Notes on equipment

Pots and pans

Skillets

Description

Low, slope–sided pan made from clad aluminum or copper; cast iron or enameled cast iron; lined copper; raw or anodized aluminum; blue steel, or Teflon–coated aluminum. They rarely come with lids.

Sizes                                 

6 to 14 inches; 9 to 10 inches is most useful, though a small (5– or 6–inch) pan is handy for toasting nuts and spices.

Why you need one

Low sides are good for evaporation, so pan sauces reduce quickly. Despite the name, these are better for sauteeing than saute pans, if you’ve mastered flipping: the sloped sides encourage food to roll over. Lack of a lid means you will need to buy one (third–party lids are cheap) if you need it, or use a sauté pan instead. If your budget is limited, buy your other basic pots and pans first, with the exception of a reasonably–priced non–stick skillet for eggs and (maybe) fish. On the other hand, often cookware manufacturers will offer a small skillet at a very inexpensive teaser price, in which case, buy one.

Cast iron skillets

Description

We think of these as a separate category from other skillets. Traditionally, cast iron skillets are deeper than other skillets, with straighter sides, and so can also be used for shallow frying. Cast iron needs to be seasoned before using (seasoning consists of heating the pan with shortening or oil), although these days it often comes pre-seasoned.

Sizes

6 to 12 inches; 9 or 11 inches is, again, most useful.

Why you need one

You can probably do without one, but because they’re relatively inexpensive and very durable, they can make a nice addition to the kitchen. Cast iron is slower to heat up than copper or aluminum, but it holds heat extremely well, so it’s good for searing steaks and chops—it won’t lose much heat with the addition of a cool piece of meat the way an aluminum or clad pan will.

Sauté pans

Description                       

Low, straight–sided pan made from clad aluminum or copper; cast iron or enameled cast iron; lined copper; raw or anodized aluminum; or Teflon–coated aluminum. These usually come with lids (glass is nice but not essential).

Sizes                                 

2–, 3–, 5– and 6–quart

Why you need one           

A 3– or 5–quart sauté pan is the workhorse of the cooktop. It can stand in for a skillet, a saucepan, a brasier (and often a Dutch oven), even a deep fryer in some circumstances, if you promise to be careful.

Saucepans, sauciers

Description 

High–sided pot (typically, pots are the ones with sides higher than their bottoms are wide, but you’ll find variations and hybrids). Made from clad aluminum or copper; cast iron or enameled cast iron; lined copper; raw or anodized aluminum; or Teflon–coated aluminum. Saucepans have more–or–less squared bottoms; sauciers have curved bottoms.

Sizes                                 

Anything and everything from slightly less than a quart to 9–quarts.

Why you need one           

You actually need two: one of about a quart, and one 2.5– to 5–quarts. The small one can be used to warm up (or keep warm) small amounts of things; as the bottom of a makeshift double boiler; for reducing liquids, and a bunch of other things that will occur to you spontaneously. The larger one is used for soups and stews, making sauces, and can even be used for braises and for deep frying.

Dutch ovens

Description                       

These are distinguished from saucepans by size (there’s not really any such thing as a small Dutch oven) and by the use of loop handles rather than a single long handle (sometimes with a “helper” loop handle). Dutch ovens are high–sided and always lidded. The similar French oven has proportionately lower sides. These are expensive pieces. A lidded saute or larger saucepan can often do the job, until you’ve decided what you need and have saved up your money.

Sizes                                 

Except for novelty pieces, Dutch ovens are large: 3–1/2 quarts and up (like 13 quarts!) They come in round and oval versions (round is more versatile). Enameled cast iron is the best choice, for its easy clean–up and versatility (most pieces are pretty enough to take from the oven to the table).

Why you need one           

Unless you’re braising or stewing for a crowd, or you find enameled cast iron to be irresistible, you probably don’t. Save your money until you know exactly what you want.

Stockpots

Description                       

A tall pot made from almost anything. The thermodynamics that loom over material choices for other pieces are irrelevant when it come to stockpots, because the thermal capacity of what you’ll be putting it will have far more effect than whether or not you’re using aluminum, steel or copper.

Sizes                                 

More or less by definition, stockpots start at six or eight quarts and go from there. (Restaurant stockpots are measured in gallons.)

