Every so often, a friend calls to ask me what cooking equipment to recommend. LONG story! You’ll find an extensive list of equipment for a basic kitchen in A New Way to Cook, along with 700+ pages of essential techniques and recipes.
For now, here are my tried-and-true favorites, from high to low and back.
All-Clad is widely considered to be the best, most reliable brand of cookware, but it is expensive. You can find reliable, in-depth reviews of alternatives to All-Clad at The SweetHome, Fine Cooking, and Cook’s Ilustrated but these three pieces are personal favorites that are worth every cent:
The saucepan I use most is the All-Clad 2-Quart Saucier Pan, at top, given to me many years as a thank you gift when I taught cooking classes at DeGustibus. Its proportion and size a perfect for a variety of daily cooking jobs. For example, it holds one broken-up chicken carcass perfectly for making a batch of chicken broth and reduces sauces without scorching, etc.
I use the very wide, shallow straight-sided All-Clad Stainless 6-Quart Saute Pan when I need a lot of surface area without depth (for example, when I sauté a lot of greens or when I make batches of dried fruits in fragrant syrup where I want to cook a lot of fruit evenly for an exact amount of time). All-Clad pots never scorch.
If you want to give someone a classic nonstick pan, All-Clad’s Nonstick Fry Pan has two big virtues: All-Clad changed their formula to remove harmful chemicals AND they offer (and honor) a lifetime warranty. Since NO nonstick surface will hold up for a lifetime no matter how good the care you give it, this is priceless. I’ve sent back a number of “spent” nonstick All-Clad pans over the years and they’ve always sent me a new one. The sizes I use most often are 10-inch and 12-inch.
Want nonstick WITHOUT a nonstick coating? Traditional seasoned cast-iron is a great option but it is heavy and heat adjustments don’t happen quickly. My favorite alternative is chef’s favorite DeBuyer Mineral B Element Iron Frypan. To protect its naturally-oiled surface, you don’t wash it with soap, just water, drying it immediately to prevent rusting and adding a wipe of oil to protect it. This practice comes naturally after the first few times, or the first time you leave water in it and see rust forming (which washes away easily with a scrubby pad). It comes in a variety of sizes and is inexpensive enough that you can buy several. They will last a lifetime.
At some point, even the novice cook needs a good mortar and pestle. I’ve written extensively about this incredibly useful tool here. Barring snagging a vintage one, I recommend Milton Brook Unglazed Mortar and Pestles with beech handle pestles. They come in a variety of sizes from 4 inches-in-diameter to hefty, beautiful 12-inch-diameter that holds 8-pints/16 cups). I’d recommend the 6.5-inch ($64.99) that holds 2-cups OR the 8-inch ($69) that holds 4+ cups.
Small utensils are not to be underestimated as a welcome gift; they can be bundled together for more “heft”. Here are favorites I use daily:
I keep a stock of French paring knives with colored wooden handles to give as gifts throughout the year. They feel good in the hand, their sharp edge maintain with the few strokes of a steel, are wonderful to look at and age charmingly. Sometimes I give one, sometimes a set or two that can be used as steak knives. I recommending buying either Opinel (at Amazon) or L’Econome (available at World Knives); steer clear of knockoffs from China that just don’t have the same feel. Note: be sure that whomever you give a knife to gives you back a penny to avoid bad luck. (I often include a penny with the gift to make this easy.)
OXO Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs with Black Silicone Heads: their reach is long enough to protect your hands from heat yet they are easy to use. Their silicone tips protect delicate pan surfaces and foods. They fold up with a click of a lever. Perfect.
OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler: is so comfortable to hold and has such sharp blades, it makes quick work of peeling any vegetable.
Microplane makes a variety of graters. I have only one: the original that revolutionized graterdom: Microplane 40001 Stainless Steel Zester. They call it a “zester” but I use the easy-to-store, low-profile grater for everything to grating Parmigiano cheese, to fresh ginger to citrus zest.
An instant read thermometer is a way to have x-ray vision into the center of a roast so you can cook it to just the degree of doneness you like. Having used an analog thermometer for years, I’ve been very happy with the DiGi Instant Read Thin Stainless Steel Probe.
Have a friend with a fireplace? An adjustable Tuscan grill stand makes an extraordinary gift, suddenly transforming a fireplace into a cooking space. I used to give magic dinner parties with friends gathered around the hearth while I cooked and served grilled lamb, vegetables, bread — all manner of simple fare — made all the more delicious by the smell of wood smoke. It is also great for outdoor barbeques and paella-making.
Know a cook that WANTS to improvise but is a little nervous about it? I wrote The Improvisational Cook to help cooks INTO crafting their own distinctive dishes. For the already-improvising cook, it provides a trove of ideas.
And finally, give the memorable food experience of a lifetime with one of Peggy Markel’s culinary adventures to Tuscany, Morocco, Sicily, Amalfi, or India. Peggy guides participants into a deep, often-transformative experience of cultural immersion and connection, with fabulous food.