Updated on 09.29.14

A Beginner’s Guide To Kitchen Equipment

Trent Hamm

food lustSeveral 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:

Reasons to Avoid Cheap Cookware Sets

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

My 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.

1. 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.

2. If you don’t want to spend that much to begin with, start with the essentials:

A 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.

3. If you want a oven baking dish:

I would recommend getting 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.

4. 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.

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  1. Daniel says:

    Thank you for the recommendations! You’re spot on with the next question being about knives. I’m grateful for your advice and your foresight.

  2. Kate says:

    Re: knives & pans

    I agree that someone new to cooking should buy middle-quality and middle-price knives. I also agree that one should upgrade to the high-end stuff slowly, one knife at a time, perhaps over years. Based on my own experience, (with professional training and work as a chef) the chef’s knife and the utility knife are the two most important knives in a home kitchen. You might think a paring knife would be a higher priority than the utility knife, but I haven’t found that to be the case. In any event, high-quality knives are good things to ask for for holiday or birthday gifts (so long as you’re not Japanese – bad cultural significance). Yes, they are expensive, but a good Wustof or Henckel knife will last you a lifetime. They are good investments.

    I also like the Revere Ware copper-lined pots. They stand up well to years of hard use and are sized appropriately for the home cook.

  3. Michelle says:

    While I agree with Trent’s recomendations for pot and pan size, I have to say your best bet for value(not shoddy, but not expensive) pots and pans would be at a commerical kitchen supply house. The stuff may not be a pretty as Calphalon, but it was built to take a beating and will last much longer for fewer dollars.

  4. Dave says:

    I’ll quote again my favorite chef, Alton Brown. Don’t buy “unitaskers”. A prime example would be a “rice cooker”. A clever device, but it’s only good for one thing…cooking rice!

    Better yet…how about a garlic press. It’s only used for crushing garlic, something you can do with the flat edge of a good wide butcher knife and some pressure from your hand, and the knife can also do many other things.

    When you buy your kitchen tools, aside from a very few minor exceptions (like maybe a corkscrew), buy them with the idea that you want something you can use to do more than one thing in your kitchen. It saves you money in the long run, because you don’t have to buy 3 utensils to do 3 different things when you can buy one utensil that will do them all!

  5. Tim says:

    you’ll get a better deal buying a set, both knives and pots/pans, versus buying open stock.

    I’m not a fan of the aluminum calphalon line, but that is personal preference. I’m an all-clad copper core fan. I also will double what Kate says about Revere copper core pots (i thought they were limited edition runs). My parents, thus I, grew up with the Revere copper core and perhaps the best deal out there. But in the end, what you are looking for are pots and pans with strong rivets holding the handles and with thicker metals. The major problem with cheap to mid-grade stuff is that they tend to be thinner, cheaper plys of metal and will warp and are held on by screws rather than rivets. There are plenty of midgrade stuff out there that have all the bennies as the higher priced. just focus on strong rivets, thick metals, and long lasting non-stick coatings.

    Although I would recommend buying a knife set, vice open stock, because you will end up buying cheaper in the end if you are planning a whole set, you really do not need all those knives as Kate wrote. A small set will probably suffice for the vast majority of the people. I’m a big fan of Santoku Oriental cook knives (this is a style, not a brand) and use it more than a the standard cooks knife. Basic set would include a good scissors (you’d be surprised how much a scissors comes in handy in the kitchen), cooks knife or the like, paring knife, and a serrated knife long blade knife (like a bread knife, which i use for more than just bread), and a sharpening steel. Key though, is to find something that is comfortable in your hands and will maintain its edge. you really do not need a 9″ cooks knife if you have small hands or big hands for that matter. people cut themselves more b/c of dull blades rather than b/c of sharp blades (they over compensate b/c it is more difficult to cut). if the blade doesn’t integrate into the handle, then the handle will eventually come loose from the blade.

  6. DM says:

    My favorite kitchen item, hands down is my Le Creuset 7-1/4-Quart Round French Oven. While it’s not cheap (About $235 on Amazon….), it’s built to last. I use it for soups and stews, casseroles, pot roast, stir fry, and even sloppy joes. (I prefer to brown my ground beef in a pot with high sides in order to reduce grease splatter….) I should point out that this pot is quite heavy. But the added weight translates to a nice slow even heat.

  7. Christopher says:

    “you’ll get a better deal buying a set, both knives and pots/pans, versus buying open stock.”

