Kim's Top 10 Kitchen Basics

In the eight years I've been hosting What's Cooking, my weekly Web chat, one of the questions most frequently asked is this:

What do I need to cook-ready my kitchen?

In many respects, this is a vague question, as it fails to take into account factors such as budget, skill level and culinary area of interest. For purposes of this exercise, though, let's assume our cooking novice is tight on both money and physical space. Cook in question is keen to cook at least three nights a week and wean himself off dinner in a box.

Which tools will make that all possible?

I'm especially suited to answer this question -- and not just because I'm a trained cook and food writer. For years, I lived paycheck to paycheck. Small and cramped were the operative words to describe my apartment kitchens in my 20s and 30s. Still, I wanted to cook and needed to outfit my kitchen accordingly.

As a result, my tool chest contained just what I needed -- only the basics. It was a simple yet functional relationship. Even with a bit more money in my pocket, my sensibilities remain minimalist and pragmatic. I gravitate towards the hand-held over the electronic. I prefer function over form.

Below, a sampler of what's key in my kitchen and why:

Tongs - A pair of tongs is your friend. Instead of a plastic flipper, use a pair of tongs to turn your fish, steak or sauteed spinach. It does the job without excessive handling. Once you start using tongs, you'll discover how versatile they are -- pulling out oven racks, lifting a turkey out of roasting pan...the possibilities are endless.

Wooden spoon - I have round and flat varieties. I use them to deglaze, stir tomato sauce, scrape rice out of a pot. It lasts forever and refuses to break. Keep a few on hand.

Rubber, heatproof spatula - The beauty of this thing is its nonstaining, unmelting qualities. You can't make candy without one. I use them for mixing batter that needs a lighter touch than an electric mixer. It's great for stirring cooked fruit or anything else that you're worried will stain.

It may seem elementary, but measuring spoons and cups are essential, whether or not you bake. You need a liquid measure to make rice, to pour oil, to measure milk. The dry measures (1/2 cup, 1/4 cup, etc.) I find myself using more for baking, which is much more exacting and requires definitive amounts rather than estimates. Even your basic curry needs a bunch of measuring spoons.

Yes to mixing bowls, but if you need a magic number, pick three, and make sure they're varied in size, for maximum flexibility with your kitchen projects. It's nice to have a mix of mediums as well - stainless as well as glass or plastic - so that you can use stainless as a makeshift double boiler on top of a saucepan.

Speaking of saucepans, you need a minimum of two, in different sizes -- one for boiling rice and a quick sauce, another for simply melting butter and cheese.

Mortar and pestle -- I know it may seem ancient and obsolete, but I love this old-school tool for mashing garlic, herbs, spices, anchovies, olives... The pounding action is primal and never fails to make me feel like I'm really cooking. This is tactile titillation at its best.

The same applies to a hand-operated potato masher. In addition to spuds, I use it to puree cooked apples into applesauce and mash rice into a pulp for soup or bread doughs.

If you're going to spend money on a good knife -- as well you should because it will last you a lifetime -- spend the money on a sharpening steel. Knives and steels should be sold as a pair, so that cooks understand the steel's integral role in maintaining the edge of your expensive knife. Ideally, you should hone your knife every time you cook. I've been doing this for 11 years and credit my practice to having well-groomed knives that will be around for the next generation.

In the world of skillets, I prefer cast-iron over nonstick, and when I really need nonstick I use my nicely seasoned wok. It took some getting used to, but I've weaned myself from the nonstick universe and now I don't miss it a bit. The benefits of using a cast-iron pan or a wok are gradual rather than immediate, but the results are long-lasting and more gratifying. I also like the interactivity, the ongoing maintenance of seasoning a pan to help maintain its protective coat.

Although I've only just got started, this list makes 10. Let's hear from you -- which kitchen tools do you consider indispensable and a daily part of your cooking life? Share in the comments area, and when I get back from wedding land, I'll take the list to another, second-tier level. Back at you March 12!

