Updated on 05.10.11

The Value of a Minimal Approach

Trent Hamm

Le Creuset

Above, you’ll see a picture of a Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart enameled cast iron pot. I picked it up at a cookware sale about a year and a half ago at roughly half off the list price. Yes, I paid around $150 for this single pot.

Since then, it’s almost the only pot or pan or skillet I’ve used in my kitchen. I’ve fried eggs in it. I’ve made casseroles in it. I’ve cooked spaghetti in it. I’ve made soup in it. I’ve baked casseroles in it. I’ve made bread in it.

After eighteen months of use, you can’t tell I’ve done anything with it. There are no scratches or marks. There’s almost no indication I’ve ever cooked anything on the inside of it.

I’ve had skillets and other cookware completely lose their finish over a similar number of uses. I’ve seen giant bundles of pots and pans that would take up two kitchen cupboards that essentially add up to the same set of uses that this single pot has.

In short, this was the single best purchase I may have ever made for my kitchen. With just this, my stand mixer, a single good chef’s knife, and perhaps another item or two (like a colander), I can cook almost anything I can think of.

When I first started seriously cooking at home, I didn’t see the advantages in such minimalism. I picked up pots and pans and knives and kitchen implements of all shapes and sizes. (In fact, I still have a bunch of largely unused stuff in a cupboard that will likely wind up at a yard sale in the near future.)

So what happened? I used those pots and pans and other materials. Over time, I read quite a lot of material on cooking on websites, in books I checked out from the library, and from food magazines. I also used my own experience as a guide, noting that it was harder to motivate myself to cook if I would up with a sink full of dishes. Gradually, I began to minimize in terms of practice. I started preparing pasta meals in a single pot. I started using the knife I was most comfortable with – a chef’s knife – for almost everything, and I eventually became quite good with it.

The pile of dishes in the sink got smaller. I became motivated to cook even more. Eventually, it was a sign of pride for my meal prep if I used a minimum amount of equipment to make something delicious.

If I were to stock my kitchen right now, I’d probably have about a tenth of the stuff that I currently have.

This experience has taught me a great deal about purchases. Because of this experience, I’ve saved a ton of money in other areas of my life without reducing the experience in any way. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned.

First, start off any new area of interest with minimal equipment. I’m teaching myself to play the piano. Once upon a time, I might have started this journey off with actually acquiring a piano, along with a mountain of books. Instead, I practice at home on an electronic keyboard using public domain sheet music and a few specific songs I’ve picked up here and there. To this point, I’m learning on this equipment just as well as I would have learned on a real piano, and I’m hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars ahead.

Second, never stop learning about this new area of interest. In my ongoing effort to get into better shape, I read a lot of books and other materials on exercise, leaner cooking, and so on. What I’ve learned is that, beyond a few key items, the equipment really doesn’t make a difference. The difference is in your head. Are you motivated to actually do it? It’s all about finding exercises and routines that you enjoy and that work for you, not about buying a never-ending flood of equipment and materials. The more I learn, the more clear it becomes that the real key to success is between my ears.

Third, don’t upgrade until you actually understand, from your own experience, why you’re upgrading. I upgraded to the Le Creuset pot above because the Teflon covering on my current pot was starting to peel. I knew that I wanted a very utilitarian pot that could handle a wide variety of dishes while still being easy to clean that didn’t have the Teflon problem (which limits the lifespan of an item). Since I was coming from a place where I understood from experience what I needed, I was able to identify the right item – an enameled cast iron pot.

Finally, be patient with your purchase when you’re finally upgrading. Don’t just run to Amazon or to your local store to pick up the item you want. Be patient. You’ve invested a lot of time learning your new area of expertise, so why sacrifice that investment in a rush to purchase something new? I waited several months to pick up that Le Creuset, getting by in the meantime with the other items I had on hand.

Really, in the end, it’s all about the experience. You should never dive into a new area of interest with a huge expenditure on equipment. Instead, focus on the minimum. Buy a single low-end pot and teach yourself how to cook using just that and a few implements. Get a used keyboard off of Craigslist and use some online tutorials to get yourself started learning the piano. Instead of buying a mountain of exercise equipment, go on a walk.

Not only do you get the same opportunity to explore a new area in life, you’re keeping your hard-earned money firmly in your pocket. It’s all about the practice and the experience, not the equipment.

As a friend of mine always said, “Michael Jordan didn’t get good at basketball because he wore $200 Nikes.”

