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You may or may not know this, but Mr. BurntToast and I were minimalist before minimalism was cool. And it wasn’t really on purpose, either.
When we combined households I was living in a TINY 400 (and that might be pushing it) square foot apartment in New York and his Baltimore City apartment was only marginally larger yet equally ill-equipped in the kitchen. Let’s face it, as young professionals living in big cities with great food choices literal footsteps from our front doors, the need and desire to cook for ourselves was pretty low. Top that with the fact that we lacked a traditional wedding of any sort so there was no registry or large wedding bounty to put towards setting up a household and you get a pretty hardscrabble start.
In fact, for the first few years of our life together we were wildly bare bones (i.e minimalist) in the kitchen. We didn’t gain any sizable square footage when we moved to Atlanta, the first stop in our 6 year cross-country adventure, so we didn’t have the luxury of adding to our utensil stash. Storage was still at a premium. The majority of the things we had in the kitchen were leftovers from our tiny little apartments, and for that matter, largely hand-me-downs before that. My entire kitchen in New York was made up of pieces that I had salvaged from my grandparents kitchen before we sold their house. I had then, and still do now, pots and pans that were at the time close to 50 years old. My cast iron skillet to this day is my most valued kitchen piece, one that my father-in-law recently restored to its original glory and in doing so discovered that it’s close to 80 years old.
But here’s the thing. Despite not having a kitchen stocked to the tee with the latest and greatest; despite having just two knives (and not very good ones at that) to my name when we started out, I still learned how to cook. And honestly, I still learned how to cook well. With very few exceptions, I was able to recreate most recipes I attempted back then without feeling the lack of some essential kitchen item. And if I was missing something necessary, I could usually find a work around. Largely because I wanted to.
Now I’m not a minimalist by any means. I understand the concept behind it, but I feel just a bit too old and tired and married to my rice cooker to try and adopt the philosophy. Let’s face it, I’m not a millennial and feel in my bones that the whole movement is tailor-fit to that generation. But I do feel passionate about this topic because I think as Americans we’ve managed to do to cooking what we do to most things: overcomplicate it.
I hear from so many people who are intimidated by the kitchen. They are afraid to even get started, to just go in and throw something together, because they’re convinced that they don’t have what it takes–both literally and figuratively. As a culture we look at cooking as if it’s complicated, with nutritional theories at war with each other and cooking shows leading us down a wormhole of the latest and greatest. So the average person is just flat out confused. And that confusion leads to intimidation which leads to surrender.
And surrender leads to the take-out menu.
But I’m here to tell you–it’s not that hard. Not every meal needs to be restaurant worthy for you to be a good cook. Not everything has to be fresh from the dirt of the earth or made completely from scratch for it to be healthy. Cooking can and should be fun. It should be free. You don’t need to have a million different kitchen appliances and utensils to create a good meal. And you don’t need 8,000 ingredients to create something that tastes amazing. You just don’t.
So, friends, STOP being intimidated by the kitchen. Stop stressing about meals. I’m here to help. My plan for 2018 is to demystify cooking. To take the intimidation out of the kitchen. And I’m starting with this simple list of the essential kitchen pieces. Because if I learned to cook with a basic paupers (read: 20 something broke New Yorker) kitchen, you can too.
These 10 pieces are such a great base that you can recreate most recipes that are thrown your way with these and nothing else. When putting the list together, I took care to try and find a piece in every price range. I HATE it when people get snobby about kitchen items, but there is some truth to the statement that when it comes to things that matter, you should always buy the best piece you can afford. For the most part, though, even on the lower end these pieces will serve you well for years to come.
So grab a few of these to fill in the missing pieces in your cabinets. Go pour yourself some wine. Put on some good music. And get to cooking.
This is me giving you permission to go PLAY.WITH.YOUR.FOOD.
Cast Iron Skillet:
A great cast iron skillet can honestly take the place of every single other skillet you could possibly need in your kitchen. They last forever (like I said, mine is roughly 80 years old), they’re virtually indestructible, and they give the best and most even sear on anything you are attempting to cook. Add in the fact that they go from stop top to oven without skipping a beat and you’ve got yourselves the perfect pan. As a bonus, you don’t have to spend a lot to get a good one. Try to find a pre-seasoned one if you can. Otherwise follow this amazing tutorial on how to prep and care for your skillet with love.
