For people that having been cooking for a while the process of setting up a kitchen for the first time is under appreciated. For people who have never cooked before, or have minimal cooking experience, the process can be daunting. Here I would like to share my little guide on some of the most important things to have in your kitchen. It isn’t in an exact order, but generally the more important things are higher in the list than the less important things. This is intended as a general guide for cooks just getting on their feet or starting fresh but it is not a definitive list. Different people need different things in the kitchen, and what works for me might not work for you. This list assumes you have a stovetop and an oven or equivalent available to you.
Aloe Vera Plant
This might seem like a joke but it’s really not. If you cook at all regularly, especially if you are a new cook, you are going to burn yourself. When I first started cooking I was consistently burning myself every other day. Having some aloe vera on hand won’t stop you from burning yourself but it will make it less unpleasant. Just snap a piece off, rub some of the green goo on your burn, and voila! Your burn is significantly less painful. Aloe vera is also safe to eat, so you don’t have to worry about dangerous chemicals near your food.
12″ Skillet with a Lid
This is especially important if you ever plan on cooking for more than one person, but even when cooking alone it’s useful. A lot of the basic recipes you’ll find out there (in English, anyway) will involve the use of a skillet, and often a covered skillet, in some way. It’s possible to cook small amounts of food in a large skillet, but it’s a lot harder to cook a lot of food in a small skillet. A non-stick skillet of some sort works best for most people. If you’re unwilling to spend a lot of money on your skillet there are a number of cheap brands you can buy so long as you keep in mind that you will end up having to replace your skillet relatively soon (especially if it’s non-stick).
Sturdy Spatula that won’t Scratch
It’s pretty hard to cook in your skillet without a spatula. I would advise a sturdy, stiff, plastic spatula as something you should always have in your kitchen. Metal spatulas and floppier plastic spatulas also have their place but if you had to choose one spatula then this is the way to go. It can even be used in place of a large spoon in certain cases.
Set of Sharp, High Quality Knives
In cooking you are going to inevitably need knives at some point. If you could only have one knife the utility knife would be the best option, as it’s multi-purpose. However, ideally you should have a full set of knives associated with the different tasks you might have. A core set of a paring knife, a utility knife, and a chef’s knife is probably the back bone of cooking. An additional slicing/carving would be ideal, and a bread knife is beneficial if you frequently have unsliced bread. I highly suggest investing in a set of high quality knives. They will be expensive but they will last a lot longer and generally cut better. Starting out with unserrated knives is also a good idea as they are easier to care for than serrated knives. You should also take good care of your knives to extend their life. Don’t just put them in the dish washer! The high heat and steam of a dish washer will cause the blades to dull faster and will directly damage the handles. Instead, Wash them soon after you’re done with them and wash them by hand.
No matter how well you care for them your knives are going to dull with use. That’s why it’s important to always have a knife sharpener of some sort in your kitchen so that you’re never stuck with blunt sheets of metal. I would advise always sharpening your unserrated knives before use, and ALWAYS rinsing them off after you sharpen them. (You don’t want those metal shavings in your food, do you?) However, please note that if you have serrated knives you should not sharpen these yourselves. You will need a professional knife sharpener for serrated knives.
I know people who don’t keep hand soap in their kitchens and instead use the dish washing detergent to wash their hands. I would advise against this: dish washing detergent will dry your hands out very fast. It also tends to be more expensive and take longer to wash off your hands.
Stock up on pot holders. They don’t need to be fancy or expensive, any pot holder will do, but you don’t want to be in the middle of cooking and realize you’re out of pot holders. You should also keep your pot holders somewhere close to where you’ll need them. Don’t be like me and keep them in another room: you will regret it.
Medium to Large Saucepan
If you’re anything like me you had no idea there was a difference between a pot and a saucepan. What the average a person considers a “pot” is, in most cases, a saucepan: pots tend to be larger and have two handles on either side of the mouth. Saucepans are useful for making sauces, foods that are a little too soupy for a skillet, and if you’re using a large saucepan you make enough soup for four people. Saucepans are multi-purpose and good for both savory and sweet cooking.
Several Small Bowls
When I say “small bowls” I mean the size for cereal or smaller. It’s good to have several of these on hand so that you can use them to hold various ingredients you will need while cooking. I personally have a set I use to hold veggies after I finishing chopping them.
