So you want to cook. What do you need? Glad you asked. Here, I’ll give you what I consider the absolute minimum of equipment you’ll need to have or get to successfully begin cooking. I’ll give the point form here and expand upon it below;
- A good knife
- A wooden spoon
- A lifter
- A serving spoon
- Two cutting boards
- A large and a small pot
- A non-stick frying pan
- A baking sheet
1) A good knife.
A knife is a chef’s most important, most versatile tool. With it, you can slice, chop, mince, and dice any number of meats, vegetables and other items. You can butcher a chicken or cut your own steaks. You can smash nuts, crush garlic, lift a slice of pie, or scoop freshly chopped herbs into a pot. Therefore, it’s worth your time and money to invest in a good chef’s knife.
What you’re looking for is a blade 7-9 inches in length (generally), with a tang that extends fully to the end of the handle. That is, the whole knife should be one piece of steel with the handle material attached to that piece. If the blade appears to be attached by just a stub to the handle, reject it.
Hold the knife. The blade should be thick enough on the broad edge that it doesn’t flex or bend easily. The sharp edge should curve gradually to a point. The position of the handle should allow enough clearance that your knuckles aren’t banging against the cutting board when you chop. Overall, it should feel sturdy and durable. Could you hammer a nail with it? (Don’t actually do this).
Expect to pay a high price for a decent knife. $100 or more will not be uncommon. It’s understandable if you can’t afford that! Good kitchen knives can, however, often be found at the thrift store or garage sale; they will probably needed polishing and a good, professional sharpening.
On the subject of sharpening, consider investing in a good sharpening system. A sharpening rod is often included with knife sets, or you can do what I did and purchase an affordable sharpening set. If neither of these appeal to you, consider having your knife (or knives) sharpened professionally on a regular basis, every few months or twice a year, depending on use. $5 is a good deal if you’ve dropped $150 on a professional knife. A sharp knife will not only cut better and quicker, it is also safer. I speak as someone that chopped the tip of his finger off with a blunted knife!
2) A wooden spoon
Nothing fancy here. A simple wood spoon is essential for stirring soups and sauces, tossing stir-frys, tasting dishes, etc. Don’t cheap out and get it at the dollar store – most likely it will fall apart with use. Spend $5, it’s worth it. Also, wood will not scratch your non-stick pan (more on that later), so you can use it right in the pan.
3) A lifter
Again, nothing fancy. Just something to turn over eggs, serve casseroles, and flip burgers. I generally would go for a slotted model.
4) A serving spoon.
Necessary for scooping sauces and soups. Not much to say here.
Tongs are remarkably versatile tools that can be used for a number of tasks. Obviously, their prime use is turning a beautiful steak on the grill (as it should be). But they’re also great for stirring and grabbing pasta in the pot, turning vegetables on the grill or in the pan, or frantically snatching a tea towel that has lit on fire out of the oven (…for example). Like everything else in this list, they are versatile first.
6) Two cutting boards.
Why two, you ask? Simple – cross contamination. If you’re going to work with raw meat at all (and, unless you’re vegetarian, if you cook, you will), you need to have a separate board to cut meat on so that nasty Mr. E. Coli doesn’t get in to your salad.
I have a large bamboo board that I adore – it’s big, it’s easy to chop on, it’s sturdy, and it dries really fast after washing (which can be useful). But I recommend not using wood boards for meat, and the juices (and their associated contaminants) can leach into the board and even remain after a good scrub, especially on well-worn boards. Carving cooked meat on the board is, however, fine.
Don’t use those glass boards I see so often – they’re just going to dull your knife. Instead, as an affordable choice, opt for inexpensive plastic boards, or a used-but-in-good-shape wooden ones from the thrift store. Make sure they are not warped, and if you opt for wood, don’t let them soak in water for long!
7) A large and a small pot.
“Large” and “small” are, of course, very relative terms. If you live independently and usually only cook for yourself, their size will be smaller than if you are cooking for a big family. I recommend you err on the larger side, as you will find that it makes it easier to cook when things aren’t always boiling over the edge onto your burner!
If possible, look for steel pots with even, clean, heavy bottoms. Thick, heavy bottoms mean even heat dispersion and you won’t have sauce cold in one area and burning in another.
8 ) Non-stick Frying Pan.
I specifically indicated a non-stick frying pan for two reasons; healthy and ease of use. Having a good, non-stick pan means you can generally cook with less oil, butter, or cooking spray. For example, when I have some fried eggs in the morning, I use my non-stick pan and I can have them without any added fat. Non-stick means less stress about meat or veggies getting stuck and burning to the bottom of a pan.
When it comes time to purchase, please buy new. Old pans can will have lost a lot of their teflon coating and may even be hazardous to your health as bits flake off into your food. I bought a set of two, a 12-inch and a 9-inch at Costco for about $25. If you can only get one, opt for the larger if possible (so it doesn’t get over-full and spill). I like clean steel handles so I can stick it right in the oven if necessary, but you may not be so ambitious.
9) Baking Sheet.
Finally, the baking sheet. Pair it with some tin foil (more on consumables in another post), and you can bake wings, chicken, roast veggies and potatoes, even bake cookies or a free-form pie. When you start doing more cooking, it can serve as a ‘catcher’ if your lasagna or roast chicken starts dripping. Also, it’s cheap, so no excuses.
And that’s it. If a recipe I post requires another piece of equipment, I’ll try to make a note of it beforehand so you don’t get halfway into making a cake and learn you need a bundt cake pan. I get enough hate mail as it is.
As for where to purchase your equipment, it would be nice if we could all afford to have a shopping spree at Williams & Sonoma, but we’re not all millionaires! I recommend, of course, getting the best you can afford – things will tend to last longer and work better. But a lot of items – pots, baking sheets, utensils, cutting boards – can be found cheaply at the thrift store or garage sale. And, of course, there’s the option of ‘borrowing’ some from good ol’ Mom and Dad. If you’re living on your own for the first time, this is likely to be a good choice.
Any questions or comments, feel free to leave them here and I’ll get back to you ASAP.
Cheers, and good hunting!