For the past 13-plus years, I've run the website The New Homemaker, a resource site for stay-at-home parents, caregivers and everyone else. I've taught many people there to cook from scratch--just simple, home-y things with basic ingredients. I am also a leftovers ninja. I hate throwing food out.
In a comment recently, I told someone I could teach her to cook long distance, and other commenters asked me to write up some lessons here. The original person got overwhelmed at all the lists of expensive equipment "they" said she needed, and at the complicated recipes she was looking at calling for saffron and turmeric and so on, stuff she'd have to run all over town for and then never use again.
Phooey, I say. When people get hung up cooking, nine time out of ten I find out they're using some fancy recipe. That ain't cooking, that's company cooking. I'm talking simple everyday fare here. Leave company cooking for company.
Repeat after me: COOKING IS EASY. COOKING IS MY BIRTHRIGHT AS A HUMAN BEING. I CAN COOK. IT'S EASY.
This series will look first at how to stock your kitchen and what to do in there once it's stocked.
Follow me below the saffron thread doodle for part one.
PART ONE: Equipment, from the bare basics to the fully stocked
My philosophy on cookware is the same as Alton Brown's: NO UNITASKERS! Everything in your kitchen should do double duty, or almost everything; Alton says the only unitasker should be the fire extinguisher--but then he uses it to crush garlic, so...
My only unitasker is my popcorn popper, just because it makes such awesome popcorn. So no, you don't need a special appliance to steam vegetables or make yogurt or bake cupcakes (?!) or or or.
Much of what you need for the basics can be obtained even if you're broke. Watch garage sales, thrift stores and Craigslist. There's nothing wrong with used cookware, though I do encourage you to pay attention to the materials from which it's made.
Do NOT buy aluminum cookware. There is some debate as to aluminum leaching into food, and I don't like the heat distribution it gives you. Also: not dishwasher safe. If you can, get stainless steel pots with copper bottoms. My favorite pans are all cast iron. Don't buy no-stick. The coating comes off in your food and the pans wear out quickly. Cast iron is for life, yours and your grandchildren's and possibly their grandchildren's, and they're not all that expensive. I've bought affordable cast iron on eBay, even.
Some things are just better bought new, and I'll go over that as we go along.
Bare basics equipment
Most of you have these things already, but here's a handy list if you're just starting out.
8 to 12 qt stock pot
3 qt pot
Steamer baskets to fit the 3 qt and stock pots
2 qt pot
1 qt pot
If for some reason your pots don't have lids, you can get a "universal lid," a big stainless lid with ridges allowing it to sit securely on many different sizes of pots and pans. Useful.
10 inch cast iron skillet
You can use this to fry an egg or cook pancakes, or in the oven as a roasting pan or to bake cornbread. One of the most versatile pieces of cookware you can own. A new Lodge pan costs about $20 but you can find them used at garage sales and thrift stores--or ask family members. A lot of cast iron was abandoned when no-stick came around. I say, cast iron is it, baby. It's not hard to take care of it, either. If you can, get a Pyrex lid for it or use the universal lid from your pots.
13x9 Pyrex baking pan
Half-sheet jelly roll pan (cookie sheet with a lip)
Use the jelly roll pan to roast nuts and seeds, bake cookies--heck, bake a jelly roll! :) Parchment paper will save your jelly roll pan (and later, your cookie sheet). You can make muffins, individual cornbreads and frittatas, all kinds of things in the muffin tin--it's especially useful for single people making lunches. Make a bunch of individual frittatas or what have you and freeze them. Heat in the oven or the microwave at work. We'll get into that later. The baking pan can be used for cakes as well as roasting meat and/or veggies.
8-inch chef's knife
3-inch paring knives (2)
We like black-handled Rodda knives. American-made, inexpensive, sturdy. It's not 100% necessary but highly recommended you get a knife steel. Honing your knife before use saves sharpenings. Be sure to take your knives for sharpening regularly; dull knives are no fun to cook with, and you're much more likely to cut yourself on a dull one, paradoxically.
The best vegetable peeler you can afford--NOTHING frustrates me more in the kitchen than a bad peeler!
Grater--box or flat, whatever you prefer. Note on box graters: don't use the fine side. We'll talk about that further down.