You should have at least one large bowl in your cabinet as well. (I would advise several large bowls, but one will work just fine in most cases.) If you plan on only having one large bowl it should be a sturdy one that can take a beating and be no worse for wear because you will likely be using it to mix a lot of things. If you plan on having more than one you can start getting bowls that look nicer for serving.
I have been told that every kitchen needs a large wooden spoon. I’m personally not so sure because I’ve been getting along just fine with a plastic one, but either way you need at least one large spoon for mixing various ingredients. These can be used in baking, cooking soup, mixing a salad, serving dinner, or a number of other useful things.
It’s not always obviously exactly when the meat you are cooking is safe to eat, especially when you’re first starting out cooking. The meat thermometer is your friend in cases such as these. In order to test to make sure your thermometer is accurate bring a cup or more of plain water to boiling. If the thermometer reads about 212 F or 100 C (give or take, to account for differences in elevation and impurities in the water) then your thermometer is probably accurate. Remember to always wash off the end of the thermometer after use.
If you plan on using any vegetables in your kitchen, and especially if you plan to use tubers such as potatoes and carrots, you’re going to want a vegetable brush on hand. Then, before cutting or cooking any vegetable or tuber liable to be covered in dirt or pesticide give the skin a scrubbing with the vegetable brush under cold or warm water.
The Spice Cabinet
Spices and herbs are vital to all forms of cooking. Without them your food tastes bland and uninteresting, and many herbs and spices have health benefits as well. This is a guide to how to stock your spice cabinet when you’re first getting started. though of course the exact best stock will vary from kitchen to kitchen based on what type of cuisine you prefer. To help with this the start of the section It’s also important to note that while spices and dried herbs don’t “go bad,” exactly, they do get stale. I have some marjoram in my cabinet that is many years old, and while it’s still technically usable it tastes more like dust than anything. Because of this it’s a good idea to only buy small containers of spices you don’t think you will be using very often. A good rule of thumb is to only buy as large a container as you can use in six months.
The exact best spice stock will vary from kitchen to kitchen depending on your favored cuisine. To help with that the initial section will be on spices important to have in every kitchen, and then following this there will be a guide based on a food’s nationality. Click on any of the links in the table of contents below to jump to that section. This list is not exhaustive and includes primarily the nationalities I am most familiar with. Some of these categories will overlap.
While a spice rack itself is not required for cooking I highly suggest you find some way of organizing your herbs and spices. If you don’t they will inevitably end up scattered across the counter tops of your kitchen and you will have no idea where any of them are.
Everyone needs salt to survive, so it makes sense that you would want to keep it in your cabinet for cooking. Salt is important even if you’re on a low-sodium diet, so the only reason you wouldn’t want to keep salt around would be if you’re on a no-sodium diet. Basic table salt will work for most recipes, but kosher or sea salt is also good to have on hand. (If you’re keeping a kosher kitchen kosher salt is probably the only salt you’ll need.) The fancier salts, like pink sea salt, probably won’t be needed for every day cooking.
Black pepper is almost as vital to the kitchen as salt is. You should always have some black pepper on hand. I usually keep both pre-ground pepper and whole peppercorns for grinding in a pepper mill around, but you can probably survive with a tin of pre-ground black pepper just fine. When just starting your kitchen it’s probably unnecessary to start investing in the other varieties of peppercorns, such as green peppercorns, just yet, though it wouldn’t hurt to have them around the kitchen.
Not just a replacement for fresh garlic, garlic powder is found in a wide range of recipes. It’s especially good for seasoning meat. You can usually buy garlic powder in large bottles, but if you’re not confident you will be able to use it all quickly I would suggest buying a smaller container first.
Ginger tends to be a very important ingredient in East Asian dishes. If you don’t have fresh ginger on hand (which I highly suggest always having) then dry, ground ginger can act as a replacement. In some recipes it’s even more appropriate to use ground ginger than the fresh stuff, anyways.
There is actually a great variety in sesame seeds, but the basic white one you see on hamburger buns will probably work for most recipes. Some recipes called for toasted sesame seeds, but this is easy enough to do yourself if you don’t want both a toasted and untoasted sesame seed bottle taking up space in your cabinet.
