Stocking your kitchen with the bare essentials for simple, tasty cooking.
Following up on last week’s introductory post, it’s time to talk about the basic equipment needed to cook according to the principles we outlined. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to assume that you’re starting with a completely bare, empty kitchen. In practice, you’ve likely acquired or inherited various items of various kinds, but that’s a highly individual issue and hard to give advice on. So starting from zero, what is the minimum stuff necessary to make decent food in the cheapest, laziest manner?
Bachelor Chow Kitchen Supplies
Saucepan: The best kind is a cast-iron pan that you can season yourself and, if properly cared for, will last forever. But this is not a guide for people who take a lot of care with their saucepans. The second-best kind is a decent non-stick saucepan. You can let that sit, soak it, burn it, and otherwise abuse it, and it’ll keep working. However, one important caveat must be mentioned here: you actually can’t use metal tools on a non-stick pan. That’s not one of those fake ritualized rules, it’s one of the real ones. Metal tools will ruin the non-stick coating, and then you’ll wind up burning more stuff. It is cheaper to buy a plastic spatula now than to buy a new saucepan in three months.
Pot: No, like an actual large-size pot. It needs to have a proper lid that fits, and a capacity of around six quarts, give or take. Basically a medium-sized soup or stock pot. Straight sides, proper lid, nice and solid.
Baking Pan: Deep enough to hold liquid if necessary, wide enough to hold food. If you plan on making a lot of bacon or cookies, a wider, shallower baking tray might also be a good investment.
Microwave: I hesitate to mention this, as it is likely the one appliance everyone reading this already owns. It is, however, invaluable, if only for heating up leftovers.
Slow Cooker: AKA Crock-Pot and various other brand names. Omitted from far too many lazy kitchens, and it shouldn’t be. Seriously, the way you use this appliance is you throw food in it, turn it on, and then ignore it for a while. Which part of this plan sounds too difficult? You can find these dirt-cheap in thrift shops and they last damn near forever.
Serious Knife: Really good knives are expensive and magnificent. Pretty good knives are widely available second-hand and/or cheap. You want a longish knife that will cut meat and veggies, with a pretty straight edge and a good solid feel. Steel quality is a complicated question that people have literally been killed over, but for our purposes the test is this: flick the blade hard with your fingernail and listen to it. If it makes more of a ringing tone than a flat clicking noise, that’s the one you want. It’s probably worth getting an idiot-proof sharpening gadget to keep a decent edge on it, because a dull knife will just make more work for you.
Paring Knife: It is sometimes useful to be able to do fine work or skinning that a larger knife is unsuited for. The same selection and sharpening principles apply.
Rubber Storage Containers: Tupperware or various similar products. These are absolutely key to Bachelor Chow cooking, for a very important reason. You can cook once and eat for a week. The smartest thing I’ve ever done was buy a set of rubber storage containers that all have the same size lid. This is one time it’s worth buying brand-new sets, just so you’re not looking for the right size lid.
Measuring spoons and cups: Go ahead and go cheap on these. Volume is volume.
Cooking Utensils: Get these in plastic or wood to spare your poor saucepan. You’ll want a comfortable spatula, a large stirring spoon or two, and a decent ladle for soups. That ought to hold you for a while.
Okay, so you have things to make food. Now, what food should you get for making? You want stuff that will keep, but that isn’t just artificial junk food. You don’t want to get stuff you’ll never use, or that will go bad before you get to it. And you don’t want to spend too much money.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of finding the right store. The one closest to you may or may not be the cheapest; many cities have discount grocery stores. They tend to be a little more out of the way, often have customers do their own bagging, and are frequented by those oh-so-scary poor people and minorities that bourgeois shoppers instinctively fear. That means you can potentially save a lot of money on your groceries by virtue of not being a prejudiced coward.
Whenever possible, buy generic, buy in bulk, and don’t get too attached to name brands. You don’t need the best, you need good enough.
Bachelor Chow Basic Shopping List
Freezer Bags: You’ll be needing these for your meats. Better to get more and not need them than get too few; they’re cheap and they don’t go bad.
