Cooking your own food is a great way to save money. But if your kitchen utensils consist primarily of extra plastic forks from takeout, cooking can be daunting. Fear not! This list includes everything you need to get started preparing delicious food at home.
As for where to shop for these items, I recommend three places: thrift stores, where you can often find perfectly good used cookware; stores like Marshall's or TJ Maxx, that have new, high-quality items at deep discounts; and restaurant supply stores.
1. A Good Chef's Knife and a Cutting Board
Almost everything you need to do, from peeling vegetables to hacking up roasts, can be accomplished with a good chef's knife. When you have more money later, you can invest in more-specific tools like a paring knife, serrated bread knife, and vegetable peeler.
The quality of your cutting board doesn't matter much, and you don't need to spend a lot here. If you're going for plastic, just try to get one thick enough that it won't bend and warp.
Finally, a knife sharpener is optional at first, but a good investment--it will keep your chef's knife happy for years.
2. Pots and Pans
I know that listing "pots and pans" seems terribly general. But what you want depends largely on whom you're cooking for (yourself? A family?) and what you like cooking. The three items I use most often are a good-quality non-stick frying pan, a medium stockpot, and a Dutch oven. I love the Dutch oven because it can be used on the stovetop or in the oven, but a large stockpot should do just fine for most things.
3. An Oven-Safe Pan
This is for anything you want to bake, oven-roast, or broil. There are a lot of options here--sheet pans, loaf pans, casserole pans, etc. To start, I'd recommend a 9"x13" Pyrex baking dish with at least 2" high sides. You can use this for everything from lasagna to brownies to roasting eggplant. Just make sure that you never make Pyrex go through a drastic temperature change (like, er, I did one time by pouring cold water into a pan when it had already been in the hot oven for an hour)--it will make the pan shatter.
4. Measuring Cups and Spoons
Look for cups and spoons that have the measurement number pressed into the plastic or metal instead of printed on--in my experience, the printed ones rub off eventually.
5. Serving Trio: Spatula, Tongs, and Spoon or Ladle
Between your silverware and this trio, you can handle scraping, spreading, and serving just about any kind of food you're cooking.
6. Food Processor and/or Hand Mixer
These items are somewhat optional. I say somewhat because, if you like to make certain things, they'll drastically improve preparation time and ease. Inexpensive hand mixers (not to be confused with that wedding-registry favorite, the stand mixer) are a near-must for baking--whipping egg whites and cream with an electric hand mixer already takes a while; you do not want to do that by hand with a whisk.
Food processors are great multi-use tools. I use mine to quickly whip up drips like guacamole and hummus, pulse together ingredients for falafel and crab cakes, and even to make smoothies in place of a blender. I use a mini-chopper, but if you get a regular-sized one, you can also use it for tasks like kneading pizza dough.
7. Food Storage Containers
What's one of the best reasons to cook? Leftovers! Even if you don't like leftovers, cooking some things ahead of time--such as roasting a chicken so you have meat for the week--is a great way to save time and money. But don't waste your cash on disposable plastic bags and the like--keep some reusable food storage containers around. I often use old yogurt containers, but it's helpful to have some clear containers and containers of different sizes as well.
8. Mixing Bowls
From salad to cookies to burger meat, you need something you can mix ingredients together in. It's best to have at least two bowls, and these work great for serving meals too.
9. A Can Opener
Unless, of course, you just want to throw your canned goods on the ground until they burst open.
One of the biggest keys to frugal cooking is finding ways to make cheap food delicious, and adding shelf-stable spices is a great way to make that happen. Try shopping for spices at ethnic grocery stores; they're often much cheaper than at regular grocery stores.
Am I missing any of your favorite kitchen musts? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Meg Favreau is the author of Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom and the Senior Editor of frugal living blog Wise Bread.
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