Why you need one           

You don’t, until you’re ready to start making your own stocks, although they are handy for cooking pasta. If you decide to get one, however, look for on that’s 12– to 16–quarts.

Specialty pieces

Low/braising casseroles

Description                       

This low–sided pan is almost exclusively made from enameled cast iron. Casseroles have low sides and come with lids. They are great for small braises (serving two to four people), and can be used for things like macaroni and cheese as well. It has loop handles, like a Dutch oven.

Sizes                                 

2–1/2 quarts up to 5–1/2.

Why you need one           

You don’t, but you’ll probably want one. It’s an attractive, versatile piece that can stand in for a sauté pan (though you’ll miss the saute’s handle), and is often a better choice for braising than a Dutch oven.

Chef’s pan/wok

Description                       

A deep saucer–shaped pan. A wok will have a rounded or very small bottom—so small that it’s an awkward fit on most domestic cooktops. A chef’s pan will have a flat, broader bottom. Most examples have loop handles and lids. Woks are often made out of blue steel, a specialty material that requires seasoning; chef’s pans are constructed from one of the more usual materials or material combination.

Sizes                                 

Woks are usually measured (across the top) in inches: 10 to 16 are the most common. Chef’s pans are measured in quarts—anywhere from 3 to 6.

Why you need one           

We don’t recommend woks for household use. Their cross–section is problematic when it comes to balance, and most cooktops can’t generate the heat necessary to make a wok effective. We don’t usually recommend chef’s pans, either, but if you get one as a gift, or as part of an otherwise useful set (and it’s not costing you much), they can be used for a variety of things: soups and stews, braises, frying. Unfortunately, it’s not especially good at any of these things, so it’s always the second or third choice in your batterie.

Stovetop grill pan/skillet

Description                       

A ridged pan, round or square (Lodge, Scanpan and Le Creuset also make long rectangular versions that can be used over two burners), that allows you to “grill” on the stovetop. It’s not a substitute for a charcoal fire, but it can be used to apply grill marks (called “quadrillage”) to steaks, chops and so forth, which is attractive, and if done properly, adds a nice charred flavor and aroma. Although they’re made in many different materials, the only one worth considering is cast iron or enameled cast iron. “Grilling” this way requires fairly high heat, which will almost always warp aluminum, and the spattering that results is much easier to clean off a seasoned surface than off stainless steel. The technique also benefits from the high heat capacity of iron.

Sizes                                 

9 inches square up to 11” x 20”

Why you need one           

It’s not an essential item for the beginner, but if this is the kind of cooking you want to do, nothing else will work.

Griddle

Description                       

A flat surface heated with its own element or over a burner (or two). Self–contained electric griddles are usually made from Teflon–coated aluminum; stovetop units also come in iron, steel–clad aluminum or copper. Avoid a stovetop unit made from cast or spun aluminum; it will warp, and there’s nothing more useless than a warped griddle. Some grill pans are reversible, with one ridged side and one smooth.

Sizes                                 

Same as grill pans.

Why you need one           

A griddle is most useful for making large quantities of things like eggs, sausages, hot dogs, burgers and such. If your routine includes large breakfasts, a griddle can be really handy. For burgers, you’re better off using a real grill or the broiler (if you have a decent one) to make them for a crowd. If you have need of an electric skillet, consider getting one large enough that it can do double duty as a griddle.

Pressure cooker

Description                       

A stockpot–like vessel that can be sealed and pressurized. This raises the boiling point of water, allowing you to cook in liquid at temperatures higher than 212 F. In practical terms, this means that many things that usually take a long time to cook (braises and beans, for example) can be done in much less time. They used to be considered a little dangerous, but today’s units are safe and nearly foolproof. Some can also be used as a regular pot.

Sizes                                 

2–1/2 to 8–1/2 quarts

Why you need one           

If you cook a lot of things that require long simmering and don’t have the time or patience to wait. They’re not cheap, though—an example of time being money. If you’re thinking about buying one, keep in mind that because of the pressure, they can only be filled half to two-thirds full; thus it makes sense to get at least a 6-quart size.

Gadgets

Strainers/colanders         

These come in all shapes and sizes. To start, you probably need two: one large coarse colander for draining pasta and boiled vegetables; one small fine one for straining sauces and juices.