Most knife sets you can buy come with upwards of 7 knives. I’m sure all 7 of these knives are great and necessary for super-human chefs who can manage them. Me, I use TWO knives consistently. Yes, just two. These two knives can literally do everything you need done in the kitchen. EVERYTHING. I’m not saying it’s bad to have the whole set. In fact Mr. BurntToast surprised me with our first real set of knives just last year and I LOVE them. I’m simply saying that these two knives will take care of business for you in the kitchen. And that’s really all you need.
Utilitarian. Awesome. Cross-functional. These are the knives you see flying on the FoodNetwork. These are the knives that do the dirty work for you in the kitchen. From everything to onions to raw chicken, these will do the trick. Because it will be, hands down, your most used kitchen item I highly suggest dropping as much money on this knife as you can. Buy what you can afford and it will last, I promise.
This baby does everything its big brother the Chefs Knife can’t. It slices garlic into little sheets. It peels ginger and apples, and it finely juliennes vegetables like a champ. Not as important to pay big bucks for this one, it’ll still be good even if you go cheaper.
I know people swear by the wooden spoon (and not just for child discipline). And I do have a few that I love. But when it comes to having multi-functions nothing can beat silicone spatulas. Here’s why: they’re heat resistant so you can use them to stir, sautee and stir-fry–but they’re also flat-edged so you can use them to scrape down bowls and beaters when baking. You really do need two here–one stirrer and one flipper. For Christmas my aunt just got me the ladybug stirrer and the smiley face flipper, and I can honestly say they make me smile every time I use them. Because cooking should be fun, remember? Why not add some whimsy to your prep?
Sure, you can get one of those big bulky box graters that have all 4 sides with all different sized holes. If you have one, tell me how often you use anything but the tiniest hole? Almost never? Right? These babies are an amazing little tool. From parmesan to lemon zest to chocolate, they grate whatever you need. Sometimes, if you’re not careful, they’ll even grate your finger. (True story) But I promise, you’ll find amazing uses for this little thing.
One Large (stock pot):
Oh the beautiful stock pot. Honestly, my favorite stock pot is the one I took from my grandmothers kitchen. Like I said, it’s 50 years old at least and the lid doesn’t fit completely unless you force it. But I love it. A good stock pot can be used for pasta, soup, chili, stews and even in place of a dutch oven for roasting some meats. Le Creuset is obviously the creme de la creme here, and worth every penny. But I’m pretty psyched about the one with the built-in pasta strainer. Nothing says minimalism like having multiple functions!
One Medium (2 quart will do):
And for everything else, a 2 quart saucepan should do the trick. I personally don’t like calphalon but know that some swear by it. For me, a good nicely coated non-stick stainless steel is your best bet. You don’t have to spend a ton on these, so go as big budget as you can but don’t break the bank.
In an ideal world you have two–one for raw meats and one for everything else. This is obviously so you don’t accidentally poison everyone with salmonella. But a good washing in between will do the trick if space or money prevents you from having multiples. I love a good solid wood board, but the one non-negotiable is to have the “juice groove.” Trust me, it saves a ton of clean up in the long run!
These babies have multiple functions. They bake cakes, lasagnas, and casseroles. But for a minimalist they can also sub in as a roasting pan or a sheet pan if necessary. Having two sizes is ideal (one 9×13 and one 8×8) but don’t feel pressure to have both. Most of the time a 9X13 will do the trick (and if you’re baking and it calls for an 8×8–double the recipe. More yum to go around!)
Measuring Cups and Spoons:
Honestly, you can probably get away with just dry measures. My husband is, by far, a better baker than I am and he only ever uses the dry measure. Yes, even for liquids. (Bakers everywhere are raising eyebrows in protest here) But I love a good liquid measure so I had to include both sets. For cooking, the longer you’ve been doing it the less measuring you’ll do. I hardly ever break out the spoons unless I’m trying to figure out how to write a recipe out for y’all. But, as your starting out they are good to begin to understand proportion and flavor. Don’t break the bank with these. A cup is a cup whether you pay $15 or $5. I promise.