Are you suddenly finding yourself having to cook at home, but you're a little lost in your kitchen? I've got a list of kitchen essentials for beginner cooks to make sure you have all the equipment you need to create great food.
I've cooked in kitchens of various sizes around the world, so I've learned how to work with minimal equipment. In Taiwan we had two burners and a countertop oven. Our first flat in Glasgow had just a few precious feet of counterspace on which to create all our meals. No matter what your kitchen looks like, there's a way to make dinner, and make it truly awesome. Here's what you'll need.
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Toaster - If you really need to, you can make toast in your oven, but especially if you're a beginner cook, it's easy to burn. Toasters are cheap, and toast is awesome. Get one. I don't think this is something you need to really splash out on. It does sit out on your counter, though, so make sure you like the look of it. And unless you have lots of people living in your house, I think a two slice toaster is enough because it also takes up precious counter space.
Electric Kettle - British people have electric kettles everywhere. I admit, before I married an Englishman, I wouldn't have thought of this as essential, but if you're a tea drinker, or even an instant ramen eater, an electric kettle is a huge time saver. A cheap kettle is fine.
Microwave - Again, there are some people who like to humble brag about how they don't have a microwave. I grew up with one and have always had one. There are only two people in our house, and we eat a lot of leftovers. I can't imagine not having a microwave. Again, it doesn't have to be big or expensive.
I bought my current toaster, kettle, and microwave at the big box store that was within walking distance of our flat in Glasgow. We got the second cheapest. I'm still using all of them.
Electric Mixer - If you want to make your own dessert at all, even from a cake mix, an electric mixer really comes in handy. Yes, you can technically mix things by hand, but trust me, you probably don't want to. A cheap electric hand mixer will get you far. I have one that I bought at the grocery store. Because I bake all the time, I've invested in a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, and it's been totally worth it. But this is an expensive bit of kit, so I'd only recommend investing in this if you're going to bake a lot. Plus, it's dead sexy.
Pots and Pans
Large Skillet (aka frying pan aka sautee pan) - I use my big non-stick skillet all the time. I'd say it comes into play in over half the dinners I make. 10-12 inches should be big enough. A cast-iron skillet is great but can be tricky to use as a beginer cook. The only bonus is that it can also go into the oven. I recommend an affordable (but not the cheapest) Teflon pan. It will need to be replaced every couple years anyway. I think I bought mine at TK Maxx.
Soup Pot - You need to have one big pot for soups, stews, and chili. You can also cook pasta in it. It should have two sturdy handles. I have a cheap non-stick one I picked up at my local big box, and I mainly use that for cooking pasta. I also have an enamel-coated cast iron Dutch oven that I use for soup, chili, and such. To me, that Dutch oven is a luxury, not an essential, but it is a very good pot. I bought it at a discount at TK Maxx. That cheap pot from the big box store used to do everything I now do with the Dutch oven.
Medium Sauce Pan - This is an ideal pan for making boxed macaroni and cheese. It really comes in handy all the time for making small batches of soup, or sauces. I recommend getting one with a lid so that it doesn't take a hundred years to boil water. I bought mine at our local grocery store. Second cheapest all the way.
Small Sauce Pan - You could probably just use the medium sauce pan if you're trying to go truly minimal, but this is helpful for heating up small amounts of sauces, melting butter, or boiling a few eggs. Mine is a hand me down.
Casserole Dish - I still make tons of stuff in a casserole dish. If you're a mac and cheese lover, you need one of these, but I use mine all the time. If you get a 9x13-inch glass baking dish, it can double as a cake pan. I have a few casserole dishes, but the one I use most often came from TK Maxx.
Baking Sheet - aka sheet pan, aka cookie sheet. You'll use this for so much more than baking cookies. There are lots of great sheet pan dinner recipes. Roast chicken, fish, and veggies on it. Make a sheet cake or brownies. Cook your entire dinner all at once on one sheet pan. I recommend getting the biggest sheet pan that will fit in your oven. Usually a half sheet pan is good for the home cook. Make sure it's sturdy and has a bit of a lip, like maybe half an inch. This is something you might want to have two of. I hate my baking sheets, so I won't even bother to tell you where I bought them.
