Your Starter Kitchen – A Guide to the Basics

Welcome to Your Starter Kitchen–a series of posts dedicated to helping you build out your very first kitchen if you’re just starting out–or to fill in some important gaps if you’ve been cooking for awhile. I’ll cover everything from equipment to appliances to pantry items, giving you the info you need to build the perfect Starter Kitchen. Then, from there, you’ll find a series of basic recipes that make use of the Starter Kitchen recommended items with as few extras as possible: the kinds of recipes everyone can make and just about everyone happens to like. Please note: all linked items are quickly found suggestions at best–look around local stores, and do a little research to find items that suit your particular needs! Please feel free to ask about specific items in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer!

So, without any further ado, let’s get started!


Equipment covers the basic hardware of cooking, and it’s hard to do much of anything without this stuff. From pots and pans to knives and spoons, these are the tools you’ll use at every stage of every recipe, from prep to plating!

  • 1x Wide, High-Walled Non-Stick Skillet – 10-12″ is good. Go to someplace like Ross/TJ Maxx and get it on-sale. The nonstick coating’s gonna come off in a year or 3 anyway, so why blow $100 on it? Get a heavy-feeling one, and despite the internet’s obsession with them, nonstick is gonna work a lot better as your primary than cast iron–they’re generally lighter, less finicky about what’s cooked in them, and quicker to clean. Down the line, do invest in a good cast iron skillet, of course–they are pretty great!
  • 1x Medium Sauce-Pan (2-4 qt) – Handy for making small portions of soup (Ramen!) and other pre-packaged meals (Mac n Cheese), but you can make simple sauces and the like in here, too. Nonstick is your call, but you’re generally not gonna throw eggs in here, and stainless steel will last you longer. Again, get it cheaply, but get the heaviest cheap one you can find.
  • 1x Large Dutch Oven/Stockpot (6-10 qt) – Handy for making stews, curries, soups, and other large-quantity meals, which are a cornerstone of cheap, healthy dining :). As before, nonstick vs. stainless steel is your call (stainless will last better, but might scorch aromatics/spices early in recipes if you aren’t careful, since they tend to heat faster and “catch” food), and again, get the heaviest one you can find for a reasonable price.
  • 3x Baking Dishes – I think glass 8″ Square and 9×13″ Rectangle dishes, plus a flat metal cookie sheet will come up most often and will provide a strong basis to start from; expand from there as needed for specialized dishes (e.g., pie dish, bundt pan, etc.).
  • 1x Good Plastic Spatula with Metal Handle – You want a wide (for pancakes, etc.), sturdy (for burgers, etc.), and plastic (to avoid scratching your nonstick pan(s)) one. A metal handle will give it more body, though a plastic or rubber grip is OK in the name of ease of use. One that has a “heat resistant” head is even better!
  • 1x Wooden or Plastic Spoon – Something big, hefty, and long enough to easily stir your biggest pot with. Wood or plastic again to avoid scraping your nonstick cookware. A deeper-set spoon will be more useful for serving yourself stuff, but is tougher to cook with. On that note. . .
  • 1x Wooden “Wedge” Spoon – I don’t know what these are called, but flat, boxy, or wedge-shaped heads are great for cutting up ground meat, stirring stuff around, etc. If you have a weird obsession with digging food out of the corners of your pot while stirring like I do, this is very handy!
  • 1x Chef’s Knife/Santoku – Your daily, workhorse knife. This is worth spending a little money on, but on the cheaper end, I hear great things about Victorinex. 6-8″ is ideal for most people, and you want something with a full metal tang (more durable) that you can sharpen yourself (get a cheapo sharpener). From slicing through meat and heavy veggies to bashing out garlic, a good knife will serve you well!
