Kitchen Essentials: A Bare Bones Guide

I'm not much of a gadget geek when it comes to kitchen equipment. In fact, the kitchen is one area where I truly feel less is more. You can accomplish a tremendous amount with a few well chosen pieces of quality cooking implements. Unfortunately all those pretty food magazines, exciting cooking shows, and gorgeous catalogs from a certain California based cooking/lifestyle company have bamboozled too many people into thinking they NEED $10,000 worth of spatulas, specialty pans, and thingamajigs to be able to cook a meal. Not true! Keep reading to find out what I consider to be essentials for your healthy home kitchen.

Cut to the Chase

First, and most importantly in my experience, you absolutely must have a good chef’s knife. I prefer an 8 inch knife for its versatility and the way it fits my hand. I have quite small hands. However, they come in several sizes and weights, with different grip designs and compositions. I can’t tell you exactly which knife to buy, you’ll have to go to a good kitchen supply store and try several in your hand to see what feels good to you. What I can tell you is to buy a quality knife--it will hold an edge longer, take sharpenings and steelings better, and last a lifetime. Mine ( a Wusthof) is 20 years old and still going strong. Speaking of steeling your knife, you should do this regularly. It resets or trues your blade, and makes your knife more efficient and easier to use. Sharpening is done on a sharpening stone, and not as frequently as using your steel--that thing that looks like a metal rat-tail.  So when you buy your knife, make sure you also purchase a steel. And remember these words-- Sharp Knives Cut Food, Dull Knives Cut Fingers. Seriously, a dull knife requires you to exert more pressure on each stroke, slips more easily, and increases your chances of hacking your finger into bits. A sharp blade will glide easily and cleanly through whatever you’re using it on. While we’re talking about knives, I’ll also suggest you get a nice paring knife--4 inches is a good all-purpose size. Use this for peeling (paring) fruits and vegetables, carving fancy carrot pinecones, and making radish roses for garnish.  Actually, my mother only ever uses a paring knife no matter the task at hand, I don’t recommend this method but it seems to be preferred by grandmothers world-wide.

If you make a lot of roast meats or poultry/fowl, you may also find a good carving knife to be handy, however your chef’s knife should be adequate for the tasks of carving up cooked meats. Let budget be your initial guide. If you can afford only one or two good knives, go with  the first two I mentioned. If you’ve got a larger budget, and more advanced needs (fileting fish, deboning chickens, slicing loaves of crusty peasant breads, creating sashimi and sushi masterpieces) you can absolutely dive head first into the beautiful world of specialty knives--there are specific blades for almost every niche need. But today we’re talking essentials, basics, starter needs for the home cook.  Quality knife makers include Wusthof, Henckels, Sabatier, Global and Shun. Expect to pay a minimum of $60 for a chef’s knife, the upper limit is up to your budgetary comfort level. I also recommend you visit a brick and mortar kitchen supply store, so you can feel the knives in your hand. You can always decide to order online after you’ve picked a favorite.

Pan-o-rama

Now that you’ve got knives to slice and dice your ingredients, you’ll need something to cook them up in. Pots and Pans to the rescue. If you believe the ads you see in the magazines and cooking shows you’d think you needed a special pan for every single food you cook. Special upright chicken roasting pans, purpose built egg poaching pans, fancy copper asparagus cooking pots, the list goes on! But what do you really need? That answer depends partly on your personal style of cooking, and I’ll address that in a bit, but in general there a few pieces which are universally useful and versatile. One note before we dive in, I recommend you buy stainless steel (copper bottom optional) cookware. It’s non-reactive and will last for years. It can also move from stovetop to oven which is a great convenience and gives you more bang for your buck. Now, on to my bare-bones list!

Stock/Soup Pot (with lid)--Get yourself an 8 quart ( or larger if possible) Stock Pot. You know how Bone Broth is all the rage, and priced accordingly? With a big stock pot you can make your own for pennies per serving. Batch cooking soups, stews, and chili is as easy as throwing it all together and stirring once in awhile. I have a 16 quart stock pot (that’s four gallons) and use it for everything from cooking those stocks, soups, and stews, to homebrewing cider and making large batches of liqueurs, and lots in between.

 4 quart double handled stock pot--This is great for smaller batches of recipes, boiling eggs, cooking rice, potatoes, pasta, and (using an insert) steaming vegetables. I often steam broccoli over the water I’m using for pasta for my daughter, or sweet potatoes/root veggies to mash. Time saver, water saver, energy efficient!

1 quart saucepan--This is great for whipping up a delicious gravy or sauce with your pan drippings and some of that homemade stock you made in your gigantic stock pot. It’s also a handy size for making Golden Milk, heating water for French or Aero-Press coffee, heck, you can even poach an egg or two in this size saucepan.

12-16 inch Straight Sided Skillet with Lid--This can be either stainless steel or cast iron or one of each if you can. If you go with stainless steel, make sure the handle is safe for the oven! With this pan you can roast a chicken in the oven, sear meat on the stovetop and finish in the oven, make pan sauces, poach eggs, pan fry, poach fish or chicken--it truly is a workhorse in the kitchen. I have both a stainless steel and cast iron skillet in this size range, and I use one or both everyday, at least one meal per day.  Enough said.

