What’s a starter kitchen, you ask? Well, in case you haven’t heard, I recently moved to Austin, Texas. I now live with my brother, two of his bandmates, and one of our mutual great friends. One of the things I was most nervous (read: anxious as hell) about was leaving behind a beautiful, organized, and fully stocked kitchen. Why? Because I knew that my new house’s kitchen was no such place.
No shade! But they don’t exactly cook full meals every day, so they sort of just have whatever they need. In a lot of ways I feel like I’m starting over in terms of creating a fully functioning kitchen. So, I thought, why not take this auspicious opportunity to give y’all my tips for creating a starter kitchen.
The first time I ever cooked for my brother at his home was when he lived in Brooklyn. We were making sinigang, a Filipino pork stew and I asked him for a knife to start chopping the meat–1.5 lbs pork shoulder. He handed me a steak knife. That was rough, guys. I will give them credit. Things are much better off now. But for sure, they still aren’t at my highly-accustomed-relatively-spoiled standards. I mean, I did live with my mom who essentially taught me all about cooking. That’s a hard kitchen to leave.
But so much of this move was about starting over. And the kitchen was no exception. For those of you who just moved, or even those of you who just want to start trying to cook more, this one’s for you. A ‘starter kitchen’ is what I consider a beginning cook’s basic toolbox, if you will. What do you really need to start out? What is absolutely essential in any kitchen? I have my ideas.
To quote one of my dad’s favorite movies, let’s start from the very beginning–a very good place to start. Start with the things you’re going to use to cook with–your spatulas, tongs, etc. Need to flip a pancake? You’ll need a spatula. Need to prep some veggies and meat? You’ll need a knife. In my opinion, there’s six things you absolutely need to have in your cook’s toolbox (or utensil holder, if you will).
A cook without a knife is like doctor without a stethoscope, a builder without a hammer, or blogger without a computer. It’s just necessary. I use a knife daily, whether it’s cutting veggies or meat. I even use it to open difficult bags and products when I can’t seem to find my scissors! For me, it’s useful to have multiple sized knives–perhaps even different edges. But for a basic starter’s kit, get yourself at least one large chef’s knife.
Use it for flipping, sauteing, frying, or just picking things up out of the pan. Occasionally I use a spatula to even take things in and out of the oven. This is just a handy tool to have. They come in all shapes and sizes with slots or not. Either way, you definitely need one.
I’m not talking about the small ones you use to eat your soup. This is a large spoon to use for making dishes with soups and sauces. It’s also good for sauteing, which I found out when the one spatula here went missing one day! Get one for mixing and one with slots/holes for straining.
How do you cook without being able to grab your food? The answer is you can’t. If you try and use your hands, you’ll definitely burn yourself. Sure, you could use another tool, like the spoon or spatula, but what about frying? Tongs give you that accuracy and control that other tools lack.
Just like spoons can’t grab everything, they can’t mix everything either. Whisks are more exact. They also provide a different effect to your mixture. When you whisk, you’re blending your ingredients rather than just mixing. You’re letting air in slowly, which can create a lighter and bubbly texture to your food. Whisks are great for cooking and baking, making it pretty versatile.
This one is probably the most optional of the six I’ve listed so far. Ladles are mostly great for large soups, stocks, and stews. They’d be great for saucy dishes like chili as well. Because of its long handle, it’s useful for anything you make in a dutch oven or other deep pot.
Pots & Pans
Now that you have your tools, you’ll need something to cook in. Here come the pots and pans! You may disagree with me here; some people very well live off of one pot and one pan. But if your goal for your starter kitchen is to set yourself up to learn to cook, I’d suggest investing in some of these items.
Stock pots are necessary for making soups and stocks. We also use them for making those amazing Filipino stews and one-pot dishes. My mom will also use a large stock pot to marinate our turkey for thanksgiving since it’s big enough to hold the turkey and deep enough to hold all the juices for marinating! I suggest having one in your house even if all you ever use it for is boiling pasta and/or potatoes.
Saucepans are smaller stock pots that have a handle and top. They are super useful for making–shocker–sauces! They’re also great for making toppings for baking, smaller soups, or for melting. They come in a variety of sizes. I suggest you get one for days when you don’t need a large stock pot to make your soups or other sauces. It’s also useful if you’re only cooking for one or two in place of a large stock pot. Also, bakers, get two that stack neatly on top of each other and you’ve got yourself a double boiler!
The most basic of all basic pots and pans, the frying pan is your catch-all and use-all pan. I suggest getting one large one and one small one for your kitchen. It’s handy to have the smaller pan just for making eggs in the morning or other small individual-sized cooking. The bigger ones are great for stir fries, sauteing, and frying for larger meals. Either way, having two sizes has helped me address the varying needs of everyday life.
