Help a clueless couple compile a mega list of kitchen essentials!
August 9, 2010 2:24 AM   Subscribe

What do we absolutely need?

Our house is filled with things that were mostly handed down or found at yard sales. Everything's mismatched, falling apart, duplicated or just not something we fancy staring at. We've decided to take some time and gradually replace everything in our house with good quality essentials. Things that will last for years and maybe even get passed on to any future kids. The kitchen's first.

So basically, I'm looking for a big list of all the mandatory kitchen tools. As in, all the basic things you absolutely need in order to have a functioning kitchen. How many saucepans do I need, what kind of knives, must we all have a slotted spoon, etc.

On the subject of knives, gadgets and pots/pans: any recommendations for brands that will last and last would also be fantastic. We're slowly working our way through each and every room, so if you have any other handy tips for living room, bedroom, bathroom and office basic essentials feel free to throw them in!
posted by Vrai to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Eva Solo knife block.

A decent garlic press, preferably with a movable mesh for easy cleaning.

Le Creuset casserole pot

Anolon pans, or similar.

A decent griddle/skillet.

A first rate pestle and mortar, preferably large.

Silicon-tipped tongs, brush and other utensils.

A potato ricer.

A good mixing bowl.

Wooden spoons.

Decent, preferably digital, kitchen scales.

A good sieve and an easy to clean plastic colander.

A large wooden chopping board.

You'll need decent knives and a sharpener. Try some in a cookshop - it's very much up to personal preference. When you find a chef's knife you like, buy a back up.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:38 AM on August 9, 2010

Lodge cast iron skillets. Everything else is secondary.
posted by resiny at 3:10 AM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

I hate to be difficult, but garlic presses are entirely superfluous if you have a decent cleaver (smash the garlic with the side (ideally on top of some salt to collect the juice), and then chop). You really should have a decent cleaver, and it'll be far easier to clean. If you have a good cleaver, and a mortar and pestle, you won't need a food processor.

Also: I'd suggest at least two good chopping boards: one for uncooked meat, and one for other things.
posted by pompomtom at 3:12 AM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you already have many bits and pieces. Perhaps you could keep track of how much you use each one to gauge which ones are worth replacing with top quality alternatives, and which ones are fine as they are? You could put rubber bands or stickers or small marks with a pen on each utensil and remove one each time you use it, and then after a week or month go through and see which ones get used regularly and which ones are used rarely, if at all. The most used items could be first on your list for replacing, and the less useful ones could stay as they are.

(I'd then be tempted to qualify each use by time and task and draw up a graph and draw ridiculous conclusions from it, but there's probably no need for that).
posted by twirlypen at 3:13 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

No! Not a garlic press! Useless space waster if there ever was one. Smash the garlic bulb with the heel of your hand and the flat of the blade of a chef's knife. Run the knife through it a couple of times. Done, in less time than it would have taken to fish the garlic press out of the drawer, much less wash it and put it away. There are lots of things that fall into this category, depending on what you like to cook and eat. Potato ricer, for example - if super-light fluffy mashed potatoes were important to me, I would have one. I like mine a bit rustic and chunky, with peels in, as does my husband. So I just use an old-fashioned potato masher, which is also useful for breaking up tomatoes in sauce and things like that. So, basically, leave the more esoteric gadgets for now. After you get going with the basics, if you find yourself continually pining for a particular bit of kit, then get it. You'll probably find that you use it a couple of times and then never again (anyone want to buy an ice cream maker?)

Also, consider cast iron - a dutch oven, 12 inch skillet, and grill pan will cost you less than a single piece of enameled Le Creuset and with proper care will last for the rest of your life and will only get better with age. The dutch oven is particularly useful. It's great for chilis and stews on the stovetop, for roasts and slow-cooked meats in the oven, to bake super-easy no knead bread, and you can even take it camping and bake biscuits on the campfire. I use my great- great grandmother's black iron skillet daily. You can get Lodge stuff new, but I find the pre-seasoning to be crap and always redo it myself. If you see a piece of cast iron at a yard sale or junk shop, even if it's rusty, consider buying it and cleaning it up. Just google cast iron seasoning, there's tons of info out there.

Do you like to bake? Don't forget to get two bread pans (for yeast breads as well as pound cakes and zucchini bread), two round layer cake pans, two cookie sheets, and a muffin tin. You don't need to get fancy here. Don't get the cheapest, but certainly don't get the most expensive, either. I especially hate silicone bakeware, especially for breads. Terrible crust! What's the point? The only exception to the silicon thing would be a sil-pat mat to line your cookie sheet, but only if you do TONS of baking.

