Stocking Your Kitchen

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Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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57 Responses

  1. Avatar Sam Wilkinson
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    says:

    If cost is any sort of concern, Mark Bittman’s cost-friendly recommendations can be used in conjunction with this article.

    As a perhaps scandalous conclusion, I tend to believe that the tools matter far, far less than the person using them.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam Wilkinson
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      says:

      Wow, that’s truly spare, and truly spartan.
      It has a Japanese simplicity to it, and not just because most japanese apartments don’t have much living space.

      Tools are just that — things to make your life easier.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Sam Wilkinson
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      says:

      I agree, with one exception. Pans. What’s sold in most department stores are not much more than tinfoil, now. They’re prone to warping, will dent easily if dropped, and will burn things too easily. Drives me nuts. The exception being some cast iron (Lodge is good), but that needs appropriate care. If you don’t plan on giving it that care, don’t waste your money on cast iron, and don’t use it for acidic foods (tomatoes, for instance) ever.

      If you want good, reasonably priced pans, go to a restaurant supply store, and buy the heavy stainless pans with aluminum plates in the bottom. I’ve even gone in with lids I already own to select pans that I’ll be able to use the lids already in my kitchen, since they tend to be sold separately. Restaurant supply stores are also a good place to pick up knives, tongs, storage containers, baking sheets, strainers, and a host of other tools. They won’t be ‘top of the line’ sleek gourmet tools, but they’ll work, they’ll be reasonably priced, and they’ll last a good while.

      Cooling racks are also an essential, particularly if you like to bake cookies, cakes, or breads. Air needs to circulate underneath to prevent moisture from condensing and making the baked goods mushy.

      @burt-likko put together an excellent pantry list; I’d probably recommend a few cans of canned beans (your favorite variety, I always stock canned black beans, chick peas, and a kidney beans), tomatoes (I prefer whole, but whatever you like, both large and small cans, the small being the perfect addition to a quick soup). I also keep shredded coconut — the unsweetened kind — on hand; useful for a batch of macaroons or making coconut milk for a quick coconut-curry soup or stir-fry.

      Pantries also serve some first-aid use, particularly for stomach bugs. I always keep a package of jello, which is my go-to food when I’m recovering from the flu; never eat it other wise. Likewise, I keep a jar of pedialite on hand, as well, and either a can of peaches or pears.

      Dried beans and grain are also useful, but you’ve actually got to bother to use them. Lentils cook quickly, and even people who don’t think they like lentils usually love a good cup of lentil soup, which only takes 40 minutes from raw carrots, potatoes, onions, celery, and a can of tomatoes to finished soup. (Spice wise, I like a small amount of cumin and coriander, whole, toasted and then crushed.) Quinoa is another nutritious grain to stock; cooks in 15 min., (2 parts water to 1 part quinoa,) let it sit for five, and then fluff with a fork. Can keep for a few days, and used in a salad or tossed into soup or tossed with some leftover meat, veggies, or sauce for a nearly instant meal.

      Finally, stock some nuts and seeds. Flax seeds. Walnuts. Pine nuts. Pumpkin seeds. Take a few, toast them in a pan, and add them to salads. Same for dried fruits, raisins, prunes (which can take the place of red wine in braised beef dishes, surprisingly!) blueberries, apricots, dates. Useful for salads, baked muffins, scones, cookies, and just stirring into a bowl of oatmeal or dried cereal.Report

    • Avatar Robert Greer in reply to Sam Wilkinson
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      says:

      That’s a great article, and Bittman is one of my favorite writers, but damn if he isn’t wrong about rice cookers. They cook rice in a fraction of the stove-top time, which is a big deal if you’re just making something simple: In many rice-incorporating meals, actually cooking the rice is often the longest step by FAR, and so using a rice cooker effectively halves the time it takes to make dinner. I think that alone is worth $20 and a little space in your closet (and I live in NYC so closet space is sacred to me).

