How to Cook: Essential Tools for Your Kitchen

Welcome to your second cooking class! Last lesson, we talked about the most important part of cooking — flavor. Today, we’ll learn about the next most important thing — the tools you’ll need to get the job done.

If you don’t know how to cook — or the only things you cook come out of a box or the freezer — you likely don’t have much in the way of kitchen tools. This can make the process of learning how to cook seem much more daunting (and expensive) than it needs to be. While it’s true that there’s a kitchen gadget for pretty much everything, most of them are a waste of money (and precious kitchen space). Today we’re going to go over the essentials — things you need, things that are nice to have, and things you should think about getting as you become more experienced.

THE BASICS

When you’re first starting out, there are a few essentials that you really can’t do without. If your kitchen doesn’t already have these things, you should get them ASAP. It will be next to impossible to make any sort of “real” food without these essential tools:

  • chef’s knife
  • cutting board (wood or bamboo is gentler on your knife and perfect for fruits and veggies, and plastic is better for meat because it can go in the dishwasher – I have one of each)
  • measuring cups
  • measuring spoons
  • can opener
  • silicone spatula
  • metal spatula
  • metal whisk
  • tongs
  • mixing bowls (glass or metal is ideal)
  • baking sheet
  • small sauce pan with lid (1.5 qt or smaller)
  • large sauce pan/small soup pot with lid (3 qt or larger)
  • parchment paper or silicone baking mat
  • sauté pan (10-12″ is the most versatile)
  • instant-read thermometer
  • hand mixer
  • wire cooling/baking rack

If you have nothing more than these items, you’ll be able to make almost anything. As far as quality goes, that’s entirely up to you and your budget. If you want to spend a little more you’ll be able to buy tools that will last a lifetime, but if you don’t have that in the budget you can still find decent tools that will get the job done.

If you’re able to find it at a price you’re comfortable with, I recommend purchasing heavy-bottomed stainless steel cookware for your pots and pans. Many of them are dishwasher safe (though they’ll last longer if you wash by hand), if there’s no plastic on the handle they can usually be used in the oven as well, and a heavy pan will heat more evenly and hold the heat better than a thinner metal. Avoid non-stick for your day-to-day pans — non-stick has its place, but it’s prone to scratching, often can’t go in the dishwasher or oven, and many types release toxic fumes at high temperatures. If you’re afraid of sticking, don’t be — we’ll learn how to properly use a stainless steel pan in a future lesson. When it comes to bakeware, aluminum is the superior material because it heats quickly and evenly in the oven. The downside is that it’s not dishwasher safe, but I promise it’s worth it.

If you’re only going to splurge on one item, make sure you have a good chef’s knife. You’ll use your knife every day, and you need something that will stay SHARP. Dull knives slip on food and lead to injuries. Sharp knives will cut through any food like butter, and will never slip.

Not Essential, but Helpful

Next, let’s talk about common items that are helpful for making certain foods, but not a requirement for general cooking. Once you’re feeling more comfortable in your kitchen, I recommend picking up these items:

  • rolling pin (I prefer a metal French pin, and I have my reasons, but there are pros and cons to every type)
  • veggie peeler
  • paring knife
  • serrated bread knife
  • microplane
  • fine mesh strainer
  • aluminum bread pan
  • 8-9″ square baking pan (aluminum or nonstick)
  • 8-9″ round cake pan (aluminum or nonstick)
  • muffin pan
  • glass pie plate
  • bench scraper (I have a plastic one with a curved edge for getting dough out of bowls, and a stainless steel one with a ruler on it – both are essential in my own kitchen)
  • squeeze bottle for olive oil (I bought a clear, empty bottle intended for ketchup from the grocery store, and I keep it right next to the stove for quick, easy access)
  • citrus juicer
  • cast iron skillet (10-12″ is the most versatile)
  • nonstick frying pan (look for ceramic and steer clear of Teflon)
  • 9×13″ glass baking dish
  • roasting pan with rack (for roasting whole chickens or turkeys)
  • pastry brush
  • kitchen scale
  • enameled cast-iron Dutch oven
  • food processor
  • stand mixer
  • waffle maker
  • rice cooker

We’re beginning to enter tricky territory with the type of bakeware you choose to purchase here. Whether you go for aluminum or nonstick will depend on its intended purpose. Personally, I have both types for all my bakeware (apart from my baking sheets, which are all aluminum). In general, aluminum conducts heat better and gives your baked goods a beautiful color – perfect for breads and cakes. Sticking is not an issue if you properly grease your pans (or grease and flour for cakes). But nonstick has its place here if you’re cooking anything sticky or wet that might not come out of a regular pan easily (think sticky buns and pineapple upside down cake). Buy what you think you’re most likely to use.

For pie plates, I actually prefer glass. While I acknowledge that a metal pan would likely cook the crust better, a soggy bottom is about the worst thing you can have on a pie and I like to be able to visually see that it’s fully baked and golden brown rather than hoping it’s done, as you can’t tip it upside down out of the pan to check for doneness like you would for bread. Personal preference and paranoia on my part.

Not included in this list is duplicates and different sizes of the essential items from the first list. While you can cook with only one silicone spatula, I have at least a dozen in an assortment of sizes and shapes.

Essential Tools for the Experienced Cook

Finally, we come to the tools that are essential for the home cook who wants to cook like a pro. You may not need any of these items, but they sure do make it easier if you want to be able to make anything.

  • rolling pin rings (they allow you to roll dough to an exact thickness of your choosing)
  • meat mallet
  • stock pot
  • 4-6 oz ramakins
  • 6″ aluminum cake pans (2-3 will make a perfectly sized birthday cake for the average family)
  • mortar and pestle (pronounced “pes-uhl”), or molcajete
  • spice grinder
  • tortilla press
  • pasta drying rack
  • mini blender (perfect for making small batches of marinade or sauces)
  • specialty baking pans to suit your purposes (I have special pans for making mini muffins, madeleines, mince pies, donuts, bundt cake, angel food cake, pain de mie/Pullman bread, baguettes, swiss roll/jelly roll, cheesecake, several other sizes of round cake pans, and both full size and mini tarts)
  • biscuit cutters
  • bamboo steamer
  • pie weights
  • offset spatula
  • bread lame
  • banneton proofing basket
  • piping bags and an assortment of tips

I’m sure that this list is not completely inclusive, and I continue to buy new kitchen gear as my cooking repertoire expands, but these are the items in my own kitchen that are here to stay.

In future lessons we’ll go over what some of these items are used for, and how to use and care for them properly. That said, if you simply can’t wait and need to know now why you should (or shouldn’t) buy a particular item, leave a comment below! Is there an item that’s indispensable in your own kitchen that you think I’ve missed? Share with the class!

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