What Every Guttersnipe Should Have In Her Cupboard
So I've had numerous people ask me for an overview of what the uninitiated cook should have in their cupboards and on their shelves when it comes to food, cookbooks or equipment. Now, I am going to take the definition of "uninitiated cook" further than simply being someone who has not worked in the food service industry or one who has not been to culinary school. I am also going to figure that this means someone who has not spent a great deal of time and/or energy to attempt to become a moderately good amateur cook. This means the bulk of people who really would like to learn just enough cooking know-how to impress their friends, loved ones and coworkers when needed and feed themselves with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of yum. And you know what? That's cool by me. I can get pretty food snobby about some things, but I figure anyone who is willing to do more than just nuke a TV dinner or order out for pizza every day is a few steps ahead of the game.
I'm going to do a few quasi-articles on cooking and a kind of quasi how-to guide. I'm going to do my best to give you what I think you need on here and I encourage everyone who likes what I have to say or felt it was useful to spread it around so that other people can also get a leg-up. I am intentionally NOT cross-posting this to any of the cooking communities on here because I don't want to seem totally god-awful pretensious and because there are enough people on those communities who aren't going to need this that it would be a bandwidth chewer over there. Right, so enough of all that.. let's get down to business.
So you want to be able to cook for yourself and your friends, but you don't really know how and you think that it's all massive amounts of work and huge expense and your usual reaction when mulling it over is 'Christ, let's just order a frikking pizza.' Well, be of good cheer, citizen. You're not alone in this. But cooking doesn't have to be a trial and it doesn't have to be a huge investment in time and money. Really, there are only a few things that you need equipment-wise that will get and that's what this little blurb is about. This is going to be the top four things that every person of college age or older should have in their kitchen, kitchenette, next to their hotplate or whatever your cooking situation is.
Okay, firstly let me quote that great sage and fictional character, Tyler Durden, when it comes to all those kitchen gadgets that everyone from Booby Flay to Martha Stewart try and convince you that you HAVE to have to be able to cook in the kitchen:
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. This statement is especially true with things and gadgetry of the kitchen. Ninety percent of the things that hum, grind, chop, whir, spin and beep are totally not necessary for you to be able to cook. They may be fun and may make life somewhat easier, but they're not vital to your culinary wellbeing. There are really only four things you need to survive and thrive in the wilderness of your kitchen.
Thing To Have Number One - A Good Chef's Knife
Okay, this is going to be the long entry and it's because this is the one tool that you absolutely, positively cannot do without. You can fudge your way through not having everything else on this list. I know because I have at one point in time or another. But believe me when I say that without a knife, you're gonna be hard pressed to do anything other than roast hunks of food. And the part of knife buying that hangs up ninety percent of the populous is just the one question - How the hell do you tell what a GOOD knife is? Well, I'll tell you. A good knife is a knife that combines a good price with quality materials and ease of use. Notice I didn't say LOW price. A good knife is not going to be cheap. And a lot of people are going to balk (with good reason) at buying a $90 knife. But let me tell you WHY you should give that purchase its due consideration and not just jaunt over to the crappy $10 knives.
First of all, let's talk materials. Your average $65-$90 chef's knife is going to be made from either high carbon or stainless steel, maybe an alloy of both. It's going to be drop forged, which means it's going to be beaten out of a hunk of solid metal that was heated up and so is going to hold a darn good edge. It's going to have at least a partial tang, if not a full tang, which means that the blade runs from halfway to all the way down the length of the handle, essentially sandwhiched between the plastic or wood. The tang makes for a balanced and durable grip. That $10 chef's knife you're eying down at the end down there is probably made from pressed metal, maybe stainless steel maybe not. Which means it's not going to hold an edge worth a damn. It's likely not going to have even a partial tang and just have a handle riveted on the end, which means no balance and no durability. With cutlery, as with computers and cars, you get what you pay for.
Now, why should you want a sharp knife? After all, wouldn't it be more likely to cut you if it's sharp? WRONG. It's more likely that you'll injure yourself with a dull knife than with a sharp one. Look at it like this - A sharp knife will slide through almost anything you put against it. It should only take the minimum amount of pressure to go through whatever it is you're cutting if the knife is sharp enough. Less force means more control, more control means more safety, which in turn means more of you stays where you belong. A dull knife takes more effort to get through the same food. More effort means less control, less control means less safety and that means that you pushing too hard, slipping and taking off a digit becomes a real possibility. Not a good idea.
Now, let's talk ease of use. This translates to three factors - One - how often does it have to be sharpened, two - how does it feel in your hand when you use it, and three - how easy is it to maintain? As I mentioned before, the sharpness of your blade is important. Not only how sharp it gets, but how long it stays sharp. A good knife will stay sharp with normal use for about three months, barring any resharpening by the user. And I highly recommend that if you're reading this you not attempt to sharpen your own knives. Those sure-fire knife sharpening things they sell in stores are only good for dulling your knife. So, every three months or so, you'll take your knife to the Ace Hardware or the local kinfe sharpening place and get it ground and sharpened. Usually it's like $2 a blade, so no sweat. But if you have a crappy knife, you'll have to get that sucker sharpened every week or two. NOT good economics nor good safety. Metals like high-carbon steel hold a very good edge for a good long time. Stainless steel holds a pretty good edge, not as good as high-carbon and not for as long. The less said about aluminum, the better. You'd do yourself a better service using a frikking BAT made from aluminum to cut your food than a knife made from aluminum.