As for the rest of your house - I would just recommend that you get the best sheets and towels you can afford. Good sheets, especially, get softer and nicer the more you wash them. You can get some good stuff at a steep discount at places like TJ Maxx, but be careful not to be fooled by designer brands (Ralph Lauren, etc). Those are often just cheap-to-middling sheets and towels with a label on.
posted by Wroksie at 3:42 AM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Kitchen tools do vary by the sort of cooking you like to do. For example, if you are into baking, you'll probably want more pans and would get more use out of a KitchenAid than someone else. Even a kitchen list by someone like Mark Bittman has things that others will disagree on (here's another at Stone Soup).

In general, for smaller kitchen bits and pieces, I like Oxo and Kuhn Rikon for well-designed and useable things. Microplane stuff is good, I really like my microplane brand box grater (even though it is 10 times the price of a cheap one). Pyrex glass measuring jugs in a variety of sizes are handy, from small ones to melt butter in the microwave, to large ones for pancake batter.

I also like the pyrex storage containers that are glass with blue or red plastic lids. It makes life much better to have lidded containers to put leftovers in etc. Consider investing in a good range of containers for pantry storage too (whatever you like, I quite like Oxo Pop Tops).

I don't think the bedroom needs an equipment list - others may disagree! Good quality bedlinen is nice, but so is spending money on a good bed in the first place. You probably want a good set of basic tools (hammer, tape measure, screw drivers - there are questions here covering that stuff).
posted by AnnaRat at 3:57 AM on August 9, 2010

Was just in my kitchen, considering what I use the most and what I would get rid of if I needed more space. Just so you know, I cook a meal for two every night and do lots of experimental cooking and baking as a hobby at the weekends.

What I would keep:
-10 inch Sheffield Steel chef's knife
-4 inch paring knife
-12 inch serrated bread knife
(all of these are of a set, each molded from one piece of steel, super easy to clean and they keep a great edge. Don't know the brand, they were passed down from a relative)

-Long locking tongs
-several wooden spoons of different lengths and a couple of flat wooden spatulas
-Potato masher
-flat metal spatula
-4 saucepans/pots: small for melting butter or heating a can of soup. 2 medium for making custards and sauces and cooking small amounts of pasta and boiling potatoes and vegetables. Large (as in large enough to hold a human head) for stock and large amounts of pasta.
-Cast iron pieces as described in previous comment.
-A couple of sizes of thin carbon steel frying pans with metal handles for use as a wok (super-high heat quick frying) and to cook fish and small cuts of meat. Metal handle means I can start food on the stovetop and then stick it in the oven to finish. You will find tons of pans like these in any good professional kitchen. When properly seasoned, these work as well as non-stick pans for eggs and crepes. You can get them at professional cookware shops for less than $20
-4 sizes of glass bowls for mixing and marinating
-bakeware as described in previous comment, plus a sheet cake pan.
-2 sizes of ceramic casserole dishes for casseroles and lasagna etc (medium and huge)
-Glass pie pan
-electric egg beaters for meringues and cake batters
-digital scales
-instant read thermometor
-12 cup food processor

What I would get rid of:

-potato peeler. Some people like these, I find a paring knife easier to use.
-non-stick pans. What a waste, after a year the coating comes off. Not very healthy either, I've read.
-super teeny one-egg skillet. Cute, never used.
-Most lids. I would keep the dutch oven lid, but I only ever use just one big flat lid for everything else.
-Slow cooker - I use it in the heat of summer for slow-cooking, because it doesn't heat up my kitchen. Otherwise I just use the dutch oven in the regular oven.
-Mini-food processor. Just using a knife takes less time when you factor in clean up.
-Glove-shaped oven mitts - Easier to just use a folded up (DRY!) dish towel.
-cutesy serving pieces, like cheese knife with little mice along the handle. I actually just threw this away because it annoyed me. Damn gift guilt!

Not a large list of things to get rid of, but that's only because I've already pared it down pretty severely.
posted by Wroksie at 4:14 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I won't add to the list, but I will say as you consider new kitchen appliances don't be afraid to spend a little extra.

I realized that the cheap pots and pans I bought, I ended up having in use for 20 years and I would have been better off to spend more at the beginning on quality and enjoyed the use of a better tool for only a slightly increased marginal cost per year.
posted by three blind mice at 4:49 AM on August 9, 2010

A sharp knife has made my life infinitely better. I went on Amazon, checked the reviews for chef's knives and bread knives and the two that were at the right balance of cheap and highly ranked. I think I spent 30 dollars.
posted by fermezporte at 4:55 AM on August 9, 2010

I cook for a living. mega list of kitchen essentials is an oxymoron in my opinion.
these are the things you do when you cook: heat things, put things into other things, make things smaller.
the more you know the fewer tools you need.
heating of all kinds except specialized baking: steel wok, bamboo wok steamer, domed lid for wok. one wok burner. a spatula, tongs.
things to put things in: 2 steel bowls each of three sizes, if you bake: 3 half sheet trays, steel pie tin, spring form pan
things for making things smaller: two knives. one small one medium. a two sided ceramic sharpening stone. brand does not matter. you do not buy a "sharp knife" you sharpen a knife. you can learn how to do this on youtube.

