On Getting Started

By Alison Rinehardt Mauldin •

Published in Tools
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My husband sent me this article, the Minimum Viable Kitchen, last week. It’s written by Matt Maroon of Blue Frog Gaming. Much like myself, he’s not a professional chef, just a very enthusiastic home cook. I’m glad people are discussing how to get started in the kitchen, because when I started out I hadn’t the foggiest idea about what to buy. I’ve had to replace much of my cookware and kitchen staples over the years because I started off with poor quality stuff that didn’t last, or I didn’t know how to care for the things that were a nice quality. A list like his would have been a helpful shopping guide. However, I have a few bones to pick with some of his points. If you have bones to pick with me, I hope you’ll leave them in the comments. I would love to hear what kitchen tools you can’t live without.

Maroon begins with a premise laid out in a comment from a previous online discussion:

Posts like this take the unfortunate (and very American) view of food as fuel, an absolute necessity that you have to get out of the way as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Good food, in that view, is anything where the taste isn’t painful.

Yes, American society in general has a pretty warped relationship with food. We could discuss this at length. However, I think most Americans LOVE food, and LOVE eating, and could probably stand to look at eating from the food-as-fuel point of view. In my opinion, our problem is that we take shortcuts to good food, using too much sodium, too much sugar and sugar-like substances, fillers, enhancers, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors to push all the right buttons in the pleasure centers of our brains. We cover up mediocre and bad food with too much salt, fat, and sugar and fool ourselves into thinking it tastes good. Our collective taste buds have been deadened with over-exposure. The solution is to begin cooking with whole foods, learning the techniques, supporting restaurants that cook with fresh and local ingredients, developing a taste for more nuanced and diverse flavors. Mr. Maroon and I may disagree about the problem but I think we agree on the solution.

Books

The writer recommends two books for getting started in the kitchen: Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller, and The Professional Chef. I have the Ad Hoc book and strongly recommend it, though I’m pretty sure that some of the recipes could still intimidate a beginning cook. I’ve never read The Professional Chef, so I won’t comment on that. But I don’t think any beginning cook (or experienced cook for that matter) should be without the thorough and encyclopedic knowledge of Mark Bittman. He writes for the home cook, so his recipes use classic techniques but generally don’t require equipment or ingredients unavailable to the average person. And his instructions and illustrations are simple and clear.

A few books by Mark Bittman:

Knives

I agree with Maroon’s statement that most cooks only need a chef’s knife (or santoku) and a paring knife to get started. He says:

In reality you will do 90% of your cutting with one knife. I like a chef’s knife (10” or bigger) but some people swear by a Santoku. Whatever floats your boat works here; all you need is one that gets sharp and stays sharp.

And…

The second most frequently used knife in your roll will be the paring knife.

This is true. There’s no need to buy a whole block set unless you have the money and you want the steak knives and the whole bit. Where I begin to part ways with Maroon is his statement about knife quality and care:

These don’t have to be expensive either, in fact most of the brands people can name aren’t very good. If you want to shell out the big bucks (~$250) for a Shun Ken Onion I can’t say I blame you. They’re beautiful and feel great in your hand, and nobody makes a better blade. But this $26 Fibrox by Victorinox is just as sharp and holds a good edge. I use it as my daily driver, and though I’m not in love with the cheap-feeling plastic handle, it is one of the few kitchen items I do feel comfortable putting in my dishwasher because it’s both durable and inexpensive to replace. You could invest the money for a Shun Ken Onion in the stock market and buy a new Fibrox every year with the earnings.

If money is a big obstacle for you, then by all means get a cheap Victorinox knife until you can afford a nicer one. But I take issue with the “throw away” approach which seems to permeate all aspects of our culture, not just cutlery. Our society creates entirely too much waste, preferring to buy something cheap that we’ll have to throw out next year. So, if you must buy the cheapest knife available, for Pete’s sake don’t put it in the dishwasher. I’ve been taught that dishwashing detergent can damage the steel of your blade. A quick search around the internet reveals that this apparently is debatable. But what everyone pretty much agrees on is that your blade can get knocked around in the dishwasher, thus dulling its edge. Also, most knife handles are not made of dishwasher-safe material, so over time your handles can be damaged as well. Buying cheap doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get as much use out of it as possible.

