You don’t need a magazine-ready, multi-million dollar kitchen to cook like a master chef. These are the basic tools you need to tackle most kitchen tasks, then the additional tools that make life in the kitchen easier. The size of your kitchen, your budget, and the frequency with which you make certain dishes will all impact the equipment you need to cook like a pro. I’ve laid out the basics for you, along with what I use in my own kitchen. If you’ve got questions, feel free to drop me a line, and if you’ve got a favorite tool in your kitchen, please share it in the comments!
◊ Stainless Steel: Yes, you need pots and pans. At the very least you need a good size pot (4-quart is a good size to start) and a frying pan. My basic cookware is All-Clad, Stainless Steel. I would love the copper core line, but can’t seem to justify the expense. I’ve got several saucepans, a saucier, a saute pan, a frying pan, a massive stock pot, and large roasting pan. What I love about All-Clad is that it is heavy duty, non-reactive stainless steel. It heats evenly, takes temperature adjustment beautifully and looks good. This is the kind of cookware meant to last forever. And imagine my delight at seeing Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller’s famous restaurant in Napa, serve me dinner in an All-Clad pan. It seems great minds think alike.
But let’s be clear. When I started cooking, I didn’t need nearly what I use now. Don’t feel like you need everything at once. In fact, I am a big proponent of buying just a couple of pieces then adding as you find a need. You can drop a big chunk of change and buy a cookware set and it certainly seems cheaper than buying all the pots/pans individually, but most sets include extraneous pots/pans that aren’t very useful. You’ll end up buying the specialty pans later, so why fork over a big amount in the beginning on cookware you’ll never use? This does require patience, but I found that getting to know what cookware I really needed was more important than getting new cookware all at once. And if you wait for sales, you can find incredible deals. Had I bought a set instead of waiting for pieces to go on sale individually, I would’ve wasted a lot of money and been stuck with pans taking space in my kitchen that I never use.
◊ Enameled Cast Iron: I love the even heat of cast iron. From searing meat to slow-cooking soups and stews, it is hard to beat. As far as Dutch Ovens go, I love my Le Creuset round French Oven. It is my soup pot, my braiser, my sauce pot. From boeuf bourguignon to homemade marinara sauce, it has me covered. When it comes to cast iron skillets, I love Lodge pans, they are affordable, extremely sturdy and perform well. I have an induction cooktop though, so I sprang for enameled cast iron Staub pans. I loved the 12-inch skillet so much, I had to get the 10-inch as well. Makes perfect tarte tatin every time. Be warned though, cast iron is heavy. I have friends who love Le Creuset so they bought enameled cast iron for all of their cookware. After a few short months, the decided to replace it because for everyday cooking it was too heavy. I need both hands to lift every piece of enameled cast iron I own.
Tips for Buying: If you aren’t picky about colors, there are always Le Creuset french ovens on sale. And if you live near an actual Le Creuset store, you can buy used pots and pans directly from them. Also, since enameled cast iron is built to last a lifetime, check out ebay and craiglist.
◊ Sheet pans and cookie sheets: I buy half sheet pans like they are going out of style from restaurant supply stores, but my favorite brand for baking pans, loaf pans, etc, is Nordic Ware. I also swear by silpats, (silicon baking mats) to line them. These work for any job, from roasting vegetables to baking cookies.
◊ Glass bakeware: If you plan on doing casseroles, lasagnas, or au gratin potatoes, glass bakeware is your friend. I like Pyrex and Corningware, but there are loads of options at a multitude of price points and they all do a great job. I’d start with just two pieces, one round casserole for your basics and one rectangular for dishes like lasagna or baked ziti.
◊ Metal cake pans: If you aren’t baking cakes, you don’t need these. Full stop, just skip. If you think a simple box cake is as far as you want to go, a simple rectangular non-stick cake pan will serve you just fine (although glassware above will work as well). If you want to get fancy, go for it. From rounds to bunds, there are a million different shapes and sizes to serve any need.
