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Jan 22, 2012 06:54 PM

Recs for Basics Tools for A New Cook

My 14 year old niece has discovered a passion for cooking. Her goal, at this point in time, seems to be to eventually find a job working for one of the leading cooking magazines in some capacity. I'm thrilled as she seemed to sort of have no direction for a long time, and wasn't the best student so this is a wonderful turn of events to see her being motivated by something no less, an interest which both of us share.

Anyway, I'd like to be able to help her along in some ways. Her and her mom do not get along; in fact she lives with her dad (my brother) full time and has for many years. Money is tight for them and he can't really afford right now to splurge and get her the types of tools that would help her out. He did get her some nice things for the holidays (her first good knife for instance, and a few other things) but if I could round things out for her, I'd love to do it. I even handed her a ton of magazines I finished off today which she had never read before (Fine Cooking, Cooks Illustrated, Saveur, even Bon Appetit).

The thing is I have a lot of tools but have been cooking for so many years that I'm not really sure which of them are the ones which are necessary for a beginner any more. To me, so many of them are things I use consistently on a weekly basis but I'm sure she may not, for instance, find a corn kernel remover as useful lol. And for that matter, there's a lot I don't have - I'm not big on gadgets because I believe in knife work. I usually can chop something faster than it takes to take out some other specialty tool and then have to clean one more thing!

I do know she wants a Microplane (her dad bought her a small zester, which wasn't exactly what she wanted but still can use) so that's on the list for sure. I'd like to get her a good vegetable peeler (or would a paring knife be a better choice?).

So, real basics, Maybe about the 10 most necessary items that would carry her through. And maybe I'll get her that corn zester. I find it invaluable in the summer when I'm making those fritattas that called for a ton of fresh corn kernels in them :p

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  1. "she seemed to sort of have no direction for a long time"

    I think it is very normal for a 14 years to have no direction.

    "I'd like to get her a good vegetable peeler (or would a paring knife be a better choice?). "

    I do like to use a paring knife to peel, but sometime a peeler is just better for certain items.

    "I do know she wants a Microplane"

    If you are getting a Microplane, then get the professional series. Usually the "professional" is not worth it, but the Microplane professional one is a good buy. It is just one dollar more, and it has the metal casing, so it is more durable:

    The home series one is $1 less, but it has a plastic housing/casing. It rarely breaks, but it can and people have reported this. Now there are other Microplane like tools, and I have one. It is very good as well, so keep your eyes out.

    Obviously, pots and pans are very important. Do we count those as basic tools? If so, try the Tramontina stainless steel cookware.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      The Microplane is amazing. I own the classic model. This is a bit different than the home series.

      IMO, it's one of the best single-use tools ever created. I used it to produce fluffy piles of pecorino romano cheese for crepes just last weekend. It's also fantastic for chocolate or lemon zesting.

      One of guests was so impressed that she immediately had to know how I did that and ordered one for herself. I find the casing to be really solid, but this is the classic and not the home model.

      Tools are all well and good. BUT ... technique and creativity is more important. A very serious chef can do an amazing job with 1-2 decent knives, 1 pan, 1 pot and lots of knowledge. If you don't have a gas stove, then I would actually recommend a portable butane stove for her. These are readily available from any asian market for $18-25 (also online but more money). 4 cans of gas are $5

      If she thinks that she is serious about a future in the industry then by all means please do consider an apprenticeship at a restaurant. 14 is a good age to start learning a trade, and if she is good and lucky, perhaps we'll be watching her on the Food channel in 10-15 years. She can start with a lot of standard grunt work and thereby learn good technique, and find her particular passions along the way.

      I would also highly recommend a used copy of "the best recipe". There is all sorts of good stuff in there about the How and Why certain techniques work better - with an eye towards simplicity to achieving a great end result.

      I'm also a fan of Good Eats. It's entertaining and gives a lot of background info into the science of cooking. I can't say that I am necessarily as enamored of some of his recipes, which can be IMO overly complicated. But I really enjoy the back-story info and technology of cooking.

      1. re: jkling17

        "BUT ... technique and creativity is more important. A very serious chef can do an amazing job with 1-2 decent knives, 1 pan, 1 pot and lots of knowledge"

        I agree. I may even push it a bit more. For a starting cook, it may be more advantageous to have less tools than more tools. Take knives for example, having 2-3 knives probably better (for learning purpose) than having 15 different knives.

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics


          Here's more of what I mean by, "it's in the technique, not the tools". It's very easy to get carried away with the "I need X to be able to do Y". I'd really recommend that your niece watch a few episodes of Jacques Pepin on youtube. The man makes it all look easy and it's all done in real time. In 30 minutes, he consistently gets a lot more done than I seem to manage in an hour.