If you don’t particularly like spicy foods this might be less important in your cabinet than in others, but East Asian dishes are frequently spicy. If you don’t have fresh chilis on hand then cayenne pepper can be used to give that extra kick to your dish.
Though soy sauce isn’t exactly a spice or an herb it is a vital flavor in many East Asian dishes. It’s always good to have a bottle in your kitchen.
I know that India is technically a part of East Asian, but Indian food tastes almost dramatically different from the food of its neighbors. As a result it gets its own section. If you plan on cooking lots of Indian food you are going to have a lot of spices in your cabinet.
Possibly the most used ingredient in Indian food cumin is a spice you should always be fully stocked up on if you ever plan on trying Indian. It’s also used in a surprising number of American dishes.
Coriander is used almost as much as cumin in Indian cooking, so be sure not to run out. I tend to keep more than one bottle lying around, just in case.
Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that gives Indian food that yellow hue. It doesn’t tend to be used in quite the same quantities as coriander or cumin but is also a very important spice. Turmeric also acts as a dye, so be careful not to get it on any white clothing.
Cardamom has an almost floral flavor to it, and though you may not immediately notice it when it’s in a dish you’ll definitely notice when you forget it.
Like in other East Asian dishes ginger is also extremely important in Indian cooking, which is just another reason to keep some ground ginger hanging around.
Many people don’t realize that cinnamon has its place in cooking outside of sweet dishes, but cinnamon is a common curry ingredient.
You will probably never need a lot of cloves in your kitchen because they are a very strong spice. Too much cloves in your recipe and it will become inedible. Still, it’s important to have a little bit around as it is a very important ingredient in Indian dishes.
Fennel has an almost licorice-like flavor, but so long as it is used in moderation it is a valuable addition to many Indian recipes.
As anyone who has ever been to an Indian restaurant knows India likes its food spicy. Cayenne pepper is often used to achieve that flavor. However, if you’re not a big fan of spicy foods you can replace the cayenne pepper in a recipe with paprika and maintain most of the flavor while avoiding the spice.
“Spices” is probably the wrong word for Mediterranean seasoning, which tends to place an emphasis on herbs rather than spices. All the same, here are some important dried herbs to keep in your kitchen for Mediterranean foods if you don’t have/don’t want to take the extra time to use fresh herbs.
Oregano is one of the few herbs I’m willing to buy in the jumbo bottle because I use it so often. It’s also one of those herbs that you can pile on without risking overpowering the dish, so when in doubt I always add more. Despite the difficulty in putting too little oregano in a dish its absence will be noticed, so try to always have some oregano on hand.
Rather like oregano, though with a completely different flavor, parsley is something that it’s hard to go over on a recipe but easy to go under. I buy the giant bottles of parsley as well.
Though fresh cilantro is undeniably superior to dried cilantro it’s nice to keep around for those times when you completely forget to buy the fresh kind, don’t want to buy a whole bunch for a small dish, or just don’t want to deal with the hassle associated with fresh herbs.
Cumin is important in more than just Indian food! Cumin is a surprisingly important spice in Mediterranean food and it’s good to keep it around (especially if you’re into Mediterranean dips like hummus).
Used alongside cumin a lot, coriander is another thing to keep in your cabinet for Mediterranean fair.
Thyme is a relatively subtle flavor (unless you use too much!) but is another herb to keep next to your parsley and oregano. I wouldn’t suggest buying it in quite the same sized packaging, however, because you probably won’t be using nearly as much of it.
Depending on your fondness for dill you probably won’t be using it nearly as much as you would be using oregano, parsley, or even thyme, but it’s another fairly common herb in Mediterranean cuisine to keep on hand.
Mint is not the sort of herb you normally see dried and kept in cabinets though I have seen it sometimes at my local grocery store. As a general rule if you’re using mint you want it to be fresh, but if you don’t have fresh mint right at your finger tips some dried stuff is better than nothing.
Rather like Mediterranean “spices” is again probably the wrong word for Italian seasoning, as they tend more toward herbs. Several of the Mediterranean herbs overlap with the Italian herbs.
Rather like in Mediterranean cooking oregano is a vital component of Italian food, so make sure you always have a lot of it. You can risk a large bottle when it comes to oregano.
