I hope you all had a Merry Christmas! It’s been a few days since my last post and I apologize for the delay but you know how it gets around the holidays. I’ve been cooking away and I finally learned to knit a few weeks ago so I’ve been busting out some Christmas presents. But now that the holiday has passed, it’s time to get back into lessons.

We’ve finally finished all the culinary classroom basics and now it’s time to move on. Before we can dive in to cooking techniques, we need to get to know some basic utensils and equipment. I ransacked my kitchen and photographed (almost) every tool I own to give you an idea of the type of stuff we’ll be working with. While I don’t have all the equipment I’d like to have (i.e., a copper and porcelain double boiler), I have the basics plus a few bonus items that make a pretty good collection for anyone who loves to cook.

In addition to discussing what to buy, I’ll also talk about what not to buy. We all have stuff we had to have when we saw it, bought it, used it twice, and shoved it in the back of one of our cabinets, only to find it years later and sell it in a garage sale. Hopefully I can steer you away from purchases you’ll regret later and save you a little money.

I buy most of my kitchen equipment from restaurant suppliers. I used to think I needed a full set of All Clad to be taken seriously in my kitchen but while in culinary school, I had an epiphany. I realized that all the delicious food I’ve enjoyed in restaurants was cooked with the same pans and they’re all purchased through restaurant suppliers. I decided if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. Don’t get me wrong, All Clad makes fantastic pans. In fact, they have two distinct advantages over my pans from the restaurant supply: the handles are better for gripping and the sides of the pan are thicker, meaning the pan retains heat better. But they cost a small fortune and since the benefits don’t outweigh the cost, I’ll stick with my commercial grade pans until I can justify spending that much money.

There are several advantages to buying from restaurant suppliers:

  • The equipment is built to last. Restaurant cooks abuse equipment like no one else and a pan that lasts them six months will probably last you a lifetime.
  • There’s no guesswork. They stock one reputable commercial brand so instead of sorting through the multitude of pans with celebrity chefs’ names on them to find the best pans for you, you just have to pick a size.
  • It’s à la carte. Everything is sold individually so you never have to commit to a whole set to get what you want. And those on a budget can buy a pan at a time and slowly build up their supplies.
  • It’s cheap. Pans endorsed by celebrities and sold in big box stores have several levels of people to pay and lots and lots of overhead to cover. That means you pay way more than necessary. Restaurant suppliers sell better equipment for the same price, and often for less.
Restaurant suppliers are open to the public and some are better than others. You’ll find some on busy roads but the best ones are usually found in industrial areas. The best way to find a good supplier is to ask around… ask the staff at your favorite local restaurant where they buy their pots and pans. Some will buy from their food supplier but they should at least know of the best place to shop in your area. My two favorites are tucked away in Oklahoma City so if you’re shopping around here, let me know and I’ll give you some suggestions.
Now on to pans…
Cast Iron

I cook with cast iron more and more all the time. I was a bit intimidated at first because I didn’t know how to take care of it and we didn’t learn to use cast iron in culinary school. But after some research, both on the web and from my farm-raised grandparents, I have it down. Caring for it is much different than other pans and I’ll talk more about it in a later post.

Here I have a 10″ skillet and a 10″ dutch oven. The skillet has 2″ sides and is perfect for searing and shallow frying. The dutch oven has 4″ sides and is great for large cuts of meat but I don’t use it nearly as often as the skillet. I also have an 8″ round cast iron griddle that I use for things like pancakes and a cast iron grill pan that’s great when you don’t have access to an outdoor grill.

Some will tell you that the brand matters but I’ve used both Griswold and no-name cast iron and it all cooked the same for me. You just have to season it and care for it properly. Others will tell you cast iron isn’t worth the work it takes to maintain it but I have no problem telling you they are just plain wrong. I’ve cooked the same foods in cast iron and other types of pans and cast iron wins in several categories. I’ll go more into that when we start cooking.

You can usually buy cast iron online or at outdoor stores in the camping section but if you find an old pan at a garage sale or flea market for a reasonable price, snatch it up. The best cast iron was made in the early 20th century. You can tell an old cast iron pan from a new one by the texture; old pans are smooth and new pans are gritty. Old pans with rust are still good, they can be restored at home with just a little work and they’ll cost you a lot less than an old pan in good condition.

