Epic Post Alert: This is a tad long but I’m writing it because likely the #1 question I get from budding culinary aficionados is “What do I absolutely have to have in my kitchen to get started?” Well, here it is – The List.
A few of things worth noting here:
First, this post is about cooking not baking. Baking is a whole other ball game; so much so, in fact, that if you go to culinary school you’ll actually focus exclusively on one or the other, but not both. Baking requires a whole other set of everything and a fair amount of other specialized tools and utensils, but this post is about cooking.
Second, you will notice that I spend a lot of time talking about the first thing on the list: The Chef Knife. This is because it is the most important, and most expensive, investment you will make. I don’t go on too much about the other things on the list.
Third, I do have a number of gadgets and other things I use regularly that make my life easy, but this is a list of the things I consider to be essential. But what is essential for me might not be essential for you, so don’t feel like you have to have everything on this list.
Part One: Knives (And Other Sharp Things)
Chef Knife. Many would argue that all you need in the knife department is ONE good chef knife. While this is almost true, there are a few other knives (and other sharp things) that I couldn’t live without, and those are listed below. That being said, your chef knife probably will be the ONE thing you use every time you cook, so choose wisely – it’s going to be an extension of your hand and your best friend in the kitchen for years to come.
Choosing your knife is a very personal choice; therefore, be sure to visit a decent cutlery store or kitchen supply store and try a few out before fully committing. This is going to be a long lasting relationship, so whatever you do, don’t buy online without at least having tried a few out first. Seriously, show up at your local cutlery or kitchen supply store with a sack of cheap potatoes and ask to try a bunch of knives (and also, if you do visit a cutlery store and try a few out, you owe it to the salesperson and the store to buy in-store, even if its a few bucks more than you could get it on amazon).
Brands to look at: Wusthof (both the Classic and Classic Ikon Series, steer clear of the ‘Gourmet’ series), Global, Miyabi, MAC, Misen.
Don’t freak out: A good chef knife is going to cost you somewhere between $100 – $200. If you’re serious about cooking, it’s a worthwhile investment because it will last you 10 years or more, will improve the speed and efficiency of your prep, and will actually make your food taste better because you will be able to more easily make things the same size, ensuring even cooking. Also, no one needs a full knife-block full of knives. Use the money you’d spend on a whole bunch of cheap knives, most of which you won’t use, to buy yourself ONE really good chef knife that you’ll use every day. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
How to choose a chef knife? You need to consider the following things, in this order: Fit, Feel, Features. Comfort is of paramount importance which is why it’s critical to actually get a few knives into your hands before buying. Hands come in all shapes and sizes; so do knives – it’s important to match those things up. Does it feel well balanced when you hold it? Does the curvature of the handle match your hand? (Hint: If you hold it and something feels weird or is poking you in the wrong place, it probably isn’t your knife.) Is it the right weight? Not too heavy, not too light? Is the handle the right size for your hand? These are all the questions you want to be asking yourself when you’re trying out a chef knife.
In terms of features, there are several things to consider:
First, you want to get a knife that is forged, not stamped. A forged knife is made from a single bar of steel which is then heated and shaped into a knife by a craftsman; a stamped blade is cut from a large sheet of metal cookie-cutter style, making it less durable.
Second, you’ll want to get something that has a full-tang – meaning that the metal from which the blade is forged extends all the way through the handle.
Third, I generally recommend stainless steel over carbon steel; stainless steel won’t rust or corrode and will hold an edge better than a carbon steel knife. Carbon steel knives are easier to sharpen due the the fact that the steel is softer, but require regular sharpening in order to keep them in working order. Additionally, carbon steel knives are prone to rust and corrosion.
Fourth, you’ll want to consider the blade. In terms of blade length, unless you have exceptionally small or exceptionally large hands, either an 8-inch or 10-inch blade is a good place to start. In terms of hardness, a harder blade will hold an edge longer but will be more prone to chipping – if you do chip it, you’ll need to have it professionally resharpened. A softer blade will require more frequent honing and sharpening but will be more forgiving and minor chips can probably be worked out at home. Most German knives (Wusthof, Henkels, etc) are slightly softer; Japanese knives (Shun, Miyabi, etc) tend to use harder steel. Typically, most chef knives range from somewhere between 56 – 63 on the Rockwell hardness scale. Generally something in the 58-61 range is good – ask your knife specialist about this when trying out knives (if they don’t know what the Rockwell hardness scale is, find a different specialist).
