Williams-Sonoma makes me feel funny.
November 10, 2005 5:57 AM   Subscribe

I need to step up my capability to cook for myself. To motivate myself I want to get new pots and pans, but only the essentials. I'm guessing that I probably need two pots and two sautee pans. Oh, and probably a decent chef's knife. Anything else? Any recommended brands I should look for? Practicality and affordability are key.
posted by patgas to Shopping (51 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
For knives, you can get by just fine with a good chef's knife, paring knife, and a good santoku. Should cover the majority of average cooking needs. Maybe a bread knife too, but I usually just tear off a piece if I'm not cooking for someone else. If you like fish, maybe a de-boning implement or filet knife of some sort.

I like Henckel for my chef's knife (4-star) and paring knife (5-star), but the big secret in cooking knife selection is to feel the different knives and go with what has the best feel for you. Balance, weight, etc. should all factor heavily into your decision, and then consider "brand name".

The prices aren't too bad, you could probably get the chef's and paring for $100 or so together. If you treat them right (don't use the dishwasher, learn to use a steel, and get them professionally sharpened as needed), they should last a good while and continue to give you cutting goodness.
posted by GreenTentacle at 6:17 AM on November 10, 2005

Amazon very often has good deals on individual pots and pans as styles are discontinued. Calphalon anodized is what you'll often see held up as the big drooler of brands, but anodized cookware is maybe an intermediate and up thing. You can't go wrong with clad (aluminum sandwiched in stainless steel), and I don't think you have to pay the big dollar for All-Clad brand - mine is knock-off from Costco and has been going strong for several years.

Get yourself a good but not too expensive 8" or 10" nonstick skillet, as well.

Get good cutting boards for your knives. Glass is bad, wood is unsanitary; get dishwasher-safe plastic that you can sterilize and bleach. Pick up some thick ones as well as a few of the flexible cutting mats, which are so handy. I kept a couple of mine full-sized and cut a couple in half for when I just need to do some quick cutting. The halves fit in my sink and are tons easier to scrub clean.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:28 AM on November 10, 2005

"the essentials" "affordability".

for knives you can get by with one sharp knife - a serrated stanless blade lasts a long time without sharpening. for pans, you can buy a stainless steel "set" (small, large and frying). both from your local supermarket.

i cook for myself with that here in la serena, no problems. i also have a wooden chopping board, a salad spinner (since all salad should be washed in antiseptic gook here), and the usual plates/cups/glasses. the pans and knife cost maybe $50.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:29 AM on November 10, 2005

Obviously there is a lot of personal preference involved in this stuff, so, imo...

I like stainless steel for pots. I tend to use something with a thick aluminum base, sandwhiched in stainless steel. I think a 4 quart sauce pan and maybe an 6-8 quart soup/past pot would be good. Make sure the lids fit well. I think that you don't need anything fancy like All-Clad or Calphalon. I would go to Sears or Hechts or Wal-Mart and get something basic, it will work just fine. Especially for the bigger pot. (Make sure, though, that they have an aluminum base, or they will heat too quickly and unevenly.)

Saute pans are a bit harder, and here someone else may really disagree with me, but I like the cost, durability and usability of cast iron. I have a set of fry pans ranging from tiny to huge. I probably use my 10" the most, and I would say that it's really all you need. It's non-stick, distibutes and holds heat well, and I think I found it at a thrift store for $5. Even new it wouldn't cost much, and it will last my lifetime. It isn't, in the strictest sense, a saute pan, but then, you don't sound like the world's most picky cook (simply because you don't already have this stuff), so you'll probably do just fine with it. I cook some complex dishes, and I know it works just fine for me.

The only knife you really need is the chef's knife. A paring knife can be nice, but is not essential.
posted by OmieWise at 6:31 AM on November 10, 2005

Target has some low end Calphalon stuff. I suggest you get yourself a decent, mid-sized omlet pan.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:34 AM on November 10, 2005

Here's all I've ever needed. Get good quality.

1- Large cast iron
1 - Nonstick saute with curved sides
1 - Stainless (All-Clad) saute

1 - Large stockpot
1 - 2-qt stainless
1 - 1 qt. saucepan

1 - good quality 8" chef's knife
1 - good quality serrated knife
1 - paring knife

Anything else is gravy. I am a serious cook, but I hate clutter, so I've learned from the many small restuarant kitchens I've worked in that a few small, good-qulaity, well-chosen pieces are all you need for 4-star food. perfected this system. What's missing from the list? Baking stuff. I have a set of glass baking dishes, a couple cookie sheets, a Bundt cake pan and loaf pans.

