Oct 10, 2009

Cooking at Home: Basic Kitchen Equipment

Since I've been writing so much about cooking at home, it seems right to do a post on the best equipment for the job. As with menu planning, there's no "right" way when it comes to equipping your kitchen. I find that I'm a minimalist with some things, and completely over the top with others. My best tip for knowing if something is a good investment: you find yourself wishing you had it over and over again. I recently bought a set of nesting glass bowlsafter wishing I had one for months. It's turned out to be a great purchase that I've already gotten my money's worth out of.

Here's what I think is the bare minimum, followed by some things that I could live without but am glad to have on hand every day.

Ultra Basic Kitchen Equipment

Chef's Knife - A good quality chef's knife can be the difference between a pleasant cooking experience and a miserable one (I'm speaking from experience). You'll probably use your chef's knife more than any other knife (it's the default tool for chopping, cutting and slicing) so invest in a good quality one that feels right in your hand. I have small hands so I prefer seven or eight-inch knives, as anything larger feels uncomfortable. The Kitchn has some tips on inexpensive knives (read the comments), sharpening your knife, and keeping your knife sharp. Remember not to leave your knife in the sink because the tip may snap off.

Cutting Board - You'll need one to do all of your chopping on, and preferably two for optimal food safety– one for meats and another for everything else. Wooden boards look nice but require special care. I'm partial to relatively inexpensive plastic boards (about $10) that can go in the dishwasher.

Frypan or Sauté Pan - A frypan has sloped sides, while a sauté pan has straight sides. I think most beginner cooks would find it easier to use a frypan. Twelve inches is a good, all-purpose size. You can use this pan for almost any recipe that calls for a skillet. I would recommend a nonstick pan to start. It's also nice if the pan has an ovenproof handle in case you want to bake something in it.

Stockpot or Large Sauce Pan - You'll need a stockpot to cook pasta and make soups. A good, versatile size is 8 to 10 quarts. I like my stockpot to be nonstick because I make a lot of one or two-pot meals, and it makes clean-up a lot easier.

Baking Pans - Every kitchen should have a 13x9 glass Pyrex baking dish. It's perfect for cakes, casseroles, and so much more. An 8x8 cousin is almost as necessary, because many recipes call for an 8x8 or 9x9 pan. In the summer, I use my 8x8 pan more because it fits in my toaster oven. A jelly roll pan is also a must – you can use it to bake just about anything: cookies, fish, granola, chicken nuggets, etc.

Measuring Tools - Get a glass 2-cup measure for liquid ingredients, a set of dry measuring cups, and a set of measuring spoons. If your measuring cups and spoons come with a ring to keep them together, take it off. There's no reason to have to wash all of your measuring cups or all of your measuring spoons just because you used one.

Utensils - A wooden spoon works better than a silicone spatula for breaking up ground meat, but is less sanitary. A pair of tongs is great investment that will protect your hands and prevent you from dropping food. A whisk is necessary if you plan on whipping egg whites or cream, and a spatula is best for folding. And a spatula/turner is best for flipping pancakes, and lifting larger items like omelets and fish.

Colander - It's pretty much impossible to drain pasta properly without one. But you can use it to drain other things like ground beef (get rid of the fat) and yogurt (to make yogurt cheese).

Other Equipment You Might Want
Other Knives - A paring knife is useful and safer than a chef's knife for peeling produce like apples. A serrated knife is ideal for slicing bread and other delicate items like tomatoes. An electric knife is definitely a luxury item in the kitchen but works great if you want to slice bread very thin or cut a very tender roast into slices without having it fall apart completely.

Other Utensils - A vegetable peeler is invaluable when it comes to getting skins off quickly. A microplane grater is versatile enough to zest citrus, grate cheese, and mince garlic. I'm so fond of whisks that I have quite a collection, including a flat whisk, which is great for getting into the edges at the bottom of a pot, and a ball whisk, which is great for batters.

Mixing Bowls - While you could always use whatever bowls you happen to have on hand, mixing bowls have higher sides than, say, a cereal bowl. I love my set of stainless bowls, but I'm so glad to have my new set of glass bowls because they're microwave safe.

Beyond the Basics
Here are some things you might want to look at if you've got all of the above and are looking for things that will make cooking easier.

Electric Steamer - I try to avoid unitaskers but this is one that I'm happy to have because it really helps us eat healthier. I use it several times a week to cook vegetables, and I also use it to make hard cooked eggs. I also like the safety factor, since stovetop steaming would require a pot with boiling water.

Rice Cooker - I've had an electric rice cooker since I went away to college. I couldn't cook rice on the stove if my life depended on it, but that's okay, because I don't have to. More on rice cookers here and here.

Splatter Screen - If you hate cleaning your stove and backsplash, a splatter screen can save you a lot of trouble.

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Gina @ MoneywiseMoms said...

Just want to second buying a "good" knife. I finally gave in after years of cutting myself instead of the tomatoes and paid good money for an excellent-quality knife. Now I kick myself for not doing it sooner. It makes a huge difference. Cutting is less hassle and MUCH safer.

Great list, Cathy!

menu planning said...

with all the cooking that i do i have to rotate my pans every year. do you know of a way to take care of them?

Chief Family Officer said...

@Gina - Yup, I went a while without investing in a good knife and regretted waiting when I finally one. Now I'm thinking of getting a second "good knife" so I don't have to keep washing the one I have now.

@menu planning - I'm not sure what you mean by "rotate." I generally keep one set of pots and pans and use them every day until they wear out. Obviously some pots and pans get more use than others, but I don't have sets that I rotate.