What does a working kitchen need?

thA blog post over at Get Rich Slowly asks readers which cooking  utensils/equipment they couldn’t live without. “In the kitchen: When less is more” posits that plenty of the things marketed as necessities end up as just so much culinary clutter.

“How much do you need to have a working kitchen?” asks writer Lisa Aberle.

Good question.

My comment on the post became pretty lengthy – so lengthy, in fact, that I realized I feel pretty strongly about the subject. While I understand that foodies and gadgeteers love their avocado slicers and their cheese straighteners*, I’d like to point out that:

  • More isn’t necessarily better, and
  • Specialization is the last refuge of marketers.

Let me be clear: While I don’t quite understand the need for super-specific kitchenware, I will defend to the death your right to acquire it – but only if you do it intentionally.

A friend whose marriage was ending found all sorts of left-behind doodads: special knives, a garlic press, numerous graters, an all-in-one measuring spoon, a wine bottle re-capper and other stuff I can’t recall. His wife didn’t care enough to pack them up when she left, even though some of them probably cost a bundle. (Think: Friends with Pampered Chef parties.)

Were these implements ever implemented? Some, maybe. Some was still unopened.

Needs vs. wants

While some home cooks swear by the need for numerous specialized knives and cookware, some professional chefs say that a couple of good-quality blades and a few basic pots will do the job.

Housewares catalogs are like porn for foodies. I get it. But do you need everything you have? Do you use everything you have?

Here’s what we use most often:

  • Cast-iron frying pan. Found it in the “free” box at a yard sale (all it needed was a little steel wool and some seasoning). DF also has several of these, in different sizes.
  • Strainer. I inherited this from my daughter, who got it at a dollar store. Useful for gravy, soup stock, lentils, yogurt or whatever else needs straining.
  • Warming tray. DF has no idea how he got this thing and can’t remember ever plugging it in. Now we use it all the time, to culture yogurt and proof bread dough.
  • Iced tea pitcher. It’s a plastic thing that I got from my sister when she moved in with her fiance more than 30 years ago.
  • Slow cooker. DF’s gets all the use because it’s a larger model suitable for roasting meat. We also use it for making stew, chili and soup stock. My much smaller slow cooker was a hand-me-down from my daughter, who received a nicer model as a wedding gift.
  • Stainless steel cookware. I bought a set from Macy’s back in 2004, on sale and with a discounted gift card. The pans will probably outlive us both.
  • Cookie sheets. The kind with air in between the two layers – we use them not just for cookies but also for homemade breads and rolls. These came from a yard sale for a quarter apiece.
  • Pressure canner. We canned some salmon caught by my nephews, a bunch of on-sale chickens and the carrots that we grew last summer. This was actually bought new and cost more than $100, but we’re interested in preserving some shelf-stable protein and home-grown produce in case there’s a disruption in the food supply.
  • Canning jars. For jam, for carrots, for chicken and turkey – I got a couple of dozen quart-sized jars from the Freecycle Network and more than 100 pints and half-pints plus a bunch of jar centers for $10 at a yard sale. Since I give away jam at Christmas, I scout thrift stores for replacements.

Kitchen stuff doesn’t have to cost a lot. Check thrift stores, yard sales and, yes, Freecycle. Join the Swagbucks rewards program and earn Amazon gift cards; that’s how I “bought” my candy thermometer, which gets used every week for yogurt-making.

The money you save in such ways could be saved for the purchase of some specialized tool that you can’t find in a cheaper venue. But don’t just buy and buy and buy, thinking that surely the next gadget is the one that will fix your life. That’s how we end up with drawers full of stuff that rarely if ever gets used.

How often will you use that crème brulee torch?

If a friend has a device you think you want, ask if you can borrow it or if you can come over and do some cooking with her. You might find that the food processor is a pain in the neck to clean and thus you’d just as soon chop onions by hand.

During a long-ago visit my mother saw me using a fork to cut shortening into flour for a pie crust. That’s how she’d taught me to make pie. Yet she offered to buy me a pastry blender because she said she’d found the tool easier to use than a fork.