I feel like I’m constantly running out of rosemary because I use it so much. Always remember that the smell of rosemary is stronger than its actual taste, so what may smell like too much rosemary may actually be too little.
What can I say? I use a lot of parsley in Italian foods. The big bottle is probably worth it.
You probably won’t need nearly the same quantities of sage that you will of oregano but it is a very important flavor in Italian food, so try not to run out.
Marjoram is similar to oregano but with a slightly different flavor. If you’re anything like me you probably won’t be using nearly as much of it, but it’s still good to keep around.
You should always keep thyme on hand, but don’t go overboard when you use it to season. You probably won’t be needing any jumbo bottles of thyme.
Fresh basil is far superior to dry basil, but if you pour in enough of the dry kind it can almost make up for the difference in flavor. I tend to go through basil very quickly, so I suggest keeping a lot of it on hand.
There are other chilis that pack a lot more flavor and are generally tastier than cayenne pepper, but if you don’t have any of those available you can use this to recover some of the flavor.
Latin American dishes tend to call for a decent amount of cilantro. If you don’t have the fresh stuff with you for whatever reason dried cilantro makes an adequate substitute.
Cumin has traveled the world and made itself comfortable in Latin American cuisine. You’ll probably already have this in your cabinet for other things anyway, so make sure you have enough.
Yes, oregano shows up in Latin American dishes as well.
Thyme is good for savory meat dishes, and as a consequence is enjoyed in several Latin American recipes.
If you are at all interested in Latin American desserts you’re going to want to have some cinnamon on hand.
If you’re just cooking on a stovetop you can often get away with just one large bowl, but if you’re baking you’ll probably need several bowls in a range of sizes. It’s ok to spend a little money on your mixing bowls. I have several from my grandmother that are still perfectly functional. I would also personally suggest bowls with a loop or something else to aid grip on the side, since you will likely often be pouring with these bowls.
Large Cookie/Baking Sheet
Cookie sheets, unsurprisingly, are used frequently to bake cookies. They can also be used for a wide variety of other baked goods, though, such as bagels, pretzels, scones, and so on. Every baker needs at least one cookie sheet.
Whisks come in a great variety of shapes and sizes, but your average baker can get by with a normal, medium sized whisk. A whisk isn’t vital for baking, because it’s possible to do a lot of the things that ask for a ask using the average fork, but I promise the whisk will do it better, faster, and easier than the fork could ever manage.
Starting on a Stove Top
While there is overlap between the supplies you use to cook with an over and what you use to cook on a stove there are also a lot of differences. This list contains some of the basic equipment you’re going to need to start cooking on your stove top. Depending on exactly the sort of recipes you’ll want to be cooking your equipment will be different, so keep that in mind as you read through.
Cast Iron Skillet
Cast iron skillets are useful for a great number of recipes, and you don’t have to worry about scratching them quite the same way you do with non-stick skillets. They also handle both the stove top and the oven well, and are good for recipes that call for this. However, they do require special care. A brand new cast iron skillet should be seasoned before use, and you should always be careful not to wash away this seasoning at a later date. This means minimal to no detergents and only very careful use of scrubbing pads. This guide does not include the specifics behind cast iron skillet care.
Aside from the fact that a skillet this size would, intuitively, be perfect for making omelets it also has the double advantage that it can be used to cook smaller amounts of food than the 12″ I suggested earlier without having to worry about cleaning such a large pan. This skillet doesn’t necessarily need to have a lid, but it might be helpful if it does.
These can be used both on the stove top and in the oven. They are better for cooking certain foods than saucepans for pots because of their thick bottoms and sides, and they’re also useful for those recipes that call for you to first cook on the stove top and then move to the oven. Dutch ovens also provide a convenient way to serve food, as they can act as both your equipment for cooking the meal and your serving dish. They’re perfect for any potluck.
A wok is not necessary in every kitchen. However, if you plan to be cooking a lot of East Asian dishes a wok is not a bad investment. You would be surprised the difference in flavor using a wok versus a skillet for something as simple as stir-fry makes. However, it’s important when using a wok to remember that they tend to stay at higher temperatures than skillets, so you will need to use oils with high smoke points (see glossary entry on oils). Some woks require seasoning the same way a cast iron skillet does, and some, like my stainless steal wok, do not.