Our general philosophy for the things we own is to aim to have only what enhances our life, that it be good quality so it lasts, and aesthetically pleasing because, well, we have to live with it and look at it…
Buying items which are high quality means that they may be (relatively) expensive, and it may mean you have to build up your kitchen piece by piece, but it also means that the items you buy, if taken care of and used well, will last your whole lifetime, and potentially several other peoples’ as well.
For that reason, it is also worth looking for items used, as you may be able to find well-made cookware that is still in great shape, for a fraction of the cost of buying it new. We have found a lot of our best kitchen bits at charity shops, on etsy in the vintage section, in re-sale shops, and garage sales over the years. For one holiday season we both worked at a kitchen store that leans towards the higher end good quality brands and items and boy did we ever use the crap out of our employee discount!
Here is a little bit of a rundown of what items we use often in our kitchen. What exactly you need will depend on what exactly you plan to cook, and you will probably find that the more types of dishes you try, the more things seem to become “necessary”.
Starting with the basics, knives. We have an 8″ Chef’s knife, a short utility knife, and a paring knife. That’s it. In an ideal world, we might also have a 6″ santoku, and possibly a long bread knife, but who lives in an ideal world? Our knives are one of the most essential, most used items in our kitchen and something, in our opinion, worth spending a chunk of money on. You will be amazed next time you go to chop an onion or tomato, just how much different it feels when you’re not fighting with your knife and trying not to smash your ingredients while trying to cut them.
On to frying pans. We also have a set of three of these that we cobbled together over the years. Different sizes are useful for different things, and it’s good to know how the materials behave so you know how to cook with them. Steel heats faster, but also cools off faster. One of the pans we have is steel with an aluminum layer inside, which increases those properties. Cast iron heats up more slowly, and therefore heat distribution isn’t as good, but it also stays hot a very long time, which can be useful for certain things, especially for use in the oven. It’s good to get pans with thick bottoms, so that you don’t just immediately burn food with anything over low heat, it makes it easier to control the temperature. None of our pans have lids but coincidentally the lid from the stock pot fits the larger pan exactly.
Our pots are some of our heaviest lifters. We make a lot of soups and stews, and we also often use them for roasting meats in the oven. We really prefer cast iron for our pots because of that property that once the iron heats up, it stays hot a long time. This makes these pots great for cooking things like soups and stews, as well as roasting in the oven, because with the lid on, it heats what is inside very evenly, as it radiates heat from all sides, once the iron is hot. And, bonus, our bamboo steamer set up fits on top of our black Staub pot like they were made for each other.
Saucepans are useful for a lot of things, including their name-sake; making sauces. We have two copper saucepans of different sizes. These really need to be re-tinned as copper is a reactive metal and can react with certain acidic foods such as tomatoes to produce a slightly metallic taste. However heavy-bottomed copper is great for a saucepan, because the copper conducts heat very well, so it is easy to control the temperature inside the saucepan by controlling the temperature of your burner, as the copper reacts quickly both in absorbing and dissipating heat. These pieces were both found used for about $25-35, and would cost you somewhere around $150 (for the small one) and $300 (for the large one) new in the store. Woo-hoo bargain used copper! If you can find used copper that feels nice and heavy and looks like it is well-made, swoop in on that sucker like a quilting grandma at fabric sale! Have you experienced quilting ladies at a sale? Its terrifying…
The copper mixing bowls and gratin pan we use for a number of things. The unlined copper bowls are particularly great for whipping cream and egg whites – something about the copper reacts with the cream or egg and helps it to foam and thicken faster. I don’t remember the exact science of it… it’s just kitchen magic or copper sprites or enchanted bunnies or something…
The gratin pan is great for roasting and for, well, making gratin. One of our favorites, cauliflower in béchamel sauce au gratin, has been made many times in this pan. We have also made one beauty of a golden roasted chicken in it.
Glass mixing bowls are one of those things we rarely think about because we use them so much they just become a natural part of our kitchen environment. We use them for anything from simply storing chopped veggies until they need to be cooked, to mixing doughs for biscuits or bread, to pouring off meat drippings to be used later to straining stock into before jarring it. They are just incredibly useful for so many things. Ours are all white milk glass/pyrex style picked up here and there at charity shops.
Speaking of stock, a good stock pot was one of the best purchases we’ve made. Stock is the basis of so many dishes, and being able to make large batches of it to keep in the refrigerator is a big bonus, as it can be so much cheaper and tastier than store-bought stock. This pot is also fantastic for boiled meat dishes such as Pot au Feu or Poule au Pot, for which a very large pot is needed. Ooooo, and for bouillabaisse and crab boils and Korean seafood stew and…
A hot water kettle is not only useful for heating water for coffee and tea, but also for cooking. Oftentimes when water is needed for cooking, you want to add it to your dish, but not halt the cooking process, and so you want to be adding hot water, not cold water. Having a pourable pot of hot water sitting at the ready can be very useful for those occasions.