I believe in the middle ground not represented in Maroon’s article. Here are a few knives, just as an example, that aren’t exorbitantly expensive, but will last you a very long time if cared for properly.

Get a honing steel and use it at least once a week to keep the edges straight. I take my knives to be sharpened at Sur La Table, it’s only a dollar per inch of the blade. That’s a small investment for the world of difference it makes in your knives.

As for your cutting board, Maroon says this:

My recommendation is, if you’re on a budget, just get a decent plastic board. OXO makes this great one for $25. If the budget isn’t too tight, get a couple of them so you don’t have to wash one in between cutting chicken and vegetables…

I disagree. Despite their sanitary reputation, plastic cutting boards have been found to harbor bacteria. I love a classic wooden cutting board, but if that doesn’t suit you, check out these eco-friendly composite boards by Epicurean. Sustainably sourced, made in the USA, lightweight, easy to store, and dishwasher-safe.

A little light reading on cutting boards:

Pots and Pans

Maroon and I are on the same page when it comes to non-stick.

What you don’t want, in general, are non-stick pans. You can’t put them over high heat. You can’t get a nice fond for deglazing. And if you’re having problems with stuff sticking to your pans, it’s because you’re doing it wrong, not because you need a Teflon coating. And with plain old stainless steel there’s no toxic chemical coating to rub off into your food.

I don’t recommend Teflon pans to anyone. They’re too much trouble, they chip and scratch, toxic chemicals leach into your food, you can’t use them at high heat, and you lose out on delicious browning.

However, I disagree with Maroon’s suggestion that a 10 piece set is the way to go. I’ve owned several sets of pots and pans and there are always a few skillets or sauce pans you never use. My recommendation is to mix and match pieces that you will actually use.

Make the foundation of your collection stainless steel. Do your research and find a set that is at least tri-ply aluminum and stainless steel. That means that the exterior is stainless steel, but sealed inside the steel are layers (three layers equals tri-ply) of aluminum, which is an excellent conductor of heat. Also make sure that the aluminum extends up the sides of the pans, not just on the bottom. This will ensure even cooking. I’d get a good stock pot, a small sauce pan and a larger sauce pan (2 quarts is usually enough) and a straight-sided sauté pan with a lid. Next you must have a cast iron skillet: they’re inexpensive and last forever with a little care. And you can use them for so many things. A cast iron skillet will take on non-stick properties the more you use it, though it is nice to have an actual non-stick skillet on hand for delicate foods.  I recommend spending the money for a non-toxic, eco-friendly brand like Scanpan. This could be a piece you add to your collection later on.

Something Maroon and I agree on; dutch ovens.

You want an enameled cast iron one. While Le Creuset has long been everyone’s favorite, in recent years many far cheaper models have been getting equivalently good reviews. My baby is this $80 Lodge that my dad got me a few years back, I think from Target. Lodge makes lots of great cast iron products at low prices. And even though it’s a quarter of the price of a Le Creuset, Lodge’s lid knob won’t melt at high temperatures like Le Creuset’s default one will.

I don’t think you need to spend gobs of money on a fancy French enameled Dutch oven, unless you’re so inclined. But I do believe enameled is the best way to go. The heavier weight makes them a little better-suited to slow cooking, braising, and bread baking than a stainless steel Dutch oven. And the enameled coating is preferable to an uncoated cast iron, which can react with acidic foods.

He’s also dead on about sheet pans:

You’ll want a size called a half sheet pan (or a jelly roll pan) preferably made out of aluminum. Again, avoid non-stick. With a roll of parchment paper (or a Silpat) you can make any pan non-stick without all of the drawbacks. Nordic Ware makes a popular model for $14.50. The half sheet is about 13”x18”, and is big enough to bake almost anything on.