  • 1x Paring Knife – For quicker work with smaller fruits and vegetables that don’t require the power of your big knife. If anything, sharpness is even more important here, since a lot of paring is done in-hand, and a dull knife is very dangerous (they have a lovely tendency to slip off of whatever you’re cutting and into you), so keep that sharpener suggestion in mind!
  • 1x Can Opener – While cooking, you’ll find yourself opening plenty of cans, from canned veggies to evaporated milk. A solid can opener will take you a long, long way, and there’s no need to clutter up the kitchen with a fancy electric one unless you’re also caring for a dozen wet-food-addicted cats!
  • 3-5x Sets of Kitchen Flatware – Buy depending on your household size and washing preferences. I’m cooking for two here, so about 5 sets of everything lasts us a couple of days, most of the time, whereas my parents have at least 12 sets and seem to never have to do dishes. . .
  • 3-5x Sets of Dinnerware – I mean, you gotta have something to eat off of, right? No need to get super fancy or invest in a ton–you’ll wind up washing it all the time, anyway.
  • 3-5x Sets of Glassware – By a similar token, drinking tends to accompany eating in most homes, so, you know, have cups.
  • 1x Large Cutting Board – May as well go big so it can handle big stuff like celery or eggplant easily without loose food falling off everywhere. Plastic’s easier to maintain than wood (which appreciates semi-regular applications of mineral oil to keep it from cracking), and something with rubber feet is nice for safety. And please, no glass! It has a nasty tendency to ruin knives.
  • 1x Set of Mixing Bowls – Small/Med/Large (e.g., 1qt, 2qt, 4qt) is nice, but even just a double-set is okay. You’ll need places to hold ingredients and mix together batters and marinades, and if you get a set with lids, they’ll fill in as food storage, too!
  • 1x Set of Measuring Cups and/or Pourable Measuring Cup – Measuring is vital in many areas, but especially baking. Your call which you prefer, but you may eventually want both. You might even want a second cup/set at some point to let you measure wet and dry quantities without having to wash/dry in-between. Later on, a plunger-based measuring cup might even tantalize you for easily plopping out portions of sticky ingredients like honey and mayo, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves!
  • 1x Set of Measuring Spoons – 1/4 tsp, 1/2 tsp, 1 tsp + 1 tbsp is common and highly useful in so many recipes it’ll make your head spin. You may eventually pick up a second set for the same reason as above.
  • 1x Set of Sealable Food Storage Containers – A big secret to eating well and cheaply is making enough for leftovers! Something that’ll easily move from counter-top to fridge to microwave to dishwasher is definitely handy, and a variety of sizes and shapes will make your life easier in the long run.
  • 1x Colander and/or Strainer – Subtly different, either of these tools will come in handy whenever you boil pasta, potatoes, or even rice. A strainer can double as a sieve for sifting flour into baked goods, whereas a colander is a little easier to use when you’re by yourself.
  • 1x Set of Kitchen Towels and/or Mitts – Messes happen and–frankly–sometimes you just need to dry stuff off. Kitchen towels are also handy for covering rising baked goods, whereas a real kitchen mitt is a little safer for extracting blazing-hot items from the oven. If you do opt for just towels, keep a dry one around at all times for heat-resistance purposes–a wet towel will burn you quicker than you can say “Well that was dumb!”
  • Anything Else? – If you’ll be baking or making a ton of omelets, consider a good, sturdy wire whisk. By that same token, a rolling pin often comes in handy for particular kinds of baked goods and the like. Cooling racks crop up a lot in baking, too. Kitchen tongs are so handy in so many ways I am tempted to add them to the main list, but alas, they are, in the end, a luxury.