Our baking sheet and silpat mat are probably our most abused, and therefore skungiest looking, kitchen items, but they are hard workers. From roasting veggies to baking biscuits and cookies to simply keeping things warm in the oven, they see a lot of use, and it shows :) Our baking sheet is a really nice heavy duty one and boy was there a difference! Ours is probably 8-9 years old and is the first baking sheet I’ve ever had that stays flat and doesn’t warp when you put it in a hot oven and launch whatever is on said baking sheet into the air.
We make a lot of rice. No, really, a lot. We buy, and go through fairly regularly, 25lb bags of Japanese short grain and jasmine/basmati rice. We used to have an electric rice cooker, and it worked fine, but it died, and at that point, we decided we were going to treat ourselves and get this little beauty, which has become one of our prized possessions. Not only is it beautiful, but it cooks rice perfectly, and because it is clay, it holds heat for a long time, so your rice will stay hot in there for at least up to an hour after cooking. You can also cook it so that you get that crunchy, browned layer of rice on the bottom, which is really delicious. If you have never experienced the nutty, toasted, crunchy, browned bits at the bottom of a pot of rice, come over, we’ll totally make you a pot of rice.
This rice cooker has been great not only to cook rice well, but to learn how rice cooks. When you just plop it in an automatic cooker and push the button, you become dependent on that button, and if you ever don’t have it, you don’t know where to start. Where I started was flailing and cussing like a sailor as the pot of rice bubbled over and ended up simultaneously burnt on the bottom and a hot undercooked soupy mess. As you cook rice without the automatic cooker, you start to learn the different sounds and smells that rice makes as it cooks, and as a result, you can cook it in any kind of a container with a lid with a satisfactory result.
As we’ve gotten more and more into Japanese cooking, a donabe became a “necessary” addition to our kitchen. We often feel that the kind of rustic, country dishes from a particular cuisine are some of the best, and nabe (hot pot) is no exception for us in Japanese cuisine. Nabe is one of the most visually beautiful, sensory-stimulating, and communal types of meals we’ve ever been a part of, and we love it for all those reasons. Its one of our favorite things to cook for friends coming over for a meal the first time.
Measuring cups and spoons of course are a must for all sorts of things in the kitchen. We have also found having a manual nut chopper to be really nice, as we have found it actually quicker and simpler than trying to chop nuts in an electric food processor without burning the nuts or ending up halfway to nut butter. We use a biscuit cutter for biscuits, of course, but it can also be used for things like cutting ravioli or pierogi wrappers out of rolled-out dough.
You never think about how useful a bench knife can be until you’ve had one. So much easier for scooping up chopped things than a knife, and great for cleaning of your cutting board, pastry stone, etc. The clouds parted and the angels sang for us at this little kitchen revelation.
A sharp fine grater for grating hard cheese, zesting fruits, grating whole nutmeg (and occasionally my finger), etc. Kitchen shears are another thing we could never live without. Whether it’s just trimming veggies or cutting apart a whole chicken, having good, sturdy kitchen shears comes in handy all the time. A vegetable peeler and can opener are pretty self-explanatory, and tongs are another thing that we use all the time for various tasks when using your fingers just won’t do.
Different sizes of wire wisks can also be useful for different things, from beating one egg to add to dough, to whipping egg whites for a meringue. We keep a tiny little saucepan for very small things like a small amount of roux, or just melting butter for a recipe. The Japanese graters are really fantastic. The small one for grating ginger or pureeing garlic (puree a garlic clove in 5 seconds flat), the larger one for apple, daikon radish, any kinds of larger items. They grate very finely. The wire egg scoop is for scooping eggs out of boiling water, but it can be used to scoop out anything that doesn’t go through the holes. This sieve, and also a larger one we have, we use for straining things: stock, rice, etc.
We try to use mostly wooden or bamboo utensils for actually cooking, both because we like the aesthetic and the feel of them, but also because they weather well and are easy on your pots and pans (in contrast to metal utensils). Having several different sizes of wooden spoons is really useful, as well as different types of spatulas. The wire scoop we often use for pasta, or any other situation we need to scoop larger items out of hot liquid. The ladle, of course, is useful for transferring liquid from one container to another… :)
So that’s our most used “essential” pieces, for now anyway. I’m sure as the years go on and we discover new things and cuisines the list will grow and change along with us. We’ll be doing another post or page with the few single purpose things we didn’t show here (bamboo steamer, pasta machine, tortilla press, etc). And probably a post each on coffee and tea tools.