a note on kitchen metrics. throw away your measuring cups and spoons. get a digital scale that can tare (does this even need to be mentioned anymore?) AND does not reset to 0 if the weight goes to a negative value. get an instant read thermometer. it doesn't matter if it is glass or the expensive thermopen. use these always for everything.
posted by Infernarl at 5:25 AM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

As you can probably tell, all of this is subjective. Here are the things I've found I use the most:
- at least two knives: a chef's knife and a paring knife. I happen to like my Mundial knife, and I believe the paring knife is a Henckels. This is going to be very much what feels right in your hands, so check out a few. I'm not a fan of sharpening my own knives; I just take them to a knife shop, and make sure to keep them in the block.
- a cast-iron skillet. Get a Lodge. You'll never need to replace it.
- prep bowls. I have glass and aluminum bowls of various sizes for mixing, prepping, etc. Get the ones you find at restaurant supply stores. Again, you will never need to replace these.
- stock pot, preferably with a heavy bottom. If the Le Creuset is too expensive, you might look around for one of the ones hawked by Mario Batali. Truth be told, my Revereware ones work just fine.
- skillets. I do own a copper sautee, but it sees far less use than my trusty aluminum skillet. I also got this at a restaurant supply store. It goes from stovetop to oven easily, so it can double as a roasting pan, and it appears to be indestructable.

Some things that are not essential, but super-cool to have:
- food processor. Mine is a Cuisinart. It takes up a little room, but when you need it to work for you, it makes quick work of the task at hand.
- blender. I believe mine is an Oster. Rather than ten buttons it has an on/off toggle, and that's it. Opt for one with horsepower over one that has a dedicated 'smoothie' setting.
- immersion, ie stick blender. Ours is a cordless Breeville one. Man, that thing comes in useful.
- stand mixer. Our kitchenaid would have been a small fortune had we not inherited it, but when you need it, there's really no other tool for the job. Did you know you can buy an attachment to turn it into a meat grinder? Or a special bowl that makes it an ice cream maker? Un-freakin-believable.
posted by Gilbert at 5:28 AM on August 9, 2010

I would certainly recommend Analon pans too. They are quite expensive, but excellent, so I plan on veeery slowly replacing my pans with them.
posted by lizabeth at 5:48 AM on August 9, 2010

I cook for a living. mega list of kitchen essentials is an oxymoron in my opinion.
these are the things you do when you cook: heat things, put things into other things, make things smaller.

I very much agree, though I don't cook for a living and my short list would be slightly different. All of the best food I've ever eaten has come from very sparsely equipped kitchens. Don't buy tons of single-use tools; buy things that have many uses (eg large chef's knife) and buy ones that are of such nice quality that they are a pleasure to use and easy to maintain.

You know what you actually use in your kitchen; all you need to do is replace those things with nicer versions. So if you bake a lot, this is your big excuse to upgrade your mixer or buy nicer bread pans, for example. But if you never or rarely bake, you probably don't need to parse out the differences between Kitchenaid, Bosch, and other mixers.

There are a few things everyone needs (and honestly you don't need much more): big knife, small knife, wooden spoon, frying pan (I prefer cast iron), smaller pot, larger pot, cutting board. With those alone, you can cook almost anything on the stovetop, and cast iron can go in the oven so you are minimally covered that way, too. Add in a bit of baking supplies and some mixing bowls, and you are genuinely covered. Everything else is fun, but not really mandatory.
posted by Forktine at 5:49 AM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

What do we absolutely need? [...] So basically, I'm looking for a big list of all the mandatory kitchen tools. As in, all the basic things you absolutely need in order to have a functioning kitchen. How many saucepans do I need, what kind of knives, must we all have a slotted spoon, etc.

I think it would be worth clarifying: Are you looking for a list of things you absolutely need - i.e. a list which is as short as possible - or a list of things that people would prefer not to do without - i.e. a list which could get pretty long?

A third saucepan or a second wooden spoon or a second kitchen knife aren't what I'd call mandatory but plenty of people seen to find them useful.
posted by Mike1024 at 5:57 AM on August 9, 2010

I second twirlypen's idea of tracking what you are using, and how often. This is because what is essential will depend a lot on what you do in the kitchen.

Other than prep bowls, good knives and cutting boards (I have several, in different sizes), my list differs from other people's, and that's because of the type of cooking I do. For example, I never use cast-iron skillets or pots. And I find non-stick coated pans very useful, as well as lids in varying sizes that fit the pans I use. If you'd asked me about kitchen essentials 10 years ago, I would have had a different list from now because I was making different kinds of things. My list of essentials then was very baking-oriented, but now it's Korean and Japanese cooking-oriented (so a tamago pan would be very handy for me, but probably useless for a lot of the responders above). While I have a digital scale, I still get a lot of use out of measuring cups and spoons, as so many U.S. recipes are volume-based and don't list ingredient weights.

