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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)

      5 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. re: foodieX2

            Great list I also have a cheese slicer the kind with the wire, potato masher, pizza cutter, tenderizing mallot, funnel, strainer, utensil holder, spice carousel. Big and small fruit basket. Cooling rack, stainless mixing bowls, one large glass bowl for make microwave fudge. Blender/ vita mix, counter top convection oven. Microwave. Kitchen aide mixer . So if you add these to the list. Well stocked. Don't for get the hot pads.

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

            http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/09/din...

            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...

              http://www.webstaurantstore.com/2-1-2...

              (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.