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Essentials of a well-functioning kitchen

So I'm going to start from scratch - mostly because all my current gear is cheap stuff cobbled together over the years and none of it, aside from my potato peeler, works terribly well.

What do YOU consider the essentials of an easy-to-work-in kitchen to be? I'm talking pots, pans, cutlery - the whole shebang.

I have no real interest in tools that only serve on purpose - ricer, bread mixer, etc. - they're not something I really envision myself using, so I'm just talking bare bones here, the essentials for baking and cooking properly and not slaving for hours due to crappy knives or cheap pans.

So suggestions, if you please. 2013 is my big year of change and I may as well change up my kitchen habits too.

Thanks in advance!

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  1. A good cook's knife and a large, heavy cutting board are the most fundamental tools. The board must be heavy enough to stay in place due to its own weight. It should be laminated hardwood at least 1" thick, and as large as you can manage. Mine is 1" thick and about 1.5 by 2 feet. This is just big enough for me. All maple or some other species is a frill — a matter of deco instead of cooking, in my opinion. Mine is a mixture of unspecified hardwoods. End grain is also a frill, unless you are needing a heavy chopping block.

    Knives is a big, complicated subject, with a lot of room for personal preference. But for the essentials, Michael Ruhlman ( in "The Elements of Cooking" ) writes that you need only one large knife and one small. Forget about sets and just pick your cook's knife first. Western or Japanese? If Japanese, Western or Japanese style handle? What size is optimal? I prefer a western cook's knife (mine is 8") and a Japanese style vegetable knife, but one knife will do everything.

    The small knife is less critical because the cost is much less — if you don't like one, you can get another.

    Other knives just get added from time to time, depending on need but sometimes just because some of us like to buy knives. I have a bread knife, a slicing knife, and two boning knives, and a light cleaver (or Chinese knife), all of which I use, but which are not actually essential.

    For your western cook's knife, you need a fine-ridged honing steel (not a ceramic honing rod).

    That's where I would start. Concentrate on your cook's knife and your cutting board.

    1. A set of really good knives. Think about the cheap ones you have now-what size do you go to time and time again. At min. a good paring knife, a slicing/carving knife, a bread knife

      2 different sets (assorted sizes) of cutting boards- one for meat/poultry, one for veggies/fruits.

      An immersion blender

      Set of every day good pans with lids. You will want at least a small and a medium sauce pan and large stock pot. Once should have a colander insert for pasta

      2-3 sizes of cast iron frying pans

      2-3 sizes of heavy bottom dutch oven type pans (like Le Crueset)

      A heavy roasting pan with rack

      a set of nesting bowls- glass or metal

      2-3 jelly rolls pans with cooling racks

      silpat mats

      muffin, cake and pie pans

      a slow cooker (to me essential as a full time working mom)

      some kind of food processor. I prefer my large cuisinart pro

      two different types of whisks- one large, one small
      assorted spatulas- metal and rubber
      assorted wooden spoons
      rolling pin
      manual can opener
      measuring spoons
      liquid and dry measuring cups
      vegetable peeler
      a course and a fine microplane grater
      2 sets of tongs- one short, one long
      a meat thermometer
      an oven thermometer (for calibrating)

      4 Replies
      1. re: foodieX2

        Very good list. I have a very large wooden cutting board that remains in place all the time,and have a thin plastic one that I use for raw meat and chicken. I love my Kitchenaid mixer and wouldn't be with out it. Other then a good kitchen scissor I can't think of much more. A good chefs knife (I do love my Mac),but no matter how good it is if you dont keep it sharp it will be worthless. A bread knife and a paring knife dont have to be expensive.

        1. re: foodieX2

          Either those aren't all essential or I'm much less completely equipped than I thought. ;-)

          1. re: mcf

            They aren't essentials, although the OP's use of "well-functioning" and "easy-to-work-in" opens up the discussion considerably. "Baking" also lengthens the list, but it depends on what you want to bake. Is a Bundt pan essential? Yes and no, depending.

            1. re: GH1618

              Definitely agree that what is essential individually depends upon what you cook and eat the most. I don't bake much, but just in case, I keep a muffin tin, cake pans and a spring form for the occasions I do, just not taking up valuable space in my kitchen. I had a Bundt pan, donated it after years of non use.

              Some of the essentials listed are things I've donated or thrown away, like a food processor and slow cookers, and I got by for years with only pne, very large, LC Dutch oven, for example.

              I use my blender stick a lot in many preps, but I don't consider it essential to anyone's kitchen.