As to the knives: You really do need both the chef's and serrated knives. They cut very different. Chef's knives cleave, and serrated knives saw. Use serrated for soft vegetables like tomatoes and for bread (it won't squash the bread as you slice). Use the chef's knife for most chopping, using the narrow point to help you work with meat (deboning, etc.) The paring knife is for small chopping jobs when your chef's knife has something else all over it (garlic, ginger, scallions) and for paring, of course.
posted by Miko at 6:37 AM on November 10, 2005 [6 favorites]

Also -- don't fall for the $90 chef's knife unless you really just find one you unaccountably love. Cook's Illustrated, the hardest nut to crack in the endorsement world, likes the $35 Oxo just as much as the Wusthof.
posted by Miko at 6:38 AM on November 10, 2005

Well, books have been written in this topic. I'd recommend Alton Browns, as well as Shirley Corriher's "Cookwise." But here goes...

Two good sauce pans, a 2 quart and a 3 quart. You really want heavy multi-layer construction, generally aluminum clad in stainless steel. The aluminum conducts heat evenly, and the stainless protects the food from the aluminum.

A 3 quart saute pan, with the same heavy multi-layer construction. Make sure the handle is oven safe, some recipes want you to put the pan in the oven.

You might want a 10 inch cast iron pan, which will cook almost anything. But cast iron requires some care and feeding, and you really don't want to cook anything acidic in iron.

An 8 or 10 inch non-stick frying pan. I have never bought a very expensive nonstick, as the coating only seems to be effective for a few years, so I tend to replace them.

If you like to make pasta, you'll want an 8 quart stock pot. If you are only using it for boiling water, you can get away with spun aluminum, but if you plan on making soup, get a heavy duty model.

I started with just picking up cheap pans on sale at the grocery store, this was a mistake. I finally got an All-Clad set, and could not be happier. They are expensive, but will last forever. If you are not in a hurry, you might prowl some estate sales, I got my All-Clad at one, and bought my cast iron fryer at a yard sale for a dollar!
posted by Marky at 6:38 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

Nonstick pans make cleanup easier, which keep you from skipping cooking because you don't want to clean up. I like Circulon 2 - I use this pan on a nearly daily basis. I have a five-quart pasta pot (also Circulon) that I use all the time too. Cleanup time for either: 30 seconds.

I see people recommending cast iron above. Cast iron cleanup time for burned on crap: ten minutes. For me, that's all I need to know - I don't own any cast iron pans.

Tip: you won't use little pans nearly as often as you think you might. Get BIG ones. You can always cook a little thing in a big pan, but not the reverse...
posted by jellicle at 6:39 AM on November 10, 2005

You'll probably want a collander.
If you're buying your cooking spoons, spatulas, etc., make sure they have long, non-flexible handles.
If you get any woodenware, treat it with mineral oil before you use it.
posted by leapingsheep at 6:41 AM on November 10, 2005

Cast iron cleanup time for burned on crap: ten minutes

Entirely untrue. A little water in the still-hot pan, a splash of vinegar, stick it back on the heat for a minute or two, and a well-seasoned cast iron pan will be clean as a whistle. I wouldn't trade my cast iron for anything, and I wouldn't make a hamburger or steak without it.

Cast iron pans are also great for upside-down cakes, cornbread, and anything you want to start on the stove but finish in the oven.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:49 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

On the knife front, watch out. Some of the good brands have low-end lines that are to be avoided at all costs. For instance, Henckel knives can come from China, Spain, or Germany, and people aren't talking about the $20 Chinese one when they sing their praises.
posted by smackfu at 6:57 AM on November 10, 2005

If you're lazy, like me, you might want to invest in a crock pot. A good-sized one'll run you ten to twenty bucks, and you can throw a roast or stewing beef or even a small ham in there with some ingredients and forget about it. I make great pot roast, chili, beef stew, chicken stew, ham, and all sorts of things in my crock pot and I barely have to get out of my chair. Make sure you get the kind that has a removable crock so you can throw it in the dishwasher.

