This year saw more people getting comfortable with their kitchens than ever before as cooking and baking increased during lockdowns and quarantines. Cooking doesn’t have to be daunting if you’re a newbie or you’re in a small space–the right gear and organization make all the difference. For more seasoned home cooks with room to spare, clearing out the clutter to splurge on gear that will last a lifetime can increase creativity and support your cravings (my chef’s knife from cooking school is still used daily for pretty much everything!). Whether you have roommates or a first kitchen or are living in your forever home, here are some tips for starting your culinary journey in 2021, inspired by Lisa Chernick’s book, Your Starter Kitchen.
For a Small or First Kitchen
Dinnerware: When it comes to purchasing dinnerware, go simple, sturdy, and neutral. Bold patterns and unusual colors may look like fun, but neutral colors are easy to mix and match and you won’t mind looking at them as time rolls on. Consider buying dinnerware in sets.
Nonstick pans: One (or maybe 2 so you have different sizes) nonstick pans are all you need to get good results. If you see scratches on the cooking surface, it’s time to throw it out and get a new one–those scratches signal that you are eating tiny bits of the nonstick surface when you cook on it. A variety of pots and pans is best, stainless steel can be scraped and scratched, and last a lifetime. It’s great for making sauces.
Extra storage: Containers and bins are key for keeping pantries, cabinets, and drawers organized, especially in a shared kitchen space. When you’re sharing a kitchen with roommates, bins and containers keep personal items separate and organized–and be sure to keep masking tape and a marker handy so it’s easy to label your storage as you go.
Roommate relations: For shared items (including cleaning supplies), decide on a “shopping and paying” plan early on and stick with it. To help keep track of shared items that need to be replaced, try placing a chalkboard or notepad on the wall or fridge, and whoever uses the last of something writes it down so no one is left hanging.
Alternatives to single-use gadgets:
- Smash garlic with a can of tomatoes versus buying a garlic press.
- Make instant pot/slow cooker recipes on the stove or in the oven in a heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven. First saute any ingredients that need to cook on higher heat, then add everything else and lower it to a simmer or put it in the oven at 300F degrees or 325F degrees for a few hours.
- Knife sharpening hack: Flip a coffee mug upside down and draw the blade of your knife across the coarse ring of ceramic at the bottom of the mug if you don’t have a regular knife sharpener.
Chef’s knife: If you were to only purchase one knife for cooking, make the investment and buy a good quality chef’s knife–it will be an indispensable tool for a lifetime of cooking. A chef’s knife is like a great pair of jeans, it works for you, it feels right (in your hands!). Ideally, buy one at a cookware store that will let you hold the knives, so you can get a feel for them, and even try a few to chop real food. In terms of size, while a 12-inch blade is standard in professional kitchens, it is total overkill for home cooks. An 8-inch is ideal for home cooks, and if you really want something longer, a 10-inch knife should be your max.
For a More Grown-up Kitchen/Forever Home
Organization: Invest in well-organized drawers and cabinets. Install those pull-out shelves and racks so pots, pans, prepware, cookware, and platters can stay organized in cabinets. When deciding where to store all of your must-have gear in a compact kitchen, a few helpful rules of thumb are: choose drawers and cabinets near the sink and/or dishwasher to keep frequently used plates, cups, flatware, and utensils. If something is easy to put away after it’s clean, you’re more likely to put it away! Keep frequently used gear and pantry items at eye level, and things you’ll only reach for occasionally on lower and higher shelves. And if your cabinets are tall enough to store baking sheets and cutting boards upright/vertically, they’re much easier to grab and to store that way.
Hidden spaces: The insides of cabinet doors are prime, untapped real estate. You can attach a holder for your pot lids or a dispenser for reusable grocery store plastic bags or large kitchen trash bags. They’re great spots to mount a spice rack, to install a bar of hooks for hanging utensils or pot holders, or to have hooks for hanging cleaning rags and gloves. Another great use for this space is to install cork-boards and/or chalkboards on them in order to keep important notes handy.
The versatile wok: You can use a wok to stir-fry, steam, boil, and deep-fry food. You can make french fries, mussels steamed with white wine and garlic, and even a batch of popcorn in one. A flat-bottom, carbon steel wok is best, and often the least expensive option. Don’t buy a wok with a nonstick finish or more expensive materials; carbon steel works best. After you season and cook in it, it will develop a patina that will become a naturally nonstick finish, similar to the way cast iron pans work.
Got counter space? Get these two items:
- Stand Mixer: People are baking now more than ever. Even if you have a handheld mixer, it can’t replace a stand mixer, which frees up your hands to do other things. Leave it out since it is incredibly heavy and looks nice too on the counter–and when it’s out, you’ll find yourself using it often. Buy an extra bowl and paddle attachment so if you’re making something like a layer cake, you can move between batter and frosting without stopping and washing everything in the middle.
- Waffle Maker: If you’re missing your favorite brunch spot, this gadget is for you and it will last a very long time. There are two types: ones that make thick, fluffy waffles (Belgian-style), and thinner, crispier ones (American style).
Lisa Chernick is the author of the kitchen guide Your Starter Kitchen. Lisa has been a food writer and editor for more than 20 years. She has been a James Beard Book Awards judge since 2006 and a former James Beard Award nominee. Learn more at lisachernick.com.