Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kitchen Beginners: Save Your Money and Buy Only What You Need

You do not need every kitchen appliance or gadget in order to cook well. You just don't.

So then, what do you need? Despite what stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table tell us, a few basic pieces of kitchen equipment are all that you need. Over time you'll probably collect a plethora of stuff, but if you're just starting to cook like I did five years ago, save your money.

When I was divorced five years ago, I knew that I was going to have to learn how to cook better than frozen pizzas and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. So, I bought a couple of cook books that I thought would cover the basics.

That's a really good first step. The Joy of Cooking is a great book, although quite intimidating to the kitchen neophyte. Cooking for Dummies is really what got me going in the right direction. It's an easy read that explains the basics in easy-to-understand language while not making you feel stupid. Even if you don't like the Dummies series (I don't), I would recommend buying this book if you're new to the kitchen.

The next thing that I started doing was watching cooking shows. Celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Anne Burrell, Gordon Ramsay and Michael Symon were inspirational to me. However, the show that really helped me the most was Kelsey's Essentials. Chef Kelsey Nixon explains kitchen basics like no other TV chef does, which was extremely helpful to a beginner like me.

However, the one thing that the books and TV shows did was make me think that I needed a kitchen full of the latest cooking equipment. High end cookware, a Kitchen Aid Mixer, a food processor, expensive knives, and many, many other things filled a long list of what I thought were necessities. Big mistake!

Five years down the road, it's easy to see my mistake. Hopefully I can help you avoid the same problem. If you're new to cooking, you really only need a few things to cook a wide variety of meals for yourself and your family. Over time you will probably accumulate things as you need them. But to start, don't listen to the books or be enamored with what you see the chefs on TV use. Remember, the folks on TV don't pay for the stuff they use. Of course it all looks brand new - it is!

So, what do I think you need? Here's my list of kitchen essentials for the new cook. As you can see, it's not long. Spend your money on quality equipment that will last and not trying to fill up your kitchen cabinets with stuff you won't use.

  • Two quality knives - an 8" chefs knife and a paring knife. I like Wusthof knives because they are good knives that won't necessarily break the bank. It really is important to have good knives. Not only will it make chopping easier, it is safer because dull knives slip off of things such as onions. You will use your knives every day, so buy what you are comfortable with using. If you buy quality knives now, you'll never need to buy them again. 
  • Quality cookware. A couple of weeks ago I got a great deal on a set of Guy Fieri stainless steel cookware. I love it! However, I would recommend a decent set of non-stick cookware for the beginning cook. Non-stick cookware is easier to use and much more forgiving. This Rachael Ray set seems decent. The Guy Fieri non-stick cookware has also gotten good reviews. As a beginner, don't break the bank with your cookware. If you're like me, you're going to make mistakes and potentially ruin something. Buy a set that isn't too expensive to learn with. You can always buy that dream set of All Clad once you know how to use it. Think of it this way - would you buy your teenager a Porsche? Probably not. When choosing cookware, make sure that you have lids for the pots and at least one for the frying/saute pans. Most times the pot lids will fit on the pans.
  • Prep bowls are something you'll probably use every day. We have a nice set of Pyrex bowls that have covers. They clean up easily and nest for easy storage. Make sure you have at least one large bowl and one small one. In addition to our Pyrex set, I have a few small stainless bowls that we use regularly for things like scrambled eggs. 
  • Kitchen utensils are a must for every kitchen. We have a nice set of Joseph Joseph nesting utensils that we like as much for their look as their usefulness. Silicon utensils are also a good buy. Stay away from inexpensive plastic junk that litters the shelves of stores. You don't need too many utensils, so buy quality stuff. For the beginner, I'd recommend a spatula, spoon, slotted spoon, bowl scraper, and a couple of wooden spoons. That's really all you need to start with. Eventually you'll want to expand your arsenal, but you can do that over time as you find something you need.
  • Measuring cups and measuring spoons are essential to every kitchen. There are three categories of measuring utensils you'll need - liquid measure, dry measure and spoons. You really do need three different sets. You can't use the dry measure cups for liquid measure. Trust me, it won't work. A simple one cup liquid measuring cup like this Pyrex cup works well. A set of dry measuring cups that contain 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup measures will work for any type of cooking or baking that you do. Measuring spoons should contain at least 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, and 1/4 teaspoon. Other measurements are helpful. I've used many different types of measuring utensils, and they all work the same. Just buy whatever you like. You definitely don't need to break the bank with these utensils. 
  • You will need a cutting board to prep your food. A simple one like this foldable Joseph Joseph one is great for a beginner. You'll need at least two of these - one for meat and one for everything else. I would recommend buying a red cutting board for meat and another color for everything else so that you know which one is which.
That's about it. These basic items will allow you to cook a wide variety of meals. There are definitely other things that you'll eventually need, but for the beginner these basic items will give you a great start. You can always buy things like a food processor, blender or bake ware when you have a need for it. If you're just starting out on this culinary road, these basic pieces of equipment will definitely point you in the right direction.