Kitchen essentials: updated

My kitchen has changed quite a bit since I wrote my Kitchen Essentials post back in 2008, so I thought I’d write an updated and expanded version. This time I’m breaking it up into categories for different parts of the kitchen. I can’t speak to what other cooks want in their kitchens, but I can tell you what I use and value the most.

So here goes, my kitchen essentials (along with some extras you might want). If there’s something I didn’t mention it’s because I don’t have it, but I probably want it!

KNIVES

Chef’s knife: First and foremost, you want a good knife. I use mine every day, multiple times a day. It’s a Wusthof santoku, I’ve had it for at least six years, and it still works beautifully. Just take it to a hardware store to get sharpened once in a while. It might seem like a lot to spend $70 or more on a knife, but you will get your money’s worth and so much more.

Smaller knives: A smaller serrated knife works great when you need to slice something soft, like a tomato. When you need to cut into a small space, a paring knife will do the trick.

Bread knife: You need a bigger serrated knife to slice through baguettes and other crusty breads. You shouldn’t have to spend as much money to get a basic bread knife.

Cutting boards: I like bamboo cutting boards, and the one I use most is probably 9 x 12 inches or something like that. We also have a bigger bamboo board, a plastic one we use for cutting meat, a board with a strainer, and a fancy one we use for serving cheese. We definitely don’t need that many, but hey, we’re foodies! My handy method for storing them is to keep them in a file organizer.

COOKING VESSELS

Set of pots and pans: You can get a nice complete set for about $200, more if you want something that will last longer. You at least need a small skillet/omelet pan (nonstick preferred), a larger pan with a lid, a medium-sized pot with a lid, and a large soup pot with a lid. Next time we buy pots and pans we’ll be looking at a restaurant supply store. I’ve heard you can get great bargains on pans that will hold up well. You can also sign up for emails from places like Williams Sonoma so you’ll be the first to hear about sales on these sets or individual pieces. Sometimes they are even like 40% off.
Warning: Many pot-and-pan sets are not dishwasher safe, so check before you buy!

Cast iron pans: If you take care of these pans they will last forever. They hold heat well, and are great for things that go from stovetop to oven, like steak or salmon. I was skeptical at first, but now I’m a convert.

Cookie sheets with a Silpat: Throw a Silpat on any baking sheet and it becomes completely nonstick. I use mine at least once a week, often more than that. Absolute essential!

Mixing bowls: Mike loves to tease me about my obsession with bowls, but really, can you have too many? The most often used set is by KitchenAid. They have rubber on the bottom so they don’t slide around and handy pour spouts. I also have some clear glass ones and some bigger stripey ceramic ones. I’ve always loved this set at Crate and Barrel.

9×13 baking dish: This is sort of your go-to vessel for casseroles, lasagnas, and other baked dishes.

8 or 9-inch square baking dish: When you don’t need a huge dish, these come in handy, especially for side dishes and desserts. I love the vintage Glasbake ones.

Single-serving plastic or glass containers: For leftovers, for lunches, for overflow ingredients. The plastic ones get so banged up and stained, I am moving more to glass containers.

Dutch oven: This didn’t used to be an essential in my mind, but now that I have one I use it constantly. Anything that slow cooks or braises can go in here. Again, cast iron helps with even heating. Don’t think you have to drop $250 for a Le Creuset version. My Lodge dutch oven was less than $75!

Others: muffin tins (regular and mini), round cake pans, pie pan with fluted edges, loaf pans. Look for discounts on these at places like TJ Maxx and Marshalls.

SMALL APPLIANCES

Blender: A lot of things that you can do in a food processor or other chopping device you can also do with a blender. So start with a good one. I’ve gone through several cheap plastic ones and they’re just not worth it, in my opinion. If the plastic cracks you get leaks, so you might want to go with a glass container. My husband also says that the ones with a metal peg in the base are better than the ones with the plastic fan-like pieces, so look for that. Of course I would die to have a Vitamix, but until I make my fortune I’ll have to stick with something a little cheaper.

Food processor: I love ours. I believe it’s the Cuisinart PowerPrep Plus. If you need to grind the heck out of something, this is your machine. It makes hummus, bread crumbs, fruit/nut balls, pie dough, and with the other accessories you can shred things in seconds. I hate cleaning it because of all the pieces, but that’s mostly because our dishwasher sucks.

Mixer: Like pretty much every foodie, we’re devoted to our KitchenAid mixer. Not only is is great for baking (get the big glass bowl), it also can be used, with attachments, to make ice cream, pasta, or ground meat for sausages.  For desserts, the mixer is ideal for making whipped cream and frostings.

Immersion blender: This thing is awesome! I have a Cuisinart Smart Stick, and I use it all the time for blending up tomato sauce or soups, right in the pot. To clean it you just pop off the end, rinse it off, and you’re good to go.