Note: Some knives have what is known as a granton edge. These are the knives that have small ovals on the side of the blade. The idea is to help keep food from sticking. I’ve never noticed an appreciable difference, but the first knife I ever owned was an 8-inch Wusthof Classic Ikon (58 on the Rockwell Scale) with a granton edge. It served me well many years, but eventually it wore down to the ovals and had to be retired. No doubt I’d still be using it if it had a regular edge. For that reason, I’d avoid a granton edge.
Paring Knife. When selecting a paring knife, you’ll want to look for similar features that you would in a chef knife. Generally, I prefer my paring knives a bit longer than some folks would, with a blade length in the 4″ – 6″ range. A longer blade means that in addition to vegetable prep, it can be used to bone out chickens and steaks, trim beef, butterfly chicken breasts and filet fish. If you just dropped $150 on a chef knife and don’t want to make another large knife investment, guess what? Get a cheap one; it’ll work fine. Use it as long as you want, and when it’s not worth sharpening anymore, toss it. That’s actually what I do. A chef knife is something to be fully committed to and a worthwhile investment; a paring knife is not. I’ve become (overly?) attached to my chef knives, but I’ve never really grown attached to a paring knife.
Serrated Knife. Again, not something you have to spend big-bucks on. Look for something with a 10 – 12 inch blade. You’ll need it to slice bread and perhaps the occasional tomato or pepper with overly thick skin, but that’s about it. Still, unless you like squished and mangled bread and vegetables, it’s something you need in your arsenal.
Kitchen Shears. These are more than scissors. They should be robust enough to help you break down a whole chicken, as well as trim a pie crust, snip the bottoms off of asparagus stalks and trim fat off of slabs of meat. Also, they work as scissors – opening plastic bags, snipping twine, etc. Pro-tip: Use them (not a pizza cutter) to cut pizza.
Microplane Zester. This ultra-sharp, 8-10 inch shredding machine will do the job of about three other tools and do it twice as well. It’ll set you back maybe $15. Need to shred some cheese? Done. Need some finely minced garlic? Toss your garlic press and use this instead. And also, while you’re at it, toss that horrible uni-tasker, the zester, and use your microplane zester to shower intricate and finely shaved citrus zest onto whatever needs zesting.
Vegetable Peeler. Yes you can peel vegetables with a knife. That’s for Iron Chef America. Use one of these to make the job easier and come home with all your fingers attached.
Honing Steel. This, in and of it self, isn’t sharp – it’s job is to keep things sharp. You’ll want to use this just about every time you use your chef knife. Contrary to popular belief, this thing is not a “knife sharpener.” When you sharpen a knife, you actually are taking material off the blade and putting a new edge on it. When you hone a knife, you’re just keeping all of the tiny little microscopic saw-like teeth on the blade lined up for maximum sharpness. In other words, honing your knife is like brushing it’s hair; sharpening it is giving it a haircut (I didn’t come up with that and don’t remember where I heard it, but its a great analogy; you brush your hair every day but you only get a haircut once in a while).
Part Two: For the Oven
Full Baking Sheet (26×18), with oven safe wire rack. This is probably one of the best investments you can make when it comes to roasting things. In fact, I use it almost exclusively even though I own a very nice roasting pan. Why? You think a regular baking sheet blocks air currents, think of what a roasting pan does. Your roast is sitting so deep in the pan that there’s no way it’s going to heat evenly. Put your roast up on top, fully exposed to all the heat? You’ll get it perfectly cooked edge to edge. Also, you can use this tool to roast spatchcocked (butterflied) chickens, make bacon in the oven, roast veggies for soup and pasta – the possibilities are endless. Trust me on this – forgo your roasting pan and get one of these instead.