      But here’s my favorite thing about rice cookers: they work anywhere there’s an outlet. ANYWHERE. Running out of space in the kitchen? You’re in luck, because a rice cooker doesn’t just mean that you free up 40 minutes of burner space on your stove (though that too is fucking awesome), it means you free up space in your kitchen as a whole, because you can plug in that sucker in the dining room, or the living room, or wherever you damn well please.

      And then, you can focus all your energy on the interesting parts of your cooking, because after you turn on the cooker, you can FORGET THAT RICE HAS EVER EXISTED until the exact moment you need it, because it’ll keep your rice warm for you, too. And did I mention rice cookers are trivial to clean?

      More time, more space, less hassle… is that worth $20? HELL yes.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Robert Greer
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        says:

        20 minutes is my cook time for rice on the stove, same as the rice cooker (maybe the rice cooker is a bit slower, i have a low power version).

        I eat rice enough to justify a rice cooker — I find it’s cheap as heck, and way less work than pasta or bread.

        Some people have rice once a month, and they don’t need a rice cooker.Report

  2. Avatar Glyph
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    says:

    Can I make a style suggestion? Some paragraph breaks or line spacing (even if just between the bullets) might make this easier to read.

    I know it’s already long, so maybe you are trying to minimize scrolling, or avoid breaking into multiple posts, but it is a real wall of text for my old-man eyes.Report

  3. Avatar Kim
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    says:

    Where are you getting quality red onions? Ours are flavorless no matter where purchased.
    Sweet white onions are a treat that can be eaten out of hand (please buy the northern ones!)
    Yellow onions are best for most cooking, though… they’ve got the strongest onion flavor.

    Celery’s not part of a proper pantry — it goes bad too quickly, a week tops.

    How have you not mentioned Ghee? Ghee is like butter, except it keeps forever — at room temperature. And it’s far better for high heat applications as it doesn’t smoke.

    Did you seriously not put anything on here for high-temperature cooking? Both butter and “quality” olive oil will smoke.

    Getting extravirgin olive oil is for people who intend to use it “raw”. Buy a plain olive oil if you intend to actually do more than boil with it.

    As for herbs: buy bouquet garni.

    How have you not mentioned rice? it keeps forever.

    And potatoes…

    Anyone looking for a decent thickener that isn’t flour should try tapioca or cornstarch. Best of all, it tastes less like flour.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kim
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      says:

      I live in onion heaven. The desert in northern Los Angeles County is pretty much ideal for growing them in terms of both moisture and mineral content, and I get them fresh out of the fields.

      You need to use the celery, not just have it be physically present.

      An earlier draft of this article discussed the importance of having rice, potatoes, and bread on hand. Then I thought about it and realized a lot of people are very careful about carbs and their choice of carbs will vary widely and so on. You’ll stock the carbs you want.Report

  4. Avatar Kim
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    says:

    Ya know, I have a few casserole dishes. Haven’t ever really used ’em…
    Strainer’s fine if you make pasta a lot. But a spartan kitchen doesn’t need it.
    A whisk is specifically for adding loft — for anything else, a spoon will do.
    Sauce pans are handy as all getout, but you can generally do all of that in your “big pot”Report

  5. Avatar dragonfrog
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    says:

    I’d be a little less fussy than you about some things

    – I don’t expect, or think a kitchen deficient if it lacks, butter and olive oil – but there must be some kind of fat for cooking. Butter, olive oil, coconut oil, corn oil, canola oil, bacon fat, etc. – just so long as there’s something.

    – I don’t think a kitchen deficient if the vegetables in it are not the ones I normally use – carrots and celery in your case, tomatoes and peppers in mine – as long as there are some vegetables of some sort. If you cooked in my kitchen, you’d likely find a deficiency of carrots and celery. Onions and garlic don’t count as “vegetables” in this case – I agree with you that those are basic universal ingredients.

    In the case of knives specifically though, I’m more picky than your description – cheap department store knife-shaped food bludgeons won’t do. They needn’t be fancy, but they do need to be able to take an edge, and the kitchen must also contain a knife sharpener, or it within a few weeks it won’t contain knives anymore.Report

    • Avatar Damon in reply to dragonfrog
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      says:

      Damn straight!