          Here's a great omelette one:

          In fact, he often just using a paring knife rather than a peeler! The man is a true master and a positive JOY to watch.

          1. re: jkling17

            I'll mention these to her. I know she's been getting into a lot of various cooking shows lately - we were talking about it yesterday. One of her favs is "Chopped" because she enjoys seeing how the chefs manage to put together disparate ingredients.

            I'm sure she could benefit from watching a master at work. Making a decent omelette is something which everyone could benefit from :)

        2. re: jkling17

          It's my niece, not my daughter. But yes, they have a gas stove. So no need for a portable stove. And I don't live near her to cart her around so can't help out with apprenticeships - that will have to be left to her father. However, if I remember correctly I believe she does have a class upcoming in putting together food gift baskets at Wegmans; which was something that she had an interest in. It's not cooking, but it was a start somewhere to do something outside of school to do something creative. She has an interest in composing food, and photography so this was a way for her to try her hand at that.

          Her dad, is very food oriented and cooks really well himself, and is wildly supportive of this so I would imagine that if the opportunity arises for her to be able to get into a kitchen at some point, he would be all for it. Just a matter of managing to get her there; as he's a single dad working full time, with 3 kids, who is trying to juggle a lot.

          Maybe in the summer when she's off from school. I'm almost thinking, if she could find something near my house, that maybe I might offer to take her for weekends since I have half days on Fridays. I wouldn't mind carting her around for the 3 days (I live in a more urban part of NJ, with more restaurants nearby, easier to get to). Plus, I think she might enjoy getting away from her house periodically. Actually. I think she would love it.

          1. re: sivyaleah

            Could you ask the Dad about your plan and what kinds of things he thinks would be good for her?

            Very generous plan you have here. Maybe think of giving in installments...

            Some ideas beyond the obvious of knives, skillet, saucepan and some some lids, kind of in order but not carefully:

            1. A strainer with fine-enough mesh to strain rice but also workable for pasta, etc.
            2. Numerous small glass prep bowls (used in the kitchen shows she likes)
            3. Cutting board
            4. Accu-sharp knife sharpener (not my own favorite, but good and user-friendly)
            5. A kitchen timer that has a probe thermometer (which itself can double as an instant read thermometer, but one of those separately is nice)
            6. Scale (perhaps not right away, but one gets to love them, esp. if baking)
            7. Baking stone for pizza and breads, along with a pel
            8. Mixing bowls
            9. Hand mixer
            10. Heat-safe (silicon) spatula
            11. Countertop container for kosher salt with lid and spoon
            12. Bookstand for cookbook.

            I think I could keep going on. No wonder my kitchen's overstuffed. Good luck in your noble mission.

        3. re: Chemicalkinetics

          When I said "no direction" I could have been more clear. She has been having problems with her schooling in general - not that she should know what she wants to do in life. She isn't exactly the best student, and has had a rough family life which as effected her greatly so everyone was worried she may go off course and get into "trouble" if you get my drift. Her finding this interest in food and cooking has given her a real direction and focus that she has never had in school, and has made her more energetic and goal oriented, and opened her up on ways which I can't go into here. It's a wonderful thing to watch after everything she has suffered thus far in her life.

          As for pots and pans, yes, I would consider these tools. However, I can't afford to outfit her on those right now; but I can splurge a bit on necessary starter tools.

        4. Hi, sivyaleh:

          I suggest, if she now has a knife, that she be given a saute pan, one that is hers and hers alone.


          1 Reply
          1. re: kaleokahu

            This, is an excellent idea. I know that the current set of pans which her dad has are utter junk. In fact, last time I was there, she was making pancakes in a non-stick saute pan, not a griddle, over an extremely high heat and I had to instruct her about how to use non-stick so as not to ruin it.

          2. Maybe this is too basic, but I'd get several sets of good quality locking tongs, long-handled wooden spoons, a couple of variations on useful spatulas, a good cutting board, really thick pot-holders (which seem to be hard to find sometimes).

            1. What about a subscription to Cooks Illustrated? You could come up with a small budget together and she could help research what she wants? Also, does she have any baking equipment?

              I think I saw a special for a subscription to Food and Wine for $2 the other day - that might be worth googling.

              If she wants to work for a magazine, I'd encourage her to blog about her blossoming cooking experience and new tools.

              1 Reply
              1. re: olympia

                I gave her CA, F&W and a couple of others I was done with to look through. I told her if she likes them, to let me know and I'll send her a subscription, along with any magazine she wishes.

                She was completely elated to have them :) Again, from a photography standpoint aside from the recipes and tips.

              2. Give her "The Elements of Cooking" by Michael Ruhlman. This is a much more practical way to get started than with publications directed at people who are already experienced cooks.