Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The non-minimum viable kitchen

Around the beginning of the year, Matt Maroon wrote a piece called The Minimum Viable Kitchen. The title was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference to the minimum-viable-product startup idea even though the kitchen, as described, wasn't really minimal. Don't think of Asian street food vendors sweating over charcoal grills. Rather, as Matthew describes it:

This post lays out the Minimum Viable Kitchen (MVK) for creating gourmet food. It’s aimed at the person that wants to make truly great food, but isn’t quite sure where to get started or how expensive the commitment will be. As it turns out, you can assemble all the kitchen equipment you need to become a great chef for under $1000. This post isn't trying to convince you to become a great chef or a foodie, but if you are already so inclined, it will help you get started.

It's a good post and I recommend it. Here's my take which I've been meaning to write for a while. Some context and a few caveats first though.

Utensils DSCF0513

I'm assuming that you have a kitchen--which is to say an oven, stovetop, dishwasher, refrigerator, and microwave. (A microwave is more a handy tool for warming than cooking but it's so universal that it factors into some recipe prep too.) I have some opinions about those if you're starting afresh but I'm not going to get into those here. I'm likewise going to aim this post at the hypothetical reader going from $0 to about $1K--although I probably wouldn't actually recommend even the Twitter IPO winner just running out and buying everything. I'm giving a lot of opinions about what works for me but especially pots and pans and utensils and knives are best built out incrementally based on preferences and cooking habits.

In the same vein, I'll be leaving out a lot of little things that may be useful based on your particular cooking preferences; I'm trying to keep things general purpose. So I won't include a lobster pot or accessories even though these are things that I personally use on a regular basis. I'll also be doing a follow-on post on some bigger "add-ons" that I personally find useful but are probably too specialized for the general case. 

Also, a bit of context. I do a lot of cooking but not a huge amount of baking so this list is probably a bit light on baking pans and other accessories which could be a whole separate post. I'm also leaving out various small appliances that aren't really related to cooking. So no coffee machines or toasters. Nor do I go the modernist route in this post although I do have a DIY sous vide setup as well as a copy of Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine at Home. Finally, this post is about gear but putting together spices and other staples will be an equal part of building your NMVK. 


Here's where I'm probably most going to disagree with Matt. I really can't imagine trying to start someone out with Thomas Keller, even if it is his "simplified" Ad Hoc at Home. Modernist cuisine (i.e. using water baths, whipping siphons, and the like) may well be all very cool and so forth but--call me old-fashioned--I have trouble imagining all but the most uber-geek entering into cooking that way. (And you still need the traditional stuff anyway.)

If I had to pick one, it would be Cook's Illustrated The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition

The Cook's Illustrated crew, headed by Chris Kimball, is something of a mini-industry. They have shows on public TV, magazines, a Website that they actually succeed in getting folks like myself to subscribe to (something many newspapers would sincerely love to accomplish), and a passel of cookbooks that profitably rework and repurpose large swaths of content.

The central conceit of Cook's Illustrated is that everything from recipes to techniques is tested, tested, tested. They're also probably the best-known example of the modern "cooking geek" approach in that they investigate and explain why particular techniques work or don't work. (Alton Brown is another author who focuses on the science of cooking but without the obsessiveness of Cook's Illustrated.)

The Best Recipes is an encyclopedic work and it does a great job of breaking down and illustrating how to do things in the kitchen with something over 1,000 recipes in all. Because it does so much more than just present a bunch of recipes, this has become my go to reference for how to do things in the kitchen and a starting point for how to handle a cut of meat or other ingredient. If there's a knock on Cook's Illustrated it's that the whole "we tried 50 different ways of boiling an egg" shtick can get a bit old after a while. More to the point, I find it can result in recipes that are a bit fussy with three types of cheeses grated three different ways and the like. Also be forewarned that large quantities of cream, butter, and the like often seem to play heavily into getting the best tasting result. Still, overall, a great reference and a good bargain given its size.

A few other possibilities.

Ruth Reichl's Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen capped a long string of cookbooks from the late, lamented Gourmet magazine. It reimagines recipes for the ingredients now available (in moderately cosmopolitan urban settings). 

Amanda Hesser similarly reimagined the long line of cookbooks from The New York Times with The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century while very much maintaining a link to Times recipes of year past. 

Of course the Internet has tons of recipes. And, for my readers, learning about the underlying science in books like Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and Jeff Potter's Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food may be more interesting and useful than recipe books. (Though I still have large shelves of those--albeit with older books generally rotating into newer ones.)