(I always make rice and pasta in the microwave with a big glass lidded bowl, so I don't even require a pot for those purposes, but not everyone likes to do it that way.)
posted by Gator at 7:13 AM on November 10, 2005

You'll never regret a good marble cutting board.

Please don't do that if you own any knife that cost you more than a dollar. Marble is WAY too hard to cut on, and you'll kill your knives. Marble boards are not for cutting on, they're for chilling so you can roll out pastry and ice cream and not have it melt.

Also, some people have recommended getting inexpensive knives without also making the distinction between a cheap (price) knife and a cheap (quality) knife. There are plenty of good cheap (price) knives that are very good, but most of them aren't. There are two features that are largely unnecessary for performance but aesthetically pleasing - forged blades and fancy handles. A stamped knife with a molded plastic handle won't look very pretty, but it will serve you well if the construction is good. For example, PCD has an 8" Forschner chef's knife for $31. Forschner is a great brand for inexpensive knives - they supply a lot of restaurants and cooking schools. Dexter Russell is another good brand. I would not buy a cheap supermarket knife, and certainly not a set.

For pans, as people have said, All-Clad is fantastic - you can't go wrong. It's expensive, yes, but you'll never have to replace it. Think about that when the handles start unscrewing from the cheap crap you bought. That's a bit sarcastic, but the point is sound - good pans well cared for should last forever. Many restaurants use plain aluminum - it's cheap and cooks well, but it doesn't wear as well and you don't have a staff of dishwashers. You might consider that, but get at least one stainless pan. "Clad" (where there's a layer of aluminum throughout the whole pan) is better than an aluminum disc in the bottom, but also costs more. If you really can't afford it, get one with a disc, but plan on replacing it in a few years. The difference is noticeable.

Personally, I hate Calphalon anodized. I can't stand the cooking properties of the surface, and the dark color makes it difficult to see what you're doing as far as surface browning is concerned. They have great heating characteristics though - I have a few non-stick ones that I use for omelets. Don't buy it unless you can return it if you don't like it.

Cast iron is a totally different beast, and cast iron pans are not interchangeable with stainless/aluminum ones. They hold heat longer, but don't react as quickly to temperature changes. They're great for searing and frying, and less good for for delicate operations. They're also sensitive to acidic ingredients over long periods of time, and can discolor some foods. If I had to pick one pan, it wouldn't be cast iron, but it might be my second or third. On the other hand, a decent cast iron pan costs less than $20, so there's little reason not to get one also. Learn to love the seasoning.

If you're burning food onto the pan, you're not paying attention or your heat is too high. Don't worry about what it takes to clean your pans - fix your technique!

As general advice, be careful buying anything with a chef's name on it, unless it's Thomas Keller (in which case you're buying a Mac knife and you won't regret it). Some of the stuff is good, but that's totally incidental to being endorsed by a celebrity chef.

Learn how to make stock. You'll probably decide not to do this very often, but it's a good skill to have, and it gives you an appreciation for how flavors layer.
posted by Caviar at 7:29 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

teflon non-stick scares the hell out of me. the original non-stick for non-acidic stuff (as mentioned several times above) and stainless for all else.

strangely enough you can often find cheap, decent cast iron as well as stainless/{copper,aluminum}-sandwich in your local oversized supermarket.

baking soda and/or coarse salt and some determination will clean anything off any pan.
posted by dorian at 7:33 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

There have been endless discussions on AskMe regarding cookware. A search through the archives should turn up some good advice. Especially look for comments from that "mkultra" guy ;)

Oh - and I should also throw in my opinion that you should stay away from so-called "non-stick" surfaces.

Not true. A single non-stick pan is essential. I prefer Analon's non-stick (they use anodized aluminum instead of Teflon).

Pans, in general, should be HEAVY. If you don't want to be bothered with the minutiae of how they're put together, this is the one key to know. Light pans (except copper, which you're not in the market for anyway) are cheap, won't last, and WON'T COOK WELL.

I love my All-Clad stuff, but it's an investment. Analon and Cuisinart make excellent cookware at a reasonable price. Just don't buy the absolute low-end model of anything.

