only truly appreciate how much you want one, when you are very hungry and don’t have one. Nuff said.
Colander or Wire Mesh Sieve – You will need the colander for draining potatoes and pasta. The sieve is especially useful for straining stock and mussel broth. I have two of each, large and small, all depends on the job at hand.
Cooling Rack – Essential for cookies but I also use them for breaded items that I’m holding over or baking in the oven. Helps keep the breading from getting soggy or falling off altogether.
Box Grater or Microplane – Personally, I would want both. Here’s why. The box grater is a human powered food processor. Most of them have 4 different cutting surfaces. The larger teardrop shaped holes are for shredding. I mostly use that side for carrots, potatoes, and cheese. The smaller teardrop holes achieve the same thing, only smaller shreds. That one is nice for chocolate as a garnish or when I make quiche and want to put a little grated onion in the crust. The smiley or straight holes are intended to be used as a slicer; think potatoes, cucumbers, and cheese. The fourth side with the spiked protrusions is intended to be used as a grater for things like hard cheese or dried bread, when you want a powdery consistency. I don’t use that side very much because I fear injury and I don’t like anything that’s hard to clean. And speaking of which, always rinse your grater off right after use.
The Microplane is my go-to for zesting citrus, grating ginger and grating nutmeg, but you can use it for just about anything. They come in several sizes and take up less space in the drawer than a box grater. They are super east to use and also super sharp, so be careful, please. Make sure you rinse these off immediately after use because you can’t scrub it without risking injury.
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