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  1. Joanna says:

    Ok, this may be a stupid question but how do you make a pasta dish (let’s say spaghetti & meat sauce) in one dish? Anyone?

  2. Katie says:

    Joanna, I’d sautee the meat and onions and veggies (or whatever you’re including) in the dish, then I’d just add the tomatoes. If there was excess oil, I’d drain first before adding the tomatoes.

  3. Katie says:

    Oh, sorry, Joanna – I misread your quesiton. You would need another pot for the spaghetti itself or to do it in shifts!

  4. Sarah says:

    It’s worth adding that one person’s minimal approach is not someone else’s, so maintain an open mind about how to realize dreams. I’m also returning to the piano, but my way turned out to be a FREE piano from friends who had inherited it. Same friends were willing to help my boyfriend move it. What got me the connection was networking my issue – I told lots of people that I wanted a piano, and eventually one was volunteered.

  5. EngineerMom says:

    Joanna – I have a recipe that is a one-pot pasta dish. It doesn’t use spaghetti, but penne, which is a little better for cooking in the sauce. Basically, you make the sauce, then add the pasta and some extra water, put the lid on, and let the pasta cook in the sauce.

    I think kitchen equipment is definitely an area in which people overspend and over stock! In college I had the following equipment, and could make anything:
    Large metal bowl
    4-c. Pyrex measuring cup
    set of measuring cups
    set of measuring spoons
    2 wooden spoons
    1 rubber spatula
    1 10″ cast iron skillet
    1 medium-sized pot (just big enough to make spaghetti if I sort of bent it around)
    1 small pot (about 1.5 qt, I think)
    1 cookie sheet (I mostly used this to carry equipment from my dorm room downstairs to the dorm kitchen)
    1 metal spatula
    1 small cutting board
    1 small chef’s knife
    1 paring knife
    1 french rolling pin
    1 vegetable peeler
    1 dishpan
    1 handheld mixer
    1 whisk
    2 glass loaf pans

    Everything except the big pot and the cookie sheet fit in the dishpan on a shelf in my room. I would take out only whatever I needed to make a meal, since I had to carry it all down at least 3 flights of stairs and back up again!

    I didn’t own a muffin pan because I would just dump the muffin mix into a loaf pan, and when I would make a cake, I would either make a loaf-shaped cake or get a disposable cake pan from the grocery store (since it was usually a gift for someone for their birthday!)

  6. valleycat1 says:

    I’ve used one pot – cook the pasta, let it drain in the colander while using the same pot to make or heat up the sauce, then dump the pasta back in to combine (for meals at home where we don’t feel like messing up a serving dish!). I also make tuna casserole that way.

    I have a Le Creuset pot, received as a wedding present 35+ years ago; we use it all the time & it hardly shows any wear. We also have a vintage Revereware frying pan with a lid of about the same age, & it’s in even better shape.

  7. Marinda says:

    I purchased a L Creuset for my morning oatmeal/grits/hot cereal fix. It’s the same red as yours and holds several cups of liquid. Day in and day out best purchase for under 100 dollars that I have done. We also have cast iron pots, seasoned so nothing sticks in larger sizes. They were gifts when we married and are over 34 years old and still make the best gumbo and jambalaya.

  8. Johanna says:

    If you don’t have to make your initial purchase immediately, why not do some research first before diving straight in with the low-end items? For some things (musical instruments are the example I’m most familiar with), the low end can be of such poor quality that it’s pretty much useless, and may *still* set you back several hundred dollars. A bit of research may reveal that a small step up from the low end (spending $300 instead of $200, for example) represents a substantial increase in quality.

    You don’t always need to have had direct experience with an activity to understand the specific problems with low-end equipment. For example, before I started playing the concertina, I read about how cheap concertinas have such poor quality control that they often have the keys hooked up to entirely the wrong notes. You don’t need to have ever played a concertina (or even know what a concertina is) to know that that’s not a good thing.

  9. Ashley says:

    For anyone who’s considering purchasing a Dutch/French oven: we went to a local fancy kitchen shop, ready to buy the Le Creuset that we’d been eyeing online. The owners said they’d sell it to us, but wanted us to consider the Staub brand first. Also enameled cast iron, but cheaper. We have one of each, and I’d take the Staub any day – the matte surface cleans more easily, and the lid has built in basting nubbies.