    That is true if you actually need and/or use all the items in the set; otherwise, you’re simply trading quality for quantity and acquiring more stuff you then have to store. For example, the Calphalon set linked in the original post contains both a 3-qt casserole and a 2.5-qt saucepan, which are basically the same thing.

    My suggestion is first to peruse a book like “Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen”, which though not perfect should give you a better idea of what’s critical and what’s fluff (adjusted for the kinds of things you like to cook/eat). Then, join cooksillustrated.com for a 2-week free trial and read the equipment reviews to see what are good buys and what you should avoid. (Hint: You don’t need All-Clad; some less expensive products are just as good, if not better, such as the Sur La Table house brand and Cuisinart MultiClad.)

  8. Tim says:

    ahhh, but i love my unitasking zojirushi rice cooker. Alton is correct, it only cooks rice…but it cooks rice well and frees up your one other pot for other things.

    really, you don’t “need” anything fancy at all. i’ll stick with what i wrote before: riveted handles, thick ply metals, and long lasting non-stick coatings. i’m not sure if you can really say one product is better than the other, it’s really personal preference. although i’m simply not a fan of aluminum and prefer something with a copper core lining. but again, that is really personal preference. cast iron like creuset has its uses, but it is not for everyone and you can get same results with a cheapo standard cast iron pan, so does anyone really “need” creuset? i have a cuisinart multiclad pan, no frills, nothing special, same as any other muli-ply stainless pan. Anyways, again it’s really personal preference.

  9. Nathania Johnson says:

    Check out the ads on CraigsList. You might find newlyweds who got duplicate items at a wedding and they’re looking to unload them. Yes, they’ll try to make some money off of them, but *you* might pay less.

  10. Many might consider me crazy for saying that, but I am concerned with the link between Alzheimer’s and aluminum and thus avoid it whenever possible. I prefer stainless steel (and the glass bakeware) – chromium and iron are not really neurotoxic. Alzheimer’s sufferers generally have a high concentration of aluminum in their brain.


    That’s a pretty balanced overview of it arguing that aluminum isn’t really worth worrying about.

  11. Here’s one from a more credible source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=2671833&dopt=Citation

    “Aluminum is established as a neurotoxin, although the basis for its toxicity is unknown. It recently has been shown to alter the function of the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which regulates exchanges between the central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral circulation.”

  12. !wanda says:

    Re: ricecookers being “unitaskers.”
    Some of the rice cookers I’ve seen come with steamer attachments, so you can use them to steam-cook items or even heat items up. They’re actually not bad for, say, a college student living in a dorm with limited cooking facilities, especially given the cost of a big bag of rice.

  13. plonkee says:

    Wow, a 14 piece knife set recommended for a beginner. I would (in fact, I did) get a couple of knives and a pair of kitchen scissors. (Scissors are the best for cutting pizza).

    I got a serrated small knife, large knife and some scissors. I haven’t felt the need to upgrade yet as between them they cut everything. When I do upgrade, I’ll just get one really good knife and a sharpening steel.

    I’ve got exactly two pans which I’ve had for 9 years and they were an expensive gift and are still going strong, one small one and one big shallow one. I’m planning on getting a small casserole dish to complete my cooking set. I have got more baking tins and so on but they are basically just for making cakes and biscuits (a favoured hobby).

  14. Thoglette says:

    “Buy a set – it’s cheaper” they say. Maybe, once you’re both rolling in it and know exactly what you want. (hmm, lecruset and hammer welded knives :-)

    Better to learn with the basics – two knives, two saucepans, frypan and a casserole of some sort. And a small collection of tools: spoons, slices, rolling pin, strainer, sieve, manual can and bottle openers.

    Spend money on heavy, classic pans and knives. I do like no-stick frypans, but good ones are not cheap and yet are still easily, irrepairable damaged.

    Learn how to put an edge on your knives – a steel would be my “knife” number 3, followed by a small stone.

    Bargains are often hiding in “ethnic” (for want of a better word) grocery stores – chinese claypots for the cost of Big Mac Meal, for example.

    Finally, if you’re going to cook, make every ounce of fat count – use fat with flavour (butter, duck, goose, beef dripping)!!!!

