Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Bare Essentials

You can spend all the money you have, and most of what you will never have, on kitchen gadgets and still end up wanting. It's the nature of the art -- everybody has a slightly different style, and until you land on a style it's easy to shoot off into outer space with kitchen gear. Cooking well is truly an art, and as such it's best to become skilled before you get the high-powered (and expensive) tools. Unfortunately, this sort of advice almost always comes too late, but I'm going to forge ahead anyway on the off chance that it will help someone out there.

Cooking real food in general requires more gear than cooking processed food, simply because you generally have to start with the most basic materials. You'll be doing it all, because very few products you can buy currently qualify as real food. Hopefully our little movement will change that as more artisan level cooks join the game, but for now your choice is generally either to make it yourself or settle for an inferior product. So, if this list of "bare essentials" looks kind of extravagant to you, that's probably why. Enough disclaimer, on to the list!

I approach the purchasing of kitchen items in a way very similar to the way I look at buying tools for my other endeavors (woodworking, remodeling, farming, etc.). It must provide value in excess of its price, given my own particular patterns of cooking. So for starters, consider all of the components of the price:
  • Initial purchase price (obvious)
  • Maintenance cost: some gadgets have disposable parts, or things that are prone to wearing out. If you use them often, this can become irritating and expensive.
  • Storage cost: much as we may wish otherwise, kitchen space is generally at a premium. It may therefore be the case that having a doodad that takes up a square foot of countertop space and is only capable of making poorly executed quesadillas is not the best use of that space. Make sure you consider how the ownership of the new gadget will affect your ability to use the rest of your kitchen.
  • Cleanup cost: As a cook, your time is valuable. When you use a gadget that initially saves you two minutes of knife work, but takes five minutes to clean and two hours to dry (all the while hogging precious countertop space), you have come out behind. For me, this often ends up being the primary reason to forgo purchasing the gadget, or in the unfortunate case where I already own it, to forgo using it.
  • Bragging rights: There is something nice about saying "I can dice an onion perfectly by hand in less than 30 seconds." This is within the reach of any reasonably coordinated person with a few hours' practice, and I highly recommend it. Falling back on the power tools, even when it legitimately saves time, might cost you awesome points. Just something to consider...
Now, given those criteria, what tools universally stack up? Here's my list of things that I would not be able to do without under any circumstances, starting with the most important.
  1. Two sharp knives: A chef's knife and a paring knife. You should also have a decent sharpening steel and learn how to use it. Your knives should always be razor sharp and should never be left dirty on the counter (I do this sometimes myself, so I realize that it's impossible to actually make this happen -- think of it as a lofty goal). I will do a follow-up post soon about how to choose good knives.
  2. At least one, preferably two large cutting boards. I like having two so that I can use one for raw meat, eggs, and other stuff I wouldn't want touching my salad, and the other for everything else. When I say large, I'm thinking at least 16x22 inches. I find that the extra cutting board real estate more than pays for itself in storage and purchase cost by preventing you from having to dirty a collection of small dishes when you are cutting several things. With a big board, you can just leave them in little piles on the board and still have room to work.
  3. A large fry-pan (14 inch or so). This is a workhorse of a pan. You can use it in place of a sautee pan, a sauce pan, a skillet, and even a casserole in a pinch. It is also easy to clean (no sharp corners) and quite affordable, even for a decent quality pan. For this pan, I recommend the three-ply stainless/aluminum/stainless sandwich style pan. Make sure you get the kind that has the aluminum all the way to the rim of the pan -- if it's only on the bottom you will end up burning stuff on the sides of your pan all the time. I am not a fan of non-stick stuff, so I can't give any sensible advice in that regard.
  4. At least two thin, flexible stainless steel turners. This is the reason I don't like non-stick cookware: it forces me to use plastic utensils, which feel clumsy and inadequate to me after the steel ones. The thin steel turners can double as kitchen scrapers, scoops, pot scrubbers, and even knives if you get good ones (for chopping vegetables while they cook in the pan). I recommend getting one each of the longer rectangular variety and the pancake-shaped variety. I use both styles constantly. These seem to be getting harder to find (probably because of the popularity of non-stick cookware) so if you seem the snap them up quick.
