I find that one of the biggest obstacles to good nutrition is that people simply just don't know how to cook. Another problem is that people spend far too much money on food that could be easily prepared at home. Cooking isn't just a means by which we obtain sustenance: it is a passion and a way to show how much you care for others and yourself.
Proper Cookware: Before You Begin
Making enjoyable food begins with the cookware: you will never make good tasting, healthy food without the proper food preparation tools. If you have to improvise at every corner just to prepare food, and end up just using the microwave, the food will not usually come out well, and if it does, it's probably not healthy and/or it's expensive to buy because it's pre-made.
The most important thing to consider when buying cookware is if it is large enough to make the meal sizes you will be using to prepare it. I don't care how nice that $360 non-stick, porcelain skillet is, if it's not big enough to cook all of the food you need it to in one go, it's not worth a cent. The most important thing to know once you have the cookware is how it handles: how long does this cast iron skillet need to be on the burner before it cooks evenly; does this skillet have a non-stick coating, and do I clean it with water and soap, or do I have to take more precautions (again, cast iron); does this knife hold an edge well, and does it cut cleanly, or do I have to sharpen it before every use?
You will never make good tasting, healthy food without the proper food preparation tools.
Some cooking items are quintessential- absolute musts if you want to cook- while others are for very intricate and sophisticated and single-purpose.
Knives- Every chef has their knives. For professionals, these are the most highly regarded tools in the kitchen. While I won't say which brands are absolute musts, because each chef will argue that their brand is the best, these are some of the types of knives you will need in your block:
- 8" to 12" Chef Knife: your biggest (usually) knife, this guy can do anything from dicing onions to julienning bell peppers to slicing meat. The correct way to use this knife is to have the tip on the cutting surface, then bring the rest of the blade down in a fluid motion.
- Paring Knife: This knife, usually around 3.5 inches, is a critically important knife to have for cutting small vegetables and most fruit (although avoid using this knife on hard veggies like carrots and potatoes). If in a pinch, or you don't feel like dirtying another tool for a small job, this knife can be used, very carefully, to skin fruits and vegetables as well. Mostly, you will hold the piece of food you are cutting with this knife in your hand, so slow, delicate cuts are an absolute must. Otherwise, injury is an almost certainty.
- Utility Knife: As the name suggests, this knife is your most versatile, albeit you won't use it nearly as much as the aforementioned knives. That being said, this knife is especially great for cutting things that are too big for paring knives, but need a lighter touch than the heavy chef knife, like cutting sandwiches or tougher veggies. This cuts like a chef knife, although it will require a bit more elbow grease from you as it lacks the weight of the chef knife.
- Bread Knife: Baker's rejoice! A knife that will cut through your bread like butter and won't leave rough edges! Acting more like a saw, you cut bread back and forth, allowing gravity to slide the blade down through the bread. Do not cut any other type of food with this blade.
- Boning Knife: For you carnivores out there, this knife is a thin, flexible, and ultra-sharp blade designed to get in between the meat and the bones. For fish and birds, the more flexible, the quicker, but with other types of meat, you definitely need a tougher blade to make the necessary cuts.
- Carving Knife: Again, for the meat eaters of the world, this knife is a must for making those thin cuts of meat. The longest knife in your block, the sharp blade must be maintained to make easy cuts. Otherwise, you will get jagged chunks instead of thin slices.
- Cutting Surface: Of course, with knives, one must have a place to cut. Some people like the aesthetic of wooden boards, but frequently, those boards are a pain to clean, because the various liquids have a nasty tendency to be soaked into the wood itself. I prefer hard plastic to wood for this reason.
Whisk- While not entirely necessary for most things, I find using a whisk much more effective for stirring than a spoon or fork. On top of that, some things desperately need a whisk to be done correctly.
Peeler- A great tool for getting off undesired skins and surfaces off of fruits and vegetables. Much more efficient than a paring knife at this task.
Tenderizer- A glorified hammer, these guys are wonderful for tenderizing, or softening, meat. Also, using them on grapes makes you feel like a mini-Gallagher.
Grater- Great for getting shredded cheese and for zesting citrus fruits, graters see a lot of use in my house, although just buying the product pre-shredded/zested isn't all too expensive or hard to find.
Juicer- Although the mechanical versions are more widely known for their ability to make homemade juice, hand juicers are great, quicker ways of getting small amounts of juice needed for cooking, especially with lemons and limes.
Mixer- Mixers are a must for bakers. Quickly mixing batter, stiffening egg whites, and kneading bread are just a few of the applications of a mixer.
Bowls- A no-brainer, having a nice repertoire of bowls makes life all the easier when preparing multiple parts of a dish.
Measuring Cups- These guys are absolute musts for cooking. Having as many denominations of the different measurements is critical. You absolutely need 1/8, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, and 1 teaspoon, tablespoon, and cup measuring cups. Having a large measuring pitcher (1 or 2 quarts) also comes in handy when measuring large quantities like when using stock, water, and sauce for soup.
Once the cooking begins, you will need tools to handle the food while it is being cooked. From spoons and forks to spatulas, these are some of the tools you'll need while things are hot:
Cooking Spoons and Forks- Great for handling various foods, cooking spoons and forks allow you to move the food while it is in the pot or pan. I like wooden ones overall, because they don't get soft when hot like plastic or rubber.
Silicon Spatulas- Different than their metal and plastic cousins, silicon spatulas are great for scraping the edges of cooking surfaces, as well as your mixing bowls.
Flipping Spatulas- When lifting or flipping food, spatulas are what you need. Having both metal and plastic is useful, because metal is so much easier with very hot foods because it won't bend when hot like plastic, but scratching non-stick surfaces ruin the surface, so plastic is better in that case.
Serving Utensils and Ladles- Of course, once the food is ready, you will need a way to get the food from the pot/pan onto the plate. Spatulas are fine when working with meats, but you'll probably have an easier go of it when you are serving less than solid food with a nice set of serving utensils and ladles.
Tongs- Nothing says serving grilled items quite like the click of a pair of tongs. Great for flipping solid food quickly tongs work best on grills.
Of course, the most important part of cooking is your cooking surfaces. These are a few of the objects you will need to get cookin':
16 Quart Pot- Sometimes, you just have to break out the big boy. From large pots of soup to pounds and pounds of spaghetti, this guy will have you covered. The thicker the base, the better (less burning on the bottom).
3-4 Quart Saucier- Preferably two, this guy will take care of all your wet cooking needs, from sauces, to soups, to noodles.
Enamled Dutch Oven- Great for slow braises and soups, the even distribution of heat makes for a wonderful cooker. Can be used in the oven or stove top.
16 inch Wok- Woks are wonderful for stir fries, but they also excel in deep frying, braising, and steaming.
Cast Iron Skillet- Ah, my favorite cooking tool in the entire kitchen. While these guys need serious love to use efficiently, they are amazing tools for cooking in (but heavy as hell). Can go from the stove, into the oven, and back again, and hold heat for long periods of time. Wonderful for searing meat, cooking cornbread or pie, crisping bacon, and even making a pizza. Oh, did I mention it is 99% non-stick (if you take care of it right)? How to Buy, Season, and Maintain Cast Iron
All Clad Skillet- The workhorse of skillets, these guys are great for cooking just about anything that will fit. Usually for dry foods, but can handle some wet foods.
Non-Stick Skillet- For cooking foods that have a bad tendency to grab the pan, even with oil. Best for omelets, pancakes, and other things that need flipped halfway through. NO METAL UTENSILS, IT WILL SCRATCH THE SURFACE, RUINING IT.