Peelers                              

Peeler strategy comprises two parts. First, decide on your buying strategy: cheap and disposable, or expensive and durable. Then decide whether you prefer the Y–shaped peeler or the traditional swivel. Note that if you go the cheap–and–disposable route, you can afford both, but expensive models are usually more comfortable, stay sharper longer, and sometimes come with finely serrated blades that preserve more of your food.

Citrus Squeezers              

The quickest way to get juice out of lemons, limes and small (or quartered) oranges. Cheap versions are available in raw or enameled aluminum, but we recommend stainless steel. It’s more expensive, but it’s dishwasher–safe, won’t corrode, and won’t leaves flakes of paint in your cocktails.

Graters                             

Like colanders, you need two: one large coarse (though most large graters have at least two degrees); and one relatively fine (the ribbon style is most versatile). Before buying one, at least mimic your grating action with it. Many models look great on the shelf, but turn out to be frightful in actual use.

Openers                            

Can openers: we recommend a safe–edge opener, like those made by Zyliss and Rosle. Otherwise, look for comfortable handles and easy cleaning (dishwasher–safe models are essential).

Wine openers: the traditional waiter’s corkscrew is sufficient for all but the oldest or most poorly treated bottles. Most of them come with integrated bottle openers, solving that tool issue as well. (If you have a collection of old wine in delicate bottles, you can afford a Screwpull Lever or a Rabbit.)

Tongs                               

Forget the ones with loop handles and grabbers that your mom used. What you want are locking tongs. Locks come in a variety of styles, from simple metal rings to gravity–operated mechanisms (what we call “magic tongs”). You can spend a lot or a little for tongs; investigate the mechanisms, and let your budget and coordination be your guide. If you use a lot of non–stick cookware, get at least one pair with silicone tips.

Whisks                              

You need at least one of medium size. Make sure it has a comfortable handle, because there are times when you’ll think it’s become an extension of your wrist. Avoid the surprising array of novelty sizes and materials—get the classic shape, made from stainless steel. If you use non–stick cookware, get a silicone version, too.

Thermometers                 

Eventually you’ll want three: an instant–read, a candy/deep–fry, and a probe. To start, though, all you need is a battery–operated probe thermometer that will measure up to 392 F. This is the most expensive of the three, but it’s by far the most versatile, especially if you buy a few bulldog clips (these will let you affix the probe in pots and pans).

Measuring cups               

Liquids: even though we would prefer them to made from glass (it’s less likely to melt or leach than plastic) we like Oxo’s angled measuring cups. In any case, get clear vessels (Pyrex would be our other choice) in at least 1– and 4–cup sizes. You’ll probably also find Oxo’s mini–cup (1/2 ounce to 2 ounces) cheap and very handy.

Solids: this is one of the few times we recommend buying sets (if you can find one that includes a 1/8–cup measure, you’ll thank us later). Stainless steel is best, but make sure the cups aren’t tippy—sometimes the handles are so heavy that the cups won’t sit flat on the counter. Plastic will do (and it’s cheaper), but it can melt, often cracks, and the markings don’t seem to last as long as they should (metal cups often have their labels etched for just this reason).

Measuring spoons           

Again, buy a set—it should include 1/4–teaspoon (though 1/8 would be even better) through 1 tablespoon. We prefer stainless steel over plastic, but more importantly, deep spoons are better than shallow—they’re more accurate.

Scale                                 

Although measuring accurately is important, there are ingredients and recipes (especially in baking) where you’ll want the accuracy of a scale. Unless you want to replace it right away, skip the dials and go for digital. You’ll want one that “tares,” or zeros out—this will compensate for the weight of your measuring vessel as well as allow you to add one ingredient on top of another in a bowl. Most digital scales will switch from grams to ounces; look for a scale where you can do this easily. Finally, unless you plan to do a lot of bread, you probably don’t need a scale that goes over 5 pounds or so.

Bash ‘n’ chop                    

Also called a bench scraper, this is an indispensable tool: with one, you can smash garlic, cut doughs or ground meats, measure, clean (well, roughly), divide or consolidate ingredients. They come in a variety of styles: some have rulers, some have high sides for scooping; plastic, steel and wood/steel are the usual materials; avoid the last because the riveted handle will work lose and collect grime before that. One is great; two is better; three is heaven.