Appliances are the big, honkin’ power-sucking gadgets that make a kitchen come alive. Some are basically standard in just about any house or apartment in the Western world, while others are a little more “buy it yourself.” As before, I will try to stick to stuff I think you really need early on. Perhaps even more than with regular old equipment, there’s an absurd variety of awesome, tempting gizmos out there!

  • Stove or Electric Burner – It’s pretty daggum hard to get by without this. Not impossible, mind you, but very difficult, and it tends to involve starting small fires. If you have a choice (you lucky dog, you), gas tends to be more versatile (and gets way hotter) than electric, while electric’s often a little less fussy and easier to clean/maintain.
  • Oven – Ditto for the above. A toaster oven will do in a pinch, but they aren’t well-suited for long-form baking and just plain aren’t as big. I don’t think gas or electric matters nearly as much here, but if you’re lucky enough to grab something with convection. . . well, I guess you’re lucky!
  • Microwave – This will make re-heating leftovers much easier, plus it can make simple things like boiling water, melting butter, or just thawing out some frozen veggies or meats way quicker. So, if at all possible, grab one!
  • Slow-Cooker – It’s dead simple to use and allows for easy one-pot cooking. There are tons of websites around the net that have great recipes to use, and I hope to share some here, too. 2-3 quarts is fine for one, but I think the 4-5 quart range is a little more versatile (if somewhat less portable) if you don’t mind leftovers. You don’t really need anything other than High, Low, Warm, and Off, but timers are a nice extra.
  • Blender and/or Mini Food Processor – Comes up in so many different places that even a cheapo $10-15 blender from Walmart will serve you well to get going with. Later on a full-featured food processor will make a lot of annoying recipes much easier, but wait till you can spend on it.
  • Anything Else? – Well, like I mentioned, a larger food processor winds up coming in handy all the time, from making dough to grinding meat. A good stand mixer will make baking much easier, from batter to icing, but they’re big and pricey. Also, if you make a lot of blended stews and/or curries, you might be surprised by how handy an immersion blender winds up being. Oh, and if you’re a caffeine addict, a coffee machine (or french press, if you’re fancy) and/or electric water kettle will prove invaluable–which one may very well depend on how British you are. . .

 Pantry Basics

A well-stocked pantry is the first step toward great food! These are the timeless ingredients and add-ons that you’ll use again and again in recipes across all sorts of cuisines and styles. Best of all, most everything here will keep for months or even years with careful storage, so if you buy a good bit early on, you’ll be set for many, many recipes.