Rimless baking sheet. A rimless baking sheet can be used for anything from baking cookies to heating up garlic bread to toasting croutons and crostinis. A regular baking sheet, which has edges all around, blocks air currents in the oven thus leading to uneven heating and therefore uneven cooking. That’s why if you’re baking cookies (or something else) using a regular, rimmed baking sheet, some of the cookies are getting incinerated while the others are still blobs of raw dough. A rimless baking sheet ensures even heating and consistency.
1/2 baking sheet (18×13). So why would anyone use a rimmed baking sheet? Easy. It can hold liquid.
Baking Dishes (Pyrex 9×13, pyrex 9×9). I know I said this post wasn’t about baking, but who doesn’t want to bake the occasional batch of brownies? That being said, you’ll use these for dredging, coating fish and chicken with breadcrumbs, etc.
Part Three: Pots and Pans
5 quart stainless steel sauté pan with lid. Other than your chef knife, this will probably be the largest investment you’ll make and is totally worth it. This will be the true workhorse of your kitchen. If you had to choose ONE pan to have in your arsenal, this is it. There literally isn’t anything you can’t do with this pan… Need to sear off a few steaks? Done. Make a pan sauce while you’re at it. Want to roast a chicken in this thing? Done. Fish fillets? Yep. How about making a mirepoix for your stew? Sure thing. Just like your chef knife, you’ll probably use this thing almost every time you cook, so it’s worth the investment. The Gold Standard, of course, is copper – but unless you just picked up a winning lottery ticket, probably ain’t gonna happen. The industry standard? The All-Clad tri-ply stainless steel pan. That will still set you back a pretty penny. My recommendation would be to go with a Tramontina sauté pan. Less than $100, will last a lifetime, and get every job done that needs doing. A few things worth noting: DON’T go for something “non-stick” – you actually want it to stick, so that you can build fond. Non-stick has its place, but this isn’t one of them. Ultimately, you want something tri-ply, because that will both distribute and retain heat evenly and uniformly. Also, you can easily boil a pound of pasta in this thing. Afraid of stainless steel? Don’t be.
12 inch non-stick skillet. There is a place for a non-stick skillet. Any time you’re not interested in building fond – say, frying a few eggs, making chicken cutlets or frying fish fillets – these are all good times to use something non-stick. Like a paring knife, I’ve never become overly attached to a non-stick skillet. Buy something decent, but don’t plan on it lasting you for decades. T Fal makes a very decent one in the $20 range.
12 inch Cast Iron Skillet. A good cast iron skillet doubles as a bear-swatter (it’s heavy) and retains heat like nothing else. It has three really good uses: Searing stuff (steaks, chicken parts, etc.), deep frying (think french fries and fried chicken) and baking (think cobblers, cornbread, frittatas, etc). Keep it well seasoned – don’t wash it with soap; just warm water will do fine. Be sure to put it away bone dry or it will rust. Also, don’t use it to make pan sauces or anything too acidic (like tomatoes). Lodge Logic makes a nice one.
4 quart sauce pan. Even though I have a set of sauce pans of different sizes, I generally only use my 4 quart one. Anything smaller doesn’t hold enough stuff, and anything bigger I’m just going to use a stock pot. Use this for making rice, reducing brazing liquids, making sauces, making gravy, etc. As always, look for something relatively heavy – stainless steel or copper – and avoid aluminum which will make it more likely you’ll accidentally scorch something to the bottom of your pan.
6-8 quart dutch oven or braiser. You just can’t make a long-cooked chili or stew without this. It’s a must have for things like Coq Au Vin, beef stew and chili. The Gold standard here is Le Creuset, but holy hell, they’re expensive. They’ll also last you your lifetime. And your children’s lifetime. And your grandchildren’s life time. That being said, there are many other options out there that cost 1/3 the price and will do just fine. Four features to look for: (1) Cast iron, not ceramic. (2) Enameled, not painted. (3) Multi-layered, for even heat distribution and maximum heat retention. (4) Oven-safe to at least 450°F. Again, Lodge Logic to the rescue – you’re looking at about $60.
12 quart stock pot. I use this for everything from making stock (duh), to heating water for pasta (if I’m making a lot of it, otherwise your 5 quart sauté pan will work fine), to making mashed potatoes. Basically, any time you have to boil a lot of something.