I declined, with thanks. Years later I found one in the free box at a yard sale and took it home. However, I found it a bit clunky to use and a real trial to wash (all that shortening gets jammed between the blades). So I donated it to a thrift store and have been using a fork on my pie crusts ever since.

Again: It’s your money, and if you want to spend it all on nutmeg graters and crème brulee torches then that’s your privilege. Just don’t let a housewares store – or a friend who’s selling Pampered Chef – decide for you what you absolutely need. That would be like asking the barber if you need a trim.

*There’s no such thing. It’s a reference to an old comedy routine by the late George Carlin.

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  1. Great tips – kitchen items can often cost so much, so its great to see that you can actually get the expensive items for much cheaper elsewhere.

  2. Vicky Fox

    I have 1 good set of kitchen knives that I take very good care of, 1 set of stainless steel cookware, 1 sturdy set of nesting glass mixing bowls I bought a K Mart for $14.00 20 years ago, and they are heat proof. I have 1 set of spatulas that are used for everything savory and sweet, 2 balloon whisks that are used for both cooking and baking, 3 stainless steel baking sheets that have a Silpat baking sheet that is used with each sheet, bought for $20 at House to Home when they were closing, 1 cast iron skillet I got for free from a friend, 1 wood board for baking kneading and rolling out dough, 1 white poly board for cutting, 2 basic casserole and 1 baking dishes, 1 stainless steel strainer, 1 sturdy sieve, 1 Kitchen Aid mixer bought at a yard sale for $80 still in the box, and a big stack of kitchen towels that get the daylights used out of them every day. I don’t like single use items. The only single use item I have is the fire extinguisher 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      Ha! DF’s nickname is “Smoke Alarm” because he likes things really well done.
      Your kitchen sounds a lot like ours. Oh, and those glass bowls: DF has two plus a large stainless steel bowl and boy, are those handy. I used to have to use Tupperware bowls for everything, but now I can proof bread dough or butter popcorn in a great big glass bowl instead. Of course, the down side is that I can eat more popcorn than I used to when I had to use a smaller bowl…. 😉
      Right now I have a batch of yogurt culturing on that heating tray I mentioned in the article. It’s in a ceramic souffle dish, covered with a large stainless steel pan lid. I used my free-with-Swagbucks-gift-card thermometer to check the temp of the milk and an old thrift-shop whisk to mix in the starter. While I don’t begrudge anyone the right to have tons of specialized equipment, the stuff we have works just as well as, say, a yogurt maker.

  3. Holly S

    Personally, I am NOT a slow cooker fan. I am aboiut to dnoate mine along w/my blender & wok.

    I am just as happy using my range top or oven vs. a slow cooker. Got an immersion blender a few years ago & have a food processor (use a LOT)so don’t need a blender. Just use the appropriate size fry pan for stir fries.

    • Donna Freedman

      One of my favorite uses for the slow cooker is to bake potatoes. I’ll do half a dozen at a time so we can have one each for dinner and use the rest for potato salad or for a scrambled-eggs-and-fried-potatoes supper the next day.
      I like it for chili et al. because I don’t have to remember to stir regularly to keep it from burning.
      My niece found a brand-new immersion blender (unopened box) at a yard sale where the rule was “$5 for everything you can fit in this bag.” She also got a bunch of kids’ clothing. Score!
      Have I mentioned that I love yard sales?

  4. Kristin

    I don’t own a mixer. I had a hand-me-down KitchenAid, but found I never used it because it was so heavy and a pain to drag out of the cupboard. (Counter space is at a premium here.) I gave it to my mom whose 30 year old mixer died. She loves it, and I don’t miss it. I figure Caroline Ingalls didn’t have a KitchenAid, so I don’t really need one. Yes, I do make things that I could use a mixer for, but I just do it the old fashioned way.

