Cooking is a talent of mine that remained dormant throughout my grad school years. I’ve been cooking seriously for almost a year now, ever since husband and I moved to Massachusetts. When I unpacked my pitiful, scratched, “grad school” pans and put them away into my beautiful, shiny, new Cooks kitchen I realized some things: 1) I need new pans, 2) I’m petrified of this gas stove and 3) what the hell am I doing? I used the microwave for the first week. It was the only familiar entity that I knew how to control. After weeks of watching reruns of Pioneer Woman I gathered enough courage to get serious with cooking. I may have started out as an alright cook but I desired to step up my game. I remember my anxiety as I read blog after blog for what to buy as a new cook. Some were helpful. Some were confusing. This post is dedicated to my fellow cooks out there that are just starting out and need a little direction. I’ve complied a list of my absolute favorite pans, utensils, gadgets, etc. for the aspiring cook and light baker. These are not expensive items nor absolutely necessary, but I find that I’m more efficient and I can achieve better meals when I use them. So here are my favorite (kitchen) things for cooking and light baking in no particular order:Item: Aluminum Commercial Baker’s Half Sheet (18″ x 13″ x 1″)
Brand: Nordic Ware
Uses: Roast vegetables, meats; Bake bread rolls, cookies, pizza, sheet cakes, etc.; Support for underneath ramekins or other baking dishes in oven.
Website: Find it here
The first item that I love is my professional grade baking sheet. It’s a half sheet, which means its half the size of ones they might use at a professional bakery. This half sheet is similar in size to the non-stick cookies sheets that we are all familiar with and fits well in standard ovens. This sheet pan is aluminum so it won’t rust and it distributes heat extremely well, which means even cooking/browning of your food items. It requires hand washing BUT it’s incredibly easy to clean, which is opposite of what I originally thought. Even day old food comes right off with a little hot water and the back of a soapy sponge. I use this pan most for cookies and roasting vegetables. I chop up some veggies, distribute them on the pan, drizzle on some olive oil, season, and bake. Works great for things like chicken thighs, and chicken wings. I love that this pan is perfectly safe under the broiler too (won’t warp), which many glass pans are not. I was initially concerned with aluminum contaminating my food but aluminum has a melting point of around 1,200˚F. My oven only goes to 500˚F so I don’t believe there is any issue there.
Why is it better than a regular old non-stick pan?
Having owned both types, the baking sheet is definitely more versatile for the types of foods that I cook. The raised 1″ lip contains any juices if you are roasting meat or vegetables. It can withstand the broiler. I don’t ever have to worry about the non-stick coating chipping off. And there are several inexpensive accessories that expand the versatility of this pan as well.
Item: Stainless Steel Baking/Cooling Rack
Brand: Hamilton Housewares
Uses: Roast meats (especially bacon, pancetta); Cooling rack for cookies and pastries.
Website: Find it here
This baking/cooling rack fits perfectly in the bakers half sheet. I use this most for cooking bacon. Yes I cook glorious, crispy, delicious bacon in the oven with a much smaller mess than the stove top. This rack can hold a whole package of bacon (slightly overlapped but once it starts cooking they are no longer touching.) The rack helps crisp the bacon while keeping it above the drippings. If I have more to cook, I even reserve a Tbs of the bacon fat for pan frying. Pancetta or other thinly sliced meats works well too. The rack is easy to clean, but I recommend cleaning it right after each use since it is physically harder to get into the nooks and crannies if you let things dry on there. It also doubles as a wonderful drying rack for baked goods.
Item: Non-stick Silicone Baking Mat
Uses: Baking cookies, pastries, gooey dough, taffy, caramel
Website: Find it here
This non-stick baking mat fits perfectly in the aluminum half sheet pan (just like the baking/cooling rack). It essentially transforms the aluminum half sheet pan into a non-stick baking sheet. It is a miracle for baking cookies, which I have used this for many times. My cookies come out with evenly browned bottoms, and better yet they don’t stick! Plus I find it the easiest to clean. Nothing sticks to it. It takes up hardly any space. I just love it. I highly recommend getting the French-made Silpat mat, as my research shows it is of higher quality and is more durable than the imitators out there. I’m all about saving money, but I think in this case the name brand is the way to go 😉
Item: 12 in. Cast Iron Skillet
Uses: Everyday cooking, pan frying, searing, deep frying, oven cooking, frittatas, one dish meals
Website: Find it here
This truly is my favorite pan. It’s heavy as hell but man can it put a perfect sear on a piece of sausage. I use this everyday. I cook sausages, ground meats, bacon, onions, vegetables, steaks, quesadillas, grilled cheese, and so much more. This pan is quintessential for perfect steaks or boneless chicken breasts. I brown the steaks/chicken in the pan to crisp the outside, then pop the whole pan in the oven to finish cooking the center. This is how you get perfect steaks (without a barbecue). This pan goes from stovetop to oven without a hitch. I recommend the Silicone Hot Handle Holder (shown in red in the picture and available here), which makes touching the cast iron pan handle a little safer. This pan is a wonder for one-dish meals (Such as my Rotisserie Chicken and Italian Sausage Cassoulet). Easy Peasy. And cleaning it you would think would be a chore, but I find it incredibly easy. I use soapy water and the rough part of a sponge 99% of the time or a stainless steel scour pad (if I’ve burnt something on and it has shriveled to a black, carbon-y mass). When I’m done cleaning the pan I rub a little coconut oil on it (or if I forget – whoops – I just rub on some oil before heating up the pan). The only drawback is that it is heavier than most pans. I often use the second handle when moving the pan from the stovetop to the oven. I also recommend being careful when using a cast iron skillet on a glass stovetop as you don’t want to scratch the cooktop surface.