Knives are key. In fact, I've found that since spending the money on some decent knives and learning how to keep them sharp I don't use a lot of my electric chopping gear nearly as much. It's still good stuff to have, especially for larger quantities. But, by the time you factor in cleanup, it's really faster and easier just to chop up the onion--and more consistent besides. 

The following is my idiosyncratic list of the four knives that I use most frequently. There are cheaper knives out there; Victorinox gets good reviews. There are also much more expensive knives out there. The Wusthof Classic line just feels good in my hand. Others I know swear by Shun. This is one area in particular where I would recommend starting out small and building incrementally rather than buying one of those knife sets. (I'd also mention that I seem to be a knife rather than a cleaver person for whatever reason.)

Wusthof Classic 8-Inch Cook's Knife ($119--I know, I know sticker shock but I use this daily)

Paring knife. Here's an example Victorinox Swiss Army 3-1/4-Inch Fibrox Straight Edge Paring Knife. I use this type of knife a lot but I can't say I care a lot about the details because I'm mostly cutting soft fruits and vegetables.

At this point I would recommend a top-notch big chef's knife like Wusthof Classic Ikon 10-Inch Cook's Knife but I'd totally blow our budget just as we were getting started so you might try something like the Victorinox 47521 10-Inch Chef's Knife, Black Fibrox Handle or just go down to a local Chinatown if you have one and pick up a big cleaver. (I prefer the 8" for daily use but you need something bigger for tasks like cutting chickens apart.)

Beyond the basics, I use a relative of the Wusthof Classic Ikon 7-Inch Fillet (which is also useful for cutting very thin slices of smoked ham for instance) and a smaller chef's knife like the WUSTHOF Classic 6-Inch Cook's Knife.

Once you have this expensive metal, you'll want to keep it sharp. Without going into the details of edge straightening and edge sharpening here, I use a combination of the DMT DS2E 12-Inch Diamond Steel Sharpening Rod, Extra Fine Grit and the Fiskars 7861 Axe and Knife Sharpener.

Pots and Pans

Again, this is a collection that you'll probably want to build up over time based on your needs. But here are a few suggestions to get you started. A few of these recommendations are stovetop dependent. You won't want an aluminum pot if you have an induction burner and you probably won't want uncoated cast iron if you have a smoothtop. I personally have gas and these, or pots like them, are things I use on a regular basis. I also mention a couple of things that I don't use regularly but are essential from time to time.

Circulon Contempo Hard Anodized Nonstick 3-Quart Covered Saucepot I don't have this particular pot but the Calphalon I have doesn't seem to be made any longer. I find a 3-4 quart heavy pot the perfect size for lots of things and having two short handles is ideal for deep frying and other tasks where you really don't want to spill something. Note that you don't want to cook acidic foods in aluminum. 

Lodge L10SK3ASHH41B Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet with Red Silicone Hot Handle Holder, 12-Inch Real traditional I know. But I still find a well-seasoned cast iron skillet to be versatile for a lot of things and inexpensive besides. 

T-fal E9380884 Professional Total Nonstick Oven Safe Thermo-Spot Heat Indicator 12.5-Inch Fry Pan / Saute Pan Dishwasher Safe Cookware, Black Nonstick gets a lot of disdain, in part because you can't brown food in it as well. But it's also great--even compared to well-seasoned cast iron--with sticky foods and delicate coatings. The T-fal line works well, while being inexpensive, which is important given that non-stick will lose its non-stick no matter how much you pay.

Lodge Color EC6D33 Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, Blue, 6-Quart Dutch ovens are incredibly versatile and, while Le Crueset is great, you really don't need to pay those prices. You can use this pot for all sorts of soups and stews. I find the enameled version is better for most things than the plain cast iron. You wouldn't go wrong bumping yourself up a size either although the pot will start to get heavy at that point. 

A few other things that you may want:

Small (1 quart or so) saucepan. I use this all the time for melting butter and for heating small amounts of sauces.

Another pot in the 3-4 quart range. 

A tall six quart or so stock pot in addition to the dutch oven (but probably don't need this to start)

A roasting pan such as Calphalon Classic Hard Anodized 16-Inch Roaster with Nonstick Rack but only if you (well) roast--although it's useful for other things as well. 

A smaller skillet

(Unlike with knives, it may make sense to buy a pot set to get at least partially started although it won't cover everything.)

(Mostly) Rectangular stuff

Which, is to say, mostly stuff to bake in.

Pyrex Basics 8-Inch Square Baking Dish or two

Pyrex 3 Qt Oblong Baking Dish, Clear, 9" x 13"

A couple baking sheets (to put under things even if you don't bake cookies or all the other things you crisp in an oven)

Farberware Nonstick Bakeware 9-by-5-Inch Loaf Pan. These gets used for all manner of quick breads. (Substitute or add muffin pans.)