  5. A medium (10 inch) black cast iron skillet. I actually have a whole collection of skillets of different sizes, and I use them all the time for cooking eggs, meat, and other non-acidic things that would stick to the stainless pan without an outrageous amount of oil. I'd say the 10 inch is by far the most useful of the bunch. They'll also happily go into the oven with a cobbler or other nice dessert, saving you the extra dish. The cast iron gets seasoned and thenceforth acts like a non-stick pan that is tough enough to handle real utensils. On top of that, even the best quality ones (old Griswold pans from back in the day) are very reasonably priced. I got most of my pans for under $15 apiece. One drawback of these pans is that you can't leave the food in them (can't just put the whole pan in the fridge for leftovers) because they will rust after awhile.
  6. Medium and large mixing bowls. For some reason, mixing bowl manufacturers like to distribute sets of four sizes: uselessly tiny, too small, perfect, and bigger perfect. I avoid the two smaller sizes as I can count the number of times they've been useful to me on the fingers of one hand (in my whole life). The larger two sizes, however, are extremely useful and you will want at least two of each. It is also useful to have at least one giant stainless steel bowl for big batches of stuff, or when you need to have extra room for tossing ingredients together.
  7. An enameled cast iron casserole. This is my strong preference for almost all soup making. It spreads the heat well, is oven proof, has a well-fitted lid, and is table-ready for serving because it looks decent as well. Very versatile and I would even say stylish. The one I have came from Wal-Mart for about fifty bucks.
  8. Salad spinner. Okay, we're getting into gadget territory now, but if you eat salad this is a must. For me it's the difference between having salad and not having it, because without this thing it's too much work to wash the lettuce. It's also very useful for other things like cilantro, parsley, or any other leafy item that you use much of.
  9. LOTS of containers of various sizes for leftovers. I've tried a wide variety of these, and have determined that the best value is in the glass dishes with the rubber/plastic lids. They are much easier to clean than any of the plastic ones I tried due to the lack of inside corners and lips/rims/etc. Also, they can run through the dishwasher thousands of times without turning milky or nasty looking. They don't ever stain, and you can tell what's in them without having to write on them by virtue of the fact that they are crystal clear. They are also the most expensive option in terms of initial cost, but I feel that their superior quality is more than enough compensation for that.
  10. Lids for all of your pans. Many otherwise good pans don't come with a lid. This is a tragic oversight, as having a lid can make the difference between perfectly cooked and burnt on the bottom and raw on the top for some dishes. I prefer glass lids when I can get them because you can see what's going on without letting the steam out.
  11. Miscellaneous small tools: vegetable peeler, cheese graters (get the flat, single-size hole ones, not the box or combo units), spoons, ladles, etc. There are a lot of these that you will end up needing, but you can generally get a pretty good setup by just going through the utensil isle and picking out the stuff that you know how to use. If you don't know what it's for, skip it for now.
  12. At least one large stockpot. If you want to make your own broths and stocks (which you will once you see how much better it can be), you will need a big pot to cook it in. Stock pots are extremely affordable, and they are also useful for making large batches of soup so they are not just a single purpose item. They do take up a lot of space, however, so if you are just getting started here try making your stock in the casserole for a while to make sure you think it's worth the trouble.
  13. Immersion blender. I generally use one of these in place of a food processor for making creamed soups and stuff like that. It's small, easy to clean, and pretty inexpensive. A food processor will sometimes do a better job, but it comes at a cost. I would recommend starting out with one of these instead. Combined with some knife skill, you can accomplish 90% of what a real food processor can do with a fraction of the cost and space requirements.
If you have all the stuff on that list, or at least some approximation of it, you have everything you need to cook 90% of the things I cook on a day to day basis. I occasionally have a use for more exotic things, but generally you can improvise your way around it if it's not a daily occurrence. When it happens regularly, that's the sign that you should go ahead and get the gadget.

A couple of the items on this list deserve more in-depth explanation, and I'll get into them in the next few posts. If you don't already have good kitchen knives, don't buy any until you read my tips! Maybe we can save you some trouble.

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