◊ Kitchen knives: Like pots and pans, you will be tempted to buy a set. Don’t do it! All you need in your kitchen is a good chef’s knife (I have an 8-in Wusthof that I love, but a japanese style santoku is also good for all-purpose food prep) a serrated knife for breads/tomatoes, and a small paring knife. All the rest are fine and dandy to add once you know you are going to use them, but honestly, I bought a massive cleaver that I use once a year. Not the wisest purchase or the best use of storage space, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Lean from my mistakes. If you can, try out the knives before you buy them. You are going to spend a lot of time with these in your hand, they should feel solid, not slippery, and the right size for your grip. And remember to keep them sharp. Dull knives are a huge pet peeve of mine. Dull knives are much more dangerous than sharp knives – don’t get me started!
◊ Kitchen scissors or shears: I have a pair of kitchen scissors that comes apart for easy washing. I love it and use it all the time. Very useful tool.
◊ Steak knives: I finally got a nice set of steak knives. They are a luxury, but definitely not a necessity.
◊ Cutting boards: While cutting boards aren’t sharp, they should be under your sharp things whenever they are cutting. I prefer a big wooden cutting board for major chopping jobs, a small bamboo board for simple little tasks, and a separate plastic board for meat. Wood, bamboo and plastic all work just fine. Just make sure you have separate boards for meat vs produce. Better safe than sorry. In general, plastic is the lightest and can be washed in the dishwasher, but they need to be replaced more frequently. A good solid wood board will last you forever, but darn they are heavy. Bamboo is lighter than wood, but won’t last forever either. One big note – please no glass! They may look pretty, but you will kill your knives, and you need sharp knives people.
◊ Wooden spoons: Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats a wooden spoon when you are stirring a pot of stew or sauteeing onions on the stovetop. They won’t scratch delicate surfaces, but they’ve got enough oomph to scrap up bits when you deglaze a pan.
◊ Silicon spatulas: Delicate things like eggs or batters are a good use for silicon spatulas. Thumbs up!
◊ Whisks: Every time I’m in a cooking store I see loads of whisks, from big balloons to flat wire roux whisks, in the beginning all you need is one medium sized whisk. It’ll do every job you need a whisk for. If later you become a meringue maniac, then by all means go for the 12″ balloon whisk.
◊Spatulas: For flipping pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, or thin cutlets, you’ll need a spatula. This is the one place I like metal. I have a thin metal spatula called a fish spatula that I use constantly.
◊ Miscellany: There are a handful of other tools that aren’t necessary but darn useful in the kitchen: rasps/graters, handheld citrus juicers, salt/pepper mills, thermometers (digital probe and candy) and much, much more.
◊ Microwave: This may cause a bit of controversy, but I contend that you don’t need a microwave oven. Most people would disagree, but I got rid of mine a few years back and I love having the extra space. I will admit that a microwave is by far the fastest way to reheat leftovers, but I’ll take the extra time to reheat on the stove or in the oven because I think the slower reheat tastes better. This is up to you. If you like the convenience of having a microwave, you’ll get no judgement from me.
◊ Toaster/Toaster Oven: I like the ease and convenience of a toaster. Many people love their toaster ovens, especially for small jobs, melting cheese, etc, where they find the oven takes too long or heats up their kitchen. Choice is yours, you need one but not both.
◊ Food processor: Definitely not a necessity, but if you like making homemade pasta or shortcrust pastry, a food processor is a real time saver.
◊ Blender: If you like smoothies or blended soups/sauces, a blender is a necessity. If you want the functionality but are looking for a smaller option, a stick or handheld blender is a great option.
◊ Hand-held mixer: Doesn’t do anything that you can’t do with a whisk and some elbow grease, but they are cheap and relatively small, even if you use it rarely I still think they are worth it.
◊ Stand Mixer: Before I got one, I would’ve put the stand mixer in the not necessary pile. Now that I’ve got one, I can’t imagine my kitchen without it. I know they are pricey, but I love my KitchenAid Stand Mixer. Because I knew I would be using for bread dough, I opted for the Professional 600 series. Not only does it do a bang up job with anything I throw at it, I have true affection for the attachments. The pasta maker alone means I can make homemade pasta all by myself, and the meat grinders, etc, make the big appliance more worth it to me. Before purchasing, you will want to take an honest look at how much you will use it and what you will use it for. No point in spending hundreds of dollars if you only make cookies once a year. Its size and weight are major factors as well. I store mine directly on the counter so I don’t have to do any lifting.