Deep Fry Basket. Yes, you use this for deep frying. Also, you can use it in place of a colander to drain pasta, rinse mushrooms, drain tomatoes, etc. The fact that it has a handle also means that it’s easier to toss the contents for washing or cooling down in a hurry. Also, you can use it to blanch vegetables, steam stuff, etc. Get a round one, not a square one, so you can drop it into your stock-pot or sauté pan.
Thermometers (Yes, You Must Have All Three)
If you don’t know exactly what temperature your food is, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Always cook with temperature, not time. If you want to know more, I have a longer post on the critical importance of thermometers here.
Instant Read Thermometer. You’re looking for something digital with a read-time of 5 seconds or less. The gold standard is the Thermapen from Thermoworks but I actually find the Javelin from Lavatools to work just as well at 1/4 the price.
Probe Thermometer. This thermometer has a long probe that can be inserted deep into a large roast or poultry. Attached to that probe is a 3-4 foot lead which connects to a digital read-out display. This one is like $15 on amazon. Use this in the oven, on the smoker, and on the grill to know what the internal temperature of your food is without opening the oven door or lifting the cover on the grill/smoker, thus losing all of the heat inside. I prefer one that has an alarm so you can wander off and do other stuff while you’re food is coming up to temp. Note: I only use it to tell what temperature my food is; I never use the “preset” feature which has all the temperatures set to USDA regulations, since all those regulations are too damn high and will result in dried out food.
Infrared Thermometer. This thermometer will let you know what the surface temperature of something is in about 1 second. Most useful for knowing how hot your oil or fat is in your frying pan – 350°F – 400°F for proper browning. No more looking for whisps of smoke or guessing how hot your pan is; no more soaking things in oil that’s not hot enough or incinerating onions and garlic by dumping them into a pan that’s too hot. Also useful for telling what the temperature of your grill grate is, etc.
Immersion Blender. Use this for making homemade mayo, aolis, tartar sauce, Caesar dressing, etc. It takes a bit of practice to get the emulsification process down, but once you do you’ll never go back to store-bought dressing. Also use it to pureé soups right in the pot, without having to do it in batches using a stand blender and risk the exploding soup phenomenon.
Stand Blender. I don’t use this much, but you can’t make smoothies or cashew cream (for vegan dishes) without it.
Electric Tea Kettle. Aside from using it to heat water for tea and french press coffee, you can use this any time you need to heat up water in a hurry. For example, you can wait for 4 quarts of water to come to a boil for your pasta (20-30 minutes) or you can do two batches in your tea kettle and transfer the hot water to a pot (6 minutes).
Non-stick electric griddle. Yes, you could use your non-stick frying pan for almost all the same purposes, but if you’re making grilled cheese or heating up tortillas for 10 people, this will make your process go a lot faster since you’ve got more surface area to work with.
Slow Cooker. Basically, anything you can do with a braiser you can do with a slow cooker, except for recipes that require you to strain out the braising liquid and reduce it into a sauce. The advantage to a slow cooker is that it uses less energy and can literally be set before you leave for work, left to cook all day, and you’ll have dinner ready when you get home.
Prep Bowls. You’ll want a dozen or so bowl of different sizes, from 5 or 6 4oz bowls for mise-en-place to medium size bowls for the same purpose, to larger bowls for tossing salads or marinading meat or chicken.
Cutting Boards. There’s nothing worse – or more dangerous – than a cutting board that’s sliding around your counter top. To keep your cutting board in place, dampen a couple of paper towels and place them directly on your counter top and place the cutting board on top of them. Gently press downward on the cutting board and the moisture from the paper towels will act like a suction device and make your cutting board much more stable.
Use a wood cutting board. Plastic ones slide around more easily, and believe it or not, are more likely to house bacteria. A wood cutting board has natural antimicrobial properties due to the fact that it is a natural material, whereas a plastic one, being synthetic, is just the opposite.
I usually opt to position my cutting board at the corner of my counter top with the edges hanging over the counter top by maybe 1/3 of an inch. I place my trash can immediately to the right of the counter. This makes it easier to scrape things that I’m planning to cook with into various containers, and it makes it easier for me to scrape waste materials into the trash can.