Garlic press                      

If you use a lot of garlic, get one—we’ll explain in the class why the ruckus over mince vs. press is mostly nonsense. Get one that’s easy to clean even after you lose the little cleaning tool that accompanies some of them. Avoid units with sharp creases and deep corners.

Spoons/spatulas              

Metal: A solid metal spoon is usually the best thing for mixing potato salads, casseroles and the like. A slotted metal spoon is helpful for removing items from hot liquids. You can get along without either for a while, but you’ll be surprised at how many times you’ll miss them. An alternative to a slotted spoon is a spider: a long-handled coarse–mesh strainer.

Wooden: Dave likes wooden or bamboo spoons for pan work—stirring, flipping and the like. The best kind aren’t round, they have a corner at one side and flat edge that curves up the other side.

Silicone: Janet prefers silicone spatulas, which of course are qualified for multiple chores: mixing, spreading and the like. Note that Dave’s preferred wooden spoon actually mimics the shape of a silicone spatula.

The other spatula             

“Spatula” is a confusing term—it can mean (as above) a usually flexible tool to scrape out a bowl, or it can mean a metal or plastic tool to flip food over. Like spoons, they come in solid or slotted versions. A small, thin metal spatula is good for cookies, if you bake them, or pancakes or similar foods. A larger slotted spatula can do double duty for lifting and draining items cooked in oil. Thin metal spatulas that are covered with a silicone layer are great for non-stick pans.

V–slicer                            

This is a simplified version of the more versatile (and much more expensive) mandoline. Although it requires care and precaution (you should invest in a protective glove), it can slice more finely and more quickly than almost anyone using a knife. Some models can also cut julienne–style. Benriner and Kyocera make the best ones.

Pepper mill                       

It sounds like a cliché by now, but freshly–ground pepper really does make a difference. Avoid the novelty designs, especially those made out of plastic or requiring batteries; a good pepper mill is an investment, and these don’t last long enough to qualify. If you’ve got the money for a good grinder, look at Peugeot, Magnum and William Bounds, and go for adjustability of grind (from dust to pebbles) and robust mechanics over fashion. If you can’t afford a good one, even the cheap grinder you can get at the grocery store is preferable to pre–ground pepper.

Steamer basket                

This collapsible device turns almost any lidded pot or pan into a steamer. (It’s why you don’t see a steamer insert listed with the cookware.) Get one with a sturdy handle; this is where the device is most vulnerable. Eventually, the whole thing will corrode, but you’ll have gotten plenty of use out of it.

Mixing bowls                   

We recommend stainless steel (some come with helpful rubber bases that usually help to keep bowls from wandering across the counter when you mix things in them) or glass. Metal can’t go in the microwave, but it’s a lot lighter. A beginner needs 1–, 2– and 4–quart sizes. If you run across a set with lids, so much the better. You can go for ceramic here, but it’s expensive and heavy. Another option is melamine—it’s strong, food–safe and light. It will crack if you leave it too long in the microwave, however, and eventually the surface accumulates scratches and the color fades.

Prep bowls                       

We’re flexible when it comes to mise en place in the home kitchen (it’s a valuable habit to cultivate, though sometimes impractical to employ), but the little bowls that are usually associated with this professional technique might change your life. It used to be that home cooks used Pyrex custard cups almost exclusively, but now you can find bowls in bamboo, silicone, metal and plastic. Glass is nice for visibility, metal is inexpensive, silicone can be helpfully flexible. Whatever material you decide on (and you might choose different types for different tasks), get a few each in quarter–, half–, and whole cup sizes.

Towels                              

One word: cotton. Polyester blends can be pretty and all, but they aren’t as absorbent, and they don’t deal with bleach very well. We like a two–basket system: one full of clean flour–sack towels, and one to collect the dirties. If you want to go all–out pro style, buy some heavy–duty towels too, and lose the potholders or hang them as decorations.

