After Mark Bittman mentioned my post about minimalist food selections in his popular New York Times food blog, I was inundated with questions about minimalist cooking. Thoughts about kitchen setups, basic equipment, and other such questions were shared and requested, and eventually I came to realize that it'd be useful to write a follow-up article outlining what goes in a basic kitchen setup for those getting into cooking at home. While I've
addressed this in the past, I felt a more complete and detailed list was in order.
Cooking at home is the most effective way to minimize your food budget. Almost every meal you cook at home will be less expensive (and often quicker) than a similar meal out on the town. Doing it consistently will not only save you money consistently, but it'll build up your skills in the kitchen.
The only problem? The setup cost is usually quite stiff. You do need quite a number of items. Fortunately, you don't need quite as much as you think, and most of the stuff you do need is cheap. Here's the equipment I'd get for a basic kitchen.
An oven and stove top and a refrigerator These are the basic appliances you'll need to even attempt cooking at home. Without them, this article is moot. If your apartment/home comes with them, just use the ones already there until they wear out. If you must buy new, buy durable. Do the research, check out Consumer Reports, and follow their recommendations. Energy efficiency is also vital - use the Energy Guide stickers and look for the EnergyStar logo when comparing models. I also strongly encourage you to avoid getting a flat-surface stove top if you're unfamiliar with cooking, as you will have many boil-overs as you learn and the top can be nearly impossible to clean.
NO microwave "Blasphemy!" many will shout. I argue that a microwave stunts your ability to learn to cook at home by making it very easy to pop convenience foods in the microwave instead of actually preparing something. It's a crutch at first, though it can definitely become a tool later on. Challenge yourself to no microwave for a year and see how much you learn. Even better - do it right off the bat and you don't have the initial cost of buying a microwave.
Tip #1: If you can see only a few situations for using it, don't buy it
So many kitchen items have one use. Take, for example, the cheese slicer. It slices cheese. Period. Use a knife, or if you grate or slice a lot of things, get a four-in-one box grater. Don't waste your money on a cheese slicer unless you slice five pounds of cheese a week. Any item that does not have uses with a wide variety of foods should be looked at with a very discerning eye.
Basic flatware and eating dishes Don't sweat this a bit. Go to your local department store and go for the low-end stuff for now. Later on, if you want to "upgrade" to something "classy" (meaning spending far more for essentially the same functionality of an item), go for it. Just don't waste your money right out of the chute on hundreds of dollars of flatware.
A cutting board Get the cheapest one possible - probably a rectangular chunk of plastic for a buck or two. The entire purpose is to keep your knife from damaging your countertop.
A vegetable peeler This is one of the very few kitchen "gadgets" that's worth its salt. Although you can peel potatoes, zucchini, squash, and so forth with a knife, a vegetable peeler is incredibly efficient at its task. You can use a knife and/or a box grater in place of this item, but it's very inexpensive (any old one will do) and the efficiency it adds to many food preparations (especially in a vegetable-heavy diet) is immense.
Tip #2: Be creative in finding workable substitutes
There are countless clever little items for the kitchen that seem like a good idea, but can usually be substituted for easily if you think outside the kitchen a bit. A meat tenderizing hammer? If you prepare meat every day of the week, sure - otherwise, just use the rubber mallet out in the garage with your meat under paper or plastic.
A large pot, a small pot, and a skillet You need three pots, that's all. The large pot's for cooking stews, boiling beans and pasta, and so forth. The smaller pot's perfect for making sauces, boiling small amounts of vegetables, and so on. A single large skillet will be your primary stove top cooking tool. Don't skimp and get teflon-coated pans or else you'll just be tossing them in a couple of years when the teflon begins to chip off. Instead, invest now and get some hard-anodized aluminum ones, especially the small pot and the skillet. You'll still be using good ones when you retire.
Two very simple baking pans Get a 9" by 13" cake-style pan and then a French oven or casserole-style pan. 90% of the time, you can get by with just one of these (I'd get the latter one), but that other 10% will leave you aching, when you need to have two items in the oven at once.
A box grater You can get a metal box grater for a buck, and there are all sorts of little uses for it - slicing and grating cheese or vegetables, making breadcrumbs out of an old loaf of bread, and so on. Amazing little utility item for just a few pennies.
Tip #3: Just starting out? This stuff makes perfect gift requests
Almost everything on this list makes for a perfect bridal shower, wedding, or graduation gift. If you have a registry for any such purpose, put these items on it and get gifts that are actually useful instead of just tossing stuff on there without thought or pattern.
Two knives and a honing steel A paring knife and a chef's knife will handle almost every cutting need you'll have in your kitchen. Go to your friendly local department store and grip each one. Find the one that fits best in your hand, regardless of price, and buy it. Different hands grip a bit differently, so it may be that the most expensive knife is the best fit for you or the cheapest knife is the best fit. Just get the chef's knife that fits your grip the best and the paring knife that fits your grip the best.
You should also snag a honing steel. It's easy to use and makes a world of difference in keeping your knives usable. It does not sharpen your knife, but it does keep the edge on your knife from warping over time. Just use the honing steel twice on each side before you use the knife.
A magnetic knife rack This is basically just a long magnetic strip you can hang somewhere high. Since it's a big magnet, it'll attract the blades of your knives and allow them to hang there, without the edge touching anything at all. This reduces the slow wear on the blade of your knife. It's cheap and definitely the right way to go if you're childless - if you have children, though, this may be an unsafe temptation for the little ones.
A baking sheet Something to toss things on when you bake them in the oven, from pizza and vegetables to cookies and bread. Again, just get the cheap one - an air bake one is a nice $4 extravagance, but not vital.
A loaf pan If you're going to bake bread consistently or like to make meatloafs or other small casseroles, a loaf pan is perfect and costs only a buck or two.
Tip #4: Keep the food basics on hand, always
What about the food? I recommend keeping plenty of olive oil and a well-stocked
spice rack on hand, no matter what. Both are very cheap and both are used in almost anything you make.
A food processor This is the least essential item on this list, but it's incredibly useful, particularly as you move more towards cooking consistently complex meals at home. A good one can retexturize almost anything, from chopping and grinding to juicing and pureeing. I favor the KitchenAid KPF 750, as does Consumer Reports. This is a great housewarming gift for someone genuinely interested in cooking.
Plastic reusable leftover containers - and masking tape For food storage in the fridge (leftovers, stuff prepared in advance, etc.), just get a bunch of low-end reusable storage containers and a roll of masking tape. You can use the tape to identify the contents and the date of preparation on the lid so you don't have to wonder what forgotten mystery item X is in the fridge. We still use the ones we got for a wedding gift more than five years ago.
Tip #5: When in doubt, always go cheap
If you're standing there trying to choose between two similar items, always go for the cheap one. For starters, you don't know for certain how much you'll use the item, so an expensive one may be a complete waste of money. For second, unless you know the item cold, the quality difference is likely pretty unclear to you. Third, if you do decide that you use the item a lot and can actually see a compelling reason for the higher quality version, you can always upgrade later. So save your money now and go for the cheap one.
These items are all you'll need to prepare, eat, and store almost anything that's realistic in a home kitchen. If you do come up with additional needs, don't be afraid to think outside the box a little bit before you turn to the store - you'll be surprised at how many nifty solutions you have around the house.
The real key is getting started - don't just buy this stuff to have it on hand. Use it. Try starting with very simple things, like scrambled eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches, then progress on to things like rosemary chicken. To keep it cheap, start with inexpensive basic foods and master their variations. You'll find that before long both your wallet and your palate are happy.