  • Rice – Brown or white, cheap or fancy, you’ll use it all the time. A staple of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, and other world cuisines, plus very common in classic Southern US cooking, it adds bulk and nutrition to recipes and keeps you full. Buy some baggie clips and buy it in large quantities, and consider double-bagging it, just in case you’re unlucky enough to get weevils. If you’ll mostly be doing bog-standard cooking, you’ll want a bog-standard rice: long grain white (not parboiled or boil-in-a-bag, please! We have a little class around here, okay?). If you’re looking to up your fiber intake and don’t mind a 3x as long cooking time, long grain brown is just fine, too.
  • Dried Beans – Red and black are most common for a lot of uses and cuisines, but Pinto and Navy are taste great, too. Like rice, they show up in tons of different kinds of foods from across the whole world, and are rich in protein, fiber, and the vitamins/nutrients you need to live! Plus, they keep you full and seem to make gigantic quantities almost without any effort at all.
  • Dried Lentils – A little less common in the West than beans, lentils are amazing. From the cheapo little split brown lentils at the supermarket to more exotic stuff like chickpeas, urad dal, and pigeon peas, these guys are just as good as beans and give you more options, to boot.
  • Dried Oats – A great breakfast option that can be modified in all sorts of tasty ways, plus oats are handy for healthy baking and other recipes, too. Honestly, oats are pretty much yours to do with as you please. Old Fashioned have a little nicer texture than Quick-Cooking (but, well, don’t cook as quick), while Steel-Cut are the slowest-cooking and heartiest of all the common varieties.
  • All Purpose Flour – Comes up in all sorts of baking, from the batters and doughs themselves to a rolling aid and even a pan-duster, plus it gets used elsewhere as a sauce-thickener. I can’t stress this enough: it’s very handy to keep a big bag of it around–again, double bagged, if you can manage it.
  • White Sugar – More common than brown (and it lasts a heck of a lot longer), sugar is another baking and cooking staple you’ll always want around the house. Sure, sure, it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but in moderation, it can do so much!
  • Cornmeal – I’m a good ol’ Southern Boy, so I’ll add this to the “baking essentials” section, but feel free to drop it if you aren’t too big into stuff like cornbread or chess pie. Even if that means that you are unquestionably insane. . .
  • Cooking Oil – Canola is a good one to start with (it’s fairly neutral-tasting, reasonably healthy–for oil, mind–and has a decently high smoke point so you can cook a lot of things with it), but some people swear by keeping olive oil around, too–and there are recipes that just aren’t the same without it. But if I had to pick, I’d go with canola to start with.
  • Baking Soda and Baking Powder – Used in baking recipes almost constantly, you do need both. Soda is added to acidic ingredients (like buttermilk or lemon juice) to create rise via the same acid+base reaction that powered your elementary school volcanoes, while powder can do it on its own. A lot of baking involves the careful balance of the two.
  • Kosher Salt – Easier to work with, better-textured, and better-tasting than regular salt, and you can buy it in bulk, too. Used in virtually every recipe ever, so you will need it! I suppose I should technically mention that it doesn’t contain iodine, an essential nutrient found in most brands of table salt, but you’ll get it from other places unless you’re a medieval peasant. . .
  • Black Pepper – While a fancy grinder (or even a cheapo plastic one) will taste better, just starting out, a medium-sized shaker of the pre-ground stuff will suffice if you really insist. The fresh-ground stuff tastes leagues better, but until you get good at eyeballing ingredients, I’ll be honest and say that the pre-ground is a lot easier to get into a measuring spoon. . .
  • Basic Spices – Below, you’ll find what I think is a good assortment. No, you can’t cook everything under the sun with them, but they are a great start to any kitchen and will come up again and again. If you like a certain kind of cuisine, feel free to fill in with spices from it as needed–and keep an eye out for guides on this very site to doing that!
    • Paprika – This pungent, sweet, red spice is made from ground up red peppers (typically the not-spicy kind). It’s great for color or a splash of exotic flavor, and rounds out tons of otherwise-bland dishes. Try it in breading on fried chicken or mixed into stew!
    • Cayenne – The quintessential American hot pepper powder. Yes, there are all sorts of delicious chili powders from around the world–and I’ll explore and recommend many of them–but when it comes to adding a touch of heat to a dish, it’s tough to beat ol’ Cayenne. Boom!