I have a full set of Cutco cutlery I love, but recently changed my day-to-day habits to a pairing knife, a 7" santoku, and a 5" Global vegetable knife.
posted by mkultra at 7:40 AM on November 10, 2005

BTW, for cleaning- Bar Keepers Friend. Cleans every pan to gleaming new. Environmentally safe.
posted by mkultra at 7:42 AM on November 10, 2005

BTW I second the call for good cutting boards, but I suggest wooden, not plastic. Someone above suggested that wood is unsanitary, but the reverse is true. Bacteria thrive less on well-maintained wooden cutting boards than on plastic.

Otherwise - the pots and pans suggestions are great. If you're going for the minimalist approach I'll chime in and say that a couple of good nonstick saute pans are probably best, but adding a cast iron pan in addition is the bomb. I don't think it's an either/or proposition - each has their place in a well-stocked kitchen, but I would start with good nonstick and then add the cast iron, not the other way around.

The only other thing I've found is that recently places like Costco have been selling super-cheap pasta boiling pots with lids that secure on the top and have little holes on one side for draining the water. If you cook a lot of pasta, one of these is really great even though the pot itself is almost always of dubious quality. The ease of cleanup alone that you gain from not having to use a collander or other strainer is worth a lot.
posted by mikel at 7:47 AM on November 10, 2005

I see people recommending cast iron above. Cast iron cleanup time for burned on crap: ten minutes. For me, that's all I need to know - I don't own any cast iron pans.

Cast iron requires care and knowledge. Here's the care: Start with a clean cast-iron pan. Pour in about a tablespoon of cooking oil (corn, canola, something with a higher smoke point) and wipe it generously around all the surfaces with a paper towel. Put the pan into the oven with the heat set on 200. Allow the pan to sit in the warm oven for about an hour. Remove, cool, and wipe any extra oil out of the pan. That's called seasoning, and that helps prevent sticking. Do this twice a year or so.

Use: Use the pan for frying, baking cornbread or drop biscuits, searing meats, maybe making chili, toasting rice or nuts, and little else. It's specialized. Don't cook things with a lot of liquid or a lot of acid in your cast-iron pan.

When you're done cooking, you shouldn't have anything sticking to the pan in any serious way. The seasoning prevented that - so if you season your pan, the only sticking you'll get is if you burned your food by accident. In any case, the cleaning is: scrape the pan as clean as you can. Wipe with a damp sponge or paper towel. Then pour in a tablespoonful of table salt. Using a paper towel, scrub the salt around to remove all particles. Dump out the salt - you now have a clean pan. Wipe it once more with a light coating of oil, and store it away. Don't use soap and water on cast-iron, as it will destroy the seasoning you are working so hard to build up over your lifetime of ownership. Poorly seasoned pans start to rust. They can still be rescued by scrubbing with steel wool and re-seasoning, but you can avoid that by doing proper care in the first place.
posted by Miko at 7:51 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

There's a raging debate in the cast-iron community (or at least the subset of the community who post on internet boards about cast iron and wow I can't believe I actually just wrote that last sentence) about whether to use oil or lard for seasoning the pan. I think it doesn't matter much. I've always used canola oil. After each use, I scrub with a stiff nylon brush and hot water until the water runs clear, then I dry and put the pan back on the stove. I heat it dry on high heat for a few minutes, then splash a tablespoon or so of canola oil and spread it around with a paper towel. I leave it on the heat until the oil just starts to smoke, then I turn off the heat, wipe off the excess, and let it cool.

I have beautifully seasoned pans, so there you go.
posted by Caviar at 7:57 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

More than you ever want to know on the subject, via eGullet, a resource frequently cited in food-related Ask.Mes.

In general, try shopping at a restaurant supply store. They are vastly less expensive than Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table and the like. It's also more fun; you have no idea just how large a mixer you can buy!

Don't neglect cast iron. My roommate/cooking partner has a cast iron skillet that cost about $10 and that I'm finding myself reaching for more often than my ~$180, clad stainless skillet*.

For knives, spend the money and don't think about it too hard. Knife Merchant has an ugly website but a great catalog that can tell you great knives to buy. They carry a range of knives from the $30 Forschners recommended above to the $500 Nenoxes and aren't reluctant to recommend the cheap one when it gets the job done.

* Well, that's what it would have cost if I didn't shop at a restaurant supply store.
posted by stet at 7:59 AM on November 10, 2005

Oh yeah, fuck non-stick. It gives off poison fumes when heated above 500 degrees and wears out way too quickly.

