If the first step to sustainable and healthy eating is cooking for oneself, then the walking shoes are a cook’s essential kitchen tools. For novice home cooks, the daunting prospects of detailed recipes, complicated meal planning guides and restaurant-quality cooking techniques turn many away from ever attempting their first dish.
As an advocate of simple and individualized recipes and a cook what you love philosophy, I hope to encourage folks to overcome these ungrounded fears and take the plunge into self-sufficiency and home cooking. Even with such a can-do attitude, however, it takes more than motivation and a hungry appetite to get started as a home cook. When the pantry is stocked, the ingredients are bought and the dread of diving into the culinary unknown subsides, the next critical phase of the novice cook’s journey must begin: preparing the toolkit.
Without the right tools – the right pots, pans, knives and utensils – even the most skilled chefs struggle; just watch Cutthroat Kitchen. For beginner home cooks, it’s therefore crucial to start with a well-stocked kitchen. This preparation makes every recipe easier and each step in the cooking process smoother, spurring creativity rather than dissuading one from venturing beyond the pre-packaged.
To help novice home cooks prepare their kitchens and begin a life of healthy, sustainable cooking and eating, I turned to my own kitchen for inspiration. Below is a guide featuring the ten essential cooking tools that my wife and I purchased when we began our lives together and started cooking for ourselves, and these items continue to provide the foundation of our cooking toolkit. Although we shopped primarily at Ikea to furnish our kitchen, any quality home goods store will work.
1) Stainless Steel Five-Piece Cookware Set
The very first item that my wife and I purchased to stock our kitchen was a five-piece stainless steel cookware set from Ikea. Included in the package were a skillet, a sauce pot, two medium-sized pots and a nine-quart stock pot. Since making that purchase a few years ago, we haven’t added a single stainless pot or pan to our arsenal. Although it costs a bit more for such a large cookware set, the investment is well worth it. Having multiple pots allows you to cook multiple items at once if needed, and having a stock pot is a life-saver for large one-pot meals – like paella and jambalaya – or for cooking pasta.
2) Roasting Pan
From simple one-pan dinners to gourmet roasts, cooking options abound with a large metal roasting pan. Since roasting pans – as opposed to sheet-pans or baking sheets – have high walls, you can cook larger quantities and never worry about drippings. My wife and I use our roasting pan nearly every week to cook everything from lasagna to enchiladas. Moreover, most large roasting pans come with a rack insert, a critical tool for making gravies and cooking high starch foods like plantains.
3) Wooden Spoons
Probably more than any other utensil, the spoon is a cook’s best friend. Used to stir, taste, toss and serve food, a good quality wooden spoon is almost as essential as one’s hands. I recommend purchasing wooden spoons – rather than metal, bamboo or plastic varieties – for a number of reasons. First, they don’t retain heat and can sit on the edge of a pot without getting too hot. They also absorb the taste of whatever you’re cooking, so when you taste-test your food you get a better read on its flavor profile. Finally, wooden spoons have a rustic feel, which makes cooking more enjoyable and relaxing. For more versatility, go for a spoon set that includes a regular spoon, a slotted spoon and a flat edged turner.
4) Three-Piece Knife Set
Although I’m no expert on cutlery nor do I prefer any specific brands, having a good quality three-piece knife set is an absolute must in the kitchen. Since purchasing our first set nearly three years ago, my wife and I have only added two additional knives to our toolkit: a bread knife and an extra paring knife. A simple, utilitarian three-piece set – which includes a paring knife, a utility knife and a chef’s knife – is pretty much all any home cook needs. From slicing and dicing to peeling and cutting chiffonades, these three blades can tackle everything from the most basic of cuts to the most precise knife-work. As a bonus, I recommend purchasing an easy-to-use knife sharper as well to give your blades increased longevity.
5) Stainless Steel Turner
Not to be confused with a spatula – which is meant more for spreading ingredients like icing and used primarily in baking – a turner is a crucial tool for any kitchen. Used for flipping or serving, a turner is indispensable for sautéing, searing and pan-frying everything from lasagna and pancakes to salmon filets and crab cakes. I prefer using a larger, stainless steel turner – as opposed to a plastic or wooden one – as it won’t bend or wear out as quickly.
6) Cast Iron Skillet
Being from the South, it’s no surprise that one of the first cookware items my wife and I purchased was a cast iron skillet. This hefty, rustic pan is a must for soul and comfort food favorites, but it also makes a great vessel for anything pan fired or sautéed. Due to its rugged construction, a cast iron skillet holds and distributes heat extremely well. One great perk to a cast iron skillet is that you can use it on a burner or put it in the oven, allowing you to sauté a dish and then broil or bake it. To make the best use of your cast iron skillet, avoid washing it as much as possible. Instead, when you’re done cooking and it cools down, scrub it with coarse salt, wipe it clean with paper towels and season it lightly with oil.
7) Dutch Oven
Another relic of bygone culinary eras is the Dutch oven. Originally meant like the cast iron skillet for cooking over an open flame, a Dutch oven is durable, heavy and resilient. Whether cooking on the stove or baking in the oven, this stout pot makes a perfect vessel for numerous dishes. My wife and I turn to our trusty Dutch oven for a mock tagine pot, a rice cooker and a fryer. Although Le Creuset makes perhaps the most iconic Dutch oven available, any quality brand will do.
More than any other kitchen utensil, tongs feel like an extension of my hand. From swirling pasta noodles and tossing greens to turning veggies and meats in the oven, our cooking tongs get used as much if not more than any single piece of cookware my wife and I own. They are convenient and multi-purpose – like a culinary Swiss Army knife – and without them I feel lost in the kitchen. Don’t be afraid to spend a few extra dollars for a pair of sturdy metal tongs, as these will last longer and handle any cooking task you can throw their way.
9) Metal Colander
Without a colander, certain food items are simply impossible to cook, particularly pasta. However, beyond straining hot noodles, a colander is also instrumental for washing food. Anytime my wife and I cook with greens, root veggies or small fruits, we always turn to our colander to give them a good rinse. Even when fruits and vegetables have been pre-washed, it’s still a great idea to clean them yourself – after all, if you buy in bulk, you never know what hands have touched them before your own. Having used plastic colanders in the past, I much prefer a high-quality metal version, which holds up better to daily cooking.
10) Wooden Cutting Board
The final item on my list is one that provides the foundation for almost any meal. It goes almost without saying how instrumental a great cutting board is in the kitchen; after all, you’d be hard-pressed to slice, dice or chop any ingredient without it. However, as any experienced cook will tell you, not all cutting boards are created equal. While it’s tempting to purchase the first inexpensive cutting board you find, I highly recommend loosening the purse strings and opting for a higher quality alternative. I’ve used plastic and bamboo cutting boards in the past, and I find they wear down or crack rather quickly. About two years ago, my wife and I purchased a handmade butcher’s block style cutting board from a vendor at Findlay Market, and we’ve been using it continually without any issues. Handcrafted from thick hardwoods, our cutting board doesn’t bow or crack, and it handles all the knife work we can throw at it.
I hope you found this list of top ten essential cooking tools helpful and worthwhile, and I hope it helps you stock your own kitchen. These items were foundational for helping my wife and I become successful home cooks, and with a relatively small investment, you can get your culinary interests up and running too.
For those looking to take the next step in furnishing their kitchens, here are a few honorable mentions: vegetable peeler, grater, bread knife, measuring spoons, can opener, mixing bowls and ladle.