By Kim ODonnel |  February 26, 2007; 6:52 AM ET Cookware , Kitchen Toys
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A colander: for rinsing vegetables and draining pasta.
A small strainer: for straining out the chunks in my stock pan, rinsing rice, and firming up yogurt.
Bottle spouts: for my everyday oils and vinegars- no fussing with lids, easy to see and control quantities by eye when pouring directly into bowls and pans.

Posted by: John | February 26, 2007 9:21 AM

An immersion blender is my go-to appliance for making pureed soups and pasta sauces -- it's so much easier to blend in the pot than pouring hot soup or sauce into a regular blender. I use a paper plate or a sheet of foil as a spatter guard, which keeps clean up to a minimum.

Posted by: Craig | February 26, 2007 9:21 AM

A good supply of beer and/or wine and/or liquor for getting sauced.

Posted by: Mr. S. | February 26, 2007 9:34 AM

Cutting boards: I have an assortment of acrylic, wood, and sheet plastic. Need at least two -- one for raw meats and one for everything else. The sheets at Trader Joe's are very affordable and store easily.

Whisks: My fave is a little palm-sized egg beater with a red handle that I found rummaging through dusty bins in an old hardware store. Much more satisfactory connection with food when whisking by hand.

If you can't get the hang of the knife steel, Wusthof makes a knife sharpener for us dummies that keeps the Solingen steel nicely honed.

Posted by: Staci | February 26, 2007 9:41 AM

Kim, THANK YOU for this list!!! I'm a beginning cook and you have already helped me out so much. This post is also especially helpful becuase I'm about to move into my first apartment. Thanks again!

Posted by: Kelly | February 26, 2007 9:55 AM

A mandolin slicer is a great tool to have in the kitchen and saves so much time when you need slices of veggies, etc.

Also, you need a good can opener and wine corker!

Posted by: clm | February 26, 2007 9:58 AM

Add a strainer or sieve to that list. I use two...a larger 8 inch one that rests in a pot and smaller 2 inch diameter one.

Posted by: Betsy | February 26, 2007 10:16 AM

A good set of knives. I have the Cutco Galley set in an oak holder on my countertop. I used cheap dimestore paring knives for years, I couldn't believe how good Cutco knives are until I bit the bullet and got a set. They're expensive but worth it.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | February 26, 2007 10:41 AM

My must-haves

KitchenAid mixer
Shun knives
Tongs (OXO is my pick)
Microplane grater
All Clad pots
Chinois & pestle

Posted by: WorkingMomX | February 26, 2007 10:57 AM

A couple of sturdy baking pans, for casseroles, roasting vegetables, and baking brownies and cakes. I like Pyrex, but my favorite is an industrial-style stainless steel pan that I got at a church sale for a dime.

Also, a big pot for soup, stews, and pasta.

Posted by: LS | February 26, 2007 11:01 AM

Two dutch ovens--one for small foods and one for larger foods such as a chicken of turkey.

Posted by: Joe | February 26, 2007 11:03 AM

I live and die by my KitchenAid mixer and my set of Henckel knives. They are pricey, but well worth it. I love my set of 10 glass prep bowls too.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 26, 2007 11:05 AM

I love Le Creuset cookware, Henckel knives, my Kitchenaid mixer, and the nonstick All Clad frying pan I use almost every single time I cook it seems.

Posted by: Emily | February 26, 2007 11:06 AM

I have a coffee-grinder that I use for coffee, oatmeal and lentils (grind 'em up for the babies), making breadcrumbs, and for blending spices.

yes, the same grinder! I use an old pastry brush to dust out the excess, a small piece of stale bread to "clean" the blade/bowl, and then a quick wipe with a damp paper towel. no problems with flavors co-mingling (tho a gram-marsala-flavored coffee would really get me going in the morning!).

