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.