    Trent’s point is well-taken, though. These type of tools really are worth the price, and we do 90% of our cooking in a dutch oven. Totally worth it.

  10. kristine says:

    I have a knock-off LeCrueset from Marshall’s- the same pot as shown, for 65. It is a work-horse, and will last forever. We do have a LeCrueset sauce pan with a lid that doubles as a small fry pan, that gets used every single day, and it will likely outlive us.

    That and a big cast iron fry pan, and we are all set! Cast iron is fabulous- can double as a weapon if you have intruders! But I made sure to get it with the handle on both sides, as someday I will be old, and lifting it will take 2 hands.

    I also do not believe in a set of knives, just one or two good ones that get used all the time. If I had it my way there would be 1 plate, and one bowl, and one cup, and one setting of silverware for each of us. Kind of like the beginning of Kung Fu. Ahhh, grasshopper!

  11. Joanna says:

    Agreed on the knock-off LeCreuset. We have one as well that works beautifully. The stovetop to oven feature is great. The only downside is that sucker is heavy as all get out. I’m not old yet but it’s tough for me to lift especially if I’m trying to lift & scrape contents out at the same time (e.g. into tupperware to save the leftovers). I often need the hubs’ help for this.

    And, I have discovered some recipes for one-pot spaghetti (isn’t google wonderful?!). It seems that the trick is adding just the right amount of water so that it cooks the noodles but doesn’t need to be drained. Saving pot #2 AND colander from needing to be cleaned. Excellent!

  12. AndreaS says:

    A few years ago more than one of my adult kids wanted a Dutch oven for Christmas. I did a great deal of shopping all new and used options. My husband ended up finding two cast iron dutch ovens for $10 and $15 at a flea market. One was sort of vintage and the other was made in Taiwan. Both will last forever. The usual price for vintage cast-iron Dutch ovens is about $40 in antique shops (may have to shop around for a good price). One of my daughters found a turquoise-blue 1960s Dutch oven at a yard sale for $2. Decades ago my husband bought a vintage aluminum one for $10, which we have used since, though I never loved it… until I researched. I found on ebay that these are collectible and we had a really good deal all these years. I consider a Dutch oven to be an essential item, but there are less expensive ways of getting them. Anything cast iron in particular is indestructible. Aluminum is nice for larger size Dutch ovens, because they are light weight.
    I am unfamiliar with Trent’s brand, which judging from the other posts, sounds of very high quality. However I am generally wary of anything enamel, due to the potential for chipping. Back when I was shopping for kids, I looked at other brands in department stores, and noticed that some for sale already had significant chips. But perhaps this was just a cheap brand.

  13. Mike says:

    Great post!

  14. valleycat1 says:

    We also have a large knock-off enamel pan from Target that works just as well as the LC. It weighs a ton, but we do use it a lot for stir fries (which I can’t seem to make just a little of). I’m learning to like & use my regular cast iron too. I do keep one small inexpensive nonstick pan for the occasional fried egg or other small fry job.

  15. JC says:

    When it comes to cookware – I trust the reviews of products done by the COOKS ILLUSTRATED folks. They do a thorough job of testing all sorts of kitchen items and write up their process, criteria, and results quite nicely. If I recall, La Tramontina (avail at Walmart) compared quite favorably in the enameled-cookware examination – I’ve got a friend who bought a large dutch oven of this brand and it’s been great. They probably don’t have the crazy good warranty that Le Creuset has but they don’t have the price, either.

  16. David says:

    Tiddeley widdeley,
    Ernst Friedrich Schumacher
    Sang out in praise of the
    Decently small.
    O, for the joys of the
    Infinitesimal –
    Even more exquisite,
    Nothing at all.

  17. eaufraiche says:

    i’m with Mike – this IS a great post!

    it’s easy to be suckered into acquiring all the trappings of new interests or fleeting hobbies – sort of the american way —- and that’s really not necessary!

    thanks for this, Trent!

  18. Cathie says:

    I have a Tramontina that I bought at Walmart.com @ Christmas time for $35, and I LOVE it. If they are on one day specials this Christmas, I will buy more as gifts.

  19. Leisureguy says:

    You think Le Creuset is good? Take a look at Staub: much better manufacture.