        2. Check out this classic article in the NYT by Mark Bittman.


          1. A well-equipped restaurant supply house can provide some real workhorse tools and for less than the retail stores. You can't go wrong with some hotel pans in various widths and depths: they stack well, are s/s, you can get covers for them, and they serve many purposes. You can use them for mise en place, marinating, storing, flip a smaller one over your burgers while grilling and it can melt the cheese on top. Use one to soak utensils before washing. Try one for an inexpensive roaster. Here's the small size - great for melting all that cheese...


            (Yet again, I'm linking to webstaurantstore. Honestly, I don't work there...)

            1. Here's my sense of the absolute essentials:

              A medium skillet (9-11"), a medium saucepan (2-3 qt), a boil pot (4-8 qt), and a large frying surface (10" or more actual flat surface) with relatively vertical sides. All with lids that fit well (but don't need to be of matching material to the pans; bonus points if any of the pans can share lids).
              Baking sheets with grid racks that fit in them.

              For maximum efficiency, the boil pot could be a stovetop pressure cooker, which can be used as a regular cookpot without its pressure lid. I'd also recommend that all four basic pans be ovenproof to 400F (and none non-stick).

              Chef's knife, cutting board, honing steel, and secure storage for the knife; tongs, blunt spoon, slotted spoon, whisk, silicone spoonula, peeler, scissors, colander, strainer. Oven thermometer. Timer.

              You can do a whole lot with just those items. Among them, I'd put the money into the knife and the skillet.

              Don't feel that you need to replace everything at once.

              Some items to consider for the second tier:
              Small casserole (2-3 qt), which if relatively straight-sided can be used for souffles and bread, and also works as a second saucepan.

              Medium-large gratin pan: non only good for gratins but for roasting and shallow baking.

              Large casserole (4-7 qt).

              A saucepan larger or smaller than the one in tier one, depending on what size went with there. You could also make this second saucepan a saucier, a rounded shape that makes whisking and stirring easier.

              Utility knife, bread knife, paring knife;
              Immersion blender, toaster. Instant-read thermometer. Mortar & pestle or spice/coffee grinder.

              From there on out, you can go in many directions, depending on what kinds of things you cook. I note that you mention baking, and I've pretty much ignored baking equipment; will let someone else define the essentials there.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ellabee

                I didn't explicitly say this in my first post, so I'll say it here: don't get a set of anything -- knives, pots & pans, utensils. Focus on getting the best material for the task each pan will do most often, and assemble them over time.

                I'd start with the knife you're going to use to cut stuff up every day, and a good cutting board. Those alone will make a huge difference to how well your kitchen functions.

              2. You can have a well equipped kitchen without spending giant bucks on the 'very best' knives and pans.

                Pans--be sure they are heavy enough. Thin pans scorch and warp. I have some Calphalons and Wear-ever pans that I bought as singles, on sale.

                Cast iron is great, and inexpensive--my vote is for thrift store cast iron, because the old pans are smoother. You will probably have to reseason them, but that is no big deal. My favorite one is a 10 inch skillet.

                Aluminum half sheet pans are a necessity in my kitchen, for baking cookies, pizza, roasting veggies. I bought mine at Sam's Club.

                Stainless steel slotted spoon, pancake turner, ladle. Some wooden spoons and spatulas. Silicon spatulas--look for the kind that are all one piece, because icky stuff grows in the two piece ones.

                I don't bake much, but you might want a couple cake pans and pie tins. I don't like non-stick cake/baking pans because they are too easy to damage. Again, the thrift shop is a good place for pyrex baking pans.

                1. I am not a fan of mashed potatoes but, I happened to marry someone who LOVES them. So, if I'm eating mashed potatoes, they need to be perfect. No lumps.

                  I see you consider mashed potatoes a favourite comfort food so, if I may, I'd suggest you re-consider your initial rejection of a ricer. A ricer or a food mill will provide you w mashed potato perfection. No more mashing. just perfectly smooth potatoes each and every time you serve them. Your friends and family will beg you for your secret. Honestly. If you like mashed potatoes, get a ricer!!

                  I'd also suggest:

                  3 high quality knives: a chef's knife, paring knife and serrated knife

                  a good quality cutting board that won't dull your pricy knives too much. search the "Cookware" board for brand suggestions.

                  a heavy gauge aluminum sheet pan

                  an enamelled cast iron dutch oven

                  one small (1 qt) and one 3 qt sauce pans - I like All Clad but it's all a matter of preference)

                  a mortar and pestle

                  one non stick frying pan

                  one 12" cast iron frying pan (you don't need smaller sizes if you have a big one)

                  an inexpensive large capacity pot to boil pasta in (and this can also be used for canning etc) again see Cookware board for recs

                  If you like rice, I'd consider a fuzzy logic rice cooker to be essential. You won't regret it.

