Learning to Cook Part III: Essential Kitchen Equipment

If you had to whittle down your kitchen equipment to just a few essential pieces, which ones would you choose?

As a conclusion to our previous series on cooking—Learning to Cook Part I and Learning to Cook Part II—this post will cover the most essential, bare-bones pieces of kitchen equipment you can’t do without. In addition, we’ll identify a few extras that are “nice to have” but not as important.

When people imagine what it takes to start learning to cook, many conjure up images of grand, state-of-the-art kitchens with stainless steel refrigerators, shelves of different pots and pans, and drawers full of every type of cooking utensil imaginable. The fact is that only a few pieces are needed for the most basic home cooking.

Below we will go over two categories of equipment, 1) pots and pans and 2) cooking utensils. Together, they total 6 pieces of kitchen equipment that can handle the vast majority of basic recipes.

Pots and pans

When it comes down to it, you just need two pieces of equipment: a pot and a pan. Nonstick, cast iron, carbon steel, or enamel Dutch ovens are great—and some of them will be covered below as an “extra”—but by no means necessary.

#1: An All-Purpose Saute Pan

This is pretty self-explanatory. Most home cooking consists of sauteing vegetables or meat in a pan. So it makes sense that this would be one of the most important pieces of kitchen equipment.

With a saute pan, you can make stir fries, fried rice, seared fish or meat, or pasta sauces. You can make eggs in most forms: scrambled, fried, over easy, or omelet. You can steam things by adding hot water and placing a lid for a few minutes, or shallow fry foods for a crispy exterior.

If your saute pan has a metal handle, you can even put it in the oven. This makes for the fastest, least messy type of cooking: the “throw everything in a pan and put it in the oven to bake for 20 minutes” type of meal. Some of the most popular recipes on the Internet are of this type. Examples include sheet pan chicken or different kinds of meat or rice bakes. Or, it is simply an alternative way to achieve the same affect that standing over a stove would have.

#2: Soup Pot

Saute pans can do many things, but it isn’t as good at dealing with a lot of liquid. That’s what soup pots are for: making soup, boiling pasta, cooking rice or quinoa, making curries, or even deep frying if you’re adventurous enough.

Similar to saute pans, soup pots with metal handles can go in the oven. Braised meats, stews, or curries that require a long simmering time fall into this category: simply throw everything in a pot and let it go in the oven for 2-3 hours at 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cooking Utensils

#3: All-purpose chef knife

Similar to a saute pan, it’s hard to imagine being able to function in a kitchen without a knife. While pre-sliced and diced vegetables are becoming more common (and might be convenient for some purposes), whole produce and meat are still much more widely available. So it’s highly likely that you’ll have to chop your own food.

Keep in mind that all knives are not created equal. A small paring knife or big Chinese cleaver both serve a few niche purposes. A bread knife only cuts bread. But a chef’s knife can cut almost anything: meat, vegetables, garlic, or fruit.

Look for a chef knife that is somewhat heavy, which helps slice and chop more efficiently. But it should also be thin enough for more delicate knife work.

#4: Wooden Spoon

A wooden spoon, like a silicone spatula below for #5, is useful for stirring things in the saute pan and soup pot. Both won’t scratch nonstick surfaces or otherwise damage the metal of your pot or pan.

You can also use wooden spoons for mixing salads, roughly mashing potatoes, or fluffing rice.

Pro tip: putting a wooden spoon over a pot of boiling water will prevent it from boiling over. The science behind this is unclear, but the method is overwhelmingly effective!

#5: Silicone Spatula

A silicone spatula can do everything a wooden spoon can do (with the exception of being less heat resistant, so it’s wise not to leave it sitting on the edge of a hot pan). But the flexibility of silicone also makes it useful for scooping sticky things out of containers, getting underneath food that needs flipping (such as meat or omelets), or gently mixing batter for baked goods.

#6: A Pair of Tongs

Tongs provide a convenient way to grab things securely without burning yourself. Getting something out of a toaster oven, turning meat over to sear, fishing things out of a stock pot, or simply grabbing things in general are some of the tasks tongs are useful for. Tongs aren’t as commonly used from a day-to-day basis for most home cooking. But when you need tongs, there is nothing else that can replace this kitchen tool.

Extras

On top of cooking essentials, the home cook can also supplement with extra equipment. These are not absolutely necessary, but might make your life easier or expand the things you can do in the kitchen.

#8: A Wire Whisk

This piece of kitchen equipment is primarily useful if you want to branch out into baking or making breakfast treats. Cupcakes, cakes, quick breads, pancakes and crepes all have liquid batters that need combining. While whisks have few other uses, it’s by far the best tool for mixing batter quickly and efficiently.

#9: Cast-iron skillet

The typical saute pan might have a limit as to how much you can heat it without damaging the metal. Cast-iron skillets, on the other hand, are excellent conductors of heat and commonly used for searing steaks, or roasting meats low and slow in the oven.

One thing to be careful of with cast-iron skillets is that they require some care in seasoning. This is the process of building up layers of oil over time to create a nonstick surface. For someone beginning to cook, though, it might not be worth the effort.

#10: Carbon steel wok

In actuality, a carbon steel wok can perform the tasks of the top two most crucial equipment: the pot and pan. It’s deep enough to cook soups and stews, but shallow enough to stir fry and saute. It can be used for both deep frying and shallow frying, boiling as well as steaming. Like cast-iron skillets, it needs to be seasoned. It is an excellent conductor of heat, but does it much faster and thus is better for stir-frying purposes.

The reason why it doesn’t make the “essentials” list is that carbon steel woks are usually large and heavy. Most of the time they can’t go into the oven. The difficulty of moving it around the kitchen might be a challenge for beginner cooks who don’t plan to use it often.

#11: Baking tray

Like the wire whisk in #8, this is a nice extra to have if you want to get into baking. Baking trays are necessary for making all sorts of baked goods: bread, cookies, scones, or even pizza dough—generally an all-purpose surface for baking. This might be also easier to clean for oven-cooked meals, such as the sheet pan chicken dinner mentioned and linked above.

Takeaways

Hopefully this post has shown you that the number of things you need to get started in the kitchen are very few—just six. The goal of this “Learning to Cook” series has been to show that learning to cook shouldn’t be intimidating at all. If it is, just start small! Picking the barest essentials is a good way to start, and to avoid overwhelming yourself with the complexity of managing a kitchen for the first time.

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