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a guy's guide to cooking - tools of the trade
A Guy's Guide To Cooking
Part One - Tools Of The Trade

ne of the great myths about good cooking is that you need a lot of special, high-end utensils and cookware to do it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the things you need you probably already have and if you don't, you can acquire them new or used for very little money. Kitchen gadgetry is a lot like exercise equipment, the people selling it make you feel like you can't live without it. Cooking shows like to make you feel like your kitchen is inadequate if you don't have this or that, but that's because the makers of these things are usually behind the advertising revenue for the program. Sure, it'd be nice if we could all have a commercial grade kitchen but just because you don't have one doesn't mean you can't make good food in what you have.

What follows are the basics you need to cook meals on a daily basis. I'll mention some other things along the way that you might want to consider, but they're by no means essential. Let's start with pots, pans, and dishes. You don't need a lot of them, nor do they have to be particularly fancy, but you do need a basic assortment. First we'll considering frying pans.

You'll probably not need more than two and you can probably get by with one. Personally though, I recommend three: a small shallow one for light-duty, a medium one of reasonable depth for every day use and a large, deep one for bigger projects. As you can see in the photo above I have a few more than my personal recommendation, but that's because I fry a LOT. I have my stainless steel, deep/large pan the farthest back. In the foreground are my light-duty frying pans and right behind them is my non-stick, medium sized "every day" frying pan. Finally, you'll notice I have a cast iron skillet. I was raised in the South and not cooking in one is unthinkable to me. Meat just tastes better cooked in a cast iron skillet, whether it's browning ground beef or making fried chicken. You can get a new one for under $50 but the best ones are those that have already had decades of seasoning, which is why you see them going for $75-$100 in antique stores. I got lucky; my mother in-law had a couple of them sitting around from a defunct antique market owned by Welf's late father.

Next, let's look at sauce pans and pots.

You're going to need at least one large pot for boiling pasta or potatoes and making large-batch liquid foods like chili or soups. Beyond that depends on your personal cooking habits and you can add them as necessary. In the photo, you can see the three red sauce pans stacked together. Two years ago I got those at Big Lots as a set for $10. I'll probably still get another couple of years out of them before the handles fall off. If you're just beginning too cook, you'll probably need nothing more than that. Worry about adding nicer and more durable sauce pans later. I have a couple of other non-stick pans to round out my assortment but still use the cheap red ones every day. While we're on the subject, a word about non-stick pots and pans. Never ever ever use metal utensils when cooking in them, always use plastic, wood, or rubber ones so that you don't scratch the teflon coating.

Next up, bowls and dishes.

First of all, get a colander if you don't already have one. That would be the large bowl on the left with the holes in it. And get a big one, you'll thank me later. You can get by with other methods of straining water off food but it won't be as effective and this is a ton easier. You're going to need at least a couple of mixing bowls, one of them of reasonable size and depth. Beyond that depends on how much and what type of mixing you do. Copper or stainless steel is going to be more durable, especially if you're using an electric hand-mixer, than glass/ceramic. Avoid plastic mixing bowls if possible. I don't have it in the essential tools of the trade because you can do the job with a wire whisk, but for the extra $10, dude, get an electric mixer. You'll want at least one glass baking dish (9x12 is "standard") and a basic 6-cup muffin pan. Finally, you'll want a cookie sheet of some sort. As you cook more and more, you'll eventually complement these with a variety of metal and glass dishes of other sizes, but these three basic dishes will get you started.

Finally, there are the various utensils. First of all, you need a cutting board and knives

As you can see, I use a cheap plastic cutting board I probably got for a few bucks at a megastore. I've had my eye on a sexy bamboo cutting board but haven't been able to convince myself I need it bad enough yet, especially since I'm like, you know, unemployed. The knives I got at a yard sale last year. For $20, I got the butcher-block knife holder that had about half the knives missing, a manual juice press, and an office chair. Yard sales, thrift stores, and antique shops are great source for finding basic cookware and utensils. If you're needing some of these things and on a budget, I highly recommend you start there.