Posted by: Anonymous | February 26, 2007 11:09 AM

Many of you have suggested quite expensive tools, and as a mid-20s living in a small apartment, Le Cruiset and All-Clad are not exactly options on my budget. I think spending the money on a good set of knives is well spent. Otherwise, I agree with many of the things mentioned (I wish I had those more expensive cookware items), plus:

- Casserole dish
- 9x13 pan and a couple baking sheets
- Grater
- One larger pot for soups, stews, etc.
- A couple peelers you like

Posted by: Dan | February 26, 2007 11:43 AM

You should add a good peppermill, a large shaker for kosher salt, and cutting boards to your list. These are items I use every day. Another item I would add is a meat thermometer.

I disagree with you about using a sharpening steel, however. If you want a really sharp blade you should use a very fine ceramic sharpening stick. You won't even need to use it every time you use the knife and it will keep your knife razor sharp--much sharper than a steel with less wear on the blade.

Posted by: DM | February 26, 2007 11:48 AM

Dan: Admittedly 'kitchen snobs' frequent this blog and are required by law to brag about their expensive kitchen gear. It wouldn't be the Washington Compost otherwise. You can go to any Catholic Charities, Goodwill, or thrift shop and buy tons of kitchen equipment for pennies. People move and discard duplicates, or want to re-do the kitchen to make way for new dishes, pots and pans, whatever. Most of my dishes, coffee mugs and wine glasses are thrift-shop buys. Similarly, Wal-Mart and Target carry a good line of reasonably priced housewares if you want new stuff.

I bought my Cutco knives after 40 years of cooking. My sister got a set for a wedding gift in 1961 and still uses hers. The knives lasted longer than the marriage. The rest of my kitchen is standard: Pyrex baking dishes, teflon pans, Black and Decker appliances. Don't be intimidated by these braggarts. If you're a lousy cook, the most expensive pans can't bail you out.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | February 26, 2007 11:55 AM

Thanks, Southern Maryland. I agree and have a reasonable set of kitchen things myself acquired at places such as you mentioned. I just thought that suggesting such expensive gear for a list of essentials for small apartment living on a budget wasn't realistic for myself. Don't mean to start an argument or get a list of great places to find "steals." They are probably great tools, but in my opinion, not necessarily typical budget tools. And I agree, you can make a great meal without them.

That said, I do appreciate learning about tools I might not have that others consider extremely useful, such as the mortar and pestle.

Posted by: Dan | February 26, 2007 12:21 PM

Two decent knives, one small and one large. A set is nice but you can do a lot with two. Cutting boards are inexpensive and if you have limited counter space, they make a huge difference. A steamer basket. A couple of whisks and measuring instruments...if you bake a lot several sets of measuring spoons and cups are nice. I agree with others that you can pick up a lot of stuff at thrift stores and yard sales. For years I cooked with two pots that cost $.50 each, and almost all my measuring cups are from the thrift store. The nicer stuff is something to work up to as you get more comfortable in the kitchen. My KitchenAid mixer is faster and easier than a hand mixer, but the cookies that result are about the same.

Posted by: Angela | February 26, 2007 12:28 PM

Personally I cannot stand cooking most things with cast-iron - the maintenance and clean-up and seasoning/prep are a hassle, and the handles get hot as fire.

I am also not a big fan of non-stick but there are a few pieces of NS that are must haves - omlet/egg pan and a flat griddle-type pan, the latter being more of a luxury item though.

Otherwise I have recently become a big fan on Caphalon One - Not the coated stuff the one that sears and sticks much like cast iron, but releases the brown bits for gravy easily, and cleans up right on the stove top when hot, with only water.
Unfortunately it's quite expensive, but it just works.

Posted by: cbjr0256 | February 26, 2007 12:56 PM

The only high ticket item I've bought new is the Shun knives. Everything else I bought at yard sales or off Craigslist, eBay. It is possible to own professional equipment without spending a fortune.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | February 26, 2007 1:20 PM

I'm with you on the cast iron, Kim. I've had one of my skillets for ten years, and it's a thing of beauty. Best of all, it cost me $14 and it performed much better than the expensive Calphalon I got at the same time, which was ruined after a year because I didn't baby it.

