Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Choose Your Weapons!

Welcome back to For the Culinarily Challenged!

In this edition I will be going over the very basic tools - aside from a stove with an oven (both gas and electric are fine), and things like plates, coffee cups, glasses, and utensils - everyone should have in their kitchen, and any recipes in this blog can be made with them. A lot of these items of reasonable quality can be found in the dollar store, Wal-mart, or Canadian Tire. If you want to spend a little more for high quality stuff, check out department and kitchen supply stores like Stokes or The Bay.

Before you buy anything, check your cupboards.

You may already have many of these things and have never used them before.

Get ready to start.

If moving out on your own for the first time, ask your parents if they have anything on this list they can spare.

A lot of these items also make excellent wedding or housewarming gifts, but I would avoid giving anyone a knife if they have a temper.
1 Sharp Carving or Santoku Knife 

These are large all purpose kitchen knives. One or the other will do. I know they're expensive, but you can get a decent one for about 25 bucks.

Whether the knife is new or second hand, make sure it's SHARP!

According to Chef Martin Bailey of H.B. Catering, who has generously offered his help with the technical aspects of this blog, DULL = DANGEROUS!

1 Large Serrated or Bread Knife

1 Paring knife  

This little carving knife can be used for peeling, coring, and other delicate work.

1 Cutting Board - I prefer wood, but you can use plastic or glass if you wish.

1 Pair of Oven Mitts - This one needs no explanation unless you have a burn fetish.
1 Big Pot with a Lid 

Also called a stockpot, it's for soups, sauces, stews, and pasta. If you're not sure what constitutes a big pot, figure it this way: if it's big enough to hold a headless chicken, it's big enough.

1 or 2 Little Pots with lids - For sauces and side dishes. Try to get something with a heavy base to it.

1 Frying Pan - I generally prefer one with a metal handle and no insulation as it can go directly from stove top to oven. Just don't forget to use the oven mitts! Try to get something ionized and non-reactive.

1 Baking Pan or Casserole Dish 

This is a baking pan with some depth to it.  It is good for roasts, lasagnas and other casseroles.  If you're cooking for 1 or 2, a brownie pan will do the job.

1 Baking Sheet - Also known as a sheet pan, it's for cookies, oven fries, meatloaves etc.

1 Mixing Bowl - I prefer metal as you can seat it over a pot of simmering water and melt delicate things like chocolate.  A plastic one would just melt.

1 Strainer - You can use plastic (provided it can withstand boiling water, which most can) or metal.

1 Mesh Sieve - It can be used to sift flour, which results in fluffier cakes, muffins, and quickbreads.

1 Spatula - If you have non-stick pots and pans, use a PLASTIC spatula, as a metal one will destroy the non-stick surface.

1 Set of Tongs

1 Serving Spoon

1 Slotted Spoon - This is a serving spoon with holes in it allowing excess liquid to seep through.

At least 1 Wooden Spoon 

1 Whisk 

This is a series of wires formed into a sort of upside down balloon shape held together by a handle. While they come in metal, coated metal, and plastic, I generally prefer the first two as there's less risk of anything melting while you working with something like a pot of sauce. 

1 Heat Proof Rubber or Silicone Spatula

1 Vegetable Peeler

1 Box Grater - For cheeses, vegetables, potatoes, etc.

1 Can Opener

1 Sturdy Pair of Scissors - For opening packages. I cannot express how many times cooking has been delayed because I couldn't get the damn packages open!

1 Food Timer - Digital ones are more accurate, which is fine if you have money to spend on batteries. I use a mechanical one I got from the dollar store, which is cheap, but less accurate. You can also use the timer on your stove or microwave, if you know how.

1 Glass Measuring Cup or Metal Measuring Cups 

Measuring Spoons 

Of all the items on this list, they are by far the cheapest, as you can get 'em in the dollar store for a dollar.

Plastic Wrap - I like Glad's Press and Seal Wrap as its pressure sensitive adhesive sticks to any surface including itself, creating a vacuum pack effect without the machinery. Think of it as the food safe equivalent of mactac. If you don't feel like spending the money, any other plastic wrap will do, though bear in mind that the dollar store plastic wrap usually isn't very sticky.

Silicone Baking Sheet - This is a reusable rubbery sheet you can put in on a baking sheet or in a pan to keep things from sticking. Because you're putting it between the food and the pan before it goes in the oven, it makes cleanup, and by extension, life easier.

Aluminum Foil - Not only is this good for wrapping things, but it is also extremely useful if you hate to clean dirty pans. All you need to do is line a pan or baking sheet with it, grease it with your fat of choice, put the thing you need to cook on top of the foil, and pop the whole thing in the oven. Once your dish is ready and ready to be transferred to a plate and/or has been eaten, simply toss the foil or keep it to wrap the leftovers. No cleaning of the pan required. Don't do this too often, as overexposure and consumption of aluminum has been known to cause Alzheimer's over time. According to Chef Bailey, you should also never wrap anything acidic like tomatoes and lemons in aluminum foil, as the acid will eat right through it.

Zippered Storage Bags - You can get decent ones in the dollar store in a variety of sizes.

Reusable Plastic Containers - These are good for storing ingredients and leftovers alike, and most can go from fridge to freezer to microwave. I was initially going to recommend glass, but Chef Bailey pointed out that the risks of using glass containers are too great. If one glass container shatters in your fridge or freezer, you're screwed.

Potato Masher 

This kinda looks like a metal or plastic grill or grate attached by two strips of solid material to a handle. It can be used for mashing boiled potatoes and any other soft fruits and veggies.