I decided not to take the time to sort through every single utensil in my drawer for a photo, but instead took a photo of the whole drawer and then talk about the basic things you need.

Turners/Spatulas: You need at least one turner and if you have any non-stick frying pans, at least one should be non-metal. You should have at least one rubber spatula. In addition to its formal job description as an icing spreader, it's invaluable for getting ALL of the food from a bowl or pan when transferring it.

Spoons: You can get cheap plastic cooking spoons of varying lengths at the mega/dept store of your choice. They're great for general purpose stirring and tasting. You should have at least one large slotted spoon for draining off excess liquids in some foods when dishing them out of pans. Finally, you need at least one ladle for dishing soups/sauces.

Measuring: You need one set of measuring cups and measuring spoons. Small measuring cup sets are for dry ingredients while spoons are for both dry and liquid. Additionally, you need one of the clear graduated measuring cups for liquids. The type of cooking I'll be introducing you to won't require these, but as you grow more confident in your ability to cook you'll begin trying bona fide recipes to expand your repertoire.

Whisks: You should have at least one for manual, quick blending/beating where an electric mixer would be considered overkill.

Openers: You need a can opener for sure. Electric ones are nice but not really necessary. Bottle openers and cork screws depend largely on your eating habits but it's probably a good idea to have them on hand. A jar "gripper" is a good thing to have handy as well.

Miscellaneous: Have a small basting brush in your utensil drawer. A durable pair of scissors/shears is not really essential, just a good idea; you're less likely to cut yourself opening a troublesome bag with it than with a steak knife. Also not essential, but I highly recommend getting a garlic press. A small strainer is a great thing to have around, as is some sort of grater.

....and that's really all you need. Even if you had none of these things, you could probably put it all together for under $100. My guess is, you probably have most if not all of these items already in your kitchen. In the next installment, we'll look at the basic ingredients you will need to prepare and season food when cooking.
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Wait a minute! I see NO Pampered Chef!

Riiight, like I need to spend $15 on a pancake turner.

I bought my Lodge brand iron skillet about 10 years ago and only now is it starting to have that appropriate coating requisite for putting that cook's touch on meats and other items. I totally agree with you about the necessity of an iron skillet. As I'm sure you know, you keep iron skillets in prime condition by never using soap on them. This has invited comment from a number of people for whom I've cooked.

Many state parks in the area have cabins for rent in which their kitchens contain a number of iron skillets. I would never advocate that someone steal anything. However, I can't say that I haven't been tempted to lift one of these beauties for myself. They are solid black and the bottom has that smooth glass surface that takes 20-30years of regular use and care. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Yeah, I never use anything stronger than water and a fiber scour on mine.

Someday I hope to inherit my mom's cast iron skillet. It has a season to it that would make you weep. I imagine I'll have to fight my sister for it.

Hey I'm a girl who loves to cook and this is fucking awesome!

You need a TV show or a book. I feel more inspired cooking wise with this series more then a tv show/book generally could do. Maybe it is that you aren't some big wig celebrity chef and actually, my friend.

Or it could be that this is a realistic approach to everyday cooking and not, like, fancy cooking with thousands of dollars worth of expensive gear. It's easier to get inspired to do something that actually seems possible to do.

No wok? I am shocked & appalled.

My whisk was destroyed years ago by lame roommates (indeed, most of my pots & pans were) & I've never bothered to replace it; I just use 2 forks.

EDIT: A durable pair of scissors/shears is not really essential, just a good idea; I use mine to cut up meat. MUCH easier.

Edited at 2008-04-09 06:44 pm (UTC)

I personally have never cooked with a wok, but even if I did I doubt I would include it. It's, essentially, a specialty frying pan which is outside of the scope of what I want to do here. If this were basketball, I'm teaching how to dribble and block out your man whereas the wok would be the equivalent of teaching how to dribble between your legs.

