Cooking is the closest most of us will get to becoming mad scientists. Nothing’s quite as close to the maniacal laughter and the crazy-hair-and-white-lab-coat experimentations as standing over a stove with pots full of bubbling liquids and sizzling solids, seeing what a dash of salt will do here or a pinch of pepper will do there. But when you’re first starting out in the kitchen, it can be difficult to figure out if you really need a set of twelve knives and three different spatulas and that melon baller and, oh, maybe a garlic press in order to make your culinary masterpieces. No worries.
There are some kitchen tools which are, in the famous words of Alton Brown, unitaskers, and should be avoided—but there are other tools, pots and pans which you can use for a variety of tasks and you absolutely should not go without. These ten kitchen essentials will help you become the braising, souffléing, cast-iron-gourmeting home cook you’ve always dreamed of.
1. A cast iron skillet
Cast iron is the cookware that won’t quit. We’re big fans of this long-lasting material here at The Manual. You can fry. You can sauté. You can even throw your cast iron skillet in the oven and bake. You can braise and boil and deglaze. When it comes to adding heat, you can do almost anything with one of these babies. And if you season and care for it properly, you can also pass it down to your kids. We recommend getting at least two: one for cooking and one for baking (because there’s nothing quite like a cast iron chocolate chip cookie).
2. An 8-inch chef’s knife
In a perfect world, you’d have a knife for every occasion, but as we all know, this world is far from perfect. If you only have room in your kitchen for one knife, make sure it’s an 8-inch chef’s knife. These blades, which are sharpened on both sides, are sturdy and versatile enough to handle chopping vegetables, breaking down meat, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Bonus? While you could easily spend upwards of $1,000 for a hand-forged German steel beauty, it’s not really necessary. There are plenty of well-made knives out there for under $100.
3. A dutch oven
A dutch oven is, in many ways, the chef’s knife of pots and pans in that you could theoretically get away with only owning a dutch oven and still take care of all your cooking and baking needs. This heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid is an absolute workhorse, and it’s been used in some variety or another for centuries. You can make peach cobbler over a campfire. Or make a nice stew. You can bake bread. Heck, you can fry chicken. To boot, most dutch ovens available in the U.S. are enameled. So not only do you not need to season your oven, it’s also a brightly-colored conversation piece.
This is the single most important utensil you will have in your kitchen. No joke. Sure, there are the usual uses for tongs, such as grabbing and flipping food, particularly of the grilled variety. But you can also use them to steady your meat while you carve it, and leave your unitasking meat fork in the drawer. Toss salads, no oversized spoons necessary. Turn meat and vegetables in the oven without dealing with the hassle of taking the dish out. If all else fails, you can even use tongs to stir soups and sauces.
5. A slow cooker
You’re busy. We know. That’s why you should have a slow cooker. Throw all your ingredients into the pot in the morning, put it on low heat, and leave for work. By the time you get back from a long day of spreadsheets and talking to Jim by the water cooler, you’ll have a savory, satisfying dinner with minimal effort. You can make chilis and stews, pulled pork, ribs, and even desserts like baked apples and chocolate lava cake in one of these babies. And while you can drop a large amount of dough on one of the fancier ones, there’s really no need. You can get a long-lasting slow cooker for less than $50.
6. A wood cutting board
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. You need a board upon which to chop and dice and slice and mince, and you should go for wood. Wood is not only easier on your blade, but it’s actually more sanitary than plastic. We know, we know. After all those years of being told that wood was a hotbed of bacterial activity, it seems counterintuitive, but we promise, it’s true. But your wood cutting board will be so much more than the surface upon which you cut up your peppers and onions. It can also double as a serving tray or even a cheese plate, and anything whose job is to hold a nice block of cheese and crackers is fine by us. Functional and pleasing to the eye.
7. A fine mesh strainer
There’s not much you can’t do with a strainer. Drain some pasta. Wash some berries. Sift some flour so you can make pie with the berries you just washed. Rinse your quinoa to get rid of its metallic taste. Make sure your soups and sauces are nice and smooth. If you had to pick between a fine mesh strainer and a colander, we suggest the strainer. It does much more.
8. A mortar and pestle
There’s a reason the mortar and pestle hasn’t changed since the stone age. You don’t need to spend money on a spice grinder or a mini-food processor. Say goodbye to your Magic Bullet. With this handy little stone bowl and matching club, you can grind spices, pulverize nuts for nut butter, make pesto, crush garlic, and even husk grains. We’ve used mortars and pestles to make guacamole and even mustard in the past. These guys come in tons of different materials, but we prefer either granite or volcanic rock. Those materials are porous, and the more you use it, the more seasoned it becomes.
9. A French press
Before 10 a.m., nothing is more important than coffee. And sure, while a drip coffee maker does the job, nothing compares to a cup of French press. French press coffee has a fuller, richer flavor than drip owing to the presence of the ground-up coffee bean oils and the fact that the grounds steep in the water. But that’s not all you can use your mini coffee maker for. Your French press also doubles as a strainer in a pinch: you can strain drippings from a roast quickly and mess-free. You can also make salad dressings and infused oils with your French press. For instance, if you want to make rosemary-infused oil, just drop some rosemary sprigs in that baby, add oil, and let it sit for 4-6 hours. When you’re ready to serve, just push down the plunger, and you’ll have sprig-free rosemary oil. The possibilities are endless. And to think, you were just going to make coffee with it.
10. 16 oz. mason jars
Mason jars are perhaps overused by the Americana-Pinterest population. But there’s a reason for that. Mason jars do a lot. You can use them to store leftovers. You can use them as nice drinkware. You can use these puppies to hold cutlery or any odds and ends you might not have another place for. Our favorite use for the jars? Storing spices. The airtight seal keeps dried spices fresh way longer than keeping them in their plastic counterparts.
Header image courtesy of Josep Ma. Rosell via Creative Commons.