Kitchen Prep

Getting your kitchen ready to use by stocking it with a variety of pots, pans, skillets and other tools will greatly increase your enjoyment.

Did you have Legos growing up? Just in case you didn’t, let me remind you how Lego sets were packaged. When you got a new set, it came in a box with all the pieces separated into little baggies and an instruction manual. If you weren’t into instruction manuals you could always try assembling the pieces based solely on the picture on the box. But if you were more of a rule-following automaton the first thing you did was open the instruction manual to see what to assemble first. The best part about Lego sets, and something the ready-made furniture industry hasn’t been able to do successfully yet, is that you knew beyond a doubt that you’d be able to build this Lego set exactly as it was pictured on the front of the box because you had ALL THE PIECES YOU NEEDED. All of them.

Here’s a list of materials you’ll need to purchase before we go too much further. You probably have most of this stuff already unless you’re in college or have never cooked before, but there might be one or two surprise items.

Cookware (required)

These are the tools you need to have in your kitchen. I’ve provided an estimated price next to each one, but the price actually depends on the size, quality, and brand of the one you choose. I started out cooking in Teflon / non-stick skillets, so if you have those they’ll work OK, but once I made the switch to stainless steel I couldn’t believe the difference. I’ll talk more about that later.

Cast Iron Skillet, 12’’ ($20) - this is your workhorse. You can cook everything from steaks to desserts in a cast iron skillet. Get at least a 12” so you have room for larger meals. Pro tip: if you’re one of those people that says “it needs to soak” as a way of avoiding doing the dishes, don’t do that with this skillet. Cast iron is damn near indestructible but you will damage the seasoning if you let it sit in water. And it will do bad stuff to your sink. Pro tip #2: don’t use this for cooking tomatoes or other acidic veggies.

Saucepan, 5QT ($50) - You may be thinking ‘Geez I’m just getting started, I’m not making fancy sauces yet’. I get that, but a saucepan isn’t just for making sauces. It’s useful anytime you’re using a lot of liquid. This will be your go-to for boiling noodles, which is why I’m recommending getting a five quart instead of three quart. Make sure it has a lid.

Sauté Pan, 3QT or 5QT ($40-$60) - aka a frying pan. These are slightly lighter than a cast iron, so you’ll use this less for searing and more for frying potatoes or quickly cooking other veggies. Plus, when you’re cooking in front of people you can toss the pan around a little and loudly exclaim that you are SAUTÉING RIGHT NOW. As with the saucepan, grab one with a lid just in case. And if you’re feeling rich, get a three quart and a five quart. With this one, stainless steel is much more fun because you can get it ripping hot and set off your smoke alarm with ease.

Dutch Oven, 6QT ($60) - 2020 was the year I braised all the meats. If a recipe has the word braise in it and you do not have a Dutch oven, skip it. It’s like a cast iron that is deeper and has a tight fitting lid, making it ideal for cooking things slowly. (a few years ago I wrote: “But since it is still a coated cast iron, you can get them surprisingly hot and sear meat in them as well.” Actually, don’t do that. You’re supposed to heat these things slowly, and after many sessions of NOT doing that, I have effectively scorched my first Dutch oven beyond repair). I’ve gotten really deep flavors using this lovely piece of equipment with very little work, and you will too. Plus, they come in lots of pretty colors so you can store it in plain sight and feel OK about that.

Sheet Pan ($25) - also called a ‘cookie sheet’ or ‘baking sheet’, and the reason I’m plotting $25 for this is because you should get a heavy-duty one and not some crappy aluminum one that will warp. You won’t just be using this for cookies, so get something that will last.

Colander - for draining stuff. Be it ground beef or pasta, you’ll never be able to pour off enough water or fat to get the job done. I have tried.

Mixing Bowls ($20) - get a set of glass or stainless steel mixing bowls. The perk of choosing either of those materials is that they’re non-reactive, which is important because certain foods might pick up flavors you don’t want if you use bowls with a reactive coating like aluminum.

Measuring Cups and Spoons ($20) - guess when you’re good. If you’re just starting out, measuring out each spice and oil and minced clove of garlic will help you develop a sense for proportion. Once you vaguely know proportions, you’ll only need these things for very particular sauces or oils and you’ll impress all your friends with your carefree attitude about seasoning.

Chef’s Knife - this is the sword you’ll take into battle every day, so do not skimp here. If you’re just starting out, anything by Zwilling/Henckels is fine. Start with an 8”, and stainless steel (carbon steel only sounds cool, don’t fall for it). I’m not even putting a price on this because they vary so widely…I’m absolutely loving my Global Santoku (Japanese) and use it for almost everything. Knife research is a huge time suck, so you’ve been warned. Once it’s time to level up, plan to spend between $100-$150 for a knife. If y’all are interested in a dedicated post about knives, I’m down to spew a few thousand words on the topic so just let me know.