The second factor is how the knife feels in your hand when you're actually using it. This is why I don't recommend buying knives from online. In my opinon, a person needs to be able to take a knife out of the case and actually put it in their hand and feel how it will sit. Is the grip too long? Too short? Is the balance too far forward or back? Is it too heavy or too light? What is the action like when you cut with it? Some places will actually have cutting boards that you can use to test the motion of the knife. And if they give you a funny look when you ask to hold the knife, then turn around and walk out. It's like asking someone to buy a car without test driving it. And if the salesperson actually gives you CRAP about it, I'd reconsider coming into that store EVER again.
The last factor to be considered is how hard is the knife to maintain? High-carbon knives are a wonder to use and a beauty to behold, but they require some upkeep that most amateur cooks just aren't willing to put out. For example, if you were to use a HC knife to cut something acidic, then if you don't clean it immedately, the blade could discolor. Heck, a HC knife practically starts discoloring if it comes within five feet of a tomato. Okay, that's an exaggeration... but only a slight one. The fact is that the more expensive knives cannot just be tossed into a dishwasher and let go. The harsh detergents and abrading action of the stuff around the knife will play merry hell with the edge. So that means hand cleaning and hand drying. Stainless steel is some better, but you trade convenience for quality, which is not something I personally am willing to do.
For the college cook, I would recommend a small Santoku knife like this one. For the cook who's a bit more well off, I'd recommend a chef's knife like this one from Henckel. Either way, I recommend strongly that if you can only afford one thing out of this list, that it's this knife. Everything else can be fudged one way or another. This really cannot.
Thing To Have Number Two - A 12-inch cast iron skillet
Words cannot express to you how versitile, how durable and how absolutely necessary a cast iron skillet is to your kitchen. Only those who don't have one would question why I say this. Quite literally, you can cook almost ANYTHING in a cast iron skillet. I think the only think I haven't been able to do is boil eggs and cook crepes in mine. And the beautiful part about cast iron is that a twelve-incher is EXTREMELY affordable, available at almost any hardware store on the planet and if you're VERY lucky, you can pick one up at a garage or estate sale and it'll already be well seasoned.
What do I mean about seasoned? Well, that's the secret to a cast iron skillet... or really a cast iron anything! You see, you never wash a cast iron skillet with soap. Think about that for a second. You never wash a cast iron with soap. The reason is because the oil and fat that are baked onto a cast iron, which give it the trademark glossy black color, are what helps the cast iron maintain its slick surface. While not as non-stick as Teflon, a good seasoned cast iron will certainly give that expensive Teflon pan a run for its money. And I'd like to see a Teflon skillet stand up to a 500 degree broiler without screaming in pain. But I digress...
Seasoning is the process in which a fat, usually shortening or lard, is caked onto a cast iron skillet and then baked in an oven so that the fat gets down into all the microscopic nooks and crannies of the pan, protecting it from rust and giving the metal its slickness exterior so needed for cooking use. This process, which is as simple as falling off a log, is the secret to a cast-iron's success. The fat protects the metal from oxidation (which means rusting) and the metal provides the density to grab and hang onto heat and then disperse it evenly when cooking. Once the cooking is done, you just toss in some kosher salt, a little more oil and rub it clean with a handful of paper towels or a paper grocery sack. I am fairly sure that everyone's grandmother has at least one of these and will be glad to tell you how to season it, use it and maintain it if you just ask. When WAS the last time you spoke to your grandmother, anyway? Now's a good time, if you can.
Now, I said that cast iron is versitile. What does that mean, exactly? Well, it means that you can do almost anything with a cast iron skillet that you would be able to do in a normal skillet, a broiling pan, a sauce pan, a shallow pot or even a meat mallet. I've used my skillet to do everything from poaching salmon to searing t-bones to pounding out chicken breasts to smacking a raccoon who got too close to my cookfire (long story). Well cared for.. heck even halfway cared for, a cast iron skillet will see you through almost any cooking need you can possibly come up with.
I recommend the first name in cast iron, Lodge Cast Iron, for your skillet needs. And don't mind the price on this. You can find it for cheaper at your local ACE or TruValue.
Thing To Have Number Three - A twelve quart stock pot
Okay, so we have a knife and we have a skillet.. why the hell is this big assed stockpot doing in the equasion? Well, I'll tell you why. Because as good as that skillet is, it's lousy for trying to make a lot of liquid at once. You try making enough stew or chili in it to feed six adult men on Superbowl Sunday in a cast iron skillet and you'll see what I mean. Soups, stews, stocks, broths... whatever you want to make that is liquid and yummy, you are going to want to make enough of it to have for at least a couple of days or to feed at least a couple of people. Otherwise, what's the point of making it? And my theory on life is that it's easy to make a lesser amount in a bigger pot than it is to make a greater amount in a smaller pot. Put simply, you're going to have one hell of a time making ten quarts of soup in a six quart pot.
Thing To Have Number Four - A good two-cup measuring cup
What do I mean by a "good" measuring cup? I mean a measuring cup that is not going to get bent out of place, warped by heat, melt or otherwise get deformed while in use. Which pretty much rules out plastic or metal. My preference is for a Pyrex measuring cup, available at any given grocery store in North America. I say that you need to get a two cup measuring cup because I have rarely had anything that I was cooking that called for more than two cups of anything and a whole lot that calls for somewhere between one and two.
For those who are about to ask, while I am a big fan of Alton Brown, I am not a real big fan of his graduated plunger-type cylinder measures because they can get warped and bent out of place if put into a dishwasher. And since they are not SUPPOSED to be used in the dishwasher, but rather cleaned by hand, their usefulness for the uninitiated cook is hampered. I say, better to have something you can rinse and toss into the dishwasher than something you'll never use.
Tomorrow, I'll go over the best cookbooks for the uninitiated cook to have on their shelves, what to avoid and what to do to best enhance your personal cuisine.