Setting up a kitchen can be confusing ... and expensive. I can't tell you how many kitchens I've been in that had cabinets and drawers full of all kinds of pots, pans and gadgets, but few of the tools needed to prepare a simple meal. This wastes hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars, takes up valuable space, and doesn't do a good job of doing what you need them to do!
Here's a simple primer to get you started stocking (or restocking) your kitchen with what you really need. Of course you'll want to add to this depending on what you like to cook, how much cooking you do, and for how many people you typically cook for.
Let this serve as a checklist so that you won't make the same mistake as so many of my clients — who often wish they could throw out all of their worn out, redundant kitchen junk and replace them with just a few, long-lasting, powerful workhorses.
1. Basic skillets
A good saute pan (or skillet) should be able to cook everything from eggs and vegetables to meat or fish and go from stovetop to oven … so don’t get the kind with rubber handles — unless they come off. They come in standard 8”, 12” and 16”, but you can start with the medium 12” size which will be good for most cooking.
A basic skillet has a large cooking surface and low, slanted sides. This allows the pan to heat quickly and the liquids in the pan to reduce quickly, leaving behind any brown bits which you may want and need to make a sauce.
The best skillets are made of at least two layers of stainless steel with a layer of aluminum sandwiched in between. This is because stainless steel stands up to high temperatures but is a poor conductor of heat, while aluminum is a great conductor but can’t handle the heat. Together they’re a marriage made in heaven.
The other option is a cast iron pan like your grandmother probably had. You can crank up the heat like stainless steel and it can do the same jobs of sautéing, frying and pan searing that a stainless saute pan can do. It can also go from stovetop to oven. If kept properly seasoned, it's will be nonstick.
2. Basic saucepans with lids
Saucepans range in size from 1 quart to 4 quarts, and sometimes 5 quarts. Anything larger is generally called a stockpot. I prefer my saucepans to have curved sides. This allows me to easily stir a sauce or reheat food without getting food stuck in the sides.
In a medium 2- or 3-quart saucepan, you can cook anything from a sauce to vegetables and grains, and it's the perfect size to reheat most leftovers. You'll need a larger pot for cooking pasta, soups and stocks. Anything over 4 quarts will do, and the exact size will depend on the size of your family. Here again I recommend stainless steel. They're easy to clean and last forever.
3. A Dutch oven
This is a heavy stainless steel or enamel-coated cast iron pan. It's great for slow cooking food on the stovetop or in the oven. It can do anything from cooking soups and stews to roasting meat or fish.
4. Sheet pans
These are large tray like pans, usually 18" x 26" for a full sheet pan. They can be coated with a nonstick surface or stainless steel, and can be used for everything from baking cookies to roasting vegetables.
5. Mixing bowls
Get any type of mixing bowls you like; plastic, glass, ceramic or stainless steel. Size is what is important here, so get a small, medium and large, and they can nestle inside each other.
A must-have for draining food cooked in liquid.
7. Cutting boards
You'll need a thick, wooden board for chopping and dicing vegetables and herbs, and plastic boards for cutting meat and fish.
8. Spatulas, spoons and ladles
Like most things in the kitchen, these come in all shapes, sizes, colors and materials ... no wonder putting together a kitchen is confusing! There are so many choices, but it's fun that you can express your individual style in a spoon.
You can go a little crazy, why not keep things beautifully simple whether you choose plastic, wood or stainless steel (or some combination)? Everyone needs a wooden spoon, right? Regardless of your choice of material, you want both slotted spoons (to pick up food without the liquid) and non-slotted so the liquid stays in the spoon.
9. Whisks and tongs
A wire whisk can be used to whip eggs or emulsify dressings ... and much more. Tongs are the best tools for turning food in a saute pan or on a grill.
10. Box grater and vegetable peeler
A box grater is good to grate (or slice) cheese or other food in a variety of sizes. A vegetable peeler peels the skin of vegetables without cutting into the vegetable itself.
11. Measuring cups and spoons
These are critical for baking and nice to have for following savory recipes.
If you can buy only one knife, choose an 8- or 9-inch chef (or cook's) knife with a curved cutting edge. It's long enough to slice, heavy enough to mince and pointy enough to pare or core. It's an all-around workhorse, as long as you keep it sharp.
You'll also need a small 3" or 4" paring knife for small cutting jobs or for peeling fruit and vegetables.
And of course a knife with a serrated edge is great for cutting softer food such as bread or tomatoes. You could do this with a chef's knife, but only if it's really sharp, otherwise it'll just squash them. A knife sharpener (electric or hand held) is therefore also a must.
13. Blender and food processor
I know how much this community loves to make smoothies and green juices, so a good blender is a must. If you can afford a Vitamix, that's great, but not necessary. A good blender like a Ninja is powerful and far more affordable.
The same goes for food processors. Buy the best you can afford. Size is important, and bigger is better — so are interchangeable blades for puréeing, chopping, grating, slicing and more. They're worth the investment because they save tons of time.
14. Glass storage containers
Sometimes leftover plastic containers from finished takeout just don't cut it. Lids with no bowls and containers with no lids are most everyone's messy secret. Toss them and replace them with glass in a large variety of sizes.