Kitchens are absolutely not one-size-fits-all, which makes me hesitant to put together a list of “essential” equipment or ingredients. We all love to cook different things in different ways, and what is necessary for me might be the thing you unearth out of the back of your pantry three years later, still untouched. Instead, these are my essential kitchen strategies – the techniques, pieces of advice, and methods I reach for the most often.
If you try this at home
- I work by metric weights whenever possible. I know this seems weird in the US, but hear me out. Guys, the math is SO easy. There are no fractions, ever. And, because you’re primarily working on a scale, you don’t finish cooking with a mountain of dirty measuring cups to work through.
- In any recipe calling for salt, I’m using Diamond Crystal Kosher unless otherwise noted. This is important, because, unless you’re measuring by weight, salt is NOT interchangeable. Because of size, crystal structure, and the way it packs into a measuring spoon, you need almost twice the volume of Diamond Crystal to equal the “saltiness” of Morton Kosher salt. The brand of salt you use isn’t necessarily important, it’s just good to know if something comes out WAY too salty, it might have to do with a brand difference rather than a measurement.
- Do not treat recipes on this site as foolproof. In many cases, I would hesitate to treat them as recipes. What I’m sharing here is my process – what I do on the days that I do it, and what I have learned from that. I have tried to be the kind of person who exhaustively tests and tweaks their food until it is perfect and repeatable every time, and, frankly, that doesn’t work for me. Instead, you’re getting each iteration of a dish as I grow and change it, and a look into my thought process for development along the way.
Recommendations and realizations
The most important thing
- Keep your knives sharp. If you take nothing else away from this page, keep your knives sharp. Sharp knives are safer, faster, and more pleasurable to use than dull ones. I don’t care if you use a whetstone or take your knives to a sharpening service, just keep your knives sharp. For most home cooks, this means a full-blown sharpening session about every four to six months, if you are maintaining the edge of your knife with a steel or honing rod in the meantime.
- Your tools only matter if you use them. Good tools make your life easier in the kitchen, but you don’t need the newest and best to make food you will love. I’m a big proponent of Adam Savage’s tool philosophy: you buy the cheapest thing you can to find out if a tool is useful to you. If it is, you use the cheap thing until it breaks and then buy the best version of that tool that you can personally afford.
- As long as you can deep-clean them, you don’t need to buy tools new. With a little patience, garage sales, thrift stores, flea markets, heck, even eBay and Craigslist are great places to find equipment that might normally be out of your budget. These are also great places to score old equipment that might be higher quality than what is mass-produced today. A word of caution, though. Inspect your treasures carefully before you bring them home. Pans should have flat, heavy bottoms and firmly attached handles. Knives should have no rust pitting and the handles should be tightly fitted and crack free. Electronics should be in good condition and (unless you’re good with electrical repairs) should work if you plug them in. And if you’re searching around a flea market and you’re not sure if something is food-safe, leave it. Lead poisoning is not the move.
- Don’t be afraid of restaurant supply stores. The tools are never going to win points for aesthetics, but in most cases, commercial-grade is cheap, easy to clean, and will take a beating and come back for more.
Tools and equipment
- Get an oven thermometer. My current oven runs 25° cooler than the number on the display. I know this because I put my oven thermometer in there the second I got it out of the packing box. Ovens can and will lie to you, and the fastest way to make sure your food cooks properly in the time it’s supposed to is to make sure your oven is actually the temperature it says it is.
- Do not buy nonstick pans. I know they’re shiny, and tempting, and easy to clean. But you have to use specific kinds of tools with them, they scratch if you look at them sideways, and the coating wears out incredibly quickly. Plus, it is really hard to get them to develop fond because nothing can stick to the pan to brown. So, unless you’re exclusively cooking eggs, give the Teflon a pass.
- Buy and use an instant-read thermometer. No one likes raw meat. No one likes foodborne illness. A properly-calibrated thermometer is the fastest and easiest way to avoid both.
Tips and techniques
- Taste your food as you go. Whoever wrote the recipe you are using does not have your taste buds, and it’s much better to figure out you hate something while you still have time to course-correct. Honestly, making a habit of tasting as you go is one of the fastest ways to make measurable improvements in the food you’re making. It also teaches you how different ingredients and techniques actually change the flavors of foods at each step in the process.
- Label everything. I know this feels like a pain in the moment, but take the extra 30 seconds and write down the item name and the date on a piece of painters tape and stick it to the container. Future you will thank you when you’re trying to decide if your leftovers will kill your or not.
- Have a freezer inventory. Again, I know this seems a little extra, but keep a list of what’s in your freezer somewhere accessible. It will keep your freezer contents in your sightline, which means the stuff your worked on and stored away so carefully will actually get used, instead of just stored for two years and thrown away once it is unrecognizable.
Groceries and shopping
- Plan your meals in advance. I plan my meals a week at a time, and I do this for a couple of reasons. First, it means I only have do decide what to eat once during the week. After that I can pick from a list each night depending on how I’m feeling. Second, it makes grocery shopping quick and efficient, because I know exactly what I need and don’t have to go back because I forgot something. I know planning in advance isn’t for everyone, but give it a try for a few weeks and see how it changes your workflow.
- Spend money on the good stuff. And know that what “the good stuff” is looks different for everyone. For me, I’m going to sink money into high-quality chocolate, meat I can source, and small quantities of the best whole spices I can find. For you, it might be pasture-raised eggs, fancy salt, and brand-name cereal. The point is, figure out what you use, what you love, and where you can’t cut corners.
- Buy Vegalene Nonstick Spray. This is the best nonstick spray I have ever used. And, no, they’re not paying me to say that. Nothing sticks to it, it stays where you spray it, and doesn’t drip everywhere. Most important, if you bake with it, it doesn’t leave that horrible, impossible-to-remove sticky film on every piece of bakeware you own.