Instead of the potato masher, I'd go for a food mill instead: it works for the potatoes and also for pureeing soups and sauces. I have one that comes apart for easy cleaning, and I use it at least once a week.

Posted by: csdiego | February 26, 2007 1:21 PM

I couldn't see dropping 200 bones on a Le Creuset dutch oven, but my wife got me something almost identical, enameled cast-iron, at Target for 50 bucks. It's great! She also got me a Kitchen Aid Artisan mixer for Christmas a couple of years ago, but I hardly use it. I still make cookies and bread by hand. It looks great on the countertop, though!

Posted by: Chip | February 26, 2007 1:30 PM

A few good cookbooks:

My favourites are Valentina Harris's "Italian Regional Cookery", Penelope Casas's "Delicioso" and, of course, "The Joy of Cooking".

Posted by: J K Griffin | February 26, 2007 1:32 PM

Well, cookbooks, now that's a different matter. My "bible" is "The Best Recipe" although many don't like it because of the dearth of pictures, but I adore cooking and love to read about the 48 different recipes they (America's Test Kitchen) tried to come up with the best one and why it works, etc. Also, Rosie's "All Butter, Fresh Cream, Sugar Packed Baking Book" is a must have. I use all the time, too.

I read cookbooks sometimes like other people read novels. I think it's like a disease.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | February 26, 2007 1:37 PM

A meat thermometer is especially helpful to the novice, at least until you get the idea what "juices run clear" looks like, or "leg moves easily" feels like, or what rare versus well done feels like. And I think a wok is a good thing, stir fry is just the beginning, you can make a stew, steam veggies, boil water, fry, the list goes on. And I agree with those who were here earlier, you need at least two (and I would say plastic so you can bleach the life out of it and not have germies hiding in the crevices) cutting boards along with two good knives.

Posted by: Late to the Party | February 26, 2007 1:39 PM

I can't live without my crockpot or my clay vegetable roaster, a few good knives, real parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and Penzey's seasonings catalog. Also love chore boy sponges.

Posted by: Mela | February 26, 2007 1:47 PM

i have a habit of giving wooden spoons and wooden cutting boards as gifts. not just housewarming gifts, but birthday gifts, new job gifts, etc. they're super cheap, and something everyone should have.

i cooked for years with a cheap pot, two frying pans, a castiron skillet, and one really great knife. didn't get the good stuff until i got married.

Posted by: m | February 26, 2007 1:58 PM

I simply could not have gotten through my early cooking years without a crock pot. While I have finally hit financial security enough that I can afford the pull-out crock in the jumbo size, that super-cheap starter pot sure turned out enough food memories to last me forever!

Posted by: Lanakila | February 26, 2007 2:07 PM

As someone who loves to cook, has often had a tight budget, and still has a small kitchen, I have found that it is possible to slowly aquire quality equipment at reasonable prices from eBay, consignment shops, and even places like TJ Maxx. That is how I slowly built a great set of Chantal cookware, which I love. I have no room for a microwave or a food processor, so instead get more mileage out of a toaster oven and blender, and that coffee grinder is also great for grinding most nuts and spices. Great gadgets: mini whisk, mini spatula/turner, assorted cheese graters, garlic press, silicone oven mitts, at least one good chef's knife. I shun most single function gadgets for items that have multiple uses, unless, like the garlic press, I use it nearly daily and it's a time-saver.

Posted by: Springfield Cook | February 26, 2007 2:29 PM

I would also add a nutcracker, more for opening jar lids than anything, the small Pyrex "custard cups", not for custard, but for microwaving butter or chocolate, or for pre-measured spices, etc.
I am a big fan of the old-sized Corningware that was designed to work on stove top, microwave or oven, particularly the one, 1.5 and 2-quart sizes. It is hard to find them as separate items anymore as they are sold in 5-piece sets with larger pieces. These are good items to look for in garage sales, thrift stores. They are great for cooking frozen vegetables, heating up soup, etc., and do go from stovetop or oven directly to the table.
Another gadget we like is one of the measuring "cylinders" that you can push out; it is really good for measuring gloppy substances like peanut butter or shortening.

