The Importance of Good Kitchen Equipment Before You Start a Recipe
Mistake #6 – Not Having the Right Equipment
As part of reading the recipe and getting your mise en place together, you should also have inventoried your cooking equipment. While it is acceptable to make some substitutions with equipment - using a sauté pan instead of a skillet, using a wooden spoon as opposed to a silicone spatula, there are some pieces of equipment that you cannot substitute.
For example, if you are cooking a pound of pasta and don’t have a pot big enough to hold at least 6 quarts of water, you stand a good chance the pasta will not cook properly and stick together.
If you have a cheap wire whisk that you got at the flea market and the handle falls off when you start whisking, how have you saved any money? And no, you can’t use your laundry basket as a colander.
Whether you are grilling, baking, roasting or sautéing, it is important to have the right equipment. Yes, you can cook with cheap cookware or use inexpensive cooking tools but you won’t get the same results.
The Fix—Buying The Right Tools for the Right Job
Get yourself some good equipment. I’m not saying that you have to go out and spend thousands of dollars, but I am saying that spending more money on good equipment once will cost you less in the long run than spending less money on cheap equipment every year or two.
Once you commit to buying the right tools for the right jobs, you have to ask yourself:
- “What kind of cook am I?”
- Will you be spending a lot of time making cakes?
- Will you be making a lot of homemade sauces?
- Do you like to make bread by hand?
What kind of cook you are will have an impact on the equipment you buy. A stand mixer might be vital to one cook and just take up space on the counter in someone else’s kitchen.
General Cooking Equipment Essentials
Knives (see my post on cutlery)
All knife manufacturers make many, many different types of knives. You might be tempted to buy a set with 15 knives or feel like you need to buy them one at a time for the rest of your life.
You can’t blame the manufacturers - they’re trying to make a buck, but all you really need is three good knives: a chef knife, a paring knife and a serrated slicer.
Whole books are dedicated to knives, but suffice to say that you get what you pay for. There are two basic types of knives - forged and stamped. Stamped knives are very sharp when new and are relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, once stamped knives get dull, they are difficult, if not impossible, to sharpen.
Forged knives, on the other hand, are very sharp and more expensive, but they can - and should be - honed before every use and periodically sharpened. Take good care of your forged knives, and they will last you a lifetime.
Always hold knives you are considering buying. Make sure you like the balance, weight and blade angle.
Also be aware that just because you love your Global chef knife doesn’t mean that you’ll love their serrated blade. Unless you’ve tried out the knives, don’t buy a set. Buy what works for you.
A Non-stick Pan
You need one for omelets, frittatas and other applications when you don’t want food to stick. This is not the place to spend big money.
Get a fairly large slope-sided skillet with a flat, heavy bottom and a smooth, non-stick finish. Use silicone or wooden tools with this pan, exclusively, and hand wash it to avoid damaging the cooking surface.
Cutting Boards (See my post on cutting boards)
In times past, everyone used a wooden cutting board. Wood is still an excellent material for cutting boards, but there is also a case to be made for using high-density plastic.
In either case, it is advisable to have at least two cutting boards, one for meats and one for fruits and vegetables. Having two boards helps cut down the risk of cross-contamination.
Whichever type of cutting board you use, make sure that it is clean and that the surface is smooth. If your plastic cutting board has lots of really deep knife cuts in it that can hold onto bacteria or even mildew, replace it.
If you’re wooden cutting board is all cut up, use a plane to smooth the surface. Don’t use sandpaper, because the little abrasives used in the sandpaper can get embedded in the surface of your board and dull your knives.
If you have a decorative glass cutting board, use it only for decoration. Never use a cutting board made of glass, metal, marble, granite or any other material that is so hard that it will damage your knives.
When you use a cutting board, put a damp towel underneath it to keep it from sliding.
For the Pasta Cook
Large Pot (see my post on soup pots)
You want to get a pot with a capacity of 6-8 quarts. Make sure the bottom of the pot is flat and heavy so there is good contact between the heating element and the pot.
Since you will mostly be using this pot for wet cooking methods (namely boiling), it is not necessary to get the top of the line most expensive pot out there. If you want to and you have the funds, more power to you, but this is not the “money pot.”
Do look for a pot that has an aluminum core sandwiched between stainless steel. Stainless is easy to clean and non-reactive, and aluminum is a good heat conductor, ensuring that your pot will heat quickly and evenly.
Make sure that the pot has sturdy handles that can go in the oven. This usually means metal, but there are composites out there that are oven safe to 400 degrees, so check the labels.
You will need a way to drain the water out of your pasta. Colanders come in all shapes and sizes and are made out of everything from plastic to silicone to metal.
Purchase one that is well made, and has “feet” to keep it up out of the liquid when pouring into the sink. Consider a stainless steel colander—it can do double duty as a steamer if you nest it into a large pot with a little water at the bottom.
For the Sauté Cook
Sauté Pan (see my post on choosing & buying a saute pan)
This is the “money pot.” If you’re going to spend money on kitchen equipment, this is one of the first places to spend some.
A sauté pan is a large (up to 12”) pan with straight, low sides. The pans usually have one long handle and a short handle on the opposite side for ease of lifting. Most sauté pans come with a tight-fitting lid.
Definitely look for a heavy pan with a wide, flat bottom. An aluminum core sandwiched between stainless steel is the way to go, generally speaking. If you are a practiced cook, don’t mind the upkeep and have the money, buy one with a copper bottom, but since copper is more conductive than aluminum, understand that the pan will heat up very quickly and you will have no margin for error.
Make sure that the handles are sturdy and solidly attached to the pan. Make sure that they are oven-safe, as sautés are sometimes finished in the oven. You might also want to braise in it, and for that you’ll also need a tight-fitting lid.
For the Baker
Stand Mixer (see my post on stand mixers)
An essential piece of equipment for people who are interested in baking cakes and cookies. Look for a heavy mixer - you don’t want it scooting all over the counter when it’s running - with at least a paddle-type and a whisk-type attachment.
If you’re into baking bread, you’ll want a dough hook as well. Look for a mixer with a 5 to 7 quart capacity and one with all metal gearing. Mixers made with nylon gears run more quietly, but they won’t stand up to years of heavy use like a mixer with metal gears.
Live by the rule: if it feels cheap and looks cheap, it is cheap.
Make sure that all of your gadgets and tools - whisks, spatulas, spoons, potato mashers, peelers, garlic presses, measuring cups, etc - are sturdy and well made. Never buy plastic tools. They melt.
When given the choice, purchase good stainless steel tools. One notable exception is in the case of tools to be used in non-stick pans. To keep from destroying the non-stick surface, look for tools made of or covered with high heat resistant silicone.
Other tools to have on hand
- Lots of towels
- Digital timers
- Instant read thermometer
- Probe thermometer
- Bowls of various sizes
- Rolling Pin
- Trivet, or hot pads
- Butcher’s twine
- Straight sided cake pans
- Cooling racks
The trick is to buy quality tools and take care of them. If you do that, your kitchen tools will serve you well for a lifetime.