    • Cumin – An earthy, deep spice that adds all sorts of body and flavor to a dish, cumin is common on both sides of the Atlantic, from Mexico to the Mediterranean to India. It’s great in chili, curry, and soup, and while fresh-ground is better, the pre-powdered stuff is way more convenient when you’re just starting out.
    • Cinnamon – An altogether different kind of earthy than cumin, cinnamon is also hot, spicy, and sweet all at once, and all-but-essential to classic Western dishes prepared in the fall and winter. From baked goods (Pumpkin Spice everything, anyone?) to drinks, cinnamon is a rockstar!
  • Basic Dried Herbs – Below, you’ll find what I think is a good assortment. No, they’re not as good as fresh for most recipes, but buying a $2 package of rosemary once a week isn’t cheap in the long run. Also, no, you can’t cook everything under the sun with those, but they are a great start to any kitchen and will come up again and again. If you like a certain kind of cuisine, fill in with herbs from it as needed.
    • Parsley – Handy as both a flavoring tool and a garnish, parsley is sort of the most basic herb. Fresh, it has a fairly noticeably herby kick to it, but dried, it’s very mellow indeed, but is still fun to shake all over stuff.
    • Oregano – With a more noticeable, almost minty tone than parsley, oregano is immediately recognizable and shows up everywhere from Italy to Mexico. It’s a great herb, and one I know you’ll get a lot of use out of.
    • Thyme – Perhaps the herbiest of all my suggestions, thyme is a little sharper and cooler than oregano and often pairs very well with it. Works great in Cajun cuisine, or on chicken.
    • Bay Leaves – Bay leaves are a thing of mystery folks. Somehow, when added to a stew or soup, they impart a subtle, deeply important flavor that you don’t realize you miss till it’s gone. . . but the second you bite into one, you wonder why anyone would cook with them at all!
  • Basic Flavorings – Not quite herbs, not quite spices. Below, you’ll find what I think is a good assortment. As before, this covers the basics very well, and you can expand to fit your tastes as needed.
    • Vanilla Extract (Artificial) – Vanilla’s a delightful flavor that shows up in tons of places, from baked goods to candy, and honestly, it takes a pretty darn sensitive tongue to tell the difference between the real stuff and the fake. Just, you know, don’t buy it from a truck on the side of the road or anything.
    • Garlic Powder – Sure, fresh garlic is better-tasting and more authentic. But, sometimes, you just gotta cook something quick, and garlic is a great flavor to be able to toss in, so keep a shaker of this stuff around.
    • Onion Powder – Ditto for the above, except, you know, about onions, instead.
    • Cocoa Powder – From hot cocoa to mocha to brownies to oatmeal (no, really!), cocoa powder adds the bold, rich flavor of chocolate to anything you’d like without a lot of calories (those mostly come from the copious amounts of sugar and oil, you see).
  • Spice Mixes – You’re just starting out, so buy what you like until you’re more comfortable making your own. Lemon Pepper, Caribbean Jerk, Cajun, etc.–get a couple of cheap ones to throw on meat or vegetables when you’re lazy or strapped for ideas. Don’t worry–no one will judge you!
  • Honey/Syrup – A liquid sweetener always comes in handy, and both last for ages! If you’re a pancake fiend, go for the syrup, but otherwise, honey is a little more versatile for actual cooking.
  • Canned/Packaged Soup – A quick, hearty meal you can nuke or boil real fast is nice to have handy. Sometimes, having a bowl of Chicken Noodle or Tomato as a fast, easy accompaniment to a sandwich or some fresh veggies is a great way to close out a hard day. Plus, some soups are great for cooking, too. In particular, Cream of Mushroom, Cream of Celery, and Cream of Chicken come up in a lot of classic recipes.
  • Canned Vegetables – While fresh veggies are almost always preferable, like with the soup above, sometimes you just need to be realistic! You’ll use tinned tomatoes for cooking a lot, and canned corn/green beans/etc. is nice as a quick side you can toss in the microwave or a pot.
  • Canned Meat – Despite the heinous odor and icky looks, canned chicken and tuna are a quick way to add protein without a lot of effort. And even Spam, the butt of countless bad-food jokes, is beloved by the people of Korea and Hawaii alike!
  • Coffee and/or Tea – Healthier than soda (unless loaded down with sugar and cream/milk) and more flavorful than water. Plus, you know, that magical caffeine stuff that runs the entire world. I make my own iced tea each week with zero-calorie sweetener; it’s awesome!
  • Anything Else? – Aside from additional spices, herbs, and flavorings (as above), you might well find use for wheat flour for healthier baking, peanut butter for sandwiches and cooking alike, powdered sugar and cake flour for more specialized baking (desserts, mostly–hence the name, eh?), and vinegar–either white or cider.

