Do you live in an apartment? Do you have an old house with a little, old, dingy kitchen? Is all the kitchen equipment you have handed down from you mother-in-law? Is it too crowded? or is it devoid of tools, even a can opener? Do you dream of a beautiful, well-lit, well-equipped kitchen? If the decorating magazines are any indication, most of us do, myself included.
Still, most of the cooking done in the world happens in little, cramped, dimly-lit kitchens with simple tools. Meals get made, things get done anyway.
Do you need more space?
No matter how small your kitchen you have room to feed yourself and everyone else who lives with you. If you have a range, a sink and a refrigerator you are good to go. It may require some juggling and certainly handling the dishes will require diligent clean-as-you-go efforts, but we’ll manage.
My kitchen is tiny. Tiny by modern standards. If you have a tiny kitchen too, I feel your pain ;-). But my Grandmother’s kitchen was about half the size of mine, and she did twice the cooking in it! It helps to gain perspective to remember that. The picture above looks something like her kitchen, though she didn’t have so many cabinets.
My home was built in 1950. My husband and I are renovating it. When we got the house little had been done to the kitchen. It still had the original homemade cabinets in it! And, you guessed it, it looked a lot like the picture above. (Not actual before pic’s unfortunately, we didn’t take any) We used it like this for about 4 years while tackling larger tasks like rewiring the whole house and putting on a new roof. We have since redone the kitchen using Ikea cabinets since after all, we’re on a budget. But we didn’t enlarge the kitchen. So I’m working in the same space as the 50’s housewife of this home did, about 8′ x 10′.
Do I think a larger kitchen would be helpful in creating a real-food-all-the-time kitchen? Not really. In fact I think it would be more of a hindrance. That extra space would soon fill up with lots of stuff. Stuff that wouldn’t really help make good meals, but would need to be cleaned, sorted and cared for anyway. Having a small kitchen really forces you to consider what tools are helpful and which ones just get in the way.
That said, we still need room for the tools that are truly helpful. For instance, having lived without a dishwasher for a few years I can say, truly from the bottom of my heart, that I am grateful everyday for my dishwasher. If I didn’t have space for one I would have to find it, somewhere, somehow. But still, I made meals and cleaned up day in and day out without one. So it wasn’t essential, but very very nice to have.
So what tools are essential?
I started my kitchen life with little more than a few castoffs from my Mom’s kitchen. Probably most of us start that way. They were cast off for a reason. Warped pans with scraped up teflon. A can opener that sort of worked. Aluminum pans that everything stuck too. Bowls too tiny to mix in. All of this is very discouraging to the new cook. So, there is a basic level of tools every kitchen needs to make healthy food. Fortunately, it isn’t too expensive to get those basics.
In my opinion every kitchen needs:
- a cast iron fry pan
- a cast iron dutch oven
- a stainless steel pot
- a couple of mixing bowls
- a spatula
- a sharp knife
- a can opener
- a few storage bowls with lids
- an enameled or stainless baking pan
These are the basics and shouldn’t cost much. The cast iron is likely to be the most expensive part. All of these items can be perfectly fine in inexpensive versions.
Once you have these, are you completely set? Well, yes and no. You can probably still improve the quality of each of these. And there are still quite a number of things big and small that are very, very handy to have.
I’ll digress for a minute and tell you a story. I play guitar. When I was a kid I badly wanted a guitar to learn with. So my folks did what parents mostly do, they ran down to the music store and bought me a beginner guitar for Christmas. I was thrilled! I immediately dug into the little method book that came with it. But try as I might I couldn’t hold the strings down well. There were lots of buzzes and hums. I started to think I could never learn to play, it seemed hopeless. One day in a moment of resurgent enthusiasm I took the guitar to a repair shop thinking that it seemed to be different from when it was new. The repairman looked at me in amazement and said “You’ve been trying to play this guitar? This guitar is unplayable. Look, see how the neck is bowed? It’s impossible to press down the strings”. Well, the clouds parted and the sun shone again! It wasn’t me, it was a problem with my equipment! To make a long story short, I ditched that guitar and got a new quality guitar as soon as I could. Then, mercy me, I was able to learn to play the guitar!
Good equipment is very important to success in any endeavor. I’m concerned that no one be discouraged in learning to cook by bad equipment. Notice I said good, not expensive, and not the very best. When I was learning to play the guitar, I didn’t wait till I could afford a $2,000 dollar Martin. I did a little research and found out the minimum I’d have to spend to get a quality basic guitar. Same is true of kitchen tools. A little research goes a long way toward reducing costs. Lots of good equipment is on the expensive side, but by no means all. There are cheaper ways to aquire some of it. Some good quality tools are priced very affordably. Some can generally only be found at full price. Some things can be used for multiple purposes, reducing the number of things you’ll need to buy.
So while it’s very important, is it essential? No, not completely. But it is so helpful to good results that it’s close. I recommend getting the best quality tools you can afford. Really good equipment will be with you for a lifetime. Many of the tools in my kitchen are ones I’ve had for 25 years. I have slowly but surely built up a kitchen with many quality tools. But it didn’t happen overnight. Whenever a chance to get something cheap came up I took it. I learned the best places to look. I bought used Le Creuset and All-Clad from eBay and Craigslist. With each upgrade I generally learned exactly why professional chefs prefer quality items, and what features make a tool stand out.
Does this mean I didn’t make any headway in the meantime? No, I used what I had. But cooking became more of a joy as my tools improved.
To everyone working on having a great kitchen …
Try to make a little progress every month. Plan out what you’d like to do next, but keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities. And remember, most likely whatever you’d like to have, Grandma probably didn’t have it. And that was perfectly okay.