People have been quite successful making a lot of food in the past centuries with little more than a pot, spoon, bowl, knife and cutting surface. I’ve put together a very general guide that I’ve used for events aimed at college students, and you’ll find the list below.
A Good Chef’s Knife
Don’t waste money on a cheap knife block set. The quality is not good, and you’ll get a bunch of knives you’ll never use. Start with a chef’s knife, usually around eight-inches but this can vary by your size and your hands. I always suggest going to a store that will allow you handle the knife first. What you’re after is what I call “the steel and the feel.” If it’s uncomfortable, you won’t want to use it. It should have a blade of good enough quality that it can take an edge and keep it. After your chef’s knife, follow it up with a 10-inch bread knife and a small paring knife. Try not to skimp, and get one that feels good in your hand. Never put a knife in the dishwasher; the detergent will dull the blade, the heat from the steam may warp it and neither will do much for the handle, either.
IKEA makes a decent (if not long lasting) chef’s knife for about $10, and Victorinox makes a high-carbon steel one for about $30, but you’ll be replacing both in a couple years. You can find great deals at restaurant supply stores and at the business-focused Costco outlets. If you want to splurge, explore mid-range options from German or Japanese knife manufacturers such as Henckels, Wusthof and Global. Avoid their very cheapest, entry-level goods, though; at that point, you tend to be paying more for the name brand than the quality of knife. If you invest in a knife and treat it well by hand washing it and getting it regularly sharpened, it can last a lifetime.
Cutting Board (or two)
A good-looking cutting board can double as a serving platter for parties. If you’ve got two, you can use one for meat during food prep. Avoid glass; it has a grating sound and will ruin your blade.
My favorite kind of cutting board is the Epicurean-brand variety made from recycled paper, looks great, it can go into the dishwasher and will last for years ($24), so it’s eco-friendly and a value. Next up are cutting boards made from bamboo. They’re inexpensive, look good, and are also eco-friendly. Just don’t put them in the dishwasher; wash them by hand and let air dry. A large inexpensive cutting board such as food-grade plastic can be had for little money and I prefer to use these for meat or fish preparation since they can be sanitized in the dishwasher; just be aware that they tend to warp over time ($12). Wooden cutting boards are handsome, but need a little extra care. ($30+).
Measuring cups and spoons
Stick with basic metal measuring cups and spoons to start. You’ll find good deals from IKEA, a warehouse store or online, but note that you can often find them at Goodwill or Salvation Army stores with a decent housewares section for as little as a $1 each.
Hot pot or electric kettle
A hot pot or kettle is great for rapidly boiling water. Whether you use it to brew a cup of tea, get a jump on water for pasta, or cook even ramen noodles. You’ll find one can find a thousand and one potential uses for it. ($13+)
Go a step up from the hand killer $2 version and get a heavier one that works that won’t destroy a can or leave dangerously sharp edges.
A large heavy-bottomed pot
A six- to eight-quart heavy bottom pot will keep you from burning everything you put into it, and will allow for an even sauté onions and vegetables, thus making this a good choice for soup, beans, chili, stock, etc. in addition to using it for boiling water for pasta or steaming vegetables. You can get an inexpensive stainless one from IKEA or a restaurant supply store. Just avoid a thin non-stick version or aluminum, both of which will leach stuff you don’t want into your food and will generally be too thin to do anything other than boil water.
A 3-quart heavy skillet or sauté pan
Food writer Michael Ruhlman made this observation in his book The Elements of Cooking: “I can’t think of anything less useful in a kitchen than a cheap non-stick pan.” I agree. Get one that is at least three quarts, and preferably stainless steel, cast iron or a quality non-stick, such as this “everyday pan.” When taken care of, both types will last for years. Be sure to get one that has no plastic in its design (including the handle) so that it can go into the oven, far-extending its value beyond the stove top. Avoid non-stick which limits its use and can’t be used over anything other than low- to moderate-heat and will eventually need to be discarded.
A cast-iron skillet (or this awesome combo set) with can be purchased for about $25 and has the bonus of being great for roasting a chicken, making a casserole or baking bread in the oven. Follow directions for cleaning it and you’ll have it for years. Or, hit a restaurant supply store or a Costco business center and spend $30 on the same kind of pans used in restaurants. If splurging, go directly to a quality brand such as All-Clad. Sure it’s $150 for a 3-quart sauté pan with lid, but if you take care of it, you won’t ever have to buy another one.
A colander ensures you don’t burn yourself trying to drain pasta or while making stock, plus you can use it to wash fresh produce or as a fruit bowl for the table. If you can find a mesh one, it’s even more useful. They’re often found at thrift stores for a buck.
A set of nesting bowls
You need at least one large bowl to mix stuff in. Consider buying a set of different-sized bowls that nestle into one another. You’ll have multiple options without taking up too much space. Glass or stainless steel are your best investment; avoid plastic as you won’t want to put anything hot (such as freshly made stock) into them and they may stain. Tip: Both glass and stainless steel bowls of varying sizes can often be found for $1 each at Goodwill, and restaurant supply places carry new ones inexpensively, too.
Start with a large spoon. Add a silicon spatula ($4), a vegetable peeler and then a good set of tongs such as those made by Oxo ($8). Add a microplaner/grater. After that, what you cook will help you determine what you need such as whisks, ladles, etc. When we stocked up my niece’s apartment, we bought most of her large spoons, spatulas, whisks, a pasta separator, a vegetable peeler etc. at a Goodwill in Seattle for 69 cents each.
A baking or casserole dish
Great for casseroles, lasagna, quiches, pot pies, brownies or small cakes, plus even roasting a chicken, a small yet heavy baking dish is a great place to start when cooking for one or two people. Consider a square glass one to start, and go with stoneware, glass or ceramic for the most functionality, or commercial stainless steel version (often referred to as a “hotel pan”) at a restaurant supply store. ($12 to $45)
Side towels, oven mitts
A couple of side towels are handy, too; many restaurants and culinary schools use quality cloth diapers since they’re cheap and they have a padded center and can double as a heat pad. I’m a fan of getting a decent pair of oven mitts if you use an oven regularly. Just check their heat resistance; anything less than 400 F isn’t worth buying. You can use an oven mitt as a trivet, too, once something hot has to go onto a table.
Plenty of storage for leftovers
Keep plastic and glass containers from takeout, restaurant leftovers and various food purchases In addition to preventing food from going to waste, you can also store foods you can buy in bulk, such as cereal, spices, flour, sugar, oatmeal, nuts, spices, etc. Plus, a glass jar is great for making vinaigrette. When on a budget, no food should be left to spoil as wasted food is wasted money.
Any other thoughts?