Question: if you don’t have a ball and a bat, how do you play baseball? Answer: not very well.
Everyone understands having the proper tools for the job. Unfortunately, a lot of folks don’t look at the kitchen as a place that needs the proper tools.
Now, I’ve done my fair share of cooking in condos, on sailboats, and other places where a kitchen isn’t very well stocked. It can be done, and done well. However, it’s a lot more challenging; and why would you want to handicap yourself? You can play baseball with a stick and a walnut. But it’s a lot more fun with a ball and a bat.
Stocking Your Kitchen
1) A good set of knives. Not the serrated “ever-sharp” variety. Knives with an edge. You don’t have to spring for a top-of-the-line set, but get something that has a firm blade. And since you have knives with real edges, you need a knife sharpener. I’ve got two sets: one is for everyday use, that I don’t mind putting in the dishwasher. The other is for when I’m cooking for people–the the blades are sharper and firmer. Oh, and get a cutting board.
2) Spices. Lots of spices. Even if all you do is buy a pre-packaged set that hangs on the wall because you’re intimidated by them, get a lot of spices. Two things might happen. First, you might find a recipe that calls for a particular spice. Second, you might just one day decide to experiment with some of your spices. Any junior chemist will tell you that without a chemistry set, chemistry ain’t much fun.
3) Two good saucepans. Your smaller one should be somewhere around the 3/4 to 1 quart variety, the other 2-3 quarts. There are lots of varieties: copper core, hard anondized aluminum… Get one that’s heavy, for starters. A thin sauce pan will not transmit heat evenly, so your food will cook unevenly. If you’ve got a heavy pan, usually this means that it’s got three layers (bottom, some sort of core to transmit heat efficiently, cooking surface).
4) A cast iron skillet, and one regular frying pan. For the cast iron skillet, you must season it. Put about a teaspoon of oil in it, then put it on the stove and heat it until the oil burns away, spreading the oil around occasionally. Repeat 2-3 times. For the regular frying pan, again you want one that’s heavy. Now about that cooking surface: I’ve got an apathathetic/hate relationship with non-stick cookware. Non-stick surfaces generally still stick, anyhow, and you can’t use anything metal on them. If you’re looking to make an integral sauce, then they don’t stick enough. But they are a little easier to clean. And since I hate cleaning dishes, I’ll deal with the non-stick surfaces on some of my cookware.
5) A wooden spoon; a set of mixing bowls; a hard spatula and a soft, scraping spatula made out of silicone; a wire whisk; measuring utensils (a set of cups and spoons); a cheese grater; and a vegetable peeler. Finally, a good pot holder.
There are, of course, myriad other things that you “need.” But getting the ones I’ve listed will get most people off the ground.
Think I’ve missed an essential? Post it in the comments.