What a home cook needs for gourmet cooking
Gourmet cooking at home is possible with a few essential tools
You've got your favorite celebrity chef's new book and you're ready to get cooking. But how do you know if your kitchen is up for the task?
It's All in the Prep
When learning to cook-and cook well-from scratch, you are going to be doing a lot of slicing, dicing, measuring, and stirring. If you don't have the right tools, or your tools are subpar, you're going to become frustrated quickly.
First and foremost, every cook, professional or amateur, needs a good set of knives and an efficient way to keep them sharp. A sharp knife is essential to filleting cuts of meat and getting that fine dice on your vegetables without struggling and and tearing them into a mess. Knives should be sharpened and straightened regularly, so do some research and get a sharpener or sharpening system that isn't too complicated to use and is good quality. This is one area where you get what you pay for.
Then, too, you need the right measuring tools for each job. A good, sturdy set of measuring cups (liquid and dry - know the difference and use the proper implement accordingly) and spoons don't have to cost a fortune. Just make sure they are durable and easy to clean. Plastic tends to scratch and the paint indicating the size gets worn off. Better to go with stainless steel or copper for the cups and spoons, and glass for the liquid measures. Also, make sure you have an assortment. You don't always want to haul out the 4 cup liquid measure for ¼ cup of olive oil, and that big guy may not have that small of a measurement indicated on it, anyway.
Another essential is the thermometer. There are three primary thermometers to have on hand. First, a good meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of cooking any type of meat. There are many on the market, but a digital thermometer is more reliable and easier to use. Next, you'll want a candy/deep fry thermometer for, well, making candy and deep frying. These are made specifically to hang on the edge of your pot so the tip is submerged in liquid (molten candy or hot oil) and are usually made of tempered glass. And last, do yourself a favor and by an oven thermometer. They don't cost much and are fairly unassuming, but they will tell you the true temperature of your oven, especially if you're working with an older model. Don't assume that, just because you turned your oven on to 350, it's actually at 350 fully heated.
You will also need an assortment of differently sized mixing bowls and stirring, whisking, and flipping utensils. Tongs are your friends, as are decent whisks (a big one for big batches of batter and a small one for whisking up dressings and marinades) and a good set of silicone spatulas.
Getting Down to Business - Your Cookware
Here is where you may need to invest a little money. Old-school Teflon is out, as is anything too flimsy or rusting or generally falling apart. If you buy anything non-stick, make sure that the coating is hardened and won't just flake off over time, and that you always use non-metal utensils when cooking with them. Wood, bamboo, and silicone are all fine. Plastic used to be the marketed utensil-of-choice for nonstick cookware, but it can melt and degrade over time, leaving behind tiny plastic bits in your lovingly prepared food. Avoid at all costs.
The best bets for quality cookware are copper and cast iron (and glass or ceramic for bakeware). Cast iron will last an eternity, but you do need to know how to take care of it properly. Copper is known for even cooking and being fairly nonstick. Both are workhorses in the kitchen that are a joy to use.
Beyond material, make sure you have a good assortment of sizes of pots and pans, all with good fitting lids (glass if you can swing it, so you can watch the food cook). Do yourself a favor and get a good, large cast iron Dutch oven and some good quality baking sheets. Even if you don't intend on actually baking, those sheets are used for everything from roasting vegetables to cooking a free form meatloaf. Also, get a good sized stock pot for making your own soup stocks and some roasting pans for slow roasting meats.