I’ve long maintained that you don’t need to be a gourmet cook to be able to prepare a nutritious and tasty meal. You don’t have to have a “chef’s kitchen,” either. Having essential kitchen tools and equipment makes cooking easier, but having too many tools and gadgets can make it harder. Who wants to cook if the counters are cluttered with small appliances and the spatula is nowhere to be found?
The trick is to find the sweet spot — what do you need, and what can you do without? Outfitting a kitchen doesn’t need to be expensive. Having more — or fancier — pots and pans and high-end equipment doesn’t make you a better cook. You can find budget-friendly cookware and tools at Seattle’s many restaurant supply stores, as well as Costco — its business centers and select stores carry an array of restaurant supplies. Here, I’m offering some tips for starting out — or cleaning out, if you already have a fully stocked kitchen.
Let’s start with cookware. Don’t be seduced by shiny multipiece cookware sets in a box — odds are, at least a few of those pieces will only collect dust. Better to buy just what you need, starting with small, medium and large saucepans. A 1.5-quart pan is good for reheating soup, a 3-quart is perfect for cooking grains or beans and steaming vegetables (with the addition of a steamer basket), while the largest may vary depending on your needs — an 8-quart pan is a common size that will accommodate cooking pasta or large batches of soup or chili. Optional is a 5-to-6-quart cast-iron (enameled or not) Dutch oven for pot roasts, oven braises or baking bread. These are available at a variety of price points.
From there, look for a medium (10 inches) nonstick skillet, either Teflon (which, yes, is safe to use) or the increasingly popular ceramic-coated pans, which don’t last quite as long. I tried to go without, but grew tired of eggs, pancakes and delicate fish sticking to my regular pans. Use low or medium heat, and don’t use metal utensils. For sauteing or stir-frying over higher heat, get a medium (10 to 12 inches) cast-iron or carbon-steel skillet then add a 10-to-14-inch saute pan with a lid — saute pans have straight sides, unlike skillets. For baking and for roasting vegetables, you’ll need a few sturdy sheet pans. The half-sheet size (13-by-18 inches) is most common, but the quarter-sheet size (9-by-13 inches) is handy for small batches.
As with cookware, skip buying a complete set of knives and hone in on the real kitchen workhorses, a chef’s knife for chopping and a paring knife for smaller tasks. Chef’s knives range in length and price — from $10 to more than $300. What’s most important is to choose one that fits your hand and your budget. A serrated bread knife is optional, but cutting boards are mandatory. Wood or bamboo is easier on knives, but plastic can go into the dishwasher.
A set of nesting stainless-steel mixing bowls works for everything from tossing salads to mixing cake. You’ll also want one set each of stainless-steel measuring spoons and dry-ingredient measuring cups, plus 1-cup and 1-quart Pyrex liquid measuring cups. Stainless-steel tongs are kitchen multitaskers that help you lift, flip and move hot or messy food. A heat-resistant silicone spatula is also extremely versatile. Add a few wooden spoons, which do not need to be expensive, a slotted spoon and a spatula with a very thin front edge. A sturdy metal whisk will handle eggs, whipping cream and pancake batter.
While there are benefits to scrubbing rather than peeling carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, apples and summer squash — many beneficial phytochemicals are in or just under the skin — a vegetable peeler is still essential. So is a can opener for pantry staples like canned tomatoes, tuna and beans. A colander or fine-mesh strainer makes it easier to drain pasta or whole grains and rinse canned beans or fresh fruits and vegetables. And an instant-read thermometer is a better, easier way to test if your roast or chicken breast is done than cutting into it.
What about small appliances? Save money — and avoid buyer’s remorse — by resisting gadget trends. Focus on “need to have,” not “nice to have.” I ditched my microwave several years ago during a kitchen remodel because I realized I only used it for reheating leftovers, which I could also do on the stove or in my toaster oven (speaking of which, choose between a toaster OR a toaster oven).
Another choice: Food processor and blender OR a Vitamix. Consider your day-to-day needs. A food processor is great for things like pulsing pie dough and shredding huge quantities of carrots, but a Vitamix handles blender duties plus some food processor duties, such as making pesto and hummus. The bottom line: You don’t need to own all three. If you make soups that require pureeing, consider an immersion blender — it will save you time, clean up and risk of hot-soup burns.
Slow cooker OR Instant Pot. I have both, but that’s because I replaced my hand-me-down slow cooker with one big enough to accommodate whole chickens and large pork shoulders. Then I bought an Instant Pot (which functions as a smaller slow cooker) for the pressure-cooking feature, only to realize I prefer cooking old-school on the stove or in the oven. But if you’re away from home most of the day, having one of these devices can make your life much easier. If you like to bake, you’ll want a stand mixer OR a hand mixer. If in doubt, go for the latter — stand mixers are heavy space hogs. Or, go minimalist with your whisk and your wooden spoons. Bon appetit!