Various Cake Pans - These are not necessary unless you like to bake, but even if you occasionally want some boxed brownies or a cake mix birthday cake, you'll need to bake it in something. A 9x13 rectangular pan, a 9x9 square pan, and two 9-inch round pans will make all your basic home desserts.
Muffin Pan - I make lots of sweet and savoury foods in my muffin pan. You could live without it, but it can't really be substituted. If you buy a set of baking pans, a lot of them will include a muffin pan anyway.
Wooden Spoons - You really can't go wrong with a wooden spoon. They are the perfect utensil for nearly all your cooking needs. Get a few in diferent shapes. They'll last forever. Mine are passed down from my mother-in-law.
Ladle - You probably can live without a ladle, but it's sort of annoying. It's really the perfect way to serve soups and stews, so just get one. I didn't have one for like two years after moving to Glasgow, and it was so annoying. It doesn't need to be fancy or expensive. Get it from the dollar store.
Tongs - I use my tongs a lot. You strictly don't need them, but again, sometimes they're the perfect tool, and having the right tools makes any task easier. I'm usually always going to say just get the cheap stuff, but I've had cheap tongs that I ended up having to throw out, so maybe go ahead and start out with decent ones. These are the tongs currently in my kitchen. They're sturdy, easy to lock and unlock, and have silicone grabby bits so they won't scratch your non-stick pans.
Rubber Spatula - A spatula made of silicone is ideal because it will withstand higher heat. I like to have a couple different sizes, but if you're only going to have one, make sure it has a nice long handle so it can reach right down to the bottom of the bowl. It's realy the ideal for working with anything wet.
Turner - A turner is necessary for making pancakes, but it also comes in handy for serving lots of different foods. Any time you have to flip something over in a pan, this is the tool you'll need. Keep in mind that a metal turner could scratch your non-stick pans.
Zester - You could live without a zester, but it's the ideal tool for citrus zest. You can also use it for hard cheeses like Parmesan, as well as grating garlic or fresh ginger. You could put off buying one of these for a while if your cooking skills are still pretty basic, but if you're ready to add more fresh flavor to your food, a zester will make your life better.
Chef's Knife - This is one place where you should not get the cheapest option. Probably not even the second cheapest. But you also don't need to drop a half a month's salary. Also, don't buy a knife set. That's a waste of money and space. Get yourself one good chef's knife that is a size and weight that feels comfortable to you. This is really personal, but definitely try to hold the knife before you buy it. Make sure you take good care of it so it stays sharp, and it will save you lots of time in the kitchen. If you choose wisely, you'll have that knife for years.
Small Knife - You can do everything with your chef's knife, so you can live without a second smaller knife, but I like to use mine for things that need more slicing than chopping, such as fruit. I also tend to use it more for cutting slices of cake or casserole or other cooked foods. Again, you don't need it, but I certainly use mine enough to justify it.
Bread Knife - Again, not absolutely essential, but a bread knife is the best thing for slicing any type of bread. This is definitely the one knife where I'd say go cheap. In case you're wondering what the heck a bread knife even is, it's a long, straight knife with a serrated blade. I bought the cheapest one they had at my grocery store.
Mixing Bowls - You could probably get by with two mixing bowls. I'd recommend glass or metal over plastic just in case you ever need to create a double boiler. I bought a set of three nesting bowl from my big box store, and that does me fine.
Food Scale - If you want to start baking a lot, or if you live outside the US, you'll need a food scale. Make sure you can switch the units and it has a tare button. Get a digital scale. They're much more accurate. Doesn't need to be super fancy.
I probably left out lots of stuff, but I think this haul should get you pretty far in your kitchen adventures. If there's anything else you think a cook absolutely needs in their kitchen, let me know in the comments.
I have lots of simple recipes to get you started. Check out my dinner archives for easy comfort food options.