Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Necessary objects

Hypothetical situation: You're moving into your first apartment (or, have decided you need to do more than microwaving in your current apartment). You have some cash to spend, but not a lot. What are the most important items for the kitchen?

I found myself in a similar situation not too long ago, and to be honest, I didn't really know what I needed. Lots of different pans? A plastic utensil set? A garlic press? Over the past couple years of trial and error, I've come up with my list of kitchen essentials.

The must-haves:
A good cutting board. Wood is great for fruits and veggies, and contrary to what you might have heard, fine to use for raw meat as well. Just scrub with an antibacterial soap and hot water after use and dry thoroughly, and your surface will remain salmonella free.
Tongs. I didn't discover this magical utensil until just recently and I don't know how I lived so long without them. They're perfect for flipping meat without releasing precious juices. Also useful for moving other items around in a pan, or pulling the rack out of your oven. Get a sturdy pair that doesn't lock. They will be your best friend.
Balloon whisk. The more wires the better.
Fat spatula. Necessary for pancake flipping and also to turn flaky fish. Try to get a wide one so there's plenty of support - you can't flip an 8 inch flapjack with a 3 inch spatula. Confession: I own about six spatulas. But at least I recognize there's a problem.
Pepper grinder. I'm sorry, but there is just NO comparing freshly ground black pepper to the weird, sneezy powdery substance that is pre-ground. Invest in one that has an adjustable grind, so you can go superfine or chunky depending on your recipe and personal preferences.
Oven thermometer. Since maintaining correct temperature is vital for many recipes, it's also vital to know what temperature your oven is actually at! If you live in an apartment with an ancient or questionable oven, the oven thermometer is a key object to have. If you don't, it's still a good idea. Hook this baby over the top rack in your oven and marvel at how far off the temperature control dial on your oven is (ours is consistently 25° above the actual oven temp).
8" chef's knife. Multipurpose knife for almost all your cutting needs - and one place where you should splurge if you can afford to (a nice knife can set you back $50-$100 but is well worth it). Keep it sharp and it will handle even the most delicate slicing tasks. Get a cheapie serrated knife for slicing bread.
Paring knife. For those smaller items. Ever try hulling strawberries with an 8" knife?
Vegetable peeler. I like the "D" type peeler (vs. the "Y" shaped ones). Pick one that is comfortable in your hand and has a sturdy blade. Cheaper peelers will often bend over time, so watch out for that.
Dry measuring cups. 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 and 1 cup measures are the biggies. Get a nice set in 18/10 steel and they'll last pretty much forever.
Liquid measuring cup. I like the Perfect Beaker because it has measurements in a zillion units (tablespoons, cups, ounces...), comes with a cover so you can mix directly in it, and it also looks kinda cool. We have two of these in addition to a 2 c. and 4 c. glass measure. The only downside is that the plastic is not particularly resistant to hot liquids, so you will want to have a Pyrex measuring cup if you measure a lot of boiling water.
Wooden stirring utensil. Spoons are good, of course, but this flat-edged guy is awesome at scraping the bottom of pans. You may want two or three of these, so when you have several pans going at once you can stir them all at once, too.
Silicone spatula. I like our one-piece model for two reasons: it has a small end and a large end, so it can be used in small bowls as well as large; also, the two-piece spatulas I've had in the past tend to either rust or grow mold at the junction between the plastic spatula part and the metal/wooden handle.
Small dry measures. Get a set that has 1 Tbsp, 1 tsp, 1/2 tsp and 1/4 tsp spoons. 1/2 Tbsp is nice but not necessary, and a 'pinch' will usually suffice for 1/8 tsp measurements.
Meat thermometer. The only reliable way to know whether a cooked object is really 'done' is to take its temperature, so save yourself a lifetime of overcooked pork and undercooked chicken with this $5 item. Vegetarians - you can take the temperature of cakes. :)

Not pictured but necessary:
Large and medium mixing bowls. I have a set of 12 different-sized glass mixing bowls that I got at Williams-Sonoma for under $40 and I love them, but you really only need a really big and a medium sized bowl. Metal is preferable to glass (very heavy) or plastic (holds on to odors), but you may want to look for bowls with rubber-coated bottoms to stop them from slipping while you're stirring. Just don't use them on the stove or in the oven!
10" frying pan; medium saucepan. Get a frying pan that is oven-safe. Unless you do a lot of no-fat cooking, avoid non-stick surfaces; they make the pan prone to scratching and wear off over time anyway. And while it's not the best idea to boil pasta in something as small as a medium saucepan... I've been getting away with it for almost a year now, and as long as you're only doing 2-4 servings at a time, you can too.
10" Dutch oven - something heavy like a Le Creuset - for casseroles, tagines and other nifty one-pot meals. Another place where a splurge is ok, since these will last a lifetime.
Cookie sheets, wire cooling racks - two of each - and an 8x8" Pyrex pan. There are very few confections that cannot be baked in either a cookie sheet or an 8x8.
Potholders/oven gloves and dishtowels. Because you just don't want to melt your flesh while pulling cookies out of the oven.
Can opener for, uh, can opening, and Tupperware for leftovers.

Armed with this small cabinet's worth of cookware, you can make damn near anything.

Minor additions:
If you do a lot of baking, a hand mixer (or, er, stand mixer) is borderline essential; you will probably also want a 9" round cake pan or two and a 9x13" rectangular pan. I would be lost without my Microplane grater - fresh nutmeg makes life worth living, sometimes - but it's probably not a must-have for everyone.

What else am I missing?


sharla said...

The only other items I would suggest are a garlic press, a ladle, and a crock pot. I know you can get by without them, but they make life so much easier!

Anonymous said...

I would recommend that the 9x13 pan be both cake-able and casserole-able; that helps a lot.

Also a decent colander for washing veggies and/or draining pasta.

Be sure the pots you get have lids. I got yard sale pots/saucepans without lids the first time, and regretted it for close to a year until I scrounged up enough cash to go get some.

Anonymous said...

Pots with lids are essential, and personally I can't imagine using lids that are not glass (aka see through!). A crockpot and a George Foreman make life easier when your schedule gets screwy and you want dinner ready right when you get home, or need to cook your meat quickly.

Maryanna said...

To reiterate a few things already said, my colander and my George Foreman grill are essential in my kitchen.
Also, I've found that woks are GREAT for cooking. I use my wok for just about everything...not just stir fry. The only time that I use my other pots is when I make pasta.

Jackie said...

Crockpot, you say? We have one (a gift from my mother in law!) but it lives in the closet and has never been used. Guess I just need a good recipe to try it out with!

Gooood points about the colander and the pot lids! We bought all our pots/pans in the same line of cookware, so the lid that fits our wide, shallow saucepan thing also fits our frying pan (and, weirdly enough, also our salad spinner and one of our glass bowls). The lids are metal, though. I'm torn because I prefer the aesthetics of metal to glass, but at the same time, it would be much more convenient to be able to see through them.

George Foreman grills? Really? I just pan-sear and broil...

Maryanna said...

Foreman grills are fabulous.
They are great for making panini. I put all my sandwichs in there to make them nice and toasty. I make grilled cheese on them too (and thus avoid having to use any butter or oil).
The best part is that you can put things in them, set the timer (if you have one with a timer), and then not have to stand there and watch the food cooking. I often cook up chicken or burgers in there.

Jackie said...

That's true... when we make panini it's quite a production, basically we heat up the dutch oven (empty) and then use that to squash the sandwich down into the saucepan. It's messy, but it does the job... if we made panini more often it wold get annoying though.