Also, don't neglect thrift stores. I'm building a great collection of pots and pans from Goodwill et al. In this neck of the woods, every third trip I find a Caphalon saute pan that would cost over $100 new for about $5.
posted by stet at 8:02 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

Annoying interface, but the aforementioned Alton Brown has an "essential equipment" page.
posted by grateful at 8:06 AM on November 10, 2005

For those of you who might be heading over to amazon for deals on pots and pans and even books, try Dealazon an amazon.com search engine that scours out the best deals and discounts based on your criteria.

Scours? Geddit? :>
posted by willmize at 8:12 AM on November 10, 2005

I cook at least once a week, if not every day.

There's already a lot of good advice about pots and pans here, so I'm going to focus on knives. *Looks jealous at the iron skillet owners :\*

I *love* these knives from Ikea. I'm not sure if this link will permalink, so the knives you're looking for are the Ikea/365+ knives. Link here.

They're cheaper than dirt, but extremely well designed and sharp as hell. No, they don't hold an edge as well as a $100+ chef's knife, but Ikea also sells a simple little handheld stone-wheel sharpner that works well with them.

And if they're good enough for my GF's mom's professional chef boyfriend to give to us as Christmas gifts, they're more than good enough for me. In fact, ironically, these knives seem sharper, better designed and easier to use then the knives he has in his own kitchen at home.

I have a chef's knife, a paring knife and a utility knife. I don't feel bad about tossing them in the dishwasher. They're easy to sharpen, they're nice and thin and flexible and the handles are a joy to use - made of a slightly tacky rubberized plastic.

They'll slice tomatos paper thin, slice or dice garlic, cut meat both raw and cooked and saw through any bread, crusty or soft, without mashing the hell out of it. The only thing I've ever had an issue with is cutting open tough squashes like uncooked spaghetti squash, but the knives were a little on the dull side at the time, not to mention unserrated.

As for cutting boards, do not get marble. Do not get wood. You won't find wood cutting boards in any good kitchen these days - they've been deprecated by most of the pro cooking world. Wood will hold flavors and stain too easily, as well as become a breeding ground for bacteria. According to the previously mentioned pro chef, even virgin wood cutting boards can impart a wood flavor to foods cut and prepared on them.

He uses those white/blue plastic/polymer boards, as well as a smooth glass one for specific applications. You can get these all over the place, but Ikea sells sets of them for cheap. They even have color coded sets so that you can use one kind for red/mammal meats, one for fishes, one for poultry, and one for veggies, if you care to take it that far.

Personally, I avoid the anti-bacterial impregnated boards, and anti-bacterial products in general, but that's just me. I don't like the idea of those chemicals being near my food (plastic and/or teflon is totally bad enough) and I don't like to wonder if I'm helping breed superbacteria resistant to anti-bacterial products.

Also, Ikea has a ton of other rather well designed cooking stuff for cheap. You'll also want to get a colander, a set of measuring cups and spoons, a decent whisk, some utensils like spatulas, strainers and spoons.

If you get non-stick pans get the plastic utensils designed for it. Never, ever use metal on non-stick pots and pants. Don't stir or scrape stuff off of it with metal. Occasionally I break that rule, say, when boiling pasta, but I'm ultra careful to never touch the surfaces with a metal fork or whatever.

Stainless steel mixing bowls are good. A wire strainer is good to have. If you ever do any baking, a dough cutter/folder is good, since you'll probably be mixing/folding by hand, and a fork or whisk is just too much work. Those silicone mixing-bowl spatulas are awesome, too - they'll wipe the inside of a mixing bowl clean of brownie batter or cookie dough in no time at all, whereas a spoon will never, ever get it all.

Also, consider eventually getting a small set of food storage containers. Invariably there are left overs when you get into cooking, and having places to put leftovers or pre-made stuff like cookie dough or whatver is massively helpful.

Good luck cooking. Experiment. Watch/read Alton Brown. That guy is a mad genius in the kitchen. I've learned more about the science of cooking from his "Good Eats" show than in years of experimenting - and I love how stuff he covers inevitably and inadvertently answers questions I've had for years about experiments or recipes gone awry, and the science behind it.

On preview: Yeah, Goodwill and thrift stores also kick much ass. It's a great place to get small appliances and top notch cookwear dirt cheap - but not all at once. You just sort of start collecting stuff here and there. Sure, it might not match, but who cares?

