Congratulations! You are one of the growing number of people returning to the fulfilling skill of cooking. If you are new to cooking at home, welcome. Cooking is a skill that provides endless rewards. First the obvious: delicious food (with practice). But cooking provides so much more. At the risk of sounding too deep, cooking can be a spiritual practice. Especially when cooking and eating with, or for, others.
But for now, let’s focus on the basics. You need tools for cooking. But which ones are essential? For the novices, I’ve started the list with the foundation equipment and supplies. Next, some of my favorite tools that have become essentials, and finally the countertop appliances that aren’t necessary but can open the door to all kinds of yumminess.
Purchase items from this list of foundation supplies and you will be able to make most basic recipes with confidence.
- Measuring spoons & cups. A full set of measuring spoons and cups will ensure that the recipe you are following turns out exactly as intended. They are absolutely essential when baking, but as you gain more experience cooking you will find that you can eyeball some measurements. Until then, use the tools!
- Liquid measuring cup (2 cup). I’ll be honest, you can use dry ingredient measuring cups for liquid ingredients also, but having the liquid cup is much easier to manage. Pouring a cup of vegetable broth in a dry measuring cup means the broth is sloshing to and fro as you try to make it to the pan. A liquid measuring cup has easy-to-read amounts on the side of the cup, plenty of room at the top to avoid sloshing, and a convenient pour spout.
- Spatula. This tool is used for everything from flipping pancakes to breaking up ground beef or stirring vegetables as you saute.
- Cooking spoon. A large cooking spoon is not only used for stirring, but also for serving and transferring larger servings of ingredients from one pot to the next or from pot to plate.
- Slotted cooking spoon. A slotted spoon is used for all of the same jobs as a regular spoon with one exception — a slotted spoon allows liquid to spill through. Let’s say you need to extract pieces of chicken from a cooking liquid. You want the chicken, but not the liquid — slotted spoon is your solution.
- Ladle. This one is more of a convenience than a must. A ladle is best for serving big scoops of soup or sauces. You can use a large cooking spoon, but a ladle allows you to get a big scoop, capturing all the yummy bits in one big ladle-ful.
- Colander. For draining pasta, steamed or boiled foods.
- Cutting boards (one for veg, one for meats). I love a wood cutting board for vegetables. The natural wood provides an organic feel to the cooking process. But wood cutting boards are a no-no in my book for meats. Wood can absorb the juices left behind from raw meats, leading to cross-contamination. Try a wood cutting board for veggies, and a plastic one for meats. My cutting board for meats always goes in the dishwasher, while the other one I wash by hand.
- Saute pans: small, medium, large. It may seem picky to have a whole set of different sizes of saute pans, but the size can make all the difference in turning out a successful recipe. A paella for four, for example, simply can’t fit in a small or even a medium-sized pan. And why heat a large saute pan to toast a couple of tablespoons of almonds?
- Sauce pans with lids: small, medium, large. Size definitely matters with saucepans. It’s all about volume here. A little bit of rice in a large saucepan will cook too fast and have a better chance of burning. Too much rice in a small saucepan boils over. Get a variety of sizes, and get the lids, clear ones if possible. It’s nice to be able to see what’s going on in there without lifting the lid.
- Dutch oven. Singles or couples can probably forego this one unless you hope to host potlucks for friends and neighbors to show off your new culinary prowess — which I highly recommend. Dutch ovens are more spacious than a large saucepan, made of heavier metal and therefore conduct heat better, and have a lid. Dutch ovens have soul. Something about cooking in one feels official. And homey and good. Get one.
- Chef’s knives. Arguably the most important tools in the kitchen. A set of really quality chef’s knives can set a person back as much as $1,000 or more. But not to worry, plenty of knives found in popular department stores will do. One with an 8″ blade will do most jobs for you. Also include a paring knife for small jobs, a utility knife for medium-sized jobs (slicing apples or cheese), and a serrated knife for cutting breads and veggies with stubborn skin like tomatoes and bell peppers.
So you have your foundation. Time to level up. You can survive in the kitchen and turn out some great food with just the basics listed above. The following tools just make cooking more fun and easy. And when things are fun and easy, we do them more. Case made. Buy these:
- Rubber spatula. You think that pan is clean? Is it rubber spatula clean? Rubber spatulas hug the surface of pans and get every drop. And they’re so soft and quiet. No scraping.
- Microplane (not pictured). A microplane is especially useful if you are still working on your knife skills. It allows you to cut the thinnest of thin vegetables
- Silicone pastry brush. Pastry brushes aren’t just for pastries. I use it for brushing olive oil on slices of baguette for toasting or melted butter on slices of bread for grilled cheese.
- Squirt bottles. I really just have one favorite use for the squirt bottle. I fill it with my cooking oil — olive oil (not extra virgin) and grapeseed oil (for high-heat sauteing) and keep it next to the stovetop. An easy squirt or two into the saute pan and I’m off and running.
- Ice cream scoop. These aren’t just great for scooping ice cream, although that’s arguably the yummiest use for this tool. Ice cream scoops are perfect for scooping equally sized muffins, cookies, and even meatballs.
- Tongs. I never used tongs before culinary school, which is why I didn’t include them in the foundations list. But now, with practice, they’re like hands in the kitchen. A spatula can do pretty much what tongs can, but tongs just make it so darned easy. Learn to use these and you won’t regret it.
- Mason jars or other reusable storage jars. These are strictly essentials for two reasons: 1) They are sustainable and plastic zip bags aren’t, which is a direct reflection of my values and my sheer terror that we are systematically destroying our planet; and 2) They look darling and homey filled with dried beans, grains, and nuts in my pantry. Walking into my pantry just makes me feel more together as a person if it’s orderly and lovely.
Last, cool tools that plug in:
- Immersion blender. I don’t remember culinary life before the immersion blender. An immersion blender opens the door to all kinds of pureed soups, smoothies, and sauces. And it’s 1,000 times more convenient and easy to use and clean up than a countertop blender. The counter versions have their place (ahem, margaritas), but I’m an immersion blender fan all the way.
- Rice cooker. Cooking rice on the stovetop is easy. And once you’ve done it enough, you memorize the ratios of rice to water and cook times. Maybe I list this one because I’m married to an Asian man, and he eats rice every day. I make a lot of rice. I’m thankful for the rice cooker. Add the rice. Add the water. Push the button. Perfect rice every time.
- Slow cooker. Admittedly, I use a slow cooker less than most big fans. I mainly use mine in preparation for weeknight suppers. No doubt about it: beans are better when they’re slow cooked. On taco night, I start my dried black beans in the morning and they’re ready that evening. Tougher cuts of meat that benefit from low, slow cooking to tenderize them are also perfect for the slow cooker.
- Blender and/or food processor. If forced to choose, I would go food processor every time. Grating vegetables for salsa or mashing beans for hummus — they all become five-minute jobs with the help of a food processor.
All of these tools are available at just about any department or discount store in America these days, which is perfect for those on a budget. Goodwill is a great option for surprise finds if you’re not worried about previous use. If you are ready and able to buy more quality tools, consider checking out the restaurant supply store and other specialty stores. If you plan to invest, I recommend starting with buying more quality knives and pans first and go from there.
I do encourage you to keep sustainability in mind when buying. A dollar store colander works just as well as a stainless steel one, but cheaply made plastic tools won’t last as long as a nicer ones, which means more plastic in landfills. Do some online research, make a priority list, gear up, and get cooking!