                  A board scraper. I like these from France:


                  a springform pan

                  an 8" cake pan

                  ETA: I'm assuming you have some great tongs. I didn't mention them because I purchase mine at the Dollar Store and you asked about items to invest in. Tongs are essential IMHO and their sides should meet...not just their tips. That's why I like the ones from the $ store, I can squeeze them until their sides meet!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Breadcrumbs

                    I completely agree on the ricer or food mill.

                  2. Doesn't matter how good the equipment is if the cook doesn't have the knowledge , or skills to use them correctly. This goes for any endeavor IE; wood working, welding, painting, etc.

                    For me a stove, oven, a good frying pan, good knife, a bowl, and some basic utensiles like a big spoon, Foley fork, spatula, and a ladle will get a lot of meals made.

                    This question has so many variables that it will end up a mile long.

                    1. counterspace! as a renter in one old crappy kitchen a sturdy 1950's era 3-legged wooden ironing board found at a thrift store (not those newer stupid 2-legs with feet) used as a peninsula was a life saver, in another a beat-up but cool desk/table found in an alley, cleaned and artfully put up on a low cinder block base, created a cool island for 0$ but made the room useable.

                      everyone has ideas about essential gear, but you're nowhere with nowhere to use them.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: hill food

                        hill food,
                        Hey - whatever works, and the desk idea sounds cool!

                      2. This is a great end grain cutting board; when I bought mine it cost about $70. I bought one for a gift when it was reduced to this price, about $51. I wish I'd had one this size sooner. Only little quibble is that the feet underneath are too short; I need to replace with something. Just keep it dried off after you wash it.


                        Good knives are important. Can't live w/out good 1/2 sheet pans, you need at least 2. Look at restaurant supply places, get good quality, don't put in dishwasher.

                        I really love the parchment paper I buy from King Arthur; it's flat and fits perfectly in those half sheet pans (can't abide those roll up ones that never get flat!


                        An oven thermometer is essential; ovens are often off by 25-50 degrees. An instant read thermometer is also good to have.

                        1. I find a really really large stainless bowl often useful. You can really toss a salad for a party, or mix a big batch of turkey stuffing without flinging it on the floor. A couple of 2 and/or 4 qt square Cambro storage containers (restaurant supply store) can be invaluable as well.

                          1. There are several items for which I am often thankful I have several. So I will spare you my thoughts as to the best choices for brand, type, etc., but I think for a kitchen to be "well functioning" it helps to have multiple towels, half jelly roll pans, medium to large mixing bowls, wooden spoons and spatulas, silicone spatulas, sets of measuring cups, and tongs plus salt and pepper dedicated to the cooking area. Also it is nice to have a couple of saucepans.

                            1. You've already received a lot of good advice so I will try not to be redundant. The Bittman article is very solid.

                              A few items not mentioned by any of the posters ( or I missed them):
                              A box grater and a medium and fine microplane for grating cheese, citrus, etc.
                              a salad spinner
                              Colander, strainer, and folding metal vegetable steamer (I'd get these separate pieces in addition to or instead of a colander insert to a stock pot)

                              A few recommendations that you received from others, that deserve further thought:

                              Think hard about what kind of electrical appliances you buy, in terms of what you cook or aspire to cook. Some that have been suggested as "essentials" for your starter kitchen are not in ours, though we've had 30+ years to accumulate stuff, cook dinner practically every night, have a lot of cabinets, and are not budget restricted. For example:
                              A rice cooker - I know there are CH'ers who swear by them but you can make good rice in a simple saucepan. We eat rice at least once a week, making it in a 2.5 qt Cuisinart saucepan that I picked up on sale at one of the discount big boxes for about $30 several years ago.
                              A slow cooker - never owned one and don't miss it. We are not morning people so I cannot conceive of spending an additional 20 minutes before I go to work getting dinner organized. If we want stew on a weeknight, it's made in a pressure cooker. Otherwise we make braises etc on the weekend and eat it then, or reheat during the week. But, by all means get one if you think you will use it.
                              Potato ricer- again, I know there are people who swear by them. We use a manual potato masher. The lumps that remain are part of the home-made taste. But by all means buy one if you have a strong preference for perfectly smooth mashed potatoes.

                              Immersion blender/ food processor/ standing blender - each of these performs some overlapping tasks but they are not wholly interchangeable. If you mainly want a machine for purée-ing, then an immersion blender is your best tool, as it is inexpensive and does not take up much room. But you cannot make bread crumbs with an immersion blender, whereas you can with an FP or standing blender. Of course, you can make bread crumbs manually with a box grater, but that is far more labor intensive. So too, if you are likely to want large quantities of shredded or grated vegetables (cabbage for slaw or potatoes for pancakes), the FP is the only electrical appliance that will perform that task, although you can do these manually too. If I were to buy only one, it would be the FP. And for small mashing/ purée-ing tasks like guacamole or apple sauce, I'd just use a manual potato masher. There is a separate thread on this board called something like "should a single guy get a FP?," that fairly thoroughly addresses the relative merits of these 3 appliances, in terms of the tasks that various CHers use for each. You should read it to decide which is best suited to your needs.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: masha

                                Off topic, but Gotta ask... How do you make bread crumbs with a box grater? Fresh or dry? I hate getting the FP out to make crumbs from one slice of bread.

