Do you walk into your kitchen just to rifle through that box full of take-out menus or drag a two-day-old doggy bag out of the fridge? Maybe it's time to make use of the oven for more than just extra storage and finally clear the excess bar paraphernalia off your stove. Your wallet, your health and your very soul are crying out to be fed wholesome home-cooked meals that come around more often than occasional holiday visits to your mom's house. C'mon. Let's cook.
Whoa, before you head to the grocery for ingredients, better take stock of your kitchen equipment. Does your nonstick skillet add a nice seasoning of Teflon flakes to your morning scramble? Still using that $20 set of Target pots and pans you got after college? It's time to outfit that under-used room with the kind of gear that makes cooking a breeze. It doesn't take a lot of dough to stock a kitchen for serious cooking, as long as you focus on the essentials of a kitchen arsenal.
Most of your money — maybe more than you want to spend — should be dumped into pots and pans. Your kitchen work won't suffer if you use the cheap plastic measuring cups from the Dollar Store or the Handi-Chop you bought off an infomercial, but use a cheap pan and you're asking for trouble. Splurge on the best, or at least the best your credit cards can handle. Take care of these high-end cookware and not only will they last decades, you could be handing them down to your offspring.
Construction and materials are key. Copper is pretty and transfers heat like lightning, but can react poorly to acidic ingredients unless lined with another metal. And it's damn expensive. The best options combine a core of aluminum — which conducts and holds heat well — surrounded by steel, which is well-nigh indestructible.
Cheaper brands have a disc of aluminum inside just the bottom of the pan, which is fine if that's all you can afford. Better are versions, like perpetual favorite All-Clad, that carry that aluminum core up the sides of the pots, allowing for quicker, more even cooking. Make sure that the handles are oven-safe (no plastic, folks) and riveted to last longer.
Some brands offer sets of essential pots and pans — usually at a discount — which is great, as long as there aren't too many costly extras. If you want to bare-bones it, you only need three pans: a stockpot/dutch oven around 5-7 quarts; a smaller sauce pan; and a wide sauté pan, all with lids. If you have the extra bread, splurge on a 10-inch skillet and another saucepan, especially if you plan on making recipes or meals that require simultaneous pan usage.
Nonstick skillets are the big exception to the pricey pots and pans rule. No matter how much you spend, that Teflon coating will break down after repeated use and start to absorb odd flavors or flake off. Buy cheaper nonstick pans at the local mega-mart and count on replacing them after a year or two. (They'll last longer if you never use metal utensils to stir your food.) Just look for nonstick pans that are heavy enough to absorb and keep heat, and try to find one that has a handle that can survive short stays in the oven.
You can sub out the expensive sauté and nonstick pans for a dirt-cheap cast iron skillet, but you have to be prepared to put in some work. Cast iron takes time to clean and maintain after every use. Treat it right and you'll have an indestructible piece of culinary history that actually makes food taste better.
Once you have these beauties in hand, you'll be ready to make like Rachael Ray and whip out the "evoo" for Wednesday night dinner, but, hold on, there are still a few more things to fit into your cabinets. A set of measuring spoons, dry measuring cups and a big 4-cup measuring beaker are next, followed by a few wooden spoons, tongs with plastic or silicone tips, a flexible spatula (silicone or plastic) and a metal whisk. That's about it for utensils; a full set will probably run you less than $30.
Bakeware is dependent on what you're planning to make — I've never used the two popover pans I got at my wedding seven years ago — but there are essentials. Splurge on two heavy-duty aluminum half-sheet pans at the local restaurant supply store, a Williams-Sonoma or other kitchen joint for about $20 each. Lightweight cookie sheets just can't compete and at high temps tend to suddenly warp in the oven, sending food flying. If you cover the sheet pans with heavy-duty aluminum foil every time you use them, they'll last as long as your pots.
For other bakeware, don't get seduced by expensive options; cheap brands tend to work as well. Just remember that the darker the pan, the more heat it will absorb and the more brown your cupcake will get. Buy a pan that's too light in color and your tasty treats will come out just as light. Best to stick to the charcoal-gray middle ground.
Throw in one or two Pyrex (or similar knock-off) lasagna pans, and you're done. Think you need more? You don't.
You probably already have a blender for frozen drinks — that can take the place of a food processor for many recipes. A big, expensive standing mixer is great but never necessary if you're willing to put in some muscle work kneading bread or whisking cream. Avoid what TV chef Alton Brown calls "uni-taskers," and look for ways to use what you already have to mimic the effects, like a measuring cup instead of a ladle or a loose pan lid instead of a colander. Your budget, cabinets and drawers will thank you. All told, this basic kitchenware upgrade should run you $400-$600.
Now get in the kitchen, and rattle them pots and pans.
(Check out Taking Care of Your Gear for handy tips on maintaining your pots and pans.)