      I use good quality knives. I also have a nice ceramic knife, and some more disposable knives I can use and don’t mind destroying… My ex banged something metal against my chef’s knife and I cringed. Ouch that hurt my precious!

      I pretty much agree with the list, although my pantry doesn’t contain all that, it’s got most.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to dragonfrog
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      says:

      So how much do you think a beginner home cook — one who didn’t know to keep flour and garlic on hand — needs to spend on knives? Look, I love my good knives and let there be no doubt, once you start getting serious about cooking you’re going to gravitate towards knives that hold a sharp edge pretty quickly. But the target of the post, at least in my mind, is likely to be overwhelmed by how much stuff they need and for them, as long as they can use it to cut through a raw carrot, a knife is a knife.

      New cooks: please hold the tips of your fingers downward in a curl, with the tips of your fingers pointing away from where the knife is doing its thing. Your knuckles, not your fingertips, point to where the cutting is happening. It feels awkward at first. But you aren’t a lizard, so the parts of your body that you slice off won’t regrow. And no one wants blood in their mirepoix.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        dull knives are a safety hazard.Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Here’s an excellent cutting primer that shows the sort of hold you’re describing Burt.

        As for knives: you need a chef’s knife and a paring knife. A lot of people will advocate for more than that and they’ll also claim significant money should be dropped into knives, but I am extremely dubious of both. Any cook should be able to get by with the two knives mentioned. And as long as they’re kept sharp, the difference between a good knife and a bad knife is absolutely impossible to detect in the food. Keeping knives sharp with a steel, and being able to properly sharpen them, matters far more than what brand name is written on the handle.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        It needn’t be all that much, I think. Department stores seem to sell terrible crap at roughly the same price as basic good stuff, that’s the trap.

        My chef’s knife cost me $30, my sharpener $20, and both of those can I’m sure be had at a perfectly acceptable quality for half the price. Other than that, I still use the bread knife and two paring knives that were $10 for the set from Ikea, plus a couple others that are nice to have but totally dispensable.

        So, maybe $30 or $40 for knives and sharpening hardware.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I think you could get away with a chef’s knife, a smaller knife such as a paring knife, and maybe a serrated knife.

        I got this: Kuhn Rikon Colori Bulk Pack Bread Knife, 7-Inch, Black on Amazon for 10 bucks. It’s fantastic for bread.

        This: Kuhn Rikon Original Small Santoku Knife Colori 5-Inch Blade, Green was 15 dollars. Works great, but a bit small.

        My chef’s knife was in the order of 50 bucks, and it’s a Whustoff (sp). What are we talking? Less than 100 bucks?

        If you really wanted to save money, you could learn to sharpen knives using stones-like my dad used to. I never developed the skill, so I use a mechanical sharpener.Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I still use the stone but set in a block like this. Then I use a steel. In reality, most people should focus on using the steel rather than the stone, because most blades are perfectly usable when straightened out.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Just as @sam-wilkinson says – the knives don’t need to be anything special, just good enough that when you’re done sharpening them, they’re sharp, and stay that way for at least a few days. To do their job, they must get you through to where you’re eating dinner, without a wait at minor emerg for stitches while a half-cooked roast slowly turns to leather in a cooling oven.

        And a lot of the cheap department store sets don’t do that. Likewise, any knife over two months old in a kitchen without a knife sharpener.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        In my experience, expensive knives and cheap knives are equally sharp when just sharpened. A high-quality knife will simply retain that sharpness longer before needing to be resharpened. I use a Victorinox chef’s knife for about $25 from Amazon that is supposed to be a good value. If I didn’t expect it to last a lifetime, I’d get a nice Japanese one. It should go something like this:

        I also have a knife sharpener that is just two sandstones set at an angle within a plastic contraption. It was cheap, again from Amazon, and doesn’t require you to plug anything in or make sure that you are holding the blade at the proper angle. Even if you get a fancy knife, you will eventually need to sharpen it, so I consider this more important than the knife itself.