  20. AnnJo says:

    I have a huge Le Creuset dutch oven that I dearly love for braised lamb shanks or ox-tails, pot roasts, etc., but when a “helpful” kitchen assistant scoured my smaller Le Creuset pot with steel wool and completely ruined it, I replaced it with a Lodge enameled cast iron pot just like the one Trent pictured, and it cost only $35 with free shipping. It’s only two or three years old, but so far, seems to be just as good as Le Creuset – and the handles are a little bigger which makes lifting a heavy pot a lot safer.

  21. jackie says:

    The think about buying one good peice like this is that most esablished households already have a ton of other stuff. So instead of creating minimalism, this is just one MORE peice in crowded kitchen. Purging the old stuff is the hard part.

  22. Stephan F- says:

    @AnnJo, Le Creuset has a 101 YEAR warrantee, they’ll replace if you call them and talk to them.

  23. I got a small Le Creuset sauce pan for Christmas and I still haven’t used it. I think it just isn’t the right size for me.

    Now knives…I could throw away every other knife I own and go with only two…my serrated bread knife and my big Santoku knife. Looooooove them!

  24. Evita says:

    Sorry Trent. A cheap keyboard will never be the same as a real piano and will only bring frustration.
    I see a disconnect between buying high quality (Le Creuset) and using a cheap keyboard.

  25. Rachel says:

    I agree with Evita #24–I am a professional musician and I used to work in music instrument sales. I have played the piano since I was six years old, and playing a keyboard is nothing like playing the piano. While the keys are in the same places, you contend with several setbacks: the keys are not weighted as with a real piano, so by the time the player tries on a real piano, s/he is often unaccustomed to the amount of force needed to play, and this causes more disheartening mistakes than I can even tell you, even on pieces the player knows cold; also the range of the typical keyboard is four, MAYBE five octaves–nowhere near full-size. This seriously limits the repetoire the player can take on, because no amount of switching octaves or transposing will ever come close to the thrill of perfecting a piece, just as the composer intended it to be played.

  26. Priswell says:

    I didn’t pay much attention to the topic of minimalism due to my fascination on the economy of buying a really great piece of cookware that may cost real money up front, but saves it every day by continuous use. I think that was the real bargain.

  27. AnnJo says:

    @22, Thanks, Stephan F, but since the damage was caused by improper handling, they told me it was not covered by the warranty, for which I can harldy blame Le Creuset. I had hoped they would have the ability to re-enamel it, but they did not.

  28. Peggy says:

    Love all your cooking related posts as well as reader comments. Could you suggest a good stand mixer. Currently we have a 12 year old Braun food processor. It’s 220V as we bought it while living in a 220V country and hung on to it as we’re still moving every few years. It’s been a real work horse and still works well, but it’s not all that good for things like cookie dough and making cakes. We do all our baking from scratch and rarely purchase prepared food.

    I have been researching stand mixers and reading lots of reviews and am considering a KitchenAid but a number of recent reviews say the new models aren’t made as well as older ones. We can invest in a good mixer, but when we make that step want to make sure it will indeed be a long-term investment.

    Would welcome your and reader suggestions. Thanks!

  29. Cathy Moran says:

    Tools that really work well in the kitchen make the job so much easier. They reinforce cooking at home as an exercise in economy and nutrition.

  30. Matthew says:

    Le Creuset is the best cookware. I am adding to my colection slowly. There is an outlet in Fairfax in California. Amazon had it on sale recently. It is worth having.

  31. Dana says:

    My husband wanted a Le Creuset pot, and for his birthday last year, I promised to get him one. But given that the one he wanted was $350 retail, we decided it made sense to wait for a deal. A few months later, we were on a 10 hour roadtrip, and decided to make a stop at an outlet mall and walk around. We walked into the Le Creuset store and found exactly the pot he wanted, on deep discount for the holiday weekend, and additional discount because it was a discontinued color. We got it and a high-heat metal knob for just under $140, including tax – a better deal than we’d ever imagined!

  32. Dean says:

    A colander is essential? I have one and have barely used it.

    If you need to drain things then hold the pan lid closely to the pan so no solids can get out and tilt.

  33. Michael says:

    I cook with a Le Creuset pot as well, but … another great minimalist all around cooking pot is the the WOK – I use a real traditional one that has a full round bottom and made of hammered steel. The wok is extremely versatile once you get the hang of using one and I would say its my go to cooking pot 60 percent of the time.

  34. Excellent website. Many handy information and facts the following. We’re delivering it to 3 mates ans additionally revealing in yummy. And of course, many thanks in your perspiration!

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