Item: 6.5 Qt. Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven
Uses: Everyday pot, slow cooking soups and stews, braising meats, pot roast, baking, frying
Website: Find it here
Aside from my cast iron skillet, this is arguably my favorite cooking vessel. I use it almost everyday. If you watch Pioneer Woman as much as I do you will see she loves her enameled cast iron dutch oven. It is another one-pot miracle worker. For soups/stews you can brown the protein, saute the vegetables, add the liquid all in the same pot. It goes from the stovetop to the oven to the table all day long. I love using mine for soups/stews, slow cooking roasts, and even frying. Yes I fry chicken strips in it. The oil doesn’t splash all over the place, while the chicken develops a beautiful golden brown color. Pure heaven. I received this as a gift for Christmas, but I was looking into purchasing one myself. There are other good brands that make a similar product such as Lodge, and Le Creuset, for example. Regardless of which brand you choose, this is a kitchen necessity.
Why is this better than a crockpot?
So don’t get rid of your crockpot just yet. I’m not against crockpots. I have one and I use it a lot when I’m not at home to watch my oven. But dutch ovens can be used as a crockpot and more. You can absolutely make many similar dishes using both a crockpot and a dutch oven. However it is possible to deep fry in only a dutch oven. Also Dutch ovens reduce cooking liquid more efficiently than crockpots for thicker braises and stews. Dutch ovens are a one-pot show and also double as a pretty serving vessels at the table.
Item: Non-stick muffin pan
Uses: muffins; individual frittatas, cakes, and Yorkshire pudding
Website: Find it here
Muffin pans are more than just muffin pans these days. I use mine for making individual frittatas filled with yummy vegetables and cheese that are easy to heat up on busy mornings. There are so many varieties of non-stick muffin pans out there. I’ve only tried this one brand so far but I have to say it is truly non-stick, easy to clean, and feels substantial (not cheap or flimsy), which means it is not likely to warp.
It is always a good idea to have some general non-stick pans around for cooking things like eggs. Cast iron skillet + eggs is not good. I like having a variety of sizes. For example, I typically use my 9 in pan for eggs, and the larger 12 in for things like quesadillas or sauteing larger vegetables such as asparagus or green beans. I can usually cook everything in my cast iron skillet or my dutch oven but these are definitely nice to have for backup.
I received these pretty measuring cups for Christmas and I love using them because they are both pretty and practical. When you have to measure several dry/wet ingredients these individual cups are super handy, especially for smaller quantities (< 1 cup). They don’t have to be pretty but I absolutely recommend some in addition to a standard 4 cup measuring cup.
Measuring spoons are a must have. I use them constantly for measuring out wet/dry ingredients such as vanilla extract and spices. Mine are pretty but they don’t need to be.
A stock pot is invaluable. Making your own stocks/broths from scratch saves so much money, is more nutritious, and tastes better than store bought varieties. This type of pot can be used to boil pastas and crab legs. They are also excellent for soups and chili. Mine is non-stick (and I’m missing the lid) but there are many options including stainless steel, aluminum, and multi-metal.
Cutting boards are a must. You probably knew. But I’m going to suggest 2 cutting boards: one for meat and one for everything else. Its a good idea to cut your raw meats on a separate board to avoid contamination.
I use these everyday. They are perfect for placing food into a hot pan of oil, tossing a salad, turning food over in the pan, or reaching inside the toaster oven. They are easy to wash (I put mine in the dishwasher), and extremely useful. Mine came in a set of 3 with a long, medium, and small size. I recommend at lease getting a long one, but it has been handy to have a variety of sizes.
I used to think having a strainer was all I needed. I received a sieve for Christmas and I cannot imagine life without it. I know it may be strange to rave about a piece of metal mesh held in a frame but it’s just so handy. It definitely has a place in the kitchen a strainer cannot fill. You can use the sieve for straining solids from liquids, like filtering solids from soup stock. It’s also great for draining/rinsing a can of beans. Also you can separate coarser from finer particles (like flour or powdered sugar) when you are baking for fluffier, lighter textures.
This is another item that I use almost everyday. It’s not just for mixing cake or cookies ingredients. I marinade meat in it, toss salads (with my stainless steel tongs of course), whisk eggs for large egg-based casseroles, mix ingredients for meatloaf/meatballs, and so much more. Its easy to clean, lightweight, can go in the dishwasher and is worth a space in the kitchen. When I’m not using it for a recipe I have it near my cutting board for all my excess. That way I can easily throw scraps out and keep the kitchen just a little bit cleaner.
I have a Ninja food processor and blender combo. I love it. The motor (grey thing that says Ninja) fits on either the food processor or the blender. Works great for making homemade breadcrumbs, smoothies, Catalina (or French) dressing. When making bean soup I process half the beans before adding to thicken the soup. It is perfect for just my husband and I, but I will eventually get a larger one when our family grows. Baby food anyone?
Uses: Grating cheese, spices, fruit, vegetables
Website: Find it here
My mom bought me these when I moved into my new place and they are excellent. They fit in a kitchen drawer, can go in the dishwasher and are incredibly handy. The fine grater is perfect for zesting citrus and grating hard cheeses like Parmesan or even spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. I use the coarse blade for cheddar, mozz, carrots, potatoes, etc. The last blade is awesome for chocolate. It makes pretty, delicate curls of chocolate for atop a dessert or special coffee.
So there you have it! All my favorite essentials to make amazing meals. Let me know what you think. Am I missing your favorite gadget?