While we my be attracted by the latest kitchen gadgets or that shiny new pan, there are some basics that I recommend, especially to those just starting out. Let’s start with the two most important and potentially most expensive: pans and knives.
Your pots and pans: If you invest in a good pan, you might have sticker shock at the onset, but you will probably never have to replace it. A basic set of heavy stainless steel with sturdy machined bases is essential. Get several sizes of saucepans, a large stockpot, a sauté pan, and a large skillet. Also, a non-stick 8- or 9-inch omelet pan and 10- or 12-inch non-stick skillet. Add one good piece at a time, and you won’t regret it.
I have used my large Le Creuset Dutch oven for 25 years, put it to work every week, and it will be handed down. Don’t forget your cast-iron frying pan. You have lots of pots and pans that live in your kitchen, but the one that wants to live stovetop, always at the ready, is your trusty cast-iron frying pan. I inherited mine from my mom and use it almost every day. I never put it away. You can find them at flea markets inexpensively, but you may have to scrub them up and re-season them. Do not let a little rust scare you off, there is iron treasure underneath.
Your knife collection is the most important of your kitchen equipment, but look for quality rather than quantity. You need three great knives: a chef’s knife that fits your hand like you were born with it, a small paring knife that will do half of your work, and a long, serrated knife for cutting bread and other delicate items. The chef’s knife should be of good quality and you should be able to sharpen it. The sharpening is probably more important than the brand of knife you pick. Any other knives in your collection are indulgences, and I have lots, but they are not essential, and need not be expensive. In fact I have a $1.99 knife with an extremely thin serrated blade I use for slicing tomatoes and I bought it at a discount store 8 or 9 years ago. It has held up and it works great.
My grandmother’s cast iron frying pan is used more than any other pan I own. I keep it out on my stove all the time, ready for service.
Your baking pans: This is totally up to you and what you like to bake. You will want a couple of cookie sheets and jelly roll pans, and you will use them for far more than just these baked goods! If you bake cakes, add layer cake pans, as well as 8″ X 8″ and 9″ X 13″ baking pans.
A Pyrex baking dish 9″ X 13″ has been a kitchen staple for generations (I stole mine from my mother), and rightly so! Everything from apple crisp to casseroles and lasagna will be prepared in this dish. Round things out with loaf pans, a couple of Pyrex pie plates, a tart shell pan with removable bottom, and a muffin tin. I also have a Bundt cake tin, my mother’s angel food cake pan, mini muffin tins, and a collection of vintage baking pans I’ve acquired over the years. If you don’t bake at all, stick with cookie sheets, the Pyrex 9″ X 13″ and roasting pans to help you prepare your dinners. Look for sturdy pans that won’t warp in the oven.
There are so many things I love in my kitchen, here are a few…
Cast-iron frying pan: I’ll mention this again, because it is my favorite and most used pan in the kitchen. I use it almost every day! It works better than any other type of pan for many purposes because it heats evenly and retains the heat beautifully. They have never improved on this treasure. In addition to my mother’s, I have a larger one I found at a flea market for $10, rusted and quite derelict in appearance. But it cleaned up nicely, and it keeps the other pan company.
Timer: If I relied on my memory to know when to check on something in the oven, I would be lost and half my food, burnt. It is my best friend in the kitchen, and it continues to work even when I get engrossed in conversation at the table, or on the phone, or with my friend she is delivering eggs.
A food mill: This is a great investment for little money, and you can find it at the hardware store. It is the original food processor, only better! It does stuff that a food processor cannot. Really, nothing can compare. You can rice potatoes in this, you can also put apples or other cooked fruit through the mill, whole, and it will magically separate the seeds and peel, its biggest talent. You can make baby food, jam, spaetzle, pureed anything, and it is not electric! It will also last a lifetime.
Micro-plane grater: You can spend $15 for one, or ask for a wood rasp at the hardware store, 89 cents and up. My hardware store version has lasted for years. It allows you to grate just the peel from the citrus, avoiding the bitter membrane underneath. It is also great for grating ginger.
