Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kitchen Essentials 1: The ABSOLUTE essentials

I recently had a conversation with a reader who was a little intimidated by some of the stuff we do around here.  The techniques are really not that advanced, even the occasional use of a double boiler can be duplicated with a wok and a saucepan.

My point with this blog has always been to make you think, not to intimidate you.  Please don’t be afraid of making good food.  You only need the most basic of implements to have the proper equipment to start your kitchen.  Fancy gadgets and expensive do-dads may be nice, but ultimately 90% of the time you use 10% of your equipment.  The rest of it will collect dust.  In my opinion, if it’s collecting dust it’s wasting your money.

With that being said, I did some rummaging around and came up with the bare essentials.  These are the items you need to have in your kitchen.  If you are just starting out, these should be the item you build up over your first few years.  Buy quality when you can, but money and necessity will always be the determining factor.  Don’t let some snob tell you that you shouldn’t get a pan because it didn’t cost you $800. That’s absurd.  Spend what you can afford to when you can afford to, but remember, the less you spend, the shorter it’s life span will be.  That $7 non-stick pan you buy for eggs in college won’t be around when you graduate, but at least you will have had the money to have bought the eggs to cook in it.

While you are at it, when you go shopping, don’t be afraid to check out Goodwill, the Salvation army, garage sales, or Craigslist.  If you are just starting out, there are things you will want new, like a non stick pan, but a colander or baking dish should be fine used.  And never ever pass up a deal on cast iron.

Let’s say you are starting off with NOTHING.  You are walking into your apartment / dorm / home / condo / extended stay hotel room / pop-up tent etc. and you have to start from scratch.

Start at your nearest discount retailer (Walmart, Kmart, Target, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, etc.) and look for a kit that contains several of the items you need.

Here's a list of items NO kitchen should be without broken up by "rounds"  What I mean by rounds are what you should buy each time you go to the store, assuming you were starting with absolutely zero and were starting with a limited budget.

Round 1 - the ABSOLUTE essentials:

These are the items that you can't survive without.
  • Flatware: forks, butter knives, teaspoons, tablespoons
In addition to being necessary just for eating, these are used in preparation of food, stirring, ladling, cutting, flipping, shredding, etc.  Some cheap flatware sets are very appealing as they feature colorful plastic handles and often come with a cutlery holder or caddy. Unless the metal is forged stainless steel, these types of flatware sets may discolor and become pitted. Although the cost of these attractive sets is usually low, they don’t tend to last long and oftentimes the plastic handles become detached or break.(1)  That being said this is a starter set.  You are getting what you pay for and are buying this with the intention of replacing it in less than a year.
  • 8” non-stick skillet
This is a good, small pan.  It is easy to clean because it is non-stick.  While you can't sear in it, you can still do almost anything in it: from eggs to vegetables to warming up cans of ravioli.  An inexpensive pan will scratch, so it's lifespan is limited.  To prolong the lifespan you'll want to use silicone spatula and avoid using metal in it.  This is a short term investment.  You will need to replace this pan in 12 to 18 months, however for your first kitchen or if you only cook eggs in it, this is a good pan to have.

  • High Temperature Silicone Spatula
To help prolong the life of your skillet, you should use a silicone spatula.  A high temperature silicone spatula is usually only a little more expensive.  This tool is an excellent all around tool and usually under $2.  As your kitchen expands, you'll get more of these in different shapes and sizes to meet different needs and jobs, but for your first kitchen, one should be sufficient.

  • Cutting Board
This is another piece of equipment that you will get more of as your kitchen expands.  For the beginning cook, you really need something just barely above disposable.  You can purchase multi-packs of flexible plastic, washable cutting boards for a small amount of money.  Flexible boards also have the advantage of being able to be used as funnels or scoops.  It's a good idea to have several different boards of different colors so that you can use one for raw meat, one for cooked meat and one for vegetables.

  • Butcher Knife
A butcher knife should be comfortable to use. It should fit your hand well, feel sturdy, and provide a secure amount of space between the cutting surface and the area in which you place your hand on the handle. It should be heavier than other kitchen knives and should have good balance. In general the blade should be between six and eight inches long.  While there are many options available that offer good quality without a high price tag, you may prefer to choose a set that includes a butcher knife, steak knife, and other knives and may include a butcher block.
  • Plastic Wrap
Plastic wrap is a kitchen essential?  Absolutely.  Plastic wrap can be used for many things, not just wrapping up leftovers.  If you want to flatten a piece of chicken,  place it between two sheets of plastic wrap and using the base of your skillet as a meat mallet.  For dry marinades, sprinkle or rub your marinade on your roast or chops, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.  Including Plastic wrap does not negate the usefulness or necessity of aluminum foil, wax paper, or parchment paper, but for prep and for storage, I think plastic wrap is the one to start with.
  • Manual Can Opener
A manual can opener is about as simple a tool as you will ever need, and it also very commonly forgotten.  Personally, I dislike electric can openers. Manual can openers are usually dishwasher safe and if I don't have power available, it is still possible to open a can without difficulty.  Most manual can openers also have additional tools, like bottle openers, which make them extremely convenient to have around.

  • Plastic Grocery Bags
Plastic bags tend to accumulate.  Many people just throw them away. There are many uses for these bags.  Of course you can use them for small trash bags, lunch bags, overnight bags, etc.  They can be re-purposed too.  Instructables has several great projects.  As small trash bags go though, they're great.  I usually keep one on the counter as I'm working to accumulate scraps, egg shells, etc.


From Instructables: Make Your Own Plastic Tote Bag from Recycled Plastic Bags

  • Plates
My assumption was that you started with nothing.  So you could either go to Goodwill, the Salvation army, garage sales, or Craigslist for used, or you could get pieces or an inexpensive set from Walmart, Target, or K-mart.  You may also be near an outlet mall like Tanger where you may be able to find a kitchen store with low priced plates.

  • Saucepan
The last item you absolutely need is a small (1 1/2 to 2 quart) sauce pot. A pot this size will allow you to boil water for a small amount of pasta, or eggs, or potatoes.  You could make a sauce or vegetables or even tea or coffee.

There you have it folks.  The ten most important items in your kitchen.  Tomorrow, Round 2.

Quick update on Igor:  A couple of stirs today...  but I didn't feed him.

Until next time, here's wishing you peace, love, and hollandaise sauce!

(1) http://www.wisegeek.com/how-do-i-choose-the-best-cheap-flatware.htm

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