    • Donna Freedman

      That’s funny: My mom gave me her old mixer when she got a new one. I used it for probably a dozen years before it died. Not before time: I calculated that it was at least 25 years old.
      I make cookies, bread, cakes and other items by hand. However, that Mandarin Orange Cake recipe really does need a mixer — and my $1 yard-sale hand mixer does just fine.
      Since I’ve mentioned that cake twice, I better provide the recipe:
      2 cups sugar
      2 cups flour
      2 tsp. baking soda
      1/2 tsp. salt
      2 eggs
      2 cans (11.5 ounces each) mandarin oranges, well drained
      Beat eggs; add oranges and dry ingredients (sifted) together and beat for 4 minutes with an electric mixer. (It will look gloppy at first but quickly turn into a thin batter.) Bake in a greased and floured 9×13 pan at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.
      While it bakes, mix up the topping:
      3/4 cup brown sugar
      3 tbls. milk
      2 tbls. butter
      Bring ingredients to a boil and pour over hot cake as soon as it comes from the oven.
      This cake is so easy that my 7-year-old nephew made it all by himself (with me supervising, of course). Note that it doesn’t rise very high (not surprising, given the lack of baking powder) but it’s moist and dense and amazingly delicious, almost like a steamed pudding rather than a cake. I recommend it highly for potlucks — or, maybe, for those Pampered Chef parties. 😉

  5. enjoythejourney

    Love my large slow cooker. I have an electric hand mixer I got in college that I use rarely, but enough to keep. Generally, mix with a spoon in the bowl. Twenty-five years ago, as a young married, I really wanted a food processor. My friends loved theirs. So, my sweet mom bought me one for Christmas. It was the only year and model that the manufacturer put out with a VHS tape for instructions with no printed directions whatsoever. This is TRUE. I don’t know about you, but we did not keep our VHS player in the kitchen. I would have the tape on in the den and memorize the way to safely use the contraption, which blades to use for whatever and then run back to the kitchen to try to put everything together. Not an optimal learning process for me, so I went back to the knives and grater. When I find large blocks of cheese on sale that I could so easily grate, I’m a little wistful about the failed endeavor. And, Donna, I don’t do any of the “purchase” parties ever now that I’ve finally learned not to believe the hostesses’ perpetual entreaties “Just come for the wine and get-together. I swear there won’t be any pressure to buy anything.” Thanks, but we’ll just do lunch instead. One of the up sides of aging. (Sorry for the lengthy post.)

    • Donna Freedman

      I have an electric hand mixer that I got at a yard sale for a buck. I rarely use it, but am glad it’s there — especially since Linda B. gave the the super-simple Mandarin Orange Cake recipe that absolutely requires a mixer.
      Oh, and I got a food processor as a wedding gift. Wrote the thank-you note, but never opened the box. When we moved to Alaska back in 1984, I sold the device to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s food writer.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  6. A potato peeler!! For potatoes, apples, cheese and grating homemade soap for remelting to fancy it up for gifts. A spatula. Also an old-fashioned potato masher that looks like a thick squiggly wire in a handle for making cream soups and chowders. The one big-ticket item is a rice cooker I got as a gift that also does pressure cooking and I use that at least once a week. It has a timer and I can come home to freshly made rice. Oh, and a small whisk for whipped cream and egg whites. Except for the rice cooker, all of my gadgets (and now that I think of it, they all came from thrift stores) fit in a bean crock on the counter (which is also used for beans) and in the back of the silverware drawer. You’re right. You don’t need much.

    • Donna Freedman

      We use a hand masher to squash our spuds, too. It gives me a chance to accuse DF of being “a masher.” We still snicker every time. Jeez, we’re easily amused.

  7. Kim Kelley

    I have to confess, I’m a kitchen gadget junkie. But I do use it all, to varying degrees, of course. And I used to sell Pampered Chef… talk about letting the fox into the henhouse! LOL! I love cooking, though, and entertaining so probably use things a little more than folks who cook only for themselves every day. And yes, I COULD do without some of my stuff, but why? I love it! 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      Here’s the cool part: You don’t have to do without it. It’s your money and you get to spend it any way you like. I just hope that people will spend intentionally vs. “oh this looks cool I should buy it right away.”
      Most of us do gadgets to some degree. I just sliced a piece of pepper-jack cheese from the block with an old cheese slicer. I could use a knife, but this is easier. (I got the item from — you guessed it — a yard sale’s “free” box. Seriously, folks: You should check that out at every sale you attend. I’ve gotten all sorts of useful stuff that way.)

