Real World 101: Setting Up House for the First Time

Before my husband and I got married, his kitchen supplies were, shall we say, slightly less than adequate. In fact, he did not own a single sharp knife. Well, he had a few butter knives scrounged from his mother, the kind with the 1970’s tiki-esque wooden handles, but other than that, eating anything with more texture than Jell-o was out of the question. His one saucepan was so thin you could practically read the newspaper through it. All of this was due to his misguided belief that equipping a kitchen cost a lot of money – that and the fact that he lacks the culinary ability to do anything more difficult than boil water, but that’s another story.

This is the time of year when many people head out into the real world, thanks to graduation or marriage, and leave behind the comforts of a college apartment or their mom’s kitchen armed with little more than a hot pot and an impressive set of (hopefully) mold-free coffee cups. For some reason, many people put off equipping their kitchen until they are “settled down.”

You shouldn’t have to wait to invest in some basic kitchen supplies. It’s probably neither as expensive nor as painful as you think. Whether you are just starting out on your own, whether someone is bankrolling these first steps or whether you are a latecomer to the culinary world, here is no-nonsense guide to appointing a basic kitchen.

Pots and pans
Choosing cookware is a personal decision, and one size definitely does not fit all. The weight, the material and even the coating can enter into your decision. Of all materials used to make cookware, copper is probably the best heat conductor. Unfortunately, if cost is an issue, you can probably rule out copper pots due to their enormous expense. Heck, I’m a few years okay, a few decades past just starting out in the world and I have to rule them out because of their expense.

Instead, concentrate on stainless steel or hard-anodized aluminum. Each has its merits. Stainless steel is easy to clean, but not the best heat conductor; look for pans with a copper disc on the bottom. Hard-anodized aluminum is durable and a good heat conductor but is easily discolored and can be expensive. Some manufacturers offer combinations of aluminum and stainless called “multi-ply,” which offers great conductivity at a price, and not a cheap one.

Coatings have come a long way in recent years and you’ll want at least one piece, probably a skillet, in nonstick. As with any product, make sure you follow the manufacturer’s directions in terms of washing protocol.

Whatever you decide, above all, stay away from thin, usually cheap, non-coated aluminum, as it will quickly wear out and can interact with some acidic foods. You’ll end up calling yourself a lousy cook when it’s really your pans that are lousy. A nifty interactive guide at will help tailor your choice to your individual needs.

A glance through any cookware catalog reveals umpteen different pots and pans: grain pans, sauciers, paella pans. Buying up a bunch of pans is a big waste of money and who has the space to store all of these? Even though the folks at your friendly neighborhood kitchenware store would say otherwise, you really don’t need that many pans to produce a decent meal. The list is pretty basic: a saucepan with a lid that has a 1- to 3-quart capacity for boiling vegetables or making sauces; a skillet with an 8- to 10-inch diameter for sautéing; and a stock pot of eight quarts or more for soups, chili or pasta.

A decent saucepan can run from $20 to $40, a 10-inch skillet is around $40 – more for nonstick – and a stock pot is also around $40. Cookware sets can offer a tremendous savings, just make sure that you’ll use what you’re buying. To me, there’s not much use for a 6-inch skillet or a 1-quart saucepan, and I bet you won’t find one, either.

Most people also like to bake now and again, so plan to equip your kitchen with a few essential baking items. A heavy baking sheet for cookies, a 9-inch square baking dish, a 9-by-13-inch pan, a pie plate and some mixing bowls are all in order. If you fancy a slice of cake now and then, add in some round 9-inch cake pans and a loaf pan.

Like anything else, cookware can be found at a variety of different stores around town and in cyberspace. Target, Wal-Mart and K-Mart all have a wide selection and some good prices. Calphalon, an upper-end cookware manufacturer, has started marketing a lower-priced line at Target called Kitchen Essentials. Local shops like Cornucopia in Kirkwood and Kitchen Conservatory in Clayton also offer a wide selection with good customer service. Higher-end stores like Sur La Table (Plaza Frontenac) and Williams-Sonoma (Chesterfield Mall and Plaza Frontenac) are beautiful and many times do have some good buys.

If you are Internet savvy, you can frequently find deals on kitchen sites such as and They often offer enticements like rebates or free shipping on purchases over a certain dollar amount. For the truly adventurous, don’t forget about online auctions like eBay. I recently entered “Calphalon” into its search engine and it returned more than 500 products for sale. There’s not one perfect place to buy supplies, so shop around to find the best bargains.

Gadgets and utensils
There’s not much use for a whole lot of those gadgety type things you see bandied about. A catalog I recently thumbed through showed asparagus peelers, avocado slicers and, I kid you not, a 4-cup Fryer’s Friend Grease Keeper. Buy these or any other Ron Popeil-inspired item and I guarantee it will be taking up space and collecting dust within minutes of its purchase. Don’t be lured in by every bright, shiny gadget; just purchase a few utensils such as a wire whisk, tongs, wooden spoons and heavy rubber spatulas.

Look for utensils that can perform more than one function. Single-use items like egg separators or mushroom slicers just don’t provide much bang for your buck. Here is an area where you can save some money, as there’s not a lot of difference between high-end and low-end utensils. These don’t have to break the bank, just choose some fairly decent-quality pieces. They sometimes come in sets for as little as $10.

While you might be able to save on the utensils, you absolutely cannot skimp on knives. Yes, they can run anywhere from $35 to $100, but given proper care, a good knife will last for decades and make your culinary life much more safe and enjoyable. Henckels and Wüsthof-Trident are both good names; go to any cooking store and pick both up to see which feels most comfortable in your hand. Start out with a paring knife and a chef’s knife, which will let you accomplish most culinary tasks with ease.

Staples and spices
Along with decent equipment, you’ll need to keep some basic pantry items in stock. If you have a supply of things like canned chicken broth, beans, tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, capers, salad dressing and roasted red peppers, you’ll find preparing last-minute meals much easier. If you like Asian food, consider keeping soy sauce, hoisin and maybe some fish sauce on hand. Prefer Latin or Southwestern cuisine? Salsas and dried peppers should be on your shelves.

Avoid those spice racks that come already filled since you don’t know how long the dried herbs and spices have been hermetically sealed into those little glass bottles. It’s usually best to use fresh herbs, although oregano and thyme dry pretty well. Spices tend to have a longer shelf life, so keeping small jars of cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, curry powder and cayenne makes sense.

Having the right equipment and a well-stocked pantry still won’t make you a cook. You have to know what you’re doing, or at least be willing to learn. Consider investing in cooking classes; there are numerous options around town. If that’s not fiscally possible, at least buy some good cookbooks. Mark Bittman has written several good, basic cookbooks, as has Ina Garten. Magazines like Bon Appétit and Cook’s Illustrated are also terrific sources. Both of these magazines host easily accessible Web sites that can also be a great source of information.

These tips can start you out on the path of becoming a good cook, but only practice can get you to the finish line. I wish I could apply the wisdom of my fellow Nebraskan, Father Flanagan, to the kitchen and say, “There are no bad cooks, only bad equipment.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case just look at my husband if you need any further proof. Luckily, I’m usually around to bail him out.

What to do with them
Now that you have your equipment and your pantry set up, don’t let them go to waste. If you’re single or part of a small family, it might be tempting to just call up the local pizza boys instead of cooking a nightly meal. But simple recipes using items that do double duty makes culinary and financial sense. Many sauces can easily be doubled and frozen in individual portions to be warmed up in the same amount of time it will take to boil the water for some pasta. Many soups and chilis can be frozen and later warmed up in the same fashion. Throw together a quick salad and you have a home-cooked meal.