Carving board. A carving board is a cutting board with grooves around the edges to catch liquids from meat that’s being carved.
Fish Spatula. The only spatula you need for all your spatching needs: From flipping burgers on the grill and gently loosening things that are being browned in a stainless or copper pan, to flipping pancakes, making the perfect omelet or loosening up something stuck to the grill, the Fish Spatula is the only one you really need. It’s super thin so it’s easy to shimmy underneath even the most delicate of foods, it’s super wide so stuff won’t fall off of it, and its slotted to help things drain. (Keep in mind that anything that’s really stuck to your cooking surface, it isn’t ready to be flipped. It’ll loosen up when it’s good and ready, providing you charged your pan properly). Really, it’s the only spatula you need and you can’t NOT have it in your arsenal.
Wire Whisk. One medium sized wire whisk should serve all your whisking needs.
Wooden Spoon. Use this on your non-stick cookware to prevent scratching the non-stick coating. Also, nothing will make you feel more like an Italian grandma that stirring a marinara sauce with a beat up old wooden spoon.
Silicon Spatula. For scraping down the sides of a food processor or blender, stirring dough, etc.
Plastic Spatula. For flipping things on non-stick surfaces where you don’t want to scratch the coating (although the fish spatula is thin enough that the plastic spatula is really optional).
Ladle. For ladleing things.
Slotted Spoon. For removing items (like sausage coins or bacon bits) from pots and pans where you want to leave rendered fat behind but need to remove certain items from the pan.
Large Serving Spoon. For serving stuff.
8-12 inch utility tongs. For picking things up off of hot surfaces, flipping steaks on the grill, tossing salads, etc.
Measuring Cup set. For measuring things.
2 cup measuring cup. For measuring higher volumes of things (think rice).
Measuring Spoons. For measuring spices, flour, etc.
Potato Masher. For mashing things – like potatoes. Or fresh stewed tomatoes in Marinara sauce, or beans in chili. Or mashing avocados for guacamole.
Fine Mesh Strainers (2 sizes). For straining liquid where you want the solids left behind (like rendered bacon fat) or when making soups and stews. Also useful for rinsing small amounts of vegetables.
Corkscrew. Nothing worse than not being able to open your bottle of wine.
Oven Mitts. Ever try grabbing a hot pot with your bare hands? Don’t do it.
Splatter Guard. This is a round, fine mesh screen to be placed over a pot where things are frying. It will catch a lot of the grease spatters and prevent you from having to clean every surface in your kitchen after making bacon.
Reusable Bar Mop Towels. Stop using so many paper towels. It’s expensive and aside from that it’s not great for the environment. I used to go through half a roll of paper towels every time I cooked trying to keep things clean. Then, I figured out that all I really need is maybe a couple of paper towels (for patting things dry, holding my cutting board in place, etc) and one clean, fluffy, super absorbent towel – like this one. A 24 pack from Amazon is very affordable – in fact, it’s roughly the same price as a giant package of paper towels at your local grocery store. Fold them up, keep them within arms reach, and when you’re running low toss them in the washing machine with a bit of bleach and voilà! – clean towels! I use these towels to wipe my knife, wipe my cutting board (which you should to between each prepped ingredient), mop up spills on the counter, grab hot pots, pans and lids, adjust oven racks, retrieve things from the oven, etc. Aside from a good knife, one clean towel is a chef’s best friend.
Can Opener. Unless you like trying to tear open aluminum cans grizzly-bear style.
Rolling Pin. Not just for baking, it can be used to flatten out chicken breasts for cutlets as well as tenderize meat, etc.
Hopefully I didn’t scare you off with this list – the idea was to do the opposite and help you take stock of what you really will need/use when you cook. Take the things you don’t use that often and put them somewhere so your kitchen isn’t cluttered with a whole bunch of stuff you won’t use. Also, not every cook will need every item on this list, and some cooks may need something that isn’t on this list. It’s just here to give you a general idea – hopefully you found it helpful. As always, feel free to reach out with comments or suggestions.