Enameled Cast Iron

Enameled cast iron is a great option for those afraid of caring for traditional cast iron. While it doesn’t cook exactly the same, it’s still a better option than some other pans for certain types of cooking and it’s much easier to care for. Here is my 6-quart dutch oven and my cute little frying pans. I use the dutch oven for everything that simmers on the stove for a while and almost everything that’s braised. I highly recommend having one. The little frying pans are bonus pans that I use every so often for things like deep dish cookies and single serving dinners.

I bought the dutch oven at a big box store for $20. Le Creuset is popular brand but it gets crazy expensive and the same pot would have cost me over $300 retail. I’ve had this one for about 10 years and it shows no sign of pooping out on me anytime soon so I just can’t recommend you shell out hundreds of dollars for Le Creuset if you don’t want to. Those little pans, though, are vintage Le Creuset and I bought them on eBay. I looooove them but I don’t really need them. They fall into the category of items you buy after you’ve stocked your cabinets with the basics. There are several more enameled cast iron pans I want that I’ll slowly add to my collection.

One thing about enameled cast iron… if it cracks or chips, you need to toss it. Le Creuset guarantees their pans for life so even if you break one, they’ll replace it so that’s something to consider when shopping.

Sauce Pans & Stock Pots

These 3 pans will fill your basic needs for sauce pots. I also have a 1 1/2-quart pot for small jobs and a 40-quart stock pot for really big jobs. These are all stainless steel and I think they’re the best option. Aluminum costs less but I recommend going with stainless steel because it’s a non-reactive metal and therefore more versatile. Aluminum is a reactive metal so you can’t use it for sauces with dairy products because it will turn your liquid a grayish color. And you can’t cook acids (like tomatoes and citrus) in aluminum because they’ll pick up a metallic taste.

They also make pans with a teflon lining but I don’t like them. I have several reasons for avoiding teflon but the top reason is that it doesn’t last long. Teflon scratches easily and flakes off in your food which is not only gross but it’s also hazardous. As in, really really bad for you. When teflon pans get scratched, they become a useless waste of money.

When buying stainless steel, make sure the base of your pan is at least 1/2-inch thick. A thick base means that it’s well-insulated and will better distribute heat throughout your pan, giving you more consistency. It also means that when you cook delicate sauces, you’ll be less likely to burn them. That’s why some recipes specifically mention using a “heavy-bottomed sauce pan”.

Sauté Pans

You have a couple options for sauté pans; stainless steel and teflon. I keep the teflon around because I can use less oil when I cook with it but stainless steel produces better food and it lasts a lot longer so you get a better return on investment. I also have stainless steel in 10″ and 8″ and I use those more than any other sauté pans. When shopping, the rule for stainless steel bottoms still applies here, look for bases that are at least 1/2-inch thick.

Sheet Pans & Mixing Bowls

Sheet pans are a must and there’s absolutely no need to spend a lot of money on them. These are the cheapest ones available and are great pans. Stay away from all the other gimmicky baking pans like “air bake” and stoneware. Aluminum works just fine and there’s no need to spend extra money when these do the job just as well, if not better.

Commercially, we refer to 3 sizes; sheet pans, half sheets, and quarter sheets. Sheet pans are too big to fit in most residential ovens and are bigger than you normally need. Quarter sheets aren’t often used in restaurants because they’re so small but since I’m single and usually cooking for one, I use them a lot. You’ll use half sheets more than anything so it’s good to have at least two.

I added stainless mixing bowls to this post because they’re usually what I use for a double boiler. I also have glass and porcelain bowls that I use when baking but these are my go to bowls for most of my savory cooking. I have several other pans I use for baking but we won’t begin baking lessons for quite some time so I’ll save that for later.

That’s it. There’s really no need for anything else. That doesn’t mean you can’t add other pans, get whatever makes you happy. But when it comes to a well-stocked kitchen, you just need a few:

  • A couple stainless steel sauce pans
  • An 8-quart stainless steel stock pot
  • A couple sauté pans (at least one 10″)
  • A couple sheet pans
  • A few stainless mixing bowls

And as a bonus (but still recommended):

  • A 10″ cast iron skillet
  • An enameled cast iron dutch oven (at least 6-quarts)

Did I leave off a pan that you love and can’t live without?

Next Post: Stock Your Kitchen: Knives
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