(And even still, you can often find nearly-complete sets of things there if you keep your eyes peeled. My GF and I once found a really nice set of blue stonewear/ceramic plates, complete with cups, saucers and dessert/salad plates. Except the plates were in one section, the cups in another, and the saucers and salad plates in yet another. It was something like 5 or 6 bucks for 4 complete settings with some extras.)
posted by loquacious at 8:16 AM on November 10, 2005

Oh, also - no one has suggested a carbon steel wok (not a non-stick one), which should be very inexpensive and also requires some care (seasoning), but which is extremely versatile. They do take up a fair amount of room though.
posted by Caviar at 8:19 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also, don't neglect thrift stores. I'm building a great collection of pots and pans from Goodwill et al. In this neck of the woods, every third trip I find a Caphalon saute pan that would cost over $100 new for about $5.

Flea markets as well. I picked up an old-but-great-condition 3-quart Le Creuset for $40 recently. Good cookware should last a lifetime.
posted by mkultra at 8:25 AM on November 10, 2005

I don't feel bad about tossing them in the dishwasher. They're easy to sharpen, they're nice and thin and flexible [...]

Firstly, you shouldn't put them in the dishwasher, even if you can. Even if they don't touch anything else which they probably will, dishwasher detergent is highly alkaline, and you're doing damage you can't see.

Secondly, I question the skills of any professional who would give you a flexible chef's knife. All kitchen knives except some filet knives and possibly some long slicers should be rigid.
posted by Caviar at 8:25 AM on November 10, 2005

In his book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdin says if you have just one knife let it be a serrated knife with an offset handle.

The handle is raised up to accommodate your hand when the blade is on the cutting board. It's very versatile and comfortable to work with.

This coming from a guy with a permanantly deformed little finger from kitchen work.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:33 AM on November 10, 2005

In his book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdin also says it's okay to have sex in the dry storage closet.

The flour sacks are raised up to accomodate, um, nevermind.

posted by Caviar at 9:07 AM on November 10, 2005

(Oh, and yes, it's "Bourdain", not "Bourdin". Damn you, feeble copy and paste.)
posted by Caviar at 9:08 AM on November 10, 2005

it's okay to have sex in the dry storage closet.

As long as you keep it dry, I don't see a problem.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:45 AM on November 10, 2005

Secondly, I question the skills of any professional who would give you a flexible chef's knife.

Erm, no. The chef's knife is not that really all that flexible.

Granted, we're not talking about a forged blade here - there's going to be a bit of spring in these blades, but for day to day cooking and beginner use, I haven't found a better deal anywhere. The paring knife is too short to be flexible, but the medium-length utility knife is just flexible enough to be used as a crude stand in for a fillet. I've used it as such with much success. I can skin tomatos with them, no problems.

But dollar for dollar, I'm going to get a lot more use and value out of these knives than something costing a whole order of magnitude more. Remember, we are talking about a well designed, utilitarian, razor sharp and safe chef's knife for under 10 bucks, not a $150+ Cutco or Henckel's - and not some overpriced Home Shopping Network plated pieces of crap. These are really, really nice everyday beginner's knives at a completely affordable price.

Which is why I don't feel bad about tossing them in the dishwasher. I lay them flat on the upper rack, nicely seperated, never near any metals, glass or ceramics. They still keep an edge, they sharpen nicely, and still cut just fine. Therefore, the problem is where, exactly?

Also, you haven't had this dude's cooking, so please shut your delicious piehole. Trust me, you'd eat his food and like it. It's superb - fresh, inventive, creative and always well executed. And if there's one thing I like doing, it's eating good food. He's an executive chef at one of the only true 5 star hotels in town. Besides having lived in his house and eaten his casual home day-to-day cooking - which more often then not vastly exceeded anything I've ever paid for - I've also seen his portfolio of stuff as a pastry chef, ice sculptor and more and it's outstanding, as well as national competition winning. He's also the sort of low-key and well-balanced chef that knows all the really good, cheap, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants where you can get top notch food without all the fuss. I only have respect for his skills and tastes. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Also, Caviar is overrated - and I love fish. Even sea urchin roe. Good day, sir.
posted by loquacious at 9:53 AM on November 10, 2005

I agree on the non-stick = not worth your time, most of the time. But I keep a cheap one around for super quick & easy things like a (shhh!) grilled cheese, quick fried egg, etc.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:18 AM on November 10, 2005

Costco, of all places, has a low-end Calphalon imitation set for relatively cheap. I've been satisfied with it (after something like four years.) (i.e. what Lyn Never said.)