Ceramic Non-Stick Omelet pan (or other Non-Teflon option)--I’ve never been a fan of non-stick coated pans. As a kid I noticed how the coating would chip or wear away, and I was smart enough to know that probably wasn’t so great for us humans to be eating. Lo and behold, turns out it isn’t! But I also know the agony of trying to cook over-easy eggs in a regular pan. I’ve been using a ceramic pan for a few months now, and I have no complaints. So if you are an egg lover, I recommend you add one of these to your collection of essentials. You can of course use it for more than just eggs; I don’t have much interest in one-trick-ponies for this list.

10 by 16 inch Straight Sided Baking Pan--- Sometimes you need to make a big casserole, or bake a giant batch of Involtini, or bring Ratatouille to the neighborhood potluck. This size pan is your friend for that. While your stainless/cast iron skillets can handle smaller batches of most any of those recipes, you really should have one large baking pan. It’s so versatile for sweet or savory dishes;  you can roast a bird or two in it if needed, or bake up a batch of granola (grainless or not).

Other Stuff

These are those things we sometimes forget we need, or find we have multiples of and don’t know why.

Measuring Cups/Spoons--You really do need these, despite what you might think if you’ve ever watched me cook. While I don’t use them often for tried and true recipes, anytime you’re trying something new, or learning to cook, you absolutely need to measure ingredients. I recommend metal or glass cups and spoons for this; they are durable, accurate, and won’t retain odors or flavors. And please get separate dry and wet measuring cups, there really is a difference despite what your know-it-all neighbor tells you.

Mixing Bowls--Again, get metal (stainless steel) or glass. I like to have four mixing bowls in graduated sizes. Being able to measure dry ingredients into one bowl, and wet into another is very helpful when putting together batters, and having multiple sizes for holding prepped ingredients makes cooking less stressful and more streamlined.

Spoons/Spatulas/Scrapers--You need a few of these, but not a crazy amount. Two of each is probably just fine. I like to have both wooden and metal options available for spoons and spatulas.Scrapers are what I use for scooping/scraping batters, and doughs, and I like silicon for these. One or two are all you really need.

Metal Colander/Strainer/Chinoise--Get one that has a fairly fine mesh so it can be used for small/fine foods and stock and sauces,  as well as larger items. I like the kind that expand to fit over your sink, but the old round ones work too. If you have room to store a smaller strainer as well, one that fits over a bowl or small pot, get one! These are extremely useful for straining sauces, yogurt, teas, and all sorts of stuff.

Cutting Boards--You have great knives, so you need good cutting boards! There are a lot of opinions about whether you should use wooden boards or plastic boards, and heated arguments are known to break out when the subject comes up among cooking enthusiasts. I am an unabashed proponent of using wooden cutting boards. They are easy to clean, and sanitize, just like plastic boards, but they last longer, and to me, don’t dull a knife edge. However, having said that I’ve used both extensively and plastic is less expensive and nearly as good. So buy what you can afford and like. Just don’t buy those tempered glass cutting boards that were so popular a few years ago. Just don’t. I suggest you get a minimum of two boards, one for meats,  one for veg. Make sure you wash them thoroughly and let them dry completely. Oil them (if they're wood) as needed for longevity.

Now to address the few specialty items I would add to this basic list, for those of you who are interested.  

Woks are versatile and well worth having. If you do any kind of asian cooking you probably already have one, but if you’re outfitting your first kitchen and you have the money, get a good wok, season it well, treat it right and you’ll have it forever.

Dutch Oven--I almost put this in the essentials category. Get a Cast Iron 5 qt Dutch Oven as soon as you can afford to. As with the wok, you will be amazed at what you can use this for! Stew, Soup, Braises, Fricasees, Frying, Baking, open-fire cooking...there’s a reason these were on every Chuck Wagon and Prairie Schooner headed west. Oh, if you take care of this piece of equipment, you’ll need to pick a favorite younger relative to inherit it. It will outlive you.  

Crepe Pan--Yes, I know it seems a bit silly. But I bought myself one ten years ago, and have never regretted it. I make a lot of crepes, Gluten Free of course, and using my well seasoned steel crepe pan makes it so much easier. You absolutely can make decent crepes in that ceramic non-stick egg pan I listed earlier, but if you make them as much as I do, having a specific pan (that all but a few are forbidden to touch) makes it more special.

Of course as you get more into cooking you’ll want to add more items to your basics. That’s inevitable. I would give you one piece of advice though: avoid those one trick gadgets. You don’t need an “herb stripper” to clean your rosemary. You have fingers. You don’t need a fat-separator ladle, just skim the fat off with a regular large spoon. And anything in the “As Seen on TV” section--well, just back away slowly.


What’s in your kitchen that you can’t live without? What’s in there that you never use? Let me know in the comments, and don’t feel bad--we all have something silly in a drawer!