Others: As you can probably tell, I have a thing for Cuisinart appliances. We also have a toaster and coffeemaker of theirs. I just think they’re smart looking and really functional. (You better believe I bought them on sale at department stores, and with extra coupons). In addition we have a big Crock Pot, an electric teakettle (love this one), and a super powered juicer. What we don’t have is any counter space left…

GADGETS

Spoonulas: Part spoon, part spatula, these things are amazing. Probably the most-used item after the chef’s knife in my kitchen. I have several in different sizes.

Peelers: Your standard $4 Kuhn Rikon peeler is all you need for basic peeling. Sometimes I use it for cheese or chocolate shavings, too. If you cook a lot with peaches or fresh tomatoes, you might want to get a soft peeler for the skins.

Box grater: I like this one because it has measurements on the side and a little sliding thing that holds everything inside the box.

Measuring cups and spoons: I have glass cups for liquids, plastic ones for dry ingredients, and a cheap set of stainless steel measuring spoons. You don’t need to spend much money on these, but you certainly could.

Silicone whisk: A regular whisk is fine, but a silicone-coated whisk won’t scratch the bottom of your pans.

Handheld juicer: I love our lemon juicer for squeezing fresh juice into just about anything (no seeds!). We have other juicers, but this one works the best.

Others: Microplane, Hard cheese grater, can opener, garlic press, soup ladle, potato masher, flat spatulas, silicone brush, PBJ spreader. We have a lot more junk than that, but nothing essential.

RANDOM ITEMS

Hanging baskets: I like these for storing onions, potatoes, shallots, and the like. Then they don’t take up precious counter space.

Garlic pot: Get one of these to keep garlic fresh for a long time.

Compost bin: If you’re able to compost (or your garbage takes it), keep one of these around for collecting food scraps and coffee grounds. I like this ceramic one because it’s nice looking and has air holes and a filter in the lid.

Strainers: One with bigger holes for pasta and rinsing off fruit. One with fine mesh for straining liquids.

Salad spinner: Perfect for rinsing greens. Also kind of fun to use. I like the one by OXO.

Dressing shaker: Like a salad spinner, this is the kind of thing that encourages you to eat healthy! I like this one, but a Mason jar will do in a pinch.

PANTRY
Obviously we have a rotating selection of foods in our house at any given time, but we always have certain staples on hand.

Crushed tomatoes: My cooking got a lot better when I started using better-quality canned tomatoes. I get San Marzanos. Usually they’re about $3.50 or so for a 28-ounce can. It seems like a lot to me, but it makes such a difference in soups, sauces, and chilis.

Tomato paste: I like the kind that comes in a tube so you can squeeze out just the right amount.

Kosher salt, black pepper: I like the kosher salt flakes. They’re stronger and less processed. I just buy cheap ground pepper to have out, and then we also have a pepper grinder if we want it fresh.

Olive oil: I wish I could say we bought the best quality we could find, but the truth is we use so much of it we’ve been buying fairly generic brands. This is something I hope to change someday!

Good bread: We’re lucky we have access to amazing local bakery breads at the grocery store, but I bet most places do now. Overly processed packaged breads just taste weird to me now, so I can’t go back.

Local honey: Pretty much every farmers market has someone selling honey. Support your local beekeeper!

Tea: Our tea shelf runneth over. But I don’t think it’s a crime to have too much tea. I really love Trader Joe’s white pomegranate and Gong Fu’s holiday blend.

Fresh spices: I can’t emphasize enough how much it improves your cooking to use fresh, high-quality spices. If it takes you a while to use up a spice, just buy the smallest container of it. At places like Penzey’s it will usually run you about $2. You can also find affordable spices at Indian and Mexican grocery stores. The ones we use most are definitely cumin and chili powder. Always buy real vanilla. And get whole nutmegs to grind fresh.

As far as the dry goods part of the pantry, here is what we usually have. I like to buy Le Parfait jars for storage.
Rice: brown, basmati, wild — must be from Minnesota!
Flours: all-purpose, whole wheat, whole wheat pastry flour — King Arthur flours are great and have really come down in price
Beans/legumes: black, white, black-eyed peas, split peas, lentils
Sugars: white, brown, powdered, organic raw
Grains: quinoa, couscous, oats, cornmeal, polenta

COOKBOOKS

We keep all of our cookbooks on a bookshelf in the dining room. I’m sure that we have way more than we need. The one I use most is actually a binder where I keep all of my recipes printed from the internet in plastic-covered pages. I also save helpful articles from magazines in there. And we have a takeout menu organizer that is pretty cool.

As far as favorite cookbooks, I probably use Simply in Season the most, followed by Super Natural Every Day. You can’t go wrong with a copy of How to Cook Everything