Instant Read Meat Thermometer ($20) - indispensable until you’re good enough to not check chicken. The one I’m using now takes readings fast, and will greatly increase your confidence that you’re doing it right. One bite of undercooked chicken ruins chicken for a long time.

Wooden Spoon - they’re strong and help scrape up browned bits from the bottom of your Dutch oven so that your soups and stews can be amazing. I went without a wooden spoon for awhile when I was in the process of replacing lots of my utensils, and it was a dark time.

Tongs - get stainless steel here too so that you don’t have to be nervous about plunging them down into a pot of boiling liquid.

Silicon Spatulas - stop using plastic, it can’t handle anything. With silicon, you don’t have to worry about damaging any gorgeous new cookware (although I’d be more worried about scorching than scraping). Silicon can also be thrown in the dishwasher for fast cleanup.

Ladle - you can’t get by with a normal spoon. A ladle has one job, and it is better at that job than any spoon ever could be.

Box Grater - Parmesan won’t grate itself. And get one of the absurdly big ones, it makes shaving and grating so much easier on your hands.

Vegetable Peeler - for, um, peeling vegetables.

Can Opener - I know, I know, I’m getting tedious. But if you bring home a can of tomatoes and you don’t have a can opener, you’ll do something dumb. Like try to open it with your new chef’s knife. If you try that, I will find you. Hopefully before you bleed out, and then I’ll slap you and call an ambulance.

Pepper Mill - or pepper grinder, or a spice grinder. The reason this is required is because buying ground black pepper means you aren’t really experiencing pepper. What you’re eating is just blackish-gray dust and sadness, and peppercorns are super cheap so just grind them yourself and wake those tastebuds up.

Illustration by Honoré Daumier in the 1800s
De cadavres humains se fit un pot-au-feu.

Cookware (nice-to-haves)

These are items that are by no means necessary but they do come in handy every once in awhile. If you already have everything on the first list, and you’re in the shopping mood, grab yourself some of these.

Prep Dishes - I’ll say this again later, but doing as much prep as possible before you start cooking helps your dishes taste better (because you didn’t burn the sauce while you were chopping parsley). Being able to put prepped veggies and spice mixes into cute little bowls helps you be more efficient and look like you have your own cooking show.

Citrus Juicer - no, not a giant blender situation for a juice cleanse (don’t go on a juice cleanse). These little things are helpful for quickly squeezing exactly one tablespoon of citrus. I use mine constantly. Until you get one, just squeeze the fruit with your hands, you’ll be fine.

Food Processor - plenty of recipes call for using a food processor, so until you get one just skip those recipes. They’re incredible, but pricey and bulky; if you’re limited by budget or space, you’ll be able to survive just fine without one (but no pesto for you).

Complete Knife Set - I’m talking about having a paring knife and a boning knife and a katana and a lightsaber turkey slicer and whatever else comes in knife sets. Having more knives is always better than having less knives, but the only one you absolutely have to have is a chef’s knife. The rest is just icing on the ninja cake.

Crockpot/Slow Cooker - you may want to move this up the list if having dinner ready the second you walk back in the door after work is a priority. There are scores of simple slow cooker recipes (and unfortunately, lots of really bad slow cooker recipes) that will help you eat at home more often. And using a slow cooker is my favorite way to cook chili.

Roasting Pan - unless you host Thanksgiving every year you can probably get by without one of these for a long time. Most of the dishes that require a roasting dish take a long time to prep and cook, so buying one means you’re either ready to level up your cooking game or you have copious amounts of free time and discretionary income.

Stand Mixer - these look cool and have lots of fun attachments, but I certainly don’t use mine as often as I thought I would. Also, they’re huge and expensive so if you’re low on budget or counter space, hold off on buying one for now. Side note: if you do buy one, you can get a sticker for it that says “Whip It | Whip It Good” and that will increase your overall happiness (speaking from experience).

That’s it for the gear. If you don’t have a single one of the things in the required list it would cost you about $350 to purchase all of them, depending on how closely you stick to the recommendations. That’s a chunk o’ change, so if you really don’t have any of that stuff I hope you’ve got a birthday coming up. Or, you can sell your golf clubs and easily afford everything because you’re not playing golf anymore.

My read of the week is Robert St John, who writes a food column turned newsletter, which can be delivered to your inbox far more regularly than anything I write. Don’t worry, you’ll be pestered to join the email list via a pop-up the moment the screen loads.

In this particular recipe, he details how to make fries at home. The most useful tip for me was submitting the sliced potatoes to a couple rounds of ice bath before frying them. Here’s why that works, in case you’re curious.

Lastly, thanks to Matt W. for sharing a link to a fantastic website full of old book illustrations (and aptly named just that). That’s why I tossed in a random drawing of a lanky dude cooking a human.