But I've been loving our big Lodge cast-iron pan that was about $40 new.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:36 AM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have a blender which as this cheapo food processor attachment, and I have found that I use this on a daily basis now. I did not expect to.

I prepare a lot of ethnic stuff, so I often process garlic, ginger, fresh hot peppers, and fresh herbs in varying combinations.

So I would say a blender, for the blending, and if it has one of these processors. . .I would put this in the second tier of "necessities."
posted by Danf at 11:16 AM on November 10, 2005

The Consumers Report that I got just the other day reviewed both knife sets and pots and pans. I don't have it on me, or I'd share the results. Go buy it.
posted by tippiedog at 12:08 PM on November 10, 2005

Erm, no. The chef's knife is not that really all that flexible.

Well, okay, but that's not what you said originally, so I'll thank you to shut your own piehole before getting defensive.

No offense, but I responded to what you said. That it turned out to be not what you meant is not my problem.
posted by Caviar at 12:23 PM on November 10, 2005

In his book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdin says if you have just one knife let it be a serrated knife with an offset handle.

Yeah. he does say that, and he spends so much time on it because it's a damn weird preference. In particular, he's recommending one specific Japanese brand that he likes. Most chefs wouldn't agree with this knife pick. That offset, in addition, is something only a pro can love. An offset is a lifesaver when you spend 2 hours a day doing piles of mirepoix or soup veg. When that is your work, you can bang up your knuckles on a cutting board pretty good. Home cooks, on the other hand, are not going to get that type of repetitive-damage injury, and are more likely to find the feeling of an offset clumsy.

Hands down, the 8" french/chef's is the most versatile knife.
posted by Miko at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2005

By the way, this is what the offset knife looks like.
posted by Miko at 12:34 PM on November 10, 2005

Most of the suggestions here are really good, but I'd like to mention an alternative to a chef's knife that can also serve as your only knife: a chinese "cleaver".

Chinese cleavers come in three sizes, (I, II, III) and light (vegetable) and heavy (meat) weights. A stainless steel light weight II, the most common type, can be had for much less than $20 in most North American cities.

Cleaver technique is different from european knives, mostly in hand position, but skills are fairly transferrable, even so. I used one very happily for about a decade, though now I use a French-style Thiers-Issard-made Sabbatier. A good cheap way to get into cooking really.

Just keep your knives sharp! That makes all the difference. For a beginner, one of these or one of these are one of your most important kitchen accessories.
posted by bonehead at 1:16 PM on November 10, 2005

Well, okay, but that's not what you said originally, so I'll thank you to shut your own piehole before getting defensive.

Apologies. I did get defensive, and I was probably reading too much into your response. What I was responding to was a (hopefully) erroneously assumed cooking snobbery on your part.

The last thing a beginning cook needs is the fear imparted by snobbery or pretension.

In an attempt to describe the blades, I chose poor descriptive words. To be clear, those Ikea/365+ knives are springy, but not flexible in the way a good fillet knife is. They aren't forged knives. Each of them costs less than eating out for one at a greasy spoon, and some of them cost less than eating out at a fast food restaurant.

But they're very sharp and servicible knives, even at twice the price.
posted by loquacious at 1:18 PM on November 10, 2005

Fair enough. There was no snobbery intended - flexible knives are dangerous!

The Forschner I originally recommended is stamped, and at $31 is a pretty good buy for a quality knife.

posted by Caviar at 2:52 PM on November 10, 2005

Regarding marble "cutting" boards, they won't damage your knives since steel is much harder than marble.

Marble boards are generally used for rolling out pastry (because they can be chilled) and not for cutting since steel is so much harder than marble.

(Unless you are trying to add a bit more calcium to your diet, but if you really want to add powedered calcium carbonate to your food, just crush up a Tums. Much cheaper than destroying your pricey marble board.)
posted by luneray at 4:04 PM on November 10, 2005

Microplane is the best $12 gizmo you'll ever frikkin' buy.

It makes garlic, cheese, lemon and chocolate shreds that are light have a high surface area and have wonderful mouth feel.

