If you are a real beginner cook you may not know yet what cookbooks are appropriate for you and what equipment is essential. When I first started learning to cook on my own I had very little kitchen equipment, and in truth you don’t need a ton, but I found that my equipment grew as I read my two cookbooks and decided on things I wanted to make. People who love to cook tend to collect kitchen gadgets that they really don’t need and I’d like to present here two lists of what I consider the first tier of necessary equipment and then if you become a proficient and passionate cook the second tier of essential equipment. You should always buy the best quality equipment that you can afford. Don’t be afraid to look for things you need in thrift stores and in used restaurant supply stores. Good cookware will last a long time. Look for 5 ply stainless steel or cast iron (enamel coated or not) for the very best quality pots and pans.
The most necessary items:
1 saute pan: if you only have one make it a 12″ size.
1 medium size sauce pan: a 3 quart size is good.
1 soup/stock pot: 8 quart is perfect.
1 cookie sheet: if you can get one from a restaurant supply place, those are the best.
1 casserole dish: I suggest a glass or ceramic one (Corning makes really good ones).
2-3 wooden spoons: these should not be expensive. Have one short-handled one and a long-handled one.
1 spatula: I prefer metal ones but either metal or plastic will be fine.
1 colander: any metal style, don’t buy a plastic one because one of the main uses is for draining hot pasta. I have one I bought 20 years ago from Cost Plus. It’s dinged up and still working hard.
1 set mixing bowls: no need to get fancy if you’re on a budget, plain glass ones aren’t hard to find in thrift stores. Stainless steel mixing bowls are also excellent. Don’t buy aluminum bowls because some food reacts with aluminum. It’s very useful to have three bowls in different sizes.
1 set measuring spoons: any kind will do.
1 (2 cup) measuring cup: I suggest glass Pyrex if you only have one.
1 folding steamer basket for sauce pan: these fit into the bottom of your sauce pan allowing you to steam vegetables. They’re cheap and very handy.
1 pie pan: I suggest you get a glass one.
1 loaf pan: if you can get one from a restaurant supply place that would be best but if not, just get any kind you find, average loaf size.
1 decent knife: don’t worry about fancy. My favorite knife is one I bought 14 years ago from a health food store. I sharpen it regularly and it still works perfectly. You want your main knife to be a chef’s knife. Shop around and hold the different styles to figure out which kind is comfortable for your hand.
1 paring knife: any kind will do. I use cheap ones because I lost my nice one. I have to sharpen them more often but they work fine.
Sharpening steel: whether your knife is cheap or expensive you need to sharpen it regularly. I didn’t know how to do this for years and chopping with a dull knife is not only more dangerous but much harder.
1 good quality food processor: 11 cup capacity is best for a family but smaller is fine for an individual. I bought the best Cuisinart processor I could afford almost 12 years ago and it is still working wonderfully well, though I could stand to sharpen or replace the blades. At the time it really stretched our budget but it has been essential to me in my cooking.
Less necessary appliances that you may want to get eventually:
Stand Mixer: I bought a Kitchenaide (professional series) and I have used it so much over the years that it was worth the expense. I bought the pasta attachment which I love and use often.
Immersion Blender: Mrs. C had to convince me to get one of these and I resisted for a long time but I can’t imagine making salad dressings without one now. Though seriously- don’t worry about having one of these if you are just beginning. I made great dressing before, the thing this does that I love is allow me to make a creamy vinaigrette. It’s also very handy for pureeing soups and sauces.
With all of the equipment I’ve listed above you should be able to make anything you find in a cookbook. There are plenty of other things you can add to your kitchen like graters and peelers, for example, but if you have the food processor it will come with a grater function and a paring knife works perfectly well for peeling fruits and vegetables. I have merely listed the essentials here. What you need to start off with.
I love cookbooks. I have over 40 of them on my bookshelves and that is only half of what I would probably have if I didn’t edit and choose carefully. I can’t afford to buy them often but I have been collecting them since I bought my very first two cookbooks when I first learned to cook. Now I rarely use cookbooks for actual recipes but for inspiration. If I’m in the mood for something Mediterranean I look in my Greek, Italian, and French cookbooks for ideas. For baking, however, I do follow recipes exactly. Anyone can learn to cook using just one cookbook provided that cookbook is an excellent all-purpose one. I am going to recommend the two cookbooks I have used the most, learned the most from, and found to have infallible recipes. As a beginner you can’t judge whether recipes are infallible or not because you’re own initial lack of skill can make a mess of recipes that are quite good. As you become more experienced you’ll be able to tell if the reason why your meal didn’t turn out well was because of you or a poorly written recipe.
The Joy Of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer: this is, by far, the most reliable, useful, informative, and complete cookbook in print for cooking everything. My copy is from 1948 which I love because it has a lot of old fashioned recipes in it, but there are many recent editions that reflect our more modern sophisticated palate. Ultimately it doesn’t matter which edition you choose, they all have the basics in them such as how to cut meat, how to saute food, and include basics such as pie crusts, measurement conversion charts, and all the essential kitchen methods you might need to reference. If you only get one cook book, get this one.
Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone, by Deborah Madison: I am a vegetarian and if you can have two cookbooks, this is the other one you should have. Like Joy Of Cooking, she covers so much basic information for the beginner cook (but her recipes don’t include meat, obviously)- you will have access to information on how to cook all vegetables and grains exceptionally well with her book. Her directions are clear, her recipes are solid. If they don’t turn out well I guarantee that it’s something you did wrong, not something wrong with the recipe. This isn’t just a good book for vegetarians, this is the best resource for everyone when it comes to cooking with produce- because even meat eaters need vegetable sides. Many of her recipes are vegan or she explains how to make them vegan.
Those are the two best cookbooks I have ever used. Everyone who cooks has their favorites but here at the Farmhouse Finishing School these would be my textbooks if the school was brick and mortar.
Don’t forget to make good use of your public library’s cook book section. You can try a lot of cookbooks without having to buy them. Or you can try cookbooks to see if they’re worth buying. All of my recommendations below are for vegetarian books. If you want to find some books that include meat, try out the following well respected cook book authors: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Mark Bittman.
Mrs. W recommends:
Great Breads, by Martha Rose Shulman: I learned to bake bread with this book. I tried a number of other books before I found this one and though the others were prettier and full of pictures, this is the one that has proved the easiest and most reliable to learn from. No one learns to bake breads without some failures but you will have fewer of them if you carefully read and follow Martha’s instructions. Two of my closest friends also learned to bake bread using her instructions.
“The Vegetarian Table” series: This series is published by Chronicle Books. They aren’t big books but each one really captures the foods from different countries, both traditional and more modern. The instructions are clear, each book contains plenty of recipes appropriate for beginners, and they are full of pictures which I find inspiring. I have The Vegetarian Table France, America, Italy, Mexico, and India. There is also one for Japan. Some of my long time meal staples come from these books.
The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, by Jack Bishop: He has amazing basic Italian recipes such as fresh pasta, almond biscotti, and sauces. I have used his book for years and his recipes always turn out well for me.
This Good Food, by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette: He has written a few cookbooks and I recommend them all. The dishes in this book are simple, flavorful, and healthy. They are arranged by season because that’s how monks in monasteries usually eat and it’s really how most of us should be eating too. This is not fancy French cooking but simple French cooking (many Americans don’t know there is such a thing) and that means that the ingredients are usually easy to come by and not especially costly.
Jump to the second lesson in the “Cooking For Beginners” series:
Cooking For Beginners: Shopping For A Recipe