It’s often said that people are either great bakers or great cooks, usually they’re better at one than the other. So, I’m not going to suggest that if you’re just starting out to go ahead and spend all your earnings on an entire baking repertoire. That would take an entirely separate post since baking in so many ways is such a different animal altogether. For a starter kitchen, this one’s pretty short and sweet.
Sure, you could use a baking sheet to bake some cookies. That’s certainly what I use it for every now and again! But in the cooking world, baking sheets are great for baking dishes. If you’re trying to be healthier, baking is always a better option to frying. You’ll need a baking sheet for that. I personally loved baked fish, baked chicken, baked veggies and yeah, the occasional dessert. Even if you don’t bake something every day, sometimes baking sheets are also useful as another surface to put the things you’re prepping to cook.
The difference between a baking dish and baking sheet is its surface area. Baking dishes are dishes so they are a little thicker, meaning that they can cook things that are a little thicker. Often times this allows for your food to cook more evenly on all sides, without having to flip anything, especially if you cover it with foil. These dishes are also useful for roasting things, making casseroles and/or baking pasta. Fun fact: this is one of the items I needed to buy for my new starter kitchen of sorts.
Another story about my brother in Brooklyn! So as is common when living anywhere in New York, certain luxuries are just not feasible for such small places. One of those things happened to be a microwave. I would only visit my brother for about a week every year. But during that time I found it difficult to living without a microwave. Then again I lived in the suburbs for most of my life, and never without a microwave. Even in my first year college dorm I had one! The hardest thing, I found, was heating up leftovers. How do you heat anything up without a microwave? How do you make popcorn, defrost food quickly, or even melt butter quickly? These are all things that can be done without a microwave, to be sure. But if you have space for it, you should get one. They’re pretty affordable and ultimately extremely useful to have around.
Just like you need a microwave to heat things, you’ll need a toaster to toast things. In my old kitchen we had a convection toaster oven, which was super useful. We could make toast, pop tarts, and bake small items in the convection oven–like my favorite a fish nuggets! But you don’t need a convection oven in a starter kitchen. A good old-fashioned pop up toaster will do just fine for your breads and tarts. Anything you need heating that’s bigger than that can be done briefly with a quick bake in the oven. That’s how I do it here in Austin!
Coffee and Tea
If you don’t drink coffee or tea, then just go ahead and skip this section. Also, I totally commend you because I don’t know how you survive without caffeine! Soda maybe? Anyways, for us less superior people, this is very essential. Whatever your choice of brew, you’ll need something to get your morning going. My parents have a Keurig system but recently got into my brother’s way of brewing–the Chemex pour-over way. I drink tea so I have a stove-top kettle but at my parents’ house I had an electric one. I don’t have a preference, as long as I have something! Mornings can be rough, people.
If your starter kitchen has a knife–and we’ve already established that it should–then you’re going to need a surface to cut on. That’s where your cutting board comes in! Other than cutting on it, cutting boards are just useful as a surface. I use them to season and serve on at times. This is especially useful if you don’t have a lot of counter space; any extra bit of surface is always a benefit. You’ll need at least one that you can use both sides of–one side for meat and one for veggies. The more you cook, or the more people there are cooking in a kitchen, you’ll come to find you’ll need more than one board.
I can’t stand working in an unorganized kitchen. Actually, I can’t stand being unorganized in general. But for dishes that have a lot to prep, bowls are necessary. For example, for pinakbet, I use a large bowl for the meat, and a bunch of smaller bowls to hold all of the veggies. When you’re cutting and chopping, it needs to go somewhere. Bottom line: you need bowls, ramekins, and other items to hold your prep work.
The other day when I was starting to conceptualize this post, I decided to make myself some Filipino corned beef from a can. Our corned beef has garlic and onions and is seasoned with salt, pepper, soy sauce, and lemon juice. Just saute and serve. But in all my rush to make sure I had all the food ingredients, it never once occurred to me that there wasn’t a can opener in this house. To my horrified surprised, I found five bottle openers and not a single can opener. I was also already in the middle of cooking my corned beef. So, in a rushed panic, I used a bottle opener to hack open a can and in the process managed to slash my finger. No blood got in my food, and I live to cook another day. But needless to say, I got my starter kitchen a can opener the next day, and you should make sure yours has one too.
Just like you don’t want to find yourself hacking open a can, you don’t need to slice your finger trying to finely peel a vegetable with a knife. Peelers are very affordable and readily available in grocery stores. Besides, peeling with a knife sometimes means you lose half of the usable veggie surface to cook with. Just save yourself the trouble and get a peeler!
That’s all, folks! In my humble opinion there’s a ton of other things that every kitchen needs–a cast-iron skillet, a dutch oven, a wok and, of course, a rice cooker. But that’s not for everyone. These tips are just for those of you out there simply looking for the pure basics. Every kitchen will have different needs, so what I’ve suggested may not be what you need. Find what works for you. And as you grow in your cooking skill, your starter kitchen will grow too.