  8. I’m really interested in your canning “protein.” Have you posted any recipies on your canning? I would love to see some of those!! Thanks!!

    • Donna Freedman

      All we did was cook the salmon and chickens on the Weber (DF loves a smoky flavor) and then can it according to the directions on the pressure canner. We used wide-mouthed jars rather than cans.
      The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource for this sort of thing:
      No doubt there are food bloggers and prepper bloggers who offer great recipes. Have fun exploring!
      We opened a quart jar of chicken on Monday. About half went to a stroganoff sort of recipe and I plan to use much of what’s left on a chicken tamale pie recipe from the Budget Bytes website. If I don’t use it all, what’s left will likely be diced up with hard-cooked egg, onion and relish and become chicken salad sandwiches for lunch. It’s nice to have shelf-stable protein vs. remembering to thaw something out, and it’s especially nice if you’re in a hurry and don’t actually want to cook anything.
      On Wednesday night DF opened a pint jar of salmon and enjoyed it just as it was, with a side of an Alaskan staple known as “pilot bread.” If you’re not familiar with pilot bread, check out this video from The Anchorage Daily News:

      Interested? Check out another ADN recipe for pilot bread “recipes”:

  9. there are SO MANY inane kitchen products. I know this by looking at friends’ registries and thinking..REALLY?

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep. Sometimes you think, “That’s got to be a joke, right?” Except it isn’t.
      My advice is that if you want to buy a cool trendy device, you have a good chance of finding it at a yard sale a summer or two after the item is first introduced. (And yes, cake-pop maker, I’m looking at you.)

  10. Betsey

    I have to laugh. I remember a cartoon that was published in the 90’s about home-cooked food. It showed a 50’s kitchen like my mother’s where I grew up: an old stove, fridge, cast iron cookware, by-hand mixers, really old stuff. The resulting food was a fried chicken dinner complete with real mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, real butter, biscuits, and a dessert (homemade). Then it showed a beautifully modern 90’s kitchen with all the bells and whistles. Food cooked? A microwave dinner.
    As I learned to cook in the fifies kitchen, I still cook from scratch (part frugality, part because-it-tastes-better). I use stainless steel pots and pans, wooden spoons, and as few electronic devices as I can. My kitchen is simple, and I like it that way!

    • Donna Freedman

      That’s how I learned to cook, too. And you’re right: It does taste better.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  11. I have this amazing jar opener (the kind for when you can’t get a lid off with your own strength) that I hope never breaks or gets lost because I haven’t been able to find another one since. It must still be under patent but not being manufactured (the company listed on it no longer seems to exist) or something because it works so much better than any other kind of bottle opener out there and doesn’t damage the lid. I can’t even link to an online example. 🙁 Oh wait, here’s one on ebay! http://www.ebay.com/itm/Canning-jar-opener-vintage-Stamped-Made-in-West-Germany-by-Leifheit-orange-/321339801856

    • Donna Freedman

      My friend Linda B. has something called a “lid persuader” mounted under a cabinet. You slide the jar in and give it a quarter-turn and POP! Off it comes. I think I’m going to need one of those eventually.

  12. Hi Donna. Less is always more (especially for beginners in the kitchen). I have more than I probably need. But outside some extra dishes/storage containers, everything is used. Don’t need to buy anything more. Need to remember that our grandmothers were great cooks/bakers with only the bare minimum.

    Also, read your last post over at GRS. Good one (comments were okay but representative of the site). I stopped reading GRS after you and the Motley Fool writer left. Quality declined once the site was sold, marriage dissolved, new girlfriend found. But appreciate you posting links to all your writings. I never comment but always read them while commuting to/from work.

    ~ Pru

  13. Thanks for the inspiring tips (and making me feel really hungry)!


  1. 7 more kick-ass spending tips. | Surviving and Thriving - […] e.g., “How often would I actually use this?” (especially as regards things like hand tools and kitchen gadgets) and…

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