I grew up baking with various cookie sheets and 9″ x 13″ pans, and when I discovered the half sheet pan I never went back. The sides are high enough to corral roasting vegetables, but low enough to let air circulate for even browning. You can bake cookies on them. You can flip them over, sprinkle the back side with corn meal and use it as a pizza peel. There are probably a ton of uses I haven’t found yet…

Electrics

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My workhorse food processor, in its spot on my crowded counter.

Maroon recommends some pretty classic kitchen electrics, such as a stand mixer, which is indispensable if you’re doing any kind of baking. He also places a lot of importance on the blender. I use my blender a lot, but not enough to keep in on my kitchen counter. My food processor on the other hand, has a permanent place on the countertop. I suppose a lot of this is personal preference and what you tend to cook the most. If you’re torn between a blender and a food processor, keep in mind that blenders are best for liquids, food processors are better for non-liquids. I use my food processor for grating cheese, chopping nuts and large amounts of vegetables, cutting butter into biscuit or pie dough, etc. Blenders are better for smooth purees, emulsifying, crushing ice, making smoothies, and so on. If you splurge for a Vitamix you’ll find it has more tricks up its sleeve than the average blender, but you have to decide for yourself whether or not the cost is worth it.

Desserts

I’ve skipped the Cook’s Tools section because I think he covers the basics very well. However I have some things to add to his desserts list, which he admits is not his forte.

Most cooks at some point in their lives will want to bake muffins or cupcakes, so a muffin pan is essential. With these I am much less strict about my No Teflon Policy. I figure you’re often baking with liners, and your temperatures are not getting much above 350 degrees, for the most part.

As for cakes, he mentions getting a cake pan but fails to mention you’ll most likely need two for baking layer cakes. (Three if you like them sky high.) So think about what kinds of desserts you see yourself making the most, and invest in those pieces. If you’re cooking with a lot of Thomas Keller books and you’re a fan of French desserts, you’ll probably want a tart pan. If you want to tackle cheesecake, you’ll need a springform pan.

Most people already have measuring cups and measuring spoons, but if you’re truly just starting out, go ahead and get some stainless ones. I have this set, which are magnetic and make it easy to keep track of them in the drawer. I also like that one end is narrow and can fit in smaller jars of spices. Stainless measuring cups will also last longer than plastic ones. And finally, for measuring, go ahead and buy a glass Pyrex measuring cup, the kind with red unit markings. Your grandmother probably has one from 50 years ago. They last a long time, and you can put them in the microwave which is great for melting butter.

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A few things I use all the time: Pyrex prep bowl, Microplane grater/zester, OXO vegetable peeler, silicone spatula.

 

If you’re stocking your first kitchen or just supplementing what you already have, I hope this helps! Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

 

Next Up
Maldon Salt
Previously
How we ate our way around New York City

4 Replies so Far

  1. I totally agree with you Alison about mixing and matching your pots and pans. TJ Maxx/Marshalls are great spots to mix and match quality stuff without breaking the bank!

    1. Yes! We have a TJ Maxx/Home Goods nearby and I LOVE it. Thanks for reading!

  2. Gregg Wolff says:

    You are missing one of my favorite pieces – the pyrex pie plate. When I am eating by myself, I frequently use it as a dinner plate. I can use it to heat things up in the microwave. It is much better than a pan or cookie sheet for reheating frozen pizza. Serving pasta? No problem with things falling off the plate. It’s good for salads. I’ve also used it as a cutting board. Moreover, as I don’t have a dishwasher at the moment, it is particularly easy to clean. After all that, you can use it to make pies too!

    As for cheap pots and pans, don’t overlook a decent outlet mall. For example, the one outside Philly carries Le Creuset and Calphalon. A couple of others nearby carry Corningware. If you stop by on a 3 day holiday weekend, you can typically get some really good deals.

  3. alisonrmauldin says:

    Thanks Gregg! I love that the item’s intended use is almost an afterthought. Now, to find a Le Creuset outlet near me…

Comments are closed.

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