If you're interested in doing casserole-type stuff, you can probably get started with the above but may want to augment it with a basic set of Corningware such as CorningWare 1083955 French 14-Piece Bakeware Set, White. For quiches, you'll want something like BIA Cordon Bleu 1-Quart Round Quiche, White. And I'm leaving out relatively specialty baking gear such as springform pans--used for cheesecake although not exclusively so. 

Utensils and related

I'm mostly not going to go into specifics here, especially given that most people have at least some of these basics and can generally muddle along in many cases without upgrading everything. But here are some of the things you'll want. (See the photo for some of the favorites sitting in my drawer.)

Spatulas. I like metal for my uncoated skillets and something less destructive to use with non-stick.

Silicone scrapers. Silicon eis the bestest invention for lots of--though not all--kitchen uses. (Generally avoid it for pans.) Furthermore, I find myself now using silicone scrapers in place of spatulas when I'm primarily pushing things around (e.g. scrambled eggs) rather than flipping them. 

Silicone brushes.

The best ladle (according to Cook's Illustrated--and I agree).

Microplanes, e.g. Microplane 40020 Classic Zester/Grater. For zesting citrus fruits and parmesan, for example.

Slotted and unslotted spoons of various sizes and materials.

Whisks. I'd probably start with something like OXO Good Grips 9-Inch Whisk.

 OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler

CIA Masters Collection 6 Piece Measuring Spoon Set

Sieve(s). A basic fine wire mesh sieve (e.g. OXO Good Grips 8-Inch Double Rod Strainer) will be fine for many purposes although when we get into things like advanced soup making, the options explode (see e.g. chinois.)


Mixing bowls. Depending upon what I'm using them for I prefer either Pyrex or stainless.

Scoop. The example in the photo is from Chinatown.

One and two cup Pyrex measuring cups

Other stuff

Thermometers. Data is our friend. Instant read thermometers are especially useful when cooking meat. (Cook's Illustrated favors the ~$100 Thermapen but I've been happy with the ~$20 Polder.) Other types of thermometers are useful for deep frying, making candy, and checking that your oven is at the correct temperature. (You can also use sugar sorta phase change for this purpose.)

Major small appliances

This may be the most fraught area of these recommendations because the items in question are relatively expensive and how useful you find them is going to be dependent on what sort of cooking you want to do. That said, the items I'm going to mention here are fairly universal. As I mentioned earlier, I'll save more specialized gear for a later post.

Food processor. I have an ancient Cuisinart but, based on reviews at Cooks Illustrated and others, this model Cuisinart DFP-14BCN 14-Cup Food Processor, Brushed Stainless Steel  seems to be a good choice. As I alluded to earlier, a good sharp knife is still a pretty efficient way to cut up a single vegetable. But a food processor can make quick work of lots of vegetables. When it comes to thin and precise slicing, it's hard to beat a good processor other than using a Mandoline. And you'll need an immersion blender and/or a high-speed blender to better a food processor at pureeing. The bottom line is that, while a food processor may not be the vey best tool for every task, it does well at a lot of them compared to both other machines and manual approaches. And even with a fairly fully-stocked equipment cupboard, I still keep my venerable old Cuisinart on the counter because it's just very convenient for doing many routine things. 

Stand mixer. Perhaps you don't see yourself baking in your NMVK. In which case I might concede you could get by shiningly with a cheap hand mixer for those times when you need to make some whipped cream or whatever. (And a hand mixer can be handy now and then regardless so it's not a waste to pick one up.) But, assuming all this cooking stuff is just not a passing fad, you'll probably end up with something like one of these regardless: KitchenAid K45SS Classic 250-Watt 4-1/2-Quart Stand Mixer, White. (KitchenAid makes bigger and more powerful models as well and most still regard them as the stand mixer standard.) Stand mixers are really useful for anything that involves beating lots of air into a mix, creaming butter, or kneading a dough. As a bonus, the KitchenAids also can be equipped with attachments for grinding meat and processing fruit or vegetables like apples through a mill for jam-making and other purposes. This may seem fairly exotic but it's nice add-on to a tool that you'll likely use for more mundane purposes on at least a semi-regular basis.

There are some small appliances that may or may not be useful to you depending upon your interests but I'm going to save those for a future post in the interests of keeping this post to a sane length and our budget within shouting distance of $1K.

Which is probably a good note on which to end. Again, the intention here is not to seriously argue that you NEED ALL OF THIS STUFF. But, rather, if someone were hypothetically going from zero to $1K kitchen, this is--for my tastes and my interests--what that kitchen might look like. 

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