Once I started cooking, I discovered that certain tools are necessary, while others mostly clutter up my cabinet. After spending more than I really needed to on some items and recalling the bewilderment that accompanied me to the Macy’s Home department when I first moved out, I set out to see how inexpensively you could equip a fully functioning kitchen. I think you can do it for around $200 (prices are, of course, subject to change). Here’s what I came up with (after the jump):
After much thought, I’ve determined that you only really need three pots & pans.
Non-Stick Saute Pan
There are three ways to go on this: non-stick coating that will scratch and wear off in a year or two, a super-nice pan whose coating won’t scratch off (supposedly), or a cast-iron skillet that performs like non-stick when well-seasoned. I like cast iron because it never gives you cancer, you don’t have to wash it, and it doesn’t fill the dump with disposable pans. If you get non-stick, you must use plastic spatulas, or better, silicone.
Cheap, but solid non-stick coating: Wearever Premium Hard Anodized 12-Inch Nonstick Skillet ($28.00 at amazon.com)
Super-nice pan: All-Clad LTD Non-Stick Fry Pan 12-in. ($135.99 Bed, Bath, & Beyond) It’s worth noting that the boyfriend has this pan and the first time the maid put it in the dishwasher by accident, the coating looked scratched and worn.
10” non-stick cast iron sauté pan, Lodge Logic Skillet ($26.95) or Camp Chef skillet (17.99). This becomes more non-stick over time but requires appropriate maintenance.
A big cast iron pot covered in enamel to make it non-stick that can go in the oven or on the stovetop. Perfect for stews, one-pot dishes, and anything with meat that you want to have a lot of flavor (the browned bits on bottom get incorporated into the dish). Good cheap ones include:
Tramontina 6.5-Qt., Green (WalMart.com: $49.97), or Lodge 6 qt. with high-temp handle (WalMart.com $58.97), Cost Plus Red Round 5-Qt. ($59.99)
Any pot your parents can part with (or that you find at a yard sale) that seems big enough. Some people hate frozen vegetables, and for those people, I suggest you get a steamer pot with your pasta pot. In case you haven’t seen one, it looks like a colander that fits inside the pot above the water to allow the steam to come up to the vegetables without boiling them.
CorningWare or Pyrex
I like having at least three sizes with lids, but you can probably start with a 9x13 for roasting vegetables, making casseroles, brownies, and broiling. For a couple extra dollars, you can get a value pack with an 8x8, which I love, because I can mix up recipes for a 9x13, divide them in half, bake one half in the 8x8 and freeze one half in an 8x8 catering pan (Pyrex 4-pc. Bakeware Value Pack, Target, $12.49). Finally, if you enjoy the convenience of microwave steamed vegetables, try the a 2-qt. covered casserole (Target, $8.49). Anchor makes discount glass bakeware.
You need a few crucial items for preparing foods before cooking them. You probably have many of these already, and if not, most are available at Ikea for a few dollars a piece.
The only thing that chops everything. Cooks Illustrated’s favorite is Forschner Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch knife ($23 at www.cutleryandmore.com).
You don’t know you need these until you have them. So wonderful! Messermeister's Take-Apart Shears (Model DN1070, $19.99 at www.cutleryandmore.com).
A Cutting Board
Plastic or wood, both have anti-bacterial properties as well as pros and cons. I just like it to be small enough to pull out and put away (as low as $1 at Ikea). It’s also nice to get an acrylic mat to go on top, since it makes it easier to transfer your chopped veggies ($2 at The Container Store).
Metal Measuring Cups
With engraved amounts because the numbers on the plastic ones wear off (Ikea $4.50, CuisiPro $25).
Any metal ones will do (but preferably the slide-y spoons) Kitchen Art Adjustable Pro Teaspoon & Tablespoon (about $12 for both tea & table, $3.50 for your basic at Ikea).
Ikea has my favorites because they have a removable bottom that holds shavings ($6 for Griller or Charm). If you have a food processor, you just need a rasp grater for citrus and spices.
There are a few things that you can get by without, but that make life so much easier, they’re well worth the few extra dollars.
You need a flat scraper for the sides of bowls, a concave spoon spatula or spoonula for pushing things around in a sauté pan, and a turner or pancake spatula for flipping things. The nice thing about silicone is that it never melts or splits the way rubber does. Get one with a heat-proof (non-plastic) handle as well so you can lean it on the side of your pan.
Ikea has a set with covers for $5. You can also get glass, which is microwavable.
Meat Temperature Thermometer
The probe goes into the meat and the cord goes out of the oven to the LCD display. This is how you know whether your chicken and steak are done without cutting into them and letting all the juices escape. ThermoWorks Original Cooking Thermometer/Timer ($19, www.thermoworks.com).
Pasta strainer & salad drainer (at Ikea for $2)
A cheapy tinfoil one at grocery store will probably suffice until you start roasting a lot of meat.
If you plan to do any baking, you’ll probably want the following:
Forget about non-stick for baking sheets. The darker pan color cooks the bottom of the cookies faster than the top and gets scratched too easily trying to get the cookies off. Get a regular one without sides (which reflect heat), and use parchment paper to keep cookies from sticking (Vollrath $15.69-$19.95).
Preferably pyrex or glass. Again, use rectangles of parchment paper to make it easy to lift loaves out without sticking.
Fruit & Vegetable Peeler
There are new horizontal ones that take wider stripes of peel and work for lefties too. Ceramic ones never rust or dull. (Ikea, $1.50).
Countertop appliances are complicated, but there are several I particularly love.
George Foreman Grill
This fabulous item allows you to grill year round and removes an amazing amount of fat from your meats. It also makes paninis. Get one with interchangeable plates so you can put them in the dishwasher, or at least submerge them in water to wash. Some versions will even double as a griddle and waffle maker, which is great if you eat a lot of frozen waffles (Amazon, $99.99).
Great for cooking small portions, toasting open-faced sandwiches, and re-heating pizza. Next time your toaster dies, get one of these instead.
You can get by forever on a hand-held mixer, but this is much more fun and lets you use attachments to make ice cream, juice fruits, roll pasta, and fill your own sausages. Cuisinart’s is now considered top of the line, but the classic Kitchenaid should do plenty (Cuisinart 5.5 Quart Stand Mixer, $349, www.cooking.com; Kitchenaid Classic Plus Stand Mixer, $149.99 at Costco).
Basically a wide blender with different kinds of blades for chopping different things, and a feed tube so you can add more. Cuisinart was the classic, but now Kitchenaid makes the best (Kitchenaid 12-Cup Food Processor-model KTA KFP750, $160-200 depending on color & store). If you just need something for chopping nuts and spices, you can start with a miniature version for a fraction of the price (KitchenAid Chef's Chopper KFC 3100, $39.99). Between a blender, a stand mixer, and a grater, you probably don't need one of these, but if you have a dishwasher and enjoy the thrill of watching things be instantly atomized, this may be more for you than a stand mixer.
Slow Cooker/Pressure Cooker/Rice Maker
If you don’t actually have a stove or oven, you can still make plenty of delicious food with one of these. The most incredible sounding one has a browning feature that lets you brown the meat before you add the other ingredients. An electric pressure cooker will let you cook the same dishes in a fraction of the time a slow-cooker takes, but a slow-cooker lets you start things in the morning. My favorite is a Fagor 3-in-1 Electric Multi-Cooker ($119.95, Amazon.com).