        Also, you want to learn to use a knife “steel”, which is that rod you see people use on TV before using their knife.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I’m pretty much with Vikram. You can put a “good enough” edge on a cheap stainless steel knife using one of the cheap sharpener widgets. The one in our kitchen drawer right now has carbide pieces; I’ve seen some with a second set of ceramic pieces for honing. One advantage of using the cheap stuff for a beginner is that it gets you in the habit of sharpening your knives regularly.Report

  6. Avatar gingergene
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    says:

    Hmm… a 4 gallon dutch oven? Do you mean 4 quart? I have a stock pot I use a few times a year that I think is only 12 quarts, and I could cook enough pasta in it to cater a Godfather sequel.Report

  7. Avatar Francis
    Ignored
    says:

    Much to my surprise, you missed the single most most important thing a kitchen needs:

    a sense of fun.

    My god, foodies can drive all the fun out of cooking and terrify amateur chefs in the bargain. My best advice to someone starting out is to get the basic tools, one or two basic cookbooks (I like Bittman), pick a recipe, close the damn book and have some fun with what you’re doing.Report

  8. Avatar Kim
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    says:

    For comparison:
    https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2012/12/23/the-cheap-ass-pantry
    I think i fall far more on Burt’s side of things.
    I’d far rather have lemon juice than vinegar (my vinegar’s white, and used for cleaning most of the time) in most dishes…
    And I’m not terribly big on “fiber for the sake of fiber” — either use something that tastes good with the fiber it’s got (broccoli stems, oatmeal), or don’t bother.Report

  9. Avatar Plinko
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    says:

    I keep several cartons of stock on hand all the time, a lot of quick weekday foods are improved considerably with some chicken or beef stock and I rarely make enough when I do take the time to do it right on the weekends. Anyone have recommendations on brands they like? I usually buy the Kitchen Basics stocks, but there’s a lot out there.

    I find having several vinegars to be necessary on hand at all times (white and red wine, balsamic, rice and apple cider), but I would think at least one is necessary for everyone unless you cycle through wine pretty quickly. So much stuff needs some acid but don’t need to have a hint of lemon (IMHO).Report

  10. Avatar Robert Greer
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    says:

    I’ve read that wooden cutting boards are actually more sanitary than plastic ones. This is supposedly for two reasons: First, because the wood’s porosity means it can suck bacteria into the board, where they cannot grow, and so they die off quickly. Second, because wooden boards’ surfaces don’t get as torn up as plastic boards’, which means that bad bugs have to hide in fewer crannies.

    But I’m a vegetarian who never has to worry about contaminated boards (I don’t even use soap on mine), so maybe I’m ignorant here. Either way, awesome post!Report

  11. Avatar Gabriel Conroy
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    says:

    I’m still in the process of learning the basics. I have about 10 recipes or so under my belt, but am still not yet at the point of being able to just go into the kitchen, see what I have, and then start cooking. A lot of the things the OP mentions are so perishable that I don’t want to buy and then not use them (first world problem). Therefore, for a lot of these things, I’ll buy them as I need them. Still, I do try to keep salt, onions, garlic, olive oil, butter, flour, and select other things on hand.

    For onions, I prefer yellow (which might be what the OP meant by brown). They have a sharp taste that in my opinion is better than sweet or white onions. And something about red/purple* onions turn me off, except in very small doses. I don’t know if they’re too strong, or if the taste just isn’t right for me.

    I’m a big believer in dried herbs because I find it very time consuming to cut up fresh herbs. Fresh herbs, in my experience, are usually better, but dried is so much more convenient.

    I keep both sea salt and fine salt on hand. (I don’t care much about iodization….I don’t really notice the taste difference.) I find they’re useful for different things.

    *My wife says purple. I say red.Report

  12. Avatar Lisa R.
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    says:

    Eggs need to be refrigerated in America because here we wash them before they get to the consumer and this removes a layer that would otherwise obviate the need for refrigeration. That’s what I’ve read, anyway.Report

  13. Avatar Anne
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    says:

    Little off topic but I need a blender any suggestions? don’t want to spend a fortune want a basic (more than 2 speeds I think), sturdy blender.Report

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