Becoming a good cook begins with the basics–-using the right ingredients, techniques, and equipment. The time and energy you expend in the kitchen can easily be reduced by organizing the space to fit your needs. Store utensils and small appliances near the area where you'll use them. Keep pot holders, kitchen towels, and baking pans near the cooktop and oven. Separate small utensils and gadgets in drawer trays. Keep a variety of spoons, spatulas, and other frequently used utensils in a container near your work area, so you'll always have them at your fingertips. Store knives in a knife block or on a magnetic strip that hangs on the wall where they'll be safe and easily accessible.
Review our basic equipment recommendations and then examine your current supplies for future needs.
Consider buying individual pieces you know you'll use rather than a whole set, and get the best your budget allows.
- Pots and pans: Choose pots and pans of heavy gauge (thickness) and sturdy construction, so they won't warp, dent, or scorch. Look for thick bottoms, tight-fitting lids, and heat-resistant handles that are securely attached. Select 1-, 2-, and 3-quart saucepans; a Dutch oven; and a tall, narrow stockpot, all with tight-fitting lids.
- Skillets: A 12-inch heavy skillet with a lid will prove most useful, as will a 6-inch skillet for omelets and 8- and 10-inch versions (at least one should be nonstick). A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is an inexpensive alternative to a nonstick skillet. You can find them at antiques shops, yard sales, and flea markets.
Shiny aluminum and stainless steel bakeware produce the best results. They conduct heat evenly and encourage a brown crust, while dark pans can cause overbrowning. Always use the pan size specified in a recipe. The correct way to measure pans is across the inside top edges.
- Baking pans and dishes: Baking pans are metal; dishes are glass. If a recipe calls for a pan and you have only a glass dish in that size, reduce oven temperature by 25º. You'll need 8- and 9-inch square pans and/or baking dishes, a 13- x 9-inch pan and baking dish, an 11- x 7-inch baking dish, and a broiler pan with a rack.
- Loafpans: Metal pans measuring 9 x 5 inches and 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches are the most common.
- Muffin pans: Purchase a muffin pan that holds 12 muffins rather than 6. Most muffin pan cups measure 2 1/2 inches across the top.
- Pieplates: Use glass or ceramic ones. The standard size is 9 inches. Deep-dish pieplates are 9 1/2 inches.
- Cakepans: It is good to have three 8- and 9-inch round cakepans. Also consider a tube pan for angel food cake and large pound cakes, a Bundt pan for small pound cakes, and a 9-inch springform pan for cheesecakes.
- Wire racks: Collect two or three large wire racks if you like to bake cookies. Smaller round or square wire racks work well for cake layers and muffins.
EQUIPMENT AND TOOLS
- Bowls: You can never have too many mixing bowls. Graduated-size bowls stack and store easily.
- Brushes: A pastry brush and/or basting brush is useful for applying glazes and marinades to breads, meats, and other food. When selecting a brush, be sure that the bristles are securely attached to the handle.
- Colander: A metal or sturdy plastic colander is essential for draining cooked pasta, vegetables, and canned foods.
- Cutting board: For food safety, two cutting boards are necessary–a wooden one for vegetables and a plastic one for meats.
- Garlic press: This makes short work of crushing garlic, in or out of its skin. It can also be used to squeeze juice from a piece of onion or ginger.
- Grater: Invest in a sturdy upright steel grater that has four different hole sizes.
- Kitchen shears: You'll use this gadget for cutting fresh herbs and cooked chicken and for removing excess fat from meat.
- Knives: Invest in a couple of good knives. Purchase a small (3- to 4-inch blade) paring knife, a 10-inch-blade chef's knife, and a midsize utility knife with a 6- to 8-inch blade.
- Large utility spoons: Include an assortment of plastic, metal, unslotted, and wooden spoons for stirring and mixing. A large slotted spoon is helpful for removing items from liquid. Ladles are perfect for soups, stews, and sauces.
- Measuring cups: Select a nested set of metal or plastic measuring cups for dry ingredients in graduated sizes of 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup, and 1/4 cup. You'll also need glass or clear-plastic liquid measuring cups in 1-, 2-, and 4-cup sizes.
- Measuring spoons: Select two sets of measuring spoons that graduate from 1/8 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon.
- Metal or rubber turners: Large and small turners make flipping pancakes, hamburgers, or eggs easy.
- Openers (electric, hand, bottle, and corkscrew): Include a variety of devices for opening bottles of your favorite beverages. Along with an electric model, don't forget a manual can opener in case your power is out.
- Pastry blender: The blades of a pastry blender make it very easy to cut butter or shortening into pea-size pieces while incorporating it into a flour mixture.
- Pastry and pasta cutter: The rotating wheel on this gadget cuts a wavy edge in pasta or pastry for pies.
- Potato masher: This tool does a fast job of mashing cooked potatoes and other soft foods.
- Rolling pin: A large wooden rolling pin is necessary for rolling pastry and biscuit dough.
- Steamer basket: Great for steaming vegetables, an inexpensive folding model conforms to different-size pots and is dishwasher safe.
- Spatulas (rubber and metal): Several sizes of these with durable rubber, one-piece construction are handy for scraping every bit of batter out of a bowl, mayonnaise out of a jar, and more. Large and small metal spatulas work well for spreading frosting and batter. Although a little more expensive, a heat-proof rubber spatula is a perfect tool for nonstick cooking surfaces, as well as its regular uses.
- Thermometers: We recommend three types for cooking–a meat thermometer, a combination candy/deep-fry thermometer that clips onto a pan, and an all-purpose instant-read thermometer. Oven and refrigerator thermometers are optional, inexpensive investments that help ensure accurate cooling and cooking times.
- Timer: This item assists in the kitchen and any place in the home as a reminder that it's time to remove a casserole from the oven or that chilling time is complete. A simple dial timer, electronic timer, digital electric clock/timer with a clip, stand, or magnet ranging from $5 to $30 is invaluable.
- Tongs: Metal tongs will turn meat and many other foods as they cook without piercing and releasing their juices.
- Wire-mesh strainers: Look for stainless steel strainers with a coarse or fine wire mesh. A basic bowl strainer is used to drain or separate liquid from solid. A strainer is called a sieve when it's used to separate coarse particles from fine ones.
- Wire whisk: There are many sizes of whisks on the market. Choose a small, medium, and large elongated stainless steel wire whisk, and choose a balloon whisk that feels comfortable in your hand for whipping egg whites.
- Vegetable peeler: If you choose swivel or Y-shaped peelers, buy one with a comfortable grip and a nonslip handle. Stainless steel blades glide through tough vegetable and fruit skins easily.