One certainly could get by without a whisk, but for a couple of quarters at a yard sale or junk store, anyone can acquire one and have the proper tool on hand.

For me there's an intangible joy in using knives on food.

What brought about a cooking lesson?

You I attempted something similar to this, but I guess I didnt have enough people to be interested in it. Just like today I made Beef Strognoff from scratch. I generally cook frrom the recipe of my head. But let me know when you decide to do a sushi episode, I think I sorta taught you guy that a long time ago. I just remember that everyone in your house that night would have each plate gone by the time I made another. lol

oh your forgot the most important utensil in the drawer: the chip clip!!

Sushi is awesome, though personally, I don' think I'm that interested in making it at home on any regular basis. It's one of those things that is hard to master in the home without a lot of patience and practice, more than I'm willing to devote to a single specialty food, anyway. I'm content to leave that one to the professionals.

I'd make a few revisions to this list. I'm glad you had the cast iron skillet in there, and I'd say, for beginners, you really only need two pans: A cast iron skillet and a large teflon pan(for eggs and stuff). You forgot the most important thing in my kitchen, the one I do 90% of my cooking in: A cast iron dutch oven. You really only need two pot, a small sauce pot and a large boiling pot, preferably stainless, with copper bottoms. And, instead of going and buying a block of knives, I would spend the same amount of money on one GOOD knife. I could do 100% of my knife work with one knife if I had to.

I guess I disagree. I included my cast iron skillet in the photo only because I pulled out all of my frying pans, but I don't think it's by any means essential, especially for a beginner. Similarly, I don't think a cast iron dutch oven is either. New cast iron is cheap, but getting them seasoned and suitable for good cooking is troublesome and buying a used one with good season can get pricey. My goal is to introduce basic, fundamental cooking to those who have no idea where to begin and are intimidated by the "culture" of cooking and the rigidity of recipes.

I definitely disagree about knives. A good meat knife is useless on bread. A proper chopping knife is heavy and long but not very useful for peeling an apple. While I don't think a beginner needs a large array of knives, they should have a little assortment outside of the table knife and steak knife.

It all looks beautiful. Meg and I have been suckered into two presentations on pots and pans that were really nice, we knew they were going to be expensive.

at the end of the presentation we were told we could have the nice set of pots and pans for a low price of 3,000 dollars!

(we got a free vacation out of attending the presentation, to the bahamas for 3 days 2 nights, so it was worth it.)

At least you got something out of it.

Three grand for pots and pans? Jesus. Most of my assortment are hand-me downs, gifts, and thrift store finds.

Wow, your kitchen is like a cooking supply store... we have, like, one pan and one mixing bowl, one wooden spoon... that's about it. We make do.

Which begs the obvious question: how do you make a meal with only one cooking pan?

the two things that are missing are a) a steamer and b) a good-sized toaster oven. both can be acquired from goodwill or garage sales easily if you don't want to plunk down $60 on buying a new pair.

really, you can possibly forego the toaster oven, but it's my personal feeling that steamers are pretty much a requirement if you ever want to make anything involving salmon.

I <3 toaster ovens. We got one for $2 at a garage sale and it sucks and therefore only ever gets used for toasting. I'm asking for a better one when I put together my wedding registry!

How totally sexist! For the next installment, please change the name to "A Guy's (and Spoiled-White-Girl-Whose-Mom-Always-Cooked-for-Her's) Guide to Cooking".

I previously stated that the ladies might find some of this useful as well. I'm calling it a Guy's Guide not because I assume all women can cook and men can't, but because I'm going to approach it from a guy's perspective and present tips and techniques that a guy can relate to.

This is a really great compilation. My daughter's assembling her first kitchen and she and her boyfriend are all about the high-end this, and top-rated that, which translates to mean "EXPENSIVE."

One must first walk before learning to run... ;o)

Unless you just have money to blow, I think people should stick to hand-me-downs and used kitchenware when assembling their first kitchen. You can always replace, augment, and supplement things as you go... AFTER you've established your cooking habits and know what's important to you and what's not.

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