Mandoline: You can spend $200 on a mandoline, or $35. Although I have lusted after the former, I own the latter and it has performed well for me. When you want to make uniform slices of any vegetable without digging out your food processor, this is your quick taskmaster. Always use the guard! Yes, I learned this the hard way.
Thermometers: Invest in a good candy thermometer that you will also use for more than candy, such as sauces with eggs. My mother never used one, and consequently I grew up thinking that fudge was something you ate with a spoon. Also, an instant-read meat thermometer will take all the guesswork out of trying to figure out if the chicken is done by the feel of it. If you are not cooking meat on the line in a restaurant every night of your life, that can be challenging.
Salad spinner: No, you don’t need this. My mother put the greens in a kitchen towel and swung them around outside to take out the water, even in February. My advice is to invest in one. Get the one with the plunger on the top, not the lawn-mower string version.
Mason jars: In addition to their regular job, my canning jars are used to mix and store salad dressing, sauces, and to make and store such delights as crème fraîche – the measuring marks are already on the side of the jar! My favorites are the vintage colored Ball jars in lavender and aqua. Just my fancy!
Lemon squeezers: The new, hinged lemon squeezers do the extra step of keeping the seeds separate from the juice. An indulgence, but it does save time of you are using a lot of lemons for a dish. I use a lot of lemons. I haven’t turned my back on my old glass 1920s hand squeezer, it is slower, but actually works better and extracts more of the juice, and mine actually has a special ridge where most of the seeds collect. Both tools have a place in my kitchen.
Kitchen scissors: Keep one pair of nice sharp kitchen shears in your drawer. Use them only for food, and mark them as such! You will find a hundred uses for them from quickly removing the backbone of a chicken, to even more quickly cutting through and deveining shrimp (the best trick ever). PS You my have to hide these, or disguise them in aluminum foil.
Kitchen scale: There are times when you need to measure accurately, especially in baking! Yes, this coming from me. Get one that is easy to read, has a “tare” feature, and measures in both ounces and grams.
Fine mesh sieves: One large, one tiny. Use the large one to strain gravies, sauces, puddings, etc., and the small one to use as a sprinkler for things like cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar.
And not necessary, but lots of fun…
Stovetop espresso maker: You can make your own espresso in minutes without a thousand dollar machine. For under $15, you can find the basic Italian model that has been around for decades. I also have a “Speed Whipper” from the 1940s which foams milk quicker than the new “frothers” on the market. One day, I noticed that the speed whipper looks a lot like a French coffee press in design, so I tried using my small press for the same purpose. It worked great. So my French press is now a multi-task machine!
Mortar and pestle: There are times when you want to do the handwork of grinding spices, the process and the aroma is quite satisfying. Also, you can stop the second things are just right. The mortar and pestle also makes great salsa, and tapenade. It is fun, and it is a connection to the way food is still prepared in many rustic kitchens around the world. A food processor has many duties to perform, but other simple pieces of equipment do essential jobs as well. Look for one with a rough rather than smooth interior, it just works better.
Flea market finds: I have found a lot of treasures at flea markets and yard sales, and they add to the both the character and function of my kitchen. One of my favorites is a stainless steel kitchen spoon that has graduated markings on its bowl to measure out a teaspoon, a tablespoon, and an ounce. Handy if you have to remove a measured amount of liquid from a hot pot!
I have an antique cheese grater that is perfect for creating cheese to top the pasta, an egg slicer, and a donut/biscuit cutter with a removable center section to create the donut hole. I have way more cookie cutters than any kitchen needs. The same with baking molds for cakes and cookies for special occasions I rarely use, but I’m glad I have them when the occasion arises.
I’ve a soft spot for pastry blenders and funny little choppers, more than one rolling pin I couldn’t resist, my favorite eggbeater, a great potato masher, scoops and strainers, and my absolute favorite flour sifter. Recently I found a lovely green Depression-era mixing bowl with little handles on the side with indents for your thumbs. It is remarkable, and makes mixing a simple and delightful task. I have a cute little cream separator I found for $1, and it does a great job of removing fat from the top of a soup pot!
Oh, I also have a few things I cannot identify, but for some reason, I bought them anyway, and still have them in my drawer.