Some things I have not regretted getting, regardless of the level of use:
- full size food processor (not the mini ones - I find it easier to just chop small amounts by hand)
- Kitchen-Aid stand mixer
- heavy baking sheets from restaurant supply stores

I have never owned a regular blender and have hardly missed having one.
posted by needled at 6:00 AM on August 9, 2010

Nthing Le Creuset (esp. a dutch oven). We inherited Grandma's - easily around 25 or 30 years old - and it has the most amazing seasoning - nothing sticks, ever. We use it for everything - soups/stews/chili, boiling water, roasts, baking bread - *everything*.

A bit of an investment, but def. something that you can pass on to the kids...
posted by East Siberian patchbelly wrangler at 6:09 AM on August 9, 2010

Buy and learn to use a Spyderco Sharpmaker to keep your knives sharp. Sharp knives are safer (you heal faster from a clean cut!) and easier to use, and you don't squash things like you will using a dull blade.

One other idea: a paper towel holder that will allow you to rip off a towel one-handed. The number of times I have pawed at the towels and come away with half a roll... Ugh!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:12 AM on August 9, 2010

I agree with all the comments that it varies, oh my gosh it varies. Only you really know what you want to make every day and what tools you like to use to do it. A lot of things have pros and cons relative to other solutions and one man's time saver would be another's time waster. Case in point: if you have a dishwasher and lots of counter space, it might make sense to have a big and small food processor to do tons of chopping instantly. But if you don't, spending time chopping everything with a good knife might be wiser and actually be quicker. If you cook "light" or Mediterranean with acids a lot you'll want to stay the hell away from reactive cookware like cast iron and aluminum, but if you're mostly a Southern-y long-simmered beans n' greens n' bacon n' eggs family cast iron might be perfect. It just depends on factors that vary by person and kitchen.

That said, I will take the opposite approach and suggest things almost nobody needs yet mysteriously are always on display in kitchenware catalogs and department stores: sets of pots and pans (seriously, most people I know need 3, maybe 4 max, where 1 or 2 of those is used 90% of the time), sets of knives (ditto), 50 different ways to slice or puree things (pick ONE or maybe two max depending on preference, not all of them, I'm thinking food processor/blender/immersion blender/mandoline/fancy grater etc.), a million casserole/roasting/baking dishes (those too inexplicably used to come in big sets, though you see them less often these days; you only need about 2 standard sizes, medium and large). If you're like me, you may have amassed lots of baking dishes that are all the same but in different materals--metal, glass, ceramic. Pick the one you like and find some other non-kitchen-cluttering use for the others or donate them. Get one awesome set of measuring cups and spoons and throw away all the weird orphans. Ditto mixing spoons, crappy spatulas, etc--get ONE of each that you love and always reach for, the rest are just weighing you down probably.
posted by ifjuly at 11:23 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having just moved into a place with a "fully equipped kitchen" that turned out not to be so fully equipped, here's what I've discovered that I need.

1. A good chef's knife. This doesn't have to be expensive - I use a Victorinox Forschner, which cost about $30. Amazon sells them, as does Whole Foods (if your local Whole Foods has a kitchen tools section), and a great many independent kitchen supply shops. Do Not Ever Buy Ikea Knives. They are crap.

2. A good stock pot. It should be broad enough at the base for sauteeing vegetables, and tall enough to add liquid to. And it needs a lid. Great for making pasta sauces, curries, stews, chili etc. Again, doesn't have to be expensive. But you do want something that's not going to fall to pieces in a few years. Even better if it can also go into the oven. The Le Creuset are fantastic, but honestly you could go with something more economical and it would be fine.

3. Wooden spoons. I also like those silicon spatulas for scraping the sides of things.

4. Mixing bowls.

5. A french press, if you like good coffee.

6. A few good serving pieces. Not only for company but also because it feels good to use nice things everyday.

I miss the hand blender and food processor we had at my last place, but in the couple of months since I've moved I haven't been pining away for them or anything - I'll probably buy those eventually, but they're not part of my bare minimum kitchen needs. Ditto for things like a microplane, mandoline, omelet pan, and other stuff that the Food Network and the big glossy magazines will tell you are "must-haves".
posted by Sara C. at 11:27 AM on August 9, 2010

How could I have forgotten to mention a wooden cutting board? The plastic ones are garbage and good only for germophobes who are worried about cross-contamination to an almost pathological degree.
posted by Sara C. at 11:36 AM on August 9, 2010

If you do any baking, you need a cooling rack.
A good quality immersion blender, with many attachments, is also very very useful.
posted by HFSH at 1:47 PM on August 9, 2010

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