  15. Tyler says:

    I’m a big fan of Alton Brown too. Here’s my two most useful multitaskers.
    The first is a toaster/ convection oven. I use it for hamburgers, chicken, toast, cookies, rewarming burritos, pizza, french fries, and anything else I can think of. It’s also cheaper to heat than my full sized oven.
    The second is an old pressure cooker I got for $20 off e-bay. I would never use it as a pressure cooker. It is nice and thick. I use it for all my pastas, popcorn, steaming, frying, and boiling. It will probably out last me.

  16. Amy says:

    1. Thrift stores are a great place to look for kitchen bargains. Good cookware, especially things like cast iron, lasts for-ever (seriously – I have things my grandmother used) but people get tired of their stuff or upgrade all the time.

    2. If you’re really just starting out and not sure about this whole cooking thing, you don’t want to spend $300 or more outfitting your kitchen. 1 12 inch nonstick skillet (preferably fairly deep, with lid) 1 large pot (5-7 quarts) one small pot (2 or 2.5 quarts) both with tight-fitting lids, a 9×13 Pyrex baking pan, a colander, a cutting board (bigger is better), a vegetable peeler, a spatula and a slotted spoon (both not metal) 2-3 knives (chef’s knife, utility serrated knife, and paring knife) and a set of measuring cups and spoons should be able to be ordered off of Amazon for less than $150 at a perfectly acceptable quality level. At those price levels, you may only get 5-10 years of use out of your pots and pans, but you’ll also have a much better sense when you finally buy the expensive stuff which pieces fit into your cooking style and which you’re really going to use.

    3. Specialized tools. No, you don’t need a garlic press, or rice cooker, or waffle iron or whatever. But if you’ll use them frequently, they usually make sense in terms of the time savings. My garlic press gets used 3-4 times a week, but a rice cooker would get used once a month at best. Just depends on the sort of stuff you cook.

  17. Frank says:

    You can find great deals at places like Ross, Marshall’s or TJ Max. They often have name brand stuff that had some “defect” like a scratch or was returned and is sold for substantially less. I’ve seen all clad pans and Oxo knives available for far less than at the cooking stores. Cooks Illustrated also loves the Victoronix brand of knives both for their price (under 30 for the Chef’s Knife) and quality. And if you try to grab my Zyliss garlic press from me, I’ll take out my Shun 8″ Chef’s knife and slice your arm off (I love getting great gifts!)

  18. LeisureGuy says:

    I recently got an inexpensive ($40) Chinese “cleaver” (actually a knife in the shape of cleaver: you use it for cutting, not hacking through bones, which would ruin it). I find it extremely useful: it cuts, it slices, it chops, and it’s a spatula. You can use the side to crush garlic, use the back to tenderize meat, etc. I find I use it now instead of my chef’s knife.

  19. Nick says:

    The best consistent deal in cookware seems to be cast iron. While having one non-stick Calphalon piece around for omelets or other extremely sticky items is nice, it isn’t necessary as cast iron can do the same with a little more oil if properly seasoned.
    My current kitchen consists of a set of a 10″, 8″, and 6″ cast iron skillets bought from JC Penny’s on sale for ~$20.00, a 12″ lodge cast iron skill from Wal-mart bought for ~$20.00, a 2 cast iron pots bought for ~$10.00 each, a huge (around 3 gallon size) stainless steel stock pot, one Teflon coated pan ~$10, and a large cast iron wok bought from a kitchen outlet for $10 (it looks like a Le Creuset without the name).
    On a daily basis I generally only use the 10″ skillet, wok, and one pot and thats it. I’ve used Calphalon stuff before and it was ok, but I personally didn’t see the justification of the expense over inexpensive cast iron. However, once I have the money I’ll probably buy some since its easier to clean, doesn’t require seasoning, and isn’t extremely heavy.

  20. reulte says:

    Hmmmm, I use my rice cooker for rice, fish, vegetables, re-freshening bread, plumping raisins (I hate hard, chewy raisins!) and oatmeal. I’m experimenting on other uses — but I don’t consider it a unitasker.

    I enjoy my Calphalon – coated big pot for soups, stews and anodized aluminum medium saute pan for everything but omelets. I’m an omelet junkie and so have a special omelet pan — but I can do the omelets in my saute pan.

    I love my knives – most useful are Santoku 8″ full tang riveted; my 3″ Twins paring knife, and an amazingly inexpensive Chinese cleaver (takes an edge and keeps it forever!).

    Yes, I have other pots, pans, knives, gadgets — but these are the everyday usefuls – 2 pots, 3 knifes does 90% of my kitchen prep.

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