Posted by: Lindy48 | February 26, 2007 2:38 PM

My must-haves: Love my microplane grater and my metal dough scraper. One or two good sharp knives and a pair of good kitchen shears. Two good baking sheets. A good serrated knife. A good solid, non-warped cutting board.

Gadgets I own that I never use: Four other graters besides my microplane; two citrus juicers (I use a hand-held wooden reamer); a cherry/olive pitter (I use it once a year at most); an egg separator (my mom gave it to me).

Gadget that I wish they made so I could use it more often: A left-handed zester. I have a rightie one and I am flummoxed every time I try to use it.

Posted by: Meg in PA | February 26, 2007 2:43 PM

I have a mixing bowl with a handle and pour spout and would be lost without it.

Back in the 'olden days' dishes came inside boxes of detergent and oatmeal. When my sister got married, my mother gave her a set of dishes (service for 4 plus serving pieces) in the 'Golden Wheat' pattern from Homer Laughlin. It came free in boxes of Duz detergent.

Posted by: BB | February 26, 2007 2:47 PM

I use my pastry blender for mashing just about everything - babyfood, potatoes, avocado for guacomole, you name it. I find this tool very useful for the small space it takes up. I have a tiny galley kitchen in a 1940's tiny house and, like you, like to keep to the basics. Anything that has more than one use is popular with me.

Posted by: MaryB | February 26, 2007 3:00 PM

My mom uses her pastry blender to chop hard-boiled eggs for potato salad! It hink it's key to have many uses for kitchen utensils.

Posted by: Kathryn | February 26, 2007 3:08 PM

Add to Kim's list - cutting boards

Posted by: MG in MD | February 26, 2007 3:15 PM

I second the TJ Maxx comment, you wouldn't believe the stuff you can get there (and Ross/Marshalls) if you just wander in. I also got a few extra loaf pans (I bake a good bit) at a thrift store. People trade in good old stuff, especially glass 13x9s and casserole dishes (and some fun butter dishes).

When I first moved into my own apartment, I had six friends over and when I tried to open the can of stewed tomatoes for the marinara, I realized a big thing I had overlooked. However, my new neighbor did get a kick out of lending me her can opener. Very important!

Posted by: Marie | February 26, 2007 3:22 PM

Dan, I too am a twenty-something with an itty-bitty budget. I have found TJ Maxx to be my friend. I have also found that any Oxo Good Grips product is GOOD! My favorite kitchen item is the Oxo Good Grips mixing bowl with the rubber bottom, handle, and spout. Second up is my Kitchen Aid hand mixer. The Artisan is a bit pricey for me at the moment.

Favorite Cookbook? Has to be America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. It has recipes and equipment ratings by the people who produce Cook's Illustrated (very good cooking magazine).

Posted by: LB | February 26, 2007 3:40 PM

1) Salad spinner
2) whisks, 1 large & 1 small
3) baking pans - 9x13 & 8x8

Posted by: Janet | February 26, 2007 3:44 PM

I heartily second (fourth?) the recommendation of a microplane zester -- I use it all the time, and it makes me happy! I also bake cookies a lot, and the mini-scoop is perfect for dough. A necessity? Nope, but great to have! I find that I accumulate little gadgets like these -- $20 & a few inches of drawer space -- here and there. I also have a 8-piece All Clad set & the 2 I use the most are 12" non-stick skillet & 8-Qt stockpot. It's worth it to buy a couple high-quality essentials as you have the resources, to gradually build a collection.

Posted by: Old Town | February 26, 2007 3:55 PM

A sturdy handheld electric mixer and a baking sheet.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 26, 2007 4:12 PM

A toaster oven (get it cheap and used; doesn't matter) -- I use this ALL THE TIME.

I hate cleanup, so a nonstick pan is a must for me--a little one for omelets and a bigger one for stirfries and the like. Again, this can be cheap.

Cutting boards, definitely.

Plastic ware for saving leftovers, in all sizes! I save and reuse the cheap Ziploc containers and takeout sealable containers--I use this stuff every day.

