“Buying It for Life” in the Kitchen

Sarah and I are subscribers to the “buy it for life” philosophy. In short, it means that we’re willing to pay more for a product that does its job well but, just as importantly, will last a very long time, preferably for the rest of our lives. Here are six principles of “buying it for life” that I suggested earlier, along with a few extra ones:

1. We prefer to pay more now to not have to deal with replacing an item for a very, very long time. Ideally, I’d like to not have to replace it in my lifetime – and I’m in my mid-thirties.

2. We tend to strongly favor companies that put extensive warranties or guarantees on their products.

3. We tend to strongly prefer products that are low maintenance or have maintenance we can do ourselves.

4. Since we’re spending more on item purchases, we tend to spend more time researching them.

5. If we can’t buy the “buy it for life” version of an item due to cost, we buy a very low-end version as a short-term fix while we save.

6. Free trumps buying it for life, but cheap does not.

7. If there’s a choice, buying something with fewer electronic components means fewer potential failure points, meaning that the device should last longer.

8. Look for ways to use “buy it for life” items in many different situations, so that you can just buy one or two items to do lots of tasks. (I’ll give a few examples below.)

9. Some products don’t have an obvious “buy it for life” version, in which case we rely on Consumer Reports or other unbiased product comparisons and choose their “best buy” version.

10. Start your shopping at the thrift store. If it’s several years old and still works for its purpose, it has a high likelihood of being “buy it for life” quality at a discount!

11. Maintenance matters. Take a little bit of care of your stuff.

Over the long term, “buy it for life” reduces stress and saves money. It does have significant up-front cost because you tend to buy somewhat more expensive items, but that extra expense disappears when you’re never replacing the item. Not only that, “buy it for life” items make for very good gifts during special life occasions.

To illustrate this philosophy, I thought it might make sense to walk through our kitchen and point to five “buy it for life” purchases we made, along with the logic behind them.

Pots and Pans

Cast iron pots and pans are nearly indestructible and will last for many, many years. I’ve seen cast iron pots that are more than 100 years old and still in regular kitchen use. I will never, ever buy another non-stick coated item because the surface on those items eventually begins to peel, at which point you have to discard it (you do not want to ingest Teflon). Another advantage of cast iron is that it heats evenly, meaning it’s harder (though still quite possible) to burn items that you cook in cast iron. Better yet, you can use cast iron on both the stovetop and in the oven. Cast iron does the job well and just lasts forever – just two or three cast iron pots and pans are all that you need in your kitchen.

The biggest question is whether or not to buy enameled cast iron or bare cast iron. Enameled cast iron has the advantage of being able to cook basically anything. I wouldn’t be afraid to cook an tomato-based (or other acidic) sauce in enameled cast iron, but I wouldn’t do it on bare cast iron. Bare cast iron, if properly seasoned, forms a wonderful non-stick surface for cooking eggs and other items that might stick badly. I suggest using bare cast iron for skillets, but using enameled cast iron for larger pots.

For bare cast iron, I recommend Lodge – this cast iron skillet is a good example. Lodge also makes good enameled cast iron pots, but I personally use Le Creuset enameled cast iron pots, which are really expensive but come with a 101 (!) year warranty. We have two Le Creuset pots and we cook pretty much everything in them.

If you have a good cast iron pot, you can use it as a popcorn popper. Just put in a bit of oil and some popcorn kernels over medium heat and stir until the popcorn pops. There’s no need to have a devoted device.

Slow Cookers

Slow cookers allow you to cook your meals slowly while you’re away at work so that you come home to a tasty meal. What you’re looking for here is a safe device that has a small number of failure points (ideally, just a switch) as well as a well-made inner pot that’s relatively easy to clean and won’t damage the food.

Honestly, there’s a reason that Crock Pot is practically synonymous with “slow cooker.” Most sources (like Consumer Reports and America’s Test Kitchen) recommend them. I’d suggest getting a non-programmable one simply because they have fewer potential points of failure, like this one.

If you wish to program a non-programmable Crock Pot, get an outlet timer, which essentially provides the same function.

Knives

My approach was to simply learn how to use three knives very, very well and worry about buying those for life. I learned how to use a chef’s knife for most purposes, a paring knife when dealing with detail work, and a bread knife for, well, bread.

Knifes are very individual items. You’re going to want one that fits in your hand well and everyone’s hand is different. It also matters how exactly you learn how to chop and make fine cuts with a knife.

If you’re buying a kitchen knife for life, focus on brands that offer strong warranties. They should cover all manufacturing flaws without question. I like the Global chef’s knife and the surprisingly inexpensive Victorinox paring knife. Another important note: know how to care for the knives that you have. This is actually just as important as the knife you choose. Most knives come with instructions on how to care for it. Follow those instructions and any knife with enough quality to have a lifetime guarantee will last you nearly forever.

Dishes

As long as you’re fine with the aesthetics, stainless steel plates are the way to go. You’ll essentially never break them during normal meal consumption and cleaning. We use plates like these for camping.

Most Americans turn their nose up at the aesthetics of using steel plates, so your next best option is to purchase a high-quality porcelain-based ceramic plate from a restaurant supply store. Corelle, Corningware, and Fiestaware are options that have long histories of lasting.

Why use a restaurant supply store? Eventually, you will break a ceramic plate. If you do, you’re going to want to be able to find single replacements so you’re not forced to buy a new set. Restaurant supply stores keep the same styles for many, many years so that restaurants don’t have to replace all of their dishes after a few plates break. You might pay a little more per plate, but you won’t have to replace your set for a long time.

(We actually use handmade earthenware plates that were made by a family friend. If we weren’t using them, we’d still use our old Corelle plates.)

Cutting boards

Before I go any further, I recommend reading this information from UC Davis which details why wood cutting boards are much more sanitary than plastic boards if both are properly cleaned. In short, if you have a plastic cutting board that has developed visible cuts, you should replace it, particularly if you ever cut meat on it. Because of that, I can’t recommend a plastic cutting board from a “buy it for life” standpoint because you’ll need to replace it once you see little cuts appearing on it.

Instead, my “buy it for life” purchase is a well-constructed wood cutting board. My suggestion would be to contact a craftsman and get an “end cut” board (like this one), but if you want a commercial one, I’d recommend a John Boos cutting board, along with a bottle of mineral oil (you can get it for a couple of bucks at most department stores and pharmacies). Once a month, rub a bit of the oil into the board – it will soak up the oil. The Boos board is made from hard rock maple, which is relatively easy on knives (extending their lifespan), plus the wood is pretty harsh on microbes, helping with the sanitary aspects.

Many of the same attributes of wood boards also apply to bamboo boards, plus bamboo is more environmentally friendly because it grows back so quickly. However, bamboo boards tend to be a little harder than other wooden boards, meaning your knives will dull faster. I am unfamiliar with bamboo boards, so I can’t make a specific recommendation. You can make your own call on which aspect is more important to you, but both bamboo boards and wood boards, if cleaned properly and given a bit of oil every once in a while, can last forever.

Final thoughts

Ideally, I want to buy a particular item once. Ever. To me, that’s worth the time to research it to find the right item and the time to shop around to find the exact item at the best price. I might end up spending more on that item right now, but if I never have to buy it again, I’m soon going to have a house properly equipped with items I never have to replace, drastically reducing the cost of product replacements.

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