Pots and Pan-demonium. What Do Home Cooks Really Need?

Years ago I read an article about how a famous four-star restauranteur and his wife used to throw the most sought-after, informal dinner parties in their small Manhattan apartment for what today would be called “foodies,” cooking their culinary delights in old Farberware pots on a non-descript stove.

Sounds like a simpler time, and a far cry from the over the top kitchens of today that always seem to be stocked with ultra pricey equipment. What did I miss? When did having a “restaurant kitchen” become a necessity? Aren’t we more a nation of defrosters and re-heaters than cooks anyway?

We’ve all seen them, kitchens so elegantly appointed they look like movie sets, filled with high-end appliances like Viking, Sub-Zero, Kitchen-Aid, Gaggenau, Miele, La Cornue, etc. And it’s not enough to buy the best, but you also have to decide how to customize everything. Would you like your refrigerator doors side-by-side, bottom freezer, top freezer, built-in, or French? Cook tops in electric, gas, downdraft, induction, ceramic, glass or stainless steel? And of course then there are the refrigerator, microwave and warming drawers which reinvent and replace your basic appliances to the point where they are unrecognizeable.

All of it is in the name of creating the perfect kitchen so that the "serious home cook” can make seriously perfect meals. But in many cases all that these kitchens do is create the illusion of culinary excellence without ever being used, leaving those of us who truly love to cook appreciating new levels of irony.

A great kitchen does not a great cook make, or even a good one. You can become a fine home cook with a minimum of equipment. So says James Beard "Best Chef" award-winner, Bradford Thompson.

Thompson, whose sophisticated cuisine belies his linebacker looks and down to earth manner, says that he can cook “a restaurant quality meal, anything you want” for ten people with five basic pots, three knives and an ordinary stove. Given the state of home kitchens these days, this makes him sound like MacGyver.

What you need: 10-inch non-stick sauté pan; 8-inch non-stick sauté pan; 4-quart saucepan; 8 to 10-quart stockpot; cast-iron skillet; roasting pan; 10-inch chef's knife; paring knife; serrated knife; and that's it.

But what about all those ads for multi-piece cookware sets complete with pasta inserts and paella pans? If you’re doing your bridal registry, go for it, but if you’re buying them on your own, forget it.

“To be fair, it’s a lot easier for people to buy a set because, one, they don’t have to think about what they really need and, two, they’re not always sure what they need,” says Thompson. “People can be such suckers. They want all the toys. Especially guys. When guys start cooking they want all the cool tools. It’s like when guys start boating or fishing. They need to get everything and the best of everything. Yeah, if you can afford it, get it. But in terms of what you need, you just don’t need all that stuff.”

The 10-inch pan is for fish, pan roasting chicken and vegetables, and braising meat. Thompson prefers non-stick. “Look for non-stick that is actually part of the pan, not sprayed on, so it’s not going to flake off as you cook.” Unless you like the taste of Teflon, you’ll end up replacing bad cookware fairly quickly.

The 8-inch pan is for omelets, small servings of vegetables, scrambled eggs, crepes, etc. The 4-quart is for pasta sauces, risotto, soups, and boiling eggs. The 8 to 12-quart stockpot is for cooking pasta, rice, soups and stews. The cast-iron skillet is for frying bacon, fried chicken, hamburgers, pork chops and, Thompson advises, “anything you want to get a good crust on. Keep it seasoned. Don’t wash it with soap. The oils and fats season the pan.”

The roasting pan is for chicken, turkey, beef, and any large piece of meat. After roasting, put it on top of the stove or cook top, deglaze with wine, and add flour to make a sauce. And, remember, the stove doesn’t need to be a Viking, Wolf, or Garland. “If you have one, that’s nice, notes Thompson,” but you don’t need it. I would recommend gas over electric. It’s usually hotter and you can control the temperature better. Any gas stove will do.”

When you start shopping, stay focused. Research the brands you like, know what they have to offer, and the features that make a pan a good pan. Look for cookware made with solid materials, strong rivets and make sure it feels comfortable when you pick it up. All-Clad, Viking, Cuisinart and Calphalon all make solid cookware. Thompspon says the better brands are better for a reason. “They are made from American steel and they are made with a special bonding technique that gives them strength and more importantly, even heating. They are also balanced and I think have a good ‘hand feel.’”

If you want to save money, it’s the specialized gadgets like asparagus steamers, double-boilers and rice cookers that you should resist buying. But even Thompson admits, “I’m guilty of it too. I mean, I’m a chef, I love this stuff. I have a fish poacher. I’ve used it exactly once. I used it because I had it but I didn’t need it. When you’re looking to stock up your kitchen you need to be that disciplined.” And resourceful, especially if you’re on a budget. “You can poach a salmon in a roasting pan. Just because it’s not made for that specific thing, doesn’t mean you can’t use it that way.”

A word on knives. Yes, the very best are the fancy and gorgeous German and Japanese items that can run hundreds of dollars a piece, making a full-set prohibitively expensive for most people. So unless you plan on becoming a sushi chef or Edward Scissorhands, skip it.

“A 10-inch chef’s knife lets you slice, chop and cut pretty much everything. A good paring knife is for smaller jobs, and a serrated knife for bread, sandwiches, etc., are pretty much all you need,” says Thompson. “Buy the best quality that you can afford, but more importantly, buy what feels comfortable in your hand. It should feel balanced. You should love holding it and touching it.”

At the end of day, know your budget, do your research and be honest with what kind of food you want to cook. You may not have a $100,000 kitchen, but with the right cookware, your food can taste as if you do.

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