Posted by: columbia MD | February 26, 2007 4:39 PM

Among non-stick pans, is there a big difference between the types of metal and the types of non-stick coatings?

Posted by: Matt | February 26, 2007 4:40 PM

Heavy bottomed skillets are a necessity! I use all 2nd hand gadgets and cookware otherwise, but my lovely copper-bottomed-sprain-your-wrist-heavy pots are indispensable. oh and The Griddler is great! I will spend money to save on space.

Posted by: Raisin Sitzman | February 27, 2007 11:56 AM

Matt- One thing my mom and I looked at when she took me to buy my own pots/pans was how sturdy are they. We annoyed the heck out the people at Macy's by dropping pot lids on the floor to see if they dented 9or in the case of the glass ones broke) and trying to bend the spoons in the flatware department to see if they were too whimpy to scoop ice cream out of the containter with.

My personal opinion on pots and pans is that the better quality stuff is more expencive, but worth it. The cheap stuff (that I had in college) needed replacing after about 2 years of regular college use, but only cost $50 for the whole set.

Wait for a sale or hunt the bargain stores (Marshall/Ross/TJ Maxx) to find better stuff, or just wait for a departemnt store sale and by a hard copy of the Sunday paper to clip the extra savings coupon. Opening an accout will give you another discount, but if you're worried about your credit rating (like I am), be sure to check the "don't offer me a Visa" box.

As far as non-stick goes, calphalon's regular stuff is very affordable on sale (a 12'' and 8'' pan together for something like $20) and works well. just rememebr not to preheat it empty, it needs some oil or other liquid in it or it will burn and get sticky spots and release some lovely noxious fumes into your kitchen.

Posted by: DeenaJR | February 27, 2007 2:20 PM

A great source for reduced-price high-end cookware is Tuesday Morning. I have several Le Creuset pieces that, while not cheap even there, I paid a fraction of their original prices for. I've also bought Le Creuset that had an imperceptible (to me) flaw at an outlet mall.

Posted by: Nancy in Austin | February 27, 2007 5:11 PM

A Deleoghini(sp?) convection toaster oven is worth the investment. I bought one at Target for $99.00. I threw away my toaster and I hardly use the microwave anymore.

Posted by: Love Food | February 27, 2007 8:06 PM


Use that microplane for zest! So much better than a zester and works just as well for lefties!

Posted by: JN | February 28, 2007 4:09 PM

My fiance and i have a (semi) non-stick pan that we use every time we cook- it's a two handled slope sided pan, it's either called an 'every day pan' or a 'braising pan' depending on where you look. The sloped sides make it easy to flip stuff around, and the two short handles make toting it around easy.

We stay away from any wooden cutting boards or utensils- he's convinced they'll harbor bacteria. We found some poured plastic spoons which are shaped like traditional round wooden spoons which so far have been indestructible, and are thus my new favorite kitchen item!

You can never have enough dish towels in my opinion. Work well as a drying rack or as a pot holder in a pinch (but not if you're reaching into an oven...)

Posted by: jess c | March 8, 2007 3:01 PM

Cast iron pans/skillets that are past down from Mom or Mother in law are great. Already seasoned, work better than new cast iron, and free.

Posted by: Shelby | March 12, 2007 4:04 PM

Ooo! Kitchen toys! My favorite!

You hit my usual basics (spoons, bowls, etc). I would add:

a chef knife- that makes you happy. I am always embarrassed to take my knife to the sharpeners when it needs the pro sharpening, since I got it on sale for 11 bucks from a 'big box', but it's perfect. My own Mr. Groom will be getting his very own Good Knife so that we will both have a chef knife and a santoku knife for our joint kitchen endeavors. I suggested we both get new knives. He pointed out that I love my current knife. I suggested that was beside the point. :-) We are getting one new knife.

French Press coffee maker! Good for so much more than coffee: make tea, strain soup, steam bread...

Posted by: Soon-to-be-Wed Girl | March 12, 2007 9:25 PM

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