This post was written for men, specifically men who find themselves suddenly in the circumstance where having someone else prepare your food is not really an option. I guess it could apply to some women as well, I don’t know, kinda been out of the dating scene for a while.
If you’ve never cooked before, just think of this as a great adventure awaiting you. Or you could go the “Soylent” route, but I don’t recommend it. So this post is written with a specific demographic in mind, a young man who never learned to cook growing up, who ends up needing to rely on his own skills with little to no knowledge about what to buy that will make his life easier in the kitchen. If you know someone like that, please pass this on to him (or her in case it applies).
Being poor often sucks. But just because you can’t afford to eat food prepared by five star rated chefs every night doesn’t mean you can’t learn to prepare a five star meal yourself. If the kitchen intimidates you, get over it. Cooking is one of the fundamentally human activities that everyone can approach. Artists approach it artistically, scientists approach it scientifically, lovers approach it passionately, and parents of small children who are picky eaters approach it with all the grit and determination of a prize fighter going into the last round punch drunk from every blow landed before.
Cooking is universal to every culture, and what follows are just my opinions. So if you cook with less than what I consider the essentials, leave a comment. If you think I missed a piece of gear, leave a comment. It’s not wrong, there are as many different ways to cook as there are people on the planet.
There exists a huge amount of kitchen gear that is nice to have. But I want to talk about the essentials. This is not the essentials for baking, which definitely qualifies as cooking, but generally you don’t have an entire meal of breads or pastries. What I’m talking about here are the bare minimums needed to efficiently cook a protein, starch, and vegetable to create a healthy (relatively) and delicious meal. If you know how to cook, you can eat steak at home for the price of burgers out.
Without further ado, to the list!
A chef’s knife. It can be European style (long triangle style blade) or Asian style Santoku (sometimes called a bulldog) but no matter the style you want a forged blade. Brand doesn’t matter much. Hampton Forge, Chicago Cutlery, Henkels, doesn’t matter. What you want is a plain edge (no serrated Ginzu stamped blades) that you can touch up yourself and keep sharp. Knife sharpening will have to be another post though.
Cutting boards. I like the cheap Ikea brand white polymer option. You’ll really need at least two to be efficient in the kitchen, but four is where I’m most comfortable. That’s still less than ten bucks worth of cutting boards from Ikea. Real wood cutting boards are great, but they are also more expensive. If you can afford one, by all means treat yourself. If you can’t, nothing wrong with polymer.
A stainless steal pot to boil things in. Brand doesn’t matter. Aluminum or copper heat spreaders on the bottom generally don’t matter. You’ll use this for potatoes, pasta, rice, soups, stews, and if your oven can handle it, roasts. If you plan on entertaining at any given time, 4 quarts minimum, 6 is probably better.
A stainless steal or cast iron skillet with all metal handles, although I really recommend one of each but just one is enough to get started. You are eventually going to have to transfer something from the stove top into the oven, so anything with plastic is right out. Brand doesn’t really matter here either. As far as cast iron goes I’ve used Lodge, Eerie (an old brand, now defunct, but it’s not like you can really wear out cast iron) and made in China cast iron imports. They all do the same thing, the only real difference is the older the cast iron, the more likely it is to have a smother finish. As far as stainless steal goes, I don’t care much for brand names as long as it is an all metal skillet, and stainless steel is much easier for making omelets than the cast iron, so I like to have smooth rounded sides on my stainless steel skillets instead of sharper angles.
Tongs. Buy a good set. Not the kind that come with summer barbecue kits. You’ll need this to handle hot meat, move vegetables between skilled and pot (trust me, eventually you’ll enjoy the more complex flavors of food that is seared or caramelized then stewed or braised). I even use tongs in the place of a large fork for carving meat for plating.
An all stainless steel spatula. I’ve used one from a camping supply company for years and it’s been a workhorse.
And lastly, you’ll want a good strainer. Strainers are great for vegetable prep as well as draining pasta, and can be mult-tasked into cheese making if you eventually become a serious foodie.
So there you have it, the essentials are a pot, a skillet, spatula, a knife, cutting boards, a strainer, and tongs. Obviously having more means you have more cooking at any given time, but for feeding yourself (and maybe one other person if you are trying to impress them with your cooking skills) this is all you really need to cook.
What to avoid. Stamped knives (they suck). Teflon coated aluminum cookware (they don’t last). Gadgets that do one thing (what Alton Brown calls “uni-taskers”). You don’t need a food processor or blender right away, and they are definitely not an everyday item.
There is one uni-tasker in my kitchen that I absolutely love. It is an electric kettle. It does nothing but heat and boil water. But I use that kettle to make tea, coffee, instant soups, prep hot water for boiling pasta or root vegetables. Essentially it expands my heating options for cooking. When you consider it as another cooking surface instead of a gadget, it makes more sense.
Remember that tools don’t equate to skill, you’ll get better from every cooking session. The most encouraging thing I can say here is that the master has truly failed more than the amateur has even attempted.
I’m thinking about following up this post with some more, the essential spice rack, and then some cheap but delicious meal plans (with recipes) to get someone started.