Chicken: You can get pre-cut breasts or thighs (depending on whether you like light or dark meat) in large packages. Go ahead and get the large packages, you’ll be freezing most of it anyway, and you will never run out of uses for chicken. It’s delicious, it goes with everything, and it’s easy to work with. It’s also a great source of lean protein.
Bacon: If food is a language, bacon is the word for joy. Freezes decently, and keeps well in the fridge for much longer than you’d think. Many stores offer “ends and pieces” packs of bacon at deep discounts, which are perfect if all you’re using it for is as an additive or an accent, such as in soups.
Pork: Loin or shoulder, preferably boneless. Freezes well, and in these dense forms is hard to screw up too badly.
Sausages: These were originally designed to keep better than other meat sources. There’s a wonderful variety out there, and they freeze well.
Frozen Vegetables: The single best thing I’ve ever done for my dietary habits. They’re cheap, they store in your freezer indefinitely, and they save you hours of selection, preparation, and hassle. Get your favorites: I tend to favor spinach, broccoli, peppers, and asparagus, but you may have your own preferences. Make sure to get some stir-fry mixes. They’ve got a nice blend of pre-sliced veggies in various combinations, and they will save you time like you wouldn’t believe.
Potatoes: The great thing about potatoes is they’re forgiving. You have to work pretty hard to screw up a potato to where it’s inedible. They also keep much longer than most fresh vegetables.
Onions: Quick, imagine the smell of onions frying or sauteeing in butter or olive oil. Just summon that scent to mind. There, now you’re smiling. Onions go with everything and keep better than most vegetables.
Garlic: You can buy large jars of pre-minced garlic to keep in your fridge. Forget sliced bread; this is the greatest invention in human history. Throw a couple spoonfuls of garlic into damn near anything and it’ll get better.
Butter: Keeps a long time, never stops coming in handy. When something needs a little more richness or body, throw some butter at the problem.
Olive Oil: There are entire cuisines just based around olive oil. You need it.
Rice: Half the world’s population depends on rice to live. It’s tricky to prepare properly, so I often just get parboiled or “minute” rice that I can make in my microwave without paying attention to, and keep a bag of good rice for specific recipes. Stores dry basically indefinitely, so no reason not to stock up.
Beans: Lentils, lentils, lentils. Green lentils hold their structure better when cooked; red lentils dissolve more easily. If there is a cheaper, healthier protein out there, science is still looking for it. You can store them dry nearly forever, and they will cook up perfectly. If there’s another bean you’re particularly fond of, stock up on it too. Getting some 13-bean soup mix is a good idea as well; it’s cheap and it’ll never go bad, so your making it is really just a matter of time.
Pasta: Again, stores dry, easy to make, goes with everything. I’m personally fond of fettucine and farfalle, and this is one area where I will often spring for a name brand.
Half and Half: Some recipes call for milk, some call for cream. I tend to split the difference, because whatever I don’t cook with goes into my coffee.
Sauces: Spend a little money, save a lot of hassle. Store-bought sauces are a base for your own seasonings, not an end in themselves, but they’re a heck of a base. I like Asian sauces like peanut sauce, stir-fry sauce, and teriyaki, myself. Alfredo and tomato sauces are a great starting point for pastas, as is pesto. Italian dressing also serves as a great base for many things.
Spices: This is where it’s a good idea to spend a few bucks. Spices will last indefinitely or until used up, and improve everything they touch in the meantime. Get some paprika, cumin, cinnamon, lemon pepper, black pepper, red pepper, oregano, and whatever else looks good to you. It’s also worth getting a largish container of some decent salt; sea salt is usually good, for example.
Once you get all this home, take out the freezer bags and divide up the meats into extra-large serving sizes. Remember, we’re cooking toward leftovers here. I like to put two large chicken breasts or 4-5 sausages in each bag, for example. Freeze whatever you’re not likely to use in the next couple days.
There. Now you have what many people would consider a poorly-stocked and undersupplied kitchen, but it’s more than adequate for our needs. Next week, we start on recipes with a Bachelor Chow staple: stir-fries!