Building your Batterie de Cuisine: Part One
I think one of the biggest hindrances for people who are trying to learn to cook is not having the right tools for the job. Trying to prepare even the simplest recipe with dull knives or the wrong kind of pan makes cooking stressful and un-fun. But if you’re just starting out, how do you know what you need? Sure, there are all kinds of starter boxes out there that promise to give you every thing in one fell swoop (and I can be a total sucker for anything that comes in a kit). But most of the time the stuff in those boxes is crap quality, and using crappy cookware sucks. Plus you’ll have to replace it all soon anyway, when the handles start to fall off and the cheap aluminum warps.
I’m certainly not the first blogger to share my list of essential kitchen tools. Anyone who really gets into cooking becomes at least a little obsessed with gear. But I think most food bloggers are people who cook a lot and have tons of little speciality tools that they love and want to evangelize. And if you’re just starting out, that stuff can be kind of daunting. I don’t want you to be daunted. I want you to cook. So I came up with the bare bones list of things you really need to be successful in the kitchen.
I am actually breaking this into three parts: First, the minimalist list. These are the things you must have if you’re going to start cooking, and want the task to be easier. Second, the extra nice list. These are the things you’ll probably find yourself wanting to have if you start cooking more than once a week. Finally, because I am, after all, a food blogger, the super nice list of fun gear and tools that will let you do some special things in the kitchen.
I don’t think you need to go out and spend a ton of money on top quality gear. No need to drop $800 for the complete All-Clad cookware kit. I started out with a super basic, inexpensive set of pots and pans from Target, and they have lasted me for a long time. The only thing I would advocate spending a little bit of money on is a good chef’s knife. You will not regret that. But seriously, start small and work your way up to the nice stuff, if you want to. The key is just getting the basics so you can get in the kitchen.
PS – I’m including links here to items on Amazon; most of this is the stuff I actually use, except for the pots and pans. I bought my pots and pans at Target and they no longer make the type that I use. I’ve largely selected the links I did for illustrative purposes. Buy whatever is in your budget, and fits your style and needs. But do try to find pots and pans with metal handles for oven use. And seriously, no non-stick. Just don’t go there.
A Good Knife. I cannot emphasize this enough. You want a good, basic chef’s knife. I use a Wusthof Santoku Knife, and it is great for me. It fits nicely in my hand, and is a good weight. If you have a chance to go somewhere like Sur La Table and play with a few, that can be fun. You don’t have to buy the pricey one they are pushing on you. And I actually started cooking with a very basic, very inexpensive chef’s knife from Target. It was just fine, too. The most important thing is to keep your knife sharp, and treat it well. Don’t keep it in a metal, ceramic, or glass container. If it has to go in a drawer, consider wrapping it in a towel. Only chop on wood or plastic. Don’t put it in the dishwasher. Take it to be sharpened every now and then. If you love it, it’ll love you right back.
A Saucepan. A saucepan is a smaller pot with a long handle and a lid, which usually holds about 1 1/2 quarts. You probably already have one, and it’s probably fine. I like cookware I can put in the oven, so I stay away from plastic or wooden handles. Ideally, you’ll have two sizes, one smaller and one a little larger, but that’s not strictly necessary. These are good for cooking rice, or a small amount of pasta, or making basic sauces.
A Skillet. You really need just one medium skillet, although sometimes you might want a bigger or smaller one, as well. I bought an inexpensive set of three and they have served me well. Stay away from non-stick, and try to find one with metal handles so it can go in the oven. This is the dish you’ll do all your sauteing in, and you’ll use it to sear meats, if you like to do that kind of thing.
A Soup Pot. This is a larger pot, which usually holds about 5 or 6 quarts. You can go bigger if you want, but I find this size to be just fine. This is for cooking lots of pasta, or a big pot of sauce, or, duh, making soup. It can go in the oven, too, for braising.
Tongs. A good pair of tongs is like having a hand you can stick in the pot. They are wonderful for cooking greens, for flipping meat, for grabbing pasta out of the pot, for basic sauteing. They are the best. You will want them. A locking pair is good, because they are easier to store, and I prefer the kind with nylon or silicone heads. I feel like they can deal with delicate foods better, but that might just be me.
A Wooden Spatula. A flat wooden spatula is one of my indispensable kitchen tools, although others might not feel they are as necessary. I think they’re perfect for stir-frying and sauteing. They can move a lot of ingredients around in a pan quickly. I have several.
Cutting Boards. You’ll actually probably want a few cutting boards, for different purposes. I have a large wooden board that I use daily for vegetables and fruits, as well as several small plastic boards, one I’ve tried to designate especially for meat. I have a wooden board with a lip that collects juices when carving meat, which is handy. I have smaller boards for cheese or charcuterie. Be sure you have at least one fairly large guy. Cutting on a board will save both your knives and your counters.
Baking sheets. Baking sheets are great for more than just cookies. I have a set of three, and I use them for roasting vegetables and meats, in the freezer to help me freeze liquids in plastic bags, and of course, for baking cookies. Heavier weight sheets are good so they don’t buckle. Mine do buckle, which is sometimes annoying, but not that big of a deal. Someday I might buy nicer baking sheets, but they work fine so it’s not a big priority. If you only want to buy one, buy a big one.
A Colander. I actually debated whether a colander belonged on the most basic list, because you can drain pasta and vegetables very carefully with just the lid of your saucepan. But that can occasionally end in disaster. A colander makes things less stressful. I actually use two: one with bigger, but fewer holes for pasta, and a mesh strainer for vegetables.
Added! A Grater. A reader, Joy, suggested that a grater should be added to the list. They are useful for so much more than cheese. I am personally a huge fan of this Ikea version: the grater plates (large and small holes) fit like lids onto a storage container, so you can grate directly into a dish. They used to make this with a separate plastic lid for storage, but they stopped including the lid for some reason. A box grater is also a good choice, because you have multiple different grating sizes. Thanks for the excellent suggestion, Joy!
This is really all you need for basic cooking. These tools will get you up and running in the kitchen, and you’ll find that most of the time you have what you need to get the job done. As far as cookware goes, these three simple pots and pans are great, and if you want to get two or three sizes of each type, you’ll only be more equipped. But one of each will suffice for a beginner.
Of course, if you’re really going to start cooking more often, you’ll probably want a few other little niceties. I’ll tackle the Extra Nice list next week.
Do you think there are really basic things I’ve forgotten? Do you think my list is too big? Too pared down? What are your favorite absolutely essential tools in the kitchen?