But not necessary

This list is fairly self-explanatory.

These are the kitchen items that are nice as they can be useful time savers and precision tools, but they are not necessary to achieve the desired result. All the recipes in this series, aside from any baked goods, can be made without them. 

Slow Cooker
Not to be confused with a pressure cooker, which looks similar but has clamps on it

This device can be a lifesaver. You can dump in all your ingredients, turn it on, and walk away, even leave the house while the thing is still on, and it won't burn your place down. Slow cookers usually have only 3 or 4 settings: Low, Medium, High, and Warm, making them relatively user friendly. Of all the items on this list, it's by far the most useful and economical, as a big one with decent features will only run you about 40 bucks. The only thing you can't really cook in them is dairy-based stuff, but there are a few cookbooks out there that say otherwise. Don't want to get one? No problem! Anything you can make in a slow cooker, you can make in a large pot in about half the time, just be sure to watch the stove!

Rice Cooker -  This is an essential item in most Asian households, but you don't have to be Asian to appreciate the benefits of having one. Dump in a cup of rice that's been rinsed a couple of times to get rid of the excess starch, a cup to a cup and half of water (for white rice, two and a quarter cups for brown), press a button, and walk away. In about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the amount you are making, you will have fresh hot rice, and a lot of models will keep the rice warm even after it's ready. Prices range from 20 to 160 bucks, depending on make, model, and capacity. While this is extremely useful, you can manage just fine with a pot with a lid.

Pepper Mill or Grinder 

This turns whole dried peppercorns into pepper. It's great to have as the pepper  tastes better and is better for you when freshly ground, but it's  not necessary.

Grill Pan  

This is a frying pan with ridges in it, making anything you cook in it look like it's been grilled. It's great for veggies and meats alike.

Hand or Immersion Blender  

If you're like me and like smoothies and smooth, velvety vegetable and cream soups, this device is your friend. It purees anything in any receptacle with some depth to it. You can get a decent one for about 30 bucks.

Food Processor

A lot of recipes call for using one of these, but you can manage just fine with a sharp knife (for chopping), a heavy frying pan (for crushing), a couple of knives or a pastry mincer (for pie crust and biscuit making), and a mortar and pestle or baggie and hammer (for spice and seed grinding). Food processors are extremely pricey, and a good one will set you back between 90 and 300 bucks, depending on the capacity of the bowl, make, and model.

Pastry Mincer 

This is basically a series of parallel wires or blades held together by a handle at the top. It is useful for pie crust and crumble top making, but you can manage just fine using a fork or two, or a couple of knives.

Standing Mixer 

Another item that recipes sometimes call for, it will run you at least 200 bucks. It's not worth the investment unless you plan to do some serious baking, and you can manage just fine with a fork, whisk, rubber spatula, wooden spoon, or hand mixer and a little elbow grease.

Hand Mixer 

This is a handheld version of a standing mixer consisting of a handheld motor to which you attach two metal whisk-like items. Like the standing mixer, it is really only necessary if you plan to do any baking, and it is infinitely cheaper than the former, as it will only run you about 20 bucks. However, like the standing mixer, you can manage just fine with a fork, whisk, rubber spatula, or wooden spoon and a little elbow grease.

Food Scale 

Some recipes list measurements by weight, so it might be good to have one, but it's really not necessary unless you plan to do any baking. A scale will run you between 10 and 20 bucks, however, the internet has many a converter that will easily change amounts of ingredients listed by weight into cups, spoons, and grams. If you DO decide to get a scale, go digital, make sure it can measure in both grams and ounces, and has a tare function, meaning - for those of you who don't remember high school science classes - can go to zero after a container or bowl has been put on it.

Microwave - Microwaves work by making the water molecules in food or beverages vibrate, thus heating, defrosting, or cooking them. Just remember that almost anything you can do in a microwave, you can do on a stovetop or in an oven.

If Ya Wanna Get Fancy...

...And do the artsy stuff the pros do, here are a few devices I read about in Anthony Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential, as well as others I heard about and experimented with. They're really not necessary unless you have important guests and plan to impress.


This is sort of like a fancy grater. It allows the user to make clean even slices of vegetables like cucumbers, and most have a dial that lets you adjust the thickness of said slices. IF you get one, BE CAREFUL!  I've heard many a story about people slicing their fingers open with these things! If you get one that comes with a finger protector, USE IT!

Circle Mould - This is essentially a metal or plastic tube. Put it on the plate, put layers of your food inside it, carefully pull it off, et voila! A fancy looking plate with minimal effort!

Squeezy Bottles  

You know those Pollock style paintings done in sauce on your plate at fancy restaurants? Apparently these are done with the same type of bottles we use to squirt ketchup and mustard on hot dogs. Food supply stores will charge about 5 bucks for them, but you can get them in the dollar store.

Piping Bag 

You know the swirly patterned frosting you often see on cupcakes or in the yolks of devilled eggs? Those are done with a piping bag, a conical bag with a fancy plastic and metal tip on it, kinda like the ones on the play-dough fun factory we all had as kids. Simply put some frosting, custard, meringue, or egg yolk mixture in one, carefully squeeze it out the other side, and presto! Said food is artfully and precisely arranged!

Ramekins - These are porcelain cups made to go in the oven. You can use them for things like individual pies and pot pies, and for things like souffl├ęs, custard cups, and even ice cream. They are available in the dollar store in packs of two for about 3 dollars.

Stay tuned for the next edition, when I'll be tackling your pantry!

-Samantha R. Gold

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