 Fridge/Freezer Basics

So, yes–if something’s in the chillbox to begin with, it’s usually because it’ll go bad pretty quick. You’ll mostly use these storage-spots for fresh ingredients in the lead-up to cooking them. But, there are a few kitchen staples that’ll live in your fridge long-term (whether weeks or months), and you’d be pretty sad if you were missing them!

    • Ketchup – From fries to hot dogs, Ketchup’s bound up in Americana like few other ingredients. But aside from a great dipping sauce, it even shows up as a quick way to add acidity or sweetness to recipes. Buy a good-sized squeezie bottle and enjoy it!
    • Mayonnaise – Aside from being delightful to spread onto sandwiches, mayo also crops up as the base for lots of all sorts of interesting sauces and spreads, so keeping some around is always a good idea. And who can forget the joys of chicken salad. . .
    • Mustard -A little less calorically dense than its brethren, mustard rounds out the classic American sauce trio with its bitter, pungent flavors accented by tanginess. While the fluorescent yellow stuff is great at a cookout, brown mustard is a little more refined. . . if you’re into that kinda thing.
    • Lemon/Lime Juice – If you live somewhere where you can get fresh limes/lemons on the cheap all year round, great! For the rest of us, the bottled stuff has to suffice sometimes. Squeezed into a recipe or mixed drink, it adds a subtle, bright flavor that you’d hate to miss.
    • Unsalted Butter – Used all the time in cooking and baking, plus it makes a great spread on bread when softened (or get a tub of spreadable butter substitute, but go easy on that stuff!). Honestly, butter doesn’t keep all that long in the fridge compared to other stuff, but you’ll use it so fast you won’t even notice.
    • Shredded/Sliced Cheese – Like butter, cheese doesn’t last as long as the other stuff, but you’ll love being able to add a bit to a ton of meals. Whether a quick grilled cheese sandwich or a tasty, melty sprinkle on top of a baked potato, cheese makes the world go round. Unless you’re lactose intolerant. . . you poor, poor soul, you.
    • Frozen Vegetables – It winds up that frozen vegetables are pretty darn healthy, since they can be picked at the peak of ripeness and then preserved via the magic of flash-freezing. Whether your favorite veggie is outta season or you just never use enough to justify buying it fresh, there’s all sorts of reasons to use frozen veggies. Here’s a few of my favorites:
      • Spinach – Frozen, chopped spinach is great to throw into everything from omelets to smoothies, and it’s a lot less finicky to deal with than fresh. Sure, it’s not as pretty, but since when have we let looks come between us and good health?
      • Corn on the Cob – Those little mini-cobs are great to bake or nuke for a quick side dish to a ton of different meals, and with a bit of butter and salt, you almost forget they’re nowhere near as good as fresh. . .
      • “Mixed” Vegetables – The classic corn/carrot/pea combo (sometimes with green beans added) is great for tossing into soups, stir fries, and tons of other applications, and it’s pretty darn healthy, to boot!
      • “Stir Fry” Vegetables – It’s all in the name here. This random mix of larger veggies like snow peas, asparagus, broccoli, and more is great for tossing together a quick stir fry, whether you’re going Asian or fajita-style.
    • Anything Else? – If you’re a fan of them, soy, barbecue, and hot sauces all last a good long while in the fridge and can be tossed into tons of different kinds of food. Deli meats like turkey or ham keep for a couple of weeks at least and are great for sandwiches. And, uh, no one ever said no to a little ice cream tucked away in the back of the chill-chest. . .

And that’s it! If you pick up a goodly portion of the above, either all at once or in batches, you’ll have such an awesome kitchen that you’ll be a world-class chef, guaranteed* (*not actually guaranteed). If I had to put a figure on it, I bet you could probably load up on all of the above (making use of deal-stores like Ross, TJ Maxx, Aldi, and Big Lots) for about $300-$350 here in the Southeastern US, while more expensive areas might require closer to $500 (d’oh!).

Sure, that seems like a lot(!) when you’re just starting out, so do feel free to spread it out over the course of a few weeks or even months, based on what you want to cook. “Hey, I’m gonna make a lot of stir fries this month–better get my skillet, soy sauce, and rice!”

And, of course, years down the line, when life and money are easy, you’ll start to eye goofy crap like $500 uber-mixers and $250/bottle genuine pig-sniffed truffle oil, but you’ll always fall back on these basics. Well, until you replace ’em all with fancier versions of the same stuff (oh man, I can’t even tell you how much I’m jonesing for one of those fancy SUPER-BLENDERS from Blend-Tec right now. . .)!

Buyer’s Guides are Learn To Food‘s way of helping you build out a list of essentials for a project or even entire cuisine. Where possible, I’ll make them generic so that you can easily find matching items wherever you live, but sometimes, specificity’s necessary. Moreover, I’ll rarely recommend specific vendors, unless they’re just the only/best choice available, although I will usually include links to example items to help newbies figure out just what the heck I’m talking about.

2 Responses to “Your Starter Kitchen – A Guide to the Basics

  • I notice you recommend plastic cutting boards (as they’re easier to maintain). I thought plastic cutting boards would also mess up your knives?

    • The biggest offenders are materials that are harder than the knife–ceramic, a lot of stone ones, and even glass (in fairness, they’re usually closer to equal hardness with steel). They’ll lead to much more rapid dulling (of course, any use of a knife will cause some degree of dulling; that’s why a honing steel and regular sharpening are important). Plastic isn’t quite as ideal as rubber or especially wood, but it tends to be a great mix of affordability, availability, and ease of use and care.

      Now, that said, if you see a 3’x2′ bamboo cutting board with a squeezie bottle of mineral oil included for free for $10 at your local discount store, jump on it! But if not, a plastic board from the supermarket or department store will do just fine 🙂

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