Take a bar of good chocolate: grate it on this thing and see how amazing it tastes. Try the same with a citrus fruit. Now imagine this on top of/in your cooking. Trust me.
posted by lalochezia at 4:39 PM on November 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

A microplane is something I've wanted for a while now.

Also, I love the magnetic knife holder bars rather than the traditional wood blocks with slots in 'em. Part of it is about accessibility, and part of it is cleanliness. Even if you're careful, cruft accumulates down in those slits you put the knives in.

I just effortlessly sliced up and cubed a bunch of sloppy, slimy defrosted frozen chicken breasts with my less-then $10 Ikea knife. It just reminded me how glad I am to have anything resembling a sharp knife in the house.
posted by loquacious at 4:56 PM on November 10, 2005

Regarding marble "cutting" boards, they won't damage your knives since steel is much harder than marble.

That's like saying it's okay to crash your car into a tree because steel is stronger than wood. It doesn't work like that. Also, if that was true, your knives would never get dull unless you used them to cut things as hard or nearly as hard as metal.

If you bang a knife against a hard surface (even the soft banging of a gentle rocking motion that you should be using with a french or german style knife), wood and plastic included, you're going to misalign and dull the edge. The harder the surface, the faster the edge will wear off.

This is also part of the reason why cutting boards intended for a lot of hard chopping (i.e.: with the aforementioned asian cleaver) tend to be made out of compressed rubber.
posted by Caviar at 7:25 PM on November 10, 2005

Also, I love the magnetic knife holder bars rather than the traditional wood blocks with slots in 'em.

Magnetic bars shorten knife life because you're constantly unevenly banging the edge against a hard surface. They're also significantly more accident-prone. Knife blocks simply aren't going to last you forever.
posted by mkultra at 7:59 PM on November 10, 2005

I use a wave in-drawer knife block.
posted by Caviar at 8:05 PM on November 10, 2005

Oh, also one more thing on Microplanes. Of all of the different shapes, I've really come to love the ethereal shards produced by their new-ish medium ribbon grater. It's not the same "shred without pulverizing" light fluffy effect you get from their standard grater - the pieces have more tooth.
posted by Caviar at 8:16 AM on November 12, 2005

Lots of good advice here so far, so I'll try not to retread too much on what's been covered already.

Some strategic thoughts-

For most things, Williams-Sonoma is more expensive than Sur La Table and Sur La Table is more expensive than Amazon. Restaurant supply stores, in my limited experience, have totally different (mostly bigger) stuff and are hard to compare. Don't walk into one until you know enough to tell if something's a good deal or just a cheap piece of crap. If you are going to buy from Amazon, consolidate your orders into $125 chunks and use this deal for each order.

Start with the bare minimum and build slowly as you need things. Start with a 3-quart saucepan, then decide if you wished you also had a bigger one or a smaller one. Ditto for fry pans (usually cheaper than saute pans, esp. for the expensive brands) - start with a 10", then decide if you'd also like an 8" and/or a 12", and if you'd like a nonstick version too, and cast-iron, with a lid, etc. Make sure everything you buy is oven safe - versatility is key. Don't bother with most gadgets - you'll learn more doing things by hand anyway. After you've been cooking a while and you've got most of the basics, pick your most used pot or pan and replace it with an All-Clad (or other high-end) version, you will notice a difference. Save up and selectively upgrade one by one, rather than blowing your wad on a set you won't use half of.

If you are going to get spendy on knives, put most of your money toward a chef's knife that you really like (i.e. you've held it and cut with it and it feels natural and better than comparable other high end chef's knives). Cheap paring knives are fine and pretty much interchangeable unless you are making brunoise all day. You'll want a serrated knife if you like crusty bread, but a sharp chef's knife is just fine for tomatoes and such. Relatively cheap (say, about $30) is ok for serrated knives - remember you'll have to buy a new one in a year or two when it's dull, since you can't really sharpen them.

Cheap plastic cutting boards are fine. Wood is fine too. If you are paranoid about bacteria do some research and figure out which conflicting opinion you believe more. Every day thousands (millions?) of people use both plastic and wood and do not get sick. Keep stuff clean and you will be fine. Don't even wonder if you should buy marble - it's expensive, heavy and will destroy your knives. Glass looks pretty and can be cheap, but will also destroy knives.
posted by rorycberger at 1:22 PM on November 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

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