                                1. re: firecooked

                                  To make bread crumbs manually, it's easiest to work with a dried out baguette. Put it in the oven at a very low heat if there's any moisture. Then hold one end of the baguette and rub it against the grater just as you would a piece of cheese.

                                  Alternately, use the FP to make larger quantities of bread crumbs, then store them in an air tight container in the refrigerator or, for longer storage, in the freezer. That way, you don't need to pull out the FP when you only need a little bit of bread crumbs.

                              2. A chef's knife and a paring knife
                                12 inch sautee pan
                                2 qt saucepan
                                6 quart dutch oven
                                good cutting board
                                Roasting pan

                                Are the real essentials IMHO. Everything else is lagniappe.

                                1. Essential? Male, preferably 6' or more, well-built, mid 30s....And doesn't mind doing dishes.... And anything else I may ask

                                  1. This is great advice - the only thing I'd add is a mini food processor rather than a full size one. I use my mini-prep multiple times, every single day.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: foxybee

                                      What's the brand/model of the mini-prep you like?

                                      1. re: walker

                                        not foxybee but totally agree w her comment - though I know some will argue that if you have great knives, you really don't need one of these.

                                        I've had a mini-Cuisinart for 15 years and I've even taken it on self-catering vacations (by land and air). Yes, I've had people make fun of me for it but I honestly love it. Super-quick bread crumbs, ground parmesan, chop mega-amounts of garlic or ginger, whip up a quick salad dressing or marinade...you name it, it's up to the task. Cleans up easily and saves a ton of time.

                                        1. re: Breadcrumbs

                                          I'd rather have 2 mini cuisinarts than one jumbo.

                                    2. Goodness, this is fantastic! I'm a bit more ignorant of kitchen stuff than I realized - but that's great because I love to learn.

                                      The bulk of my cooking revolves around pasta with homemade sauce and a few variations of Italian dishes (think peppers and chicken); a basic American Asian stir-fry with sweet/sour or orange chicken; chicken fried chicken; a light lemon garlic chicken with potatoes or pasta. These are the things I make the best so they're what I make the most because I frankly don't have the money to waste ingredients. I really need to add more recipes to my repertoire! (I'm not a veggie person but hubby is.)

                                      I'd like suggestions for an alternative to non-stick. I have a standard sized cast iron skillet that needs to be refinished and reseasoned so some good links on how to do it properly are appreciated.

                                      Ricer for mashed potatoes? That sounds delicious, I may look into that.

                                      My baking really wouldn't go beyond French and Italian breads, pizza, biscuits, pretzels and dinner rolls. I'm HUGE on light yeast breads. There's nothing more delicious than a French baguette or Italian sesame loaf and my breadmaking technique is not consistent at all. Some great loaves, some that make me cry. I'd make them more if I could get a better idea of what I'm doing. I'm guessing a yeast bread class is really the way to go for someone who learns by doing and not reading/watching, huh?

                                      2 Replies
                                        1. re: JReichert

                                          Based on the dishes that you cook frequently, you may want to consider buying a sautee pan with lid, to use in lieu of a skillet for some recipes. A skillet has low, sloping sides, whereas a sautee pan has higher straight sides, so it's particularly well suited to stove-top cooking of dishes that involve sauces, tend to splatter, or that are too big to fit into your skillet.

                                          I never had a sautee pan until about 10 years ago, and now it's one of the basic work horses in our kitchen. It gets used at least 3 times a week. Although there are only 2 of us, I have a 5 qt size, but you can get them in 3 qt (and maybe 4 qt?) also. Ours is a Calphalon anadized aluminum. It is also good for dishes that start on the stove top and then are transferred to finish in the oven.

                                        2. My thanks to all the posters. I will be emailing this to my daughter who is currently starting out with her boy friend in their first house.

                                          Hope this helps, Snuggles!

                                          1. Lots of good stuff, but I think the other essential is good organization and efficiency. If you have a small kitchen you have a good start on efficiency, just make sure that you don't overcrowd your cupboards or drawers (and if you must use storage that is outside the kitchen, limit it to things are used occasionally). A big kitchen is more challenging: its easy to be so spread out that you can't be "well functioning", so many drawers you can't find what you want, 10 steps back and forth to empty the dishwasher, etc. So in addition to buying what fits what you cook, also be mindful of where you cook.