Knives

Before you spend serious money on knives, spend some time trying them out—a good cookware store will let you do this (as will a really good buddy, but we don’t suggest that you make it your single test of friendship—cooks can be very protective of their cutlery). Buy the ones that fit your hand and feel balanced to you, regardless of the brand. Until you’re ready to make the investment, check out a restaurant supply store for less expensive stamped blades (most expensive knives are forged or laser-cut and carefully shaped) made from high–carbon stainless steel. They won’t last as long and they’re not as nice to look at, but they’ll get the job done—and maybe you’ll decide that you prefer them. That’s okay, too. Whatever you buy, get a good steel and learn how to use it. Also, get your knives sharpened regularly—twice a year isn’t too often, if you cook most every day.

The most common advice you’ll hear about knife sizes is to start with a chef’s knife (8 to 10 inches), a paring knife (3 to four inches) and a serrated bread knife. We beg to differ. Paring knives aren’t used for paring anymore—in the 21st century, we use peelers. These days, they’re useful for cutting small things and opening parcels, but we think you’ll get much more use out of what’s called a utility knife—a slim blade of 5 to 6 inches. It can be used for anything a paring knife can (we were joking about the packages; please don’t use your good knives for that), plus it works as a boning knife and can be employed where the larger chef’s knife is awkward.

Speaking of larger: a bigger chef’s knife isn’t necessarily better. A six–inch knife that feels good in your hand—that feels like an extension of your hand—is better than 10–inch macho blade that secretly scares you. There are some advantages to a long blade: it lets you address bigger cuts of meat, and the sheer weight of the blade can make the knife itself do more of the work. But if you’re not comfortable using it, your knife work will suffer.

As for the bread knife, we’d opt for the similar–but–smaller tomato knife (the former is usually 8 inches; the latter about 5). It can cut all but the biggest loaves of bread, but it’s also more practical for soft fruits like peaches and tomatoes. Eventually, you’ll want both, and if you have the money, consider a less expensive stamped blade for bread and a more substantial tomato knife.

Cutting boards                

There are two essential rules for buying cutting boards. Although you’ll probably accumulate a variety of sizes, for your first, get the biggest one that will fit on your counter. Second, don’t buy anything that’s harder than your knife. If your knife doesn’t leave marks on your board, the board is too hard, and will damage your knives. That means glass, porcelain and metal are out, leaving plastic and wood (usually maple or oak, though Ikea carries a good cheap board made from birch, and sustainable bamboo is becoming more popular).

Plastic is dishwasher–safe and sometimes comes with anti–skid bottoms. Studies have shown that plastic is more likely to harbor bacteria than wood (but you’re not going to let things get to that point, are you?)

Wood is potentially safer, arguably more beautiful, and undeniably more expensive. They’re a little softer than plastic, hence easier on your knives. (Don’t buy a wood board that’s varnished or finished with a coating – it will come off in your food.) Both materials are subject to warping, except for the most expensive wooden boards, which are made from end–grain woods (these are the ones that look like checkerboards) and will probably out–live you.

Epicurean-brand boards are made of layers of paper that are then soaked with phenolic resin and cured to create a solid sheet. The boards are dishwasher safe, heat resistant, and very thin and lightweight (so much so that you’ll probably need to anchor them with a damp towel or foam backing).

Appliances

Blender                            

Though they look old–fashioned, the taller versions blend better. Glass jars are superior (plastic will eventually craze and get cloudy). A lot of speeds isn’t important, but a powerful motor is; although it’s not a direct measure of power, wattage is a good indicator or motor strength. For many cooks, a blender is more useful than a food processor.

Food processor                

Another case where bigger isn’t necessarily better. Unless you want to make lots of bread dough very quickly (food processors are excellent at this), or you have a huge family, or you intend to make gallons of trout mousse, you might be better served by a smaller model. If you’re dead–set on a big one (and we’re not convinced that, as a beginner, you even need a food processor), check out the models with both large and small bowls. As with blenders, the more powerful motor, the better. Ignore the cheaper versions, the combination styles (unless they’re really expensive) and those with belt drives; if you really need a food processor, it’s worth spending the money to get a good one. It will last for years.

Stand mixer                     

Nearly indispensable for mixing large quantities of stuff, very helpful for making doughs and batters, but not necessarily required for the novice. Look for powerful models (check the wattage) that are extensible with attachments like meat grinders and pasta rollers. Make sure you buy one that’s going to be big enough; you’re going to be spending at least a couple of hundred dollars (if you’re not, you need to set your sights higher), so it’s not something you’re going to want to replace when you realize you should have gotten the bigger one.

