Making sure your kitchen is well equipped is not the same as buying every gadget and appliance that’s available. Most professional chefs will tell you that there are certain staples, such as a few good quality knives, that they could not live without. The trick is to learn the difference between what really is essential and what is simply convenience.
In fact, it’s amazing how basic the list of equipment is for a kitchen to function efficiently.
Knives are something you should never cut corners on. There’s nothing worse than a dull knife when you’re trying to slice something. High quality knives, ideally carbon steel with the tang (opposite end of the steel blade) visible throughout the entire length of the handle, are usually the best way to go. Hold it before you buy. A well-balanced knife should feel solid, have a good heft, but not be tiring to hold. (If it feels tiring or difficult to grip, try a different sized handle.) A sharp knife is safer than a dull one so always keep your knives sharpened. Store knives in their holders, or make a cardboard sleeve if your knife doesn’t come with one. And never put your knives in the dishwasher as it dulls the blade. At minimum, purchase a:
- Three- or four-inch paring knife
- Eight- or ten-inch chef’s knife—more than 80% of all kitchen chopping can be done with this.
- A serrated knife, ideally long enough to slice bread
Pots and pans can be a major investment but there’s no need to buy a complete set unless you can afford it and have sufficient storage space. Aim for heat-resistant handles that are oven-safe and won’t burn you when heating the pans on the stove. Handles that permit you to hang them from hooks or overhead racks are a plus for storage purposes. Non-stick offers convenience but also health risks when heated too high or scratched. Cast iron or le Creuset brand coated cast iron are a better option, if you can handle the heft, and are both oven and stovetop safe. The absolute necessities for a frustration-free kitchen include:
- A 10- or 12-inch skillet with lid for frying and sautéing
- A 3-quart saucepan with lid for boiling
- 10-quart stockpot/Dutch oven with lid for pastas, soups and stews
- Heavy duty roasting pan for roasting meats and vegetables
Other helpful utensils include:
- Kitchen scissors/shears—invaluable for just about anything, including snipping herbs and meats like prosciutto, cutting fish, even slicing pizza! There are special shears for cutting poultry, but a standard sharp scissors can be used in myriad ways. Buy one with a distinctively colored handle and use it only for food.
- Tongs—these are great for grabbing slippery items out of boiling water, even eggs. Some come with silicone tips to reduce slippage.
- Silicone spoon-style spatula—these spatulas are incredibly heat-resistant, typically up to 500°F, and do a great job scraping a bowl clean of batter.
- Flat spatula—both slotted and solid designs. Extra long ones with thin blades are excellent for fragile foods such as fish; slotted ones allow liquids to drain.
- Wooden spoon—extremely practical, from stirring tomatoes (reactive to some metals) to safely dislodging items jammed in the toaster. They are heat resistant except against flame and the natural enzymes in the wood kill bacteria such as salmonella so they’re actually safer in that regard than plastic.
- Cutting boards—the same applies to wooden cutting boards versus plastic—wooden boards are surprisingly safer to use. Don’t put them in the dishwasher unless the manufacturer says you can or the heat may warp the boards. Clean with lemon juice or white vinegar. Glass boards can dull knives, as can marble or granite. Plastic boards, particularly dark ones, are handy for vegetables that can stain, but wooden boards should be used for meats. Some people recommend different color boards for different uses, as it’s easier to keep them separate.
- Can opener
- Vegetable peeler—make sure it doesn’t slip in your hand.
- Box grater with handle—for shredding and grating cheese, chocolate, etc., and even for making fine breadcrumbs
- Kitchen timer—go digital for greater accuracy. Simple timers will give you up to 99 minutes typically; magnetic backing means they won’t take up valuable counter space. Newer versions span one second to 99 hours and may permit you to set up to three or more different alarms in one unit, handy if you’re cooking several things at one time.
- Trivet/hotplate—essential if your work surface will scorch. Cork trivets are handy, lightweight and easy to store standing on end; heavier items such as slate, metal or wood may be more awkward to store.
- Oven mitts—don’t go bargain basement here, as mitts that don’t adequately protect you from the searing heat of a 500-degree surface defeat the purpose. Silicone mitts permit you to dip your hand into boiling oil or caramel but try them on before buying to ensure they don’t slip too much; otherwise, a heat-resistant fabric should be sufficient.
- Colander/strainer—one with big holes for potatoes or large pasta; steel mesh for finer pastas such as capellini and small vegetables and fruits. Mesh strainers can double as sifters and sometimes come with expandable handles, which permit them to sit suspended across a sink.
- Storage containers for leftovers—if you use the microwave for reheating, consider glass versus plastic so chemicals don’t leach into the food. Pyrex is just one brand of glass storage containers that are microwave, oven and freezer safe and come with sealable lids.
Optional equipment includes:
- Whisk or hand mixer (a sturdy fork is often a suitable substitute)
- Electric hand mixer
- Food chopper/processor
- Measuring spoons (a must if you bake; optional if you cook—a standard teaspoon is a fine substitute; a soup spoon is roughly a tablespoon)
- Measuring cups for both solids and liquids (they really are different)—glass cups are handy for using in the microwave as well
Most beginner cooks will make out just fine with the basics and can add as their particular needs dictate. Buy quality when you can. It’s best to buy fewer, good quality pieces that will last instead of falling apart after a few uses. Make do with the minimum rather than try to buy too much with too little.
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