Several of my readers are diving headfirst into learning how to cook at home because of the huge financial savings, but getting started in the kitchen means more than just buying some food and following some recipes: you need a bit of equipment, too. A reader of mine wrote to me recently about this:
I know you don’t want to be tempted into writing a cooking blog, or maybe you do but you’d miss your family too much, but I have a question about the kitchen that’s related to personal finance. Since December I’ve been making more and more food at home and bringing lunch to work. It has saved me something around $100-$200 a month–and that’s not including how much money I’m saving from not going to Starbucks anymore. Mostly though, I’ve made sandwiches. Anything that could be put between two pieces of bread was my domain! I’ve always been skeptical of the kitchen because I actually dated a chef and was never allowed near it. I am looking to start cooking more meals at home, but have NO utensils, pots, pans or the like.
My question is this: Are the “full set” kits I’ve seen at Target or similar stores worth buying? I am debating on something like that, or just buying a piece or two of more expensive cookware. The “better” stuff seems heavier and more sturdy, but that’s about all I know. Does a novice cook need the whole gamut of pans, or can he get by with a pan and pot or two?
“I know you don’t want to be tempted into writing a cooking blog” … as long as I can keep sneaking my foodie posts into The Simple Dollar under the umbrella that cooking at home is cheaper than eating out, then I can at least keep my desire to start such a blog under wraps.
Anyway, my answer to any person who is just beginning to buy stuff for their kitchen is to not spend their money on a large cheap cookware set. Instead, buy a small number of basic pots and pans – but buy quality items. There are several reasons for going this way:
Most basic recipes don’t require many pots and pans. You’ll only need several of them at once when you get into complex recipes, which are basically completely overwhelming for the beginner. Thus, if you buy a large set of pots and pans, most of them will just sit in the box, largely unused.
The higher-quality items last a lot longer. I like to relate my experience with Teflon-coated pans when I first started cooking. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I completely destroyed the Teflon coating on three pans within three months of getting started in the kitchen. Each time, the pan quickly began to rust and thus I had to discard it and get something else. Finally, I wised up and bought a hard-anodized pan. It cost more, but it worked even better than Teflon in terms of not causing things to stick to it. Even better, I’m still using it today, and it looks almost as good as the day I bought it.
The higher-quality items make cooking easier. As I hinted at above, the more expensive items simply make things easier. I don’t have to worry about prepping my hard-anodized pans for much of anything at all; I just pull them out and go. They’re also easy to clean, no matter how badly you mess things up. I remember being really scared of some crusty burnt black stuff on my hard-anodized pan shortly after I purchased it, but after letting it soak for a while in some hot soapy water, I cleaned it really quickly with a sponge. I’ve never had much problem at all with cleaning any of my quality pans.
Any recommendations? In terms of bang for the buck, I’ve had great experience with the Calphalon Commercial hard anodized pots and pans. Their nine piece hard anodized set will basically be everything you’ll need for pots and pans in your kitchen for years. Even though the price point is somewhat high (depending on your income, of course), our above reader is already saving a couple hundred a month, so this set can be paid for in less than a month at that rate.
One important thing: read the directions! The small number of negative reviews at amazon on this set are due to people not reading the instructions in the set (I’ve given it as a gift, so I’ve seen the directions). When you use these, don’t toss them in the dishwasher – just toss them in the sink with a bit of warm soapy water on them to soak for a while, then they pretty much wipe off with a sponge. If it’s not coming off easy, just put in some more hot, soapy water and let it soak. Remember, even Teflon has stuff stick to it if you burn it, and you’re going to burn stuff when you’re just getting started.
If you don’t want to spend that much to begin with, I’d recommend starting with the 12 inch everyday pan (really, this will deal with almost everything you can throw at it for basic recipes and even some baking), the 2.5 quart covered shallow saucepan (essential for when you start making sauces and the like), and the 7 quart covered casserole (rather expensive, but it does soups, pastas, and other such things brilliantly). These three will be enough to get your kitchen started in cooking many things – and you can buy them in that order, because the everyday pan will cook a lot of stuff all by itself.
If you want a oven baking dish, get a glass Pyrex 9″ by 13″ (glass is so much better than metal – I constantly run into rusting issues with metal and the glass one cooks more evenly). For large batches of soup or chili, you can get a big, inexpensive pot for this and be just fine.
What about knives? The inevitable question that is asked next is “what about knives?” Here, I don’t recommend the low end (they’re never sharp and are annoying) or the high end (very expensive and will spoil you for knives for life). Instead, I recommend finding something in the middle ground. My favorite set in the middle price range is the Farberware 14 piece set, which will pretty much cover every possible need for a beginner. We started off with a set like this and eventually I upgraded due to a very very nice gift from an old friend, but it served me very well for years.
Basically, the rule of thumb for cooking supplies is that you’re better off buying two expensive pans than twenty cheap ones. They work better and take up much less space.