When I first started cooking for myself in earnest, I had the bare minimum in the way of kitchen tools. I didn’t own a chef’s knife. I had a single rubber spatula (which I actually still have!), and maybe some random bargain serving spoons. I didn’t even own my own set of pots and pans until after my roommate moved out and my mama took pity on me and gave me her old set. I couldn’t afford a stand mixer. My utensils were the same set I had grown up using, my glasses came from Big Lots, and my dishes came from the thrift store. The glasses are long gone, but I still have the utensils in a drawer somewhere (sentimental value), and we still eat on those thrift store Corelle “Spring Blossom” (commonly referred to as “Crazy Daisy”) plates every night. (Hey, once a thrifter, always a thrifter.)
While some things maintain their utility no matter their actual or perceived quality, other things can stand to be upgraded.
#1 Buy Yourself a Decent Chef’s Knife
Food prep is the foundation of every meal. If you’re struggling to mince garlic or slice an onion, chances are cooking is already no fun before you even heat up the pan. Functional knives don’t have to be expensive, but they do need to be sharp. The biggest difference in a “cheap” knife and a “quality” (perceived as “expensive”) knife is the knife’s ability to hold its blade. But even a “quality” knife will dull with time. Can’t afford a $500 knife? Me either. So get yourself a decent knife and a knife sharpener. My very first chef’s knife came from The Dollar Store. No joke. But I kept it sharp and it did the work.
Now I own a set of “quality” Wüsthof knives and I love them. They still need to be sharpened, but not as often. Buy an easy-to-use diamond sharpener. (Stay away from the ones with the steel wheels that look like to overlapping washers.)
- 8-10″ chef’s knife (depending on how big your hands are)
- tomato knife – great for fruit as well
- 5-6″ utility knife
#1.5 While We’re Talking About Knives… A Word On Cutting Boards
You don’t need an organic, responsibly harvest, fare trade, bamboo cutting board from 10,000 Villages. I don’t care if it’s plastic, bamboo, or oak. I have an array of all three. The cheap-O flexible ones are my go-to, because they’re functional, cheap to replace, and I can color code what I use them for (green=veggies; red= raw meat; orange= cheese, bread, etc.) Just make sure that it’s 1) big enough for the job, and 2) can be easily cleaned. But WHATEVER you do, please, for the love of Valyrian steel, do NOT use a glass cutting board. Puts my teeth on edge just thinking about the whap of steel on glass. *shiver* Glass is horrible for your knives. Don’t do it.
#2 Spatulas and/or Silicone Coated spoons
Do you love those old wooden mixing spoons that you’ve had since 1987? Throw ’em out. (Mostly because, ew.) Used to buying those cheap, practically disposable spatulas from Wal-Mart? It’s time to upgrade. Silicone is easy to use, easy to clean, and it doesn’t absorb flavors/odors like wood. I love, love, love my old-style Le Creuset spatulas. Unfortunately, they don’t make them “like that’ anymore. I don’t know why; they were perfect. Look for spatulas shaped like this. They’re rigid enough to handle heavy batters or sautées, and they have two scraping edges, which works for lefties and righties. More recently I have fallen for a brand of silicone spoons called StarPack. They have various implements, but I love the mixing spoon and the slotted spoon. (Oh, and I have the turner spatula, too.) All in the “standard” size. (XL available, too.) (Or maybe I just like them because they come in colors that match my kitchen…)
#3 Heavy Metal (AKA Pots & Pans)
There are millions of articles out there that break down the pros and cons of stainless v/s non-stick v/s copper bottoms v/s aluminum core and the virtues of this brand over that. I’ll let you do your own research. Aluminum core is a definite necessity, as for the rest: buy what you can afford and save-up to upgrade down the road. I started on a hand-me-down set of 20-something year old Revere Ware. When I got married, we used wedding gift money to purchase a nice set of stainless steel Le Creuset. They’re high quality, durable, and they look nice. But most importantly, we only bought the pieces that we needed. If you’re single or live with only one other person, there’s no need to go gang busters and buy a $1500 set of pots and pans.
- 11-12″ nonstick deep (key word “deep”) fry pan
- 1.5 – 2 quart sauce pan (or one of each…)
- 10-11 quart stock pot
- colander insert for said stock pot
If you opt for nonstick, you’re definitely going to need to invest in some of those silicone spoon/spatulas. Otherwise for the stainless, “say hello to my little [Bar Keeper’s] Friend”.
#4 Half Sheet Pan (Two Is Even Better Than One)
If you’ve every worked in a restaurant, you know what a sheet pan is. If you haven’t–you know those huge, metal pans usually stacked in vertical racks that you see at bakeries? Those are full-sized sheet pans. You want one or two half that size. Forget “cookie sheets”. An aluminum half sheet pan is the way to go. It has more all-around utility and will out last any cookie pan you could ever buy. I have two and they get used almost every day. I even take them with me when I go on vacation (along with my knives.)
#5 A Large Metal Colander
Great for washing veggies, steaming said veggies, and straining pasta or potatoes out of that 10 quart stock pot. Should be big enough to hold 2 lbs of pasta. And if you buy one that’s deep, not wide, you can skip the aforementioned colander insert and just use your colander!
Once you have the basics, you can start saving for the fancy stuff that just makes cooking/baking more fun, like:
- Unicorn pepper mill (Best. Pepper. Grinder. Ever.)
- KitchenAid Stand Mixer (So many colours to choose from!)
- Flex Edge Beater (just go ahead and buy this right off the bat)
- Meat Grinder accessory (More utility than the ice cream maker!)
- Food Processor (You can go crazy with all the food processor options. This is the one I have.)
- Viking Range (Hahahahahaha. When you win the lottery, be sure to call me! I’ll come cook for you any day!)
Fun Stuff I Like
- BYO Bags Reusable produce bags. I should really list these as #6 under kitchen essentials. I love them that much. I think you can buy them elsewhere online, but this link is directly to the woman who makes them.
- M-Cups & M-Spoons (What can I say, my father-in-law was a slavic linguist and my husband has a Russian last name. I had to have these.)
- SnackTaxi (reusable sandwich and snack bags)
Note: Below I have linked directly to the manufacturer’s website. In most cases, these are the exact products that I use in my own kitchen.