Hand mixer                     

If you don’t buy a stand mixer, you probably want to invest in a hand mixer (the kind your mother probably used, with two beaters that fit into the base of a hand-held piece of plastic or metal). If you think you’ll be whipping cream or egg whites, or making cakes, it will save you time and a sore elbow.

Microwave oven              

Learning to cook well with a microwave oven is a rarefied skill, and though there are a few good cookbooks on the subject, we don’t use them for cooking, per se. They’re great for heating ingredients and reheating leftovers, melting chocolate and butter (but be careful). A small microwave can be a helpful tool, but it’s hardly essential.

Spice grinder                   

Otherwise known as a blade–style coffee grinder. If your cuisine runs to lots of spices (allspice, peppers, cumin, dillseed, etc.), this relatively inexpensive device can make a big difference in the quality of your cooking. Whole spices keep longer and taste better because you toast and grind them as needed. An alternative is the Cuisinart Mini–Mate, which has a reversible blade for chopping or grinding.

Slow cooker/crock pot    

Like the pressure cooker, the crockpot is a time machine—it just does it in the opposite direction, slowing things down to accommodate your schedule. There’s nothing that you can do in a crockpot that you can’t do in a low oven with a brasier or a sauté pan, but if you do a lot of this style of dish, the crockpot is probably less expensive to operate. Most people also feel more comfortable leaving a crockpot on while they’re out than the oven. Look for models that have dishwasher–safe inserts (the inserts should have decently–sized handles). A programmable timer and a “keep–warm” setting are very helpful, too.

Deep fryer                        

For educational and budgetary purposes, you should start your deep-frying in a large pot (cast iron or enameled cast iron are best) with a thermometer. Once you’ve mastered that, you can graduate to a dedicated appliance. Look for high power (in the neighborhood of 1800 watts), adjustable temperature and large oil capacity. The most important feature of a deep fryer is rapid temperature recovery; lots of oil and power help. Beyond that, removable baskets and vessels are easier to clean, and a vented cover will keep grease from coating your walls and counters.

The Minimalist Kitchen

Pots and pans

1-qt saucier or saucepan; no lid required

2-1//2 – 3-qt saucepan with lid

3- to 4-qt sauté pan with lid

1/4 or 1/2 sheetpan with rack

Optional:

For egg lovers: 8- to 9-inch nonstick skillet

For pasta lovers: 12-qt. stock pot or multicooker

For soups, stews or braises: 4- to 6-qt Dutch oven

For baking, lasagna, roasting, gratinees: 8” x 10” or 9” x 13” Pyrex baking dish

Gadgets

2 or 3 bowls, stainless or glass, 1-qt and 4-qt. If you opt for three, add a 2-qt.

Optional: a set of graduated, nesting glass bowls

Grater, box (Cuisipro-style) or flat (Zyliss-style)

Can opener, safety-style (Zyliss or Rosle)

2 narrow whisks, one small, one medium

3 wooden spoons (look for inexpensive sets made from bamboo)

1 long handled slotted spoon or spider

Medium silicone scraping spatula

Metal or plastic flat turning spatula

Collapsible steamer basket

Large strainer or colander

Small strainer

9-inch locking tongs

Digital probe thermometer (0° – 392° F)

Bench scraper, metal or plastic

1-inch pastry brush

Lemon-sized citrus press

1/4-cup stainless steel ladle

Waiter’s corkscrew with bottle opener

Measuring cups, liquid: 1-, 2- and 4-cup, glass or clear plastic

Measuring cups, solid: set of 1/8 to 1-cup, stainless steel

Measuring spoons, set of ¼ teaspoon to 1 tablespoon, stainless steel

Pepper mill with adjustable grind

Knives

Chef’s knife, 6 to 10 inches, according to your comfort level

Utility knife, 4 to 6 inches

Bread knife, 8 inches or tomato knife, 4 to 6 inches

Cutting board: the largest you have room for. If you buy a plastic or Epicurean board, make sure it will fit in your dishwasher. Consider flexible cutting mats as an option to cover wooden boards.

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