1-cup Pyrex measuring cup
Potholders and oven mitts
Manual can opener
Large slotted spoon
Dowel-style wooden rolling pin
Corkscrew--I like the newer style lever ones. Trader Joe's sells a terrific one that also has a bottle opener on it
One big mixing bowl, stainless steel or Pyrex
Set of nesting Pyrex freezer-to-oven storage bowls with lids
Why storage bowls instead of mixing bowls for a basic kitchen? You can use storage bowls as mixing bowls as well. Multitask!
Strictly speaking, there is no appliance you absolutely MUST have. But if you can afford just one:
Electric hand mixer
Don't even bother with a manual egg beater. Seriously, just...don't.
THAT'S IT. You can cook almost anything with just the above pieces in your kitchen. You will use both more creativity and more elbow grease, but this kit will do if you're on the strictest of strict budgets.
"But Lynn!" you cry, "I've got most of the basics already, what if I want to make kitchen life a little easier, use a little less creativity and elbow grease? Especially elbow grease?" Here are your expansion options, by category. "Well-stocked" is the next level up from basic; "fully equpped" means you have everything you'll likely ever need or want.
stock pot with double steamer inserts (aka pasta pot)
I can't eat gluten and don't eat much grain anyway, but for steaming two veggies at a time these can't be beat. Extra stock pots don't go amiss anyway.
10-inch cast iron skillet
cast iron griddle
cast iron Dutch oven
5 inch cast iron skillet--good for the single folks. Fits a fried egg perfectly.
8x8 Pyrex pan
Pyrex loaf pan
Roasting pan with lid
Covered casseroles of various sizes--I like the fluted white Corningware ones myself
Set of ramekins--great for puddings, custards, individual serving dishes
Broiler pan--personally I use my cast iron pans for broiling
Silpat baking sheet--best thing to happen to cookie baking since cookie cutters
Silicone cupcake liners
Paramedic shears--great for butchering, they'll cut through anything
Big bad Chinese cleaver
Microplane grater--remember the comment above re: the fine side of a box grater, the side that never works? This does work. Use it for nutmegs, cinnamon, zesting citrus and grating hard cheeses
4-cup Pyrex measuring cup
Cooling rack, preferably large enough to fit over the mouth of the stock pot (because reasons)
Narrow neck funnel
Wide mouth funnel
Ice cream scoop
Candy thermometer--even better, a digital probe thermometer you can use for both meat and candy
2-cup Wonder Cup measuring cup--use this for measuring hard-to-get-out-of-the-cup stuff like honey, oil and butter
Mandoline--the cutter, not the instrument, though what you do in your kitchen is your business
Kitchen scale--crucial for following European recipes, and for parceling out bulk purchases
Deep fryer--oh baby, you know you want one. Homemade doughnuts, potato chips, chicken tenders...
Electric kettle--the kind that shuts itself off when it reaches boiling
Crockpot--err on the large size
tabletop roasting oven
electric coffee grinder dedicated to spice grinding
If you eat a lot of rice, a rice cooker--but only if you eat a lot of rice
Pyrex nesting mixing bowls, all sizes
Pint, quart and half-gallon wide mouth canning jars and plastic storage lids
Quart and gallon zip top freezer bags
stainless steel nesting mixing bowls--we got ours at restaurant supply
Pint EZ Cap bottles--useful for storing salad dressings and all kinds of pourables. Free source of these: find a friend who drinks Grolsch beer. Sometimes you'll find these bottles in use by makers of premium ice teas, kombuchas and the like. We got one that had once been a vodka bottle. Watch your friends' liquor cabinets. Otherwise, buy them by the case at brewing supply houses.
Anything not on this list you probably don't need. If you want it, that's another issue!
Next time: Stocking your non-perishable pantry
UPDATE: Please do read the comments. Many insightful observations. I just want to emphasize that just because it's not on this list doesn't mean "you can't have it." These are just basics that you really do need, at three different levels. You don't need a lot of specialized gadgets--unless you really want said specialized gadget. I have a pineapple corer, for instance. I only use it three or four times a year but it takes up hardly any room, and man that thing is just amazing. Do you need it, though? No, you don't. :)