Now that I’ve hopefully made my case about the way you should eat, let’s get to the food preparation/cooking part. The absolute bottom-of-the-barrel kitchen requires knives, a chopping board, spoons, mixing bowls, at least one saucepan, one frying pan, a set of measuring cups and spoons and a couple of baking pans. You can make do with two pans: a round cake pan and a loaf pan. Mind you, that means you will be doing all your chopping and mixing by hand, but it is doable. The purists will tell you that you need a variety of knives: paring, steak, bird’s beak, serrated, etc., etc., etc. The purists will also tell you that any cook must also have a mixing bowl in every color, sixteen sizes of pans and – well, you get the idea. It really isn’t so. You don’t have to have a wire whisk in many cases, for example, as a plain old fork will do pretty much the same thing if you know how to use it (it is time-consuming to whip cream with a fork, however). Let’s assume you are setting up a kitchen from scratch and you have a moderate income. Here’s what you want to buy or ask Santa and the kitchen fairy for:
- A knife sharpener – use it frequently. Sharp knives make work much easier and you’re actually less likely to cut yourself because you need less pressure.
- Small knives – I call them paring knives; easy to handle and useful for just about any kitchen task. I have three or four at the moment, which allows me to change from slicing garlic to hulling strawberries without having to wash one. Of course, if you like a little garlic in your strawberries, washing up may not be a consideration.
- A vegetable peeler – get one with a handle big enough to fit comfortably in your hand. Don’t get one of those ones that has an open metal handle shaped like a skinny violin; by the time you finish peeling several pounds of carrots for jam, your hand will hurt. You could forgo this and scrape carrots or peel potatoes and cucumbers with a knife, but a peeler does make the job easier.
- One big knife – the so-called chef’s knife has a blade that’s wide near the handle and tapers to a point. You can use it for just about any slicing, carving or chopping task.
- A serrated knife – the chef’s knife will cut bread if it’s sharp enough, but a serrated knife works a lot better. You don’t need to sharpen it.
- Mixing bowls in assorted sizes – I prefer glass or pottery, because they don’t interact with acidic foods. Stainless steel would be good, too, but it’s expensive. Do not get plastic or aluminum; both leach into the foods. You want assorted sizes because you will actually be cooking. You’d be surprised how many bowls you’ll go through in the course of dinner preparation. This is one area where having some extras is a good idea, because you may be proofing bread dough in your big mixing bowl at the same time you need to mix up a big batch of cole slaw or meatloaf.
- Glass measuring cups – I have three one-cup and a two-cup size. I almost never use all four at the same time, but I frequently get down to one before I can stop and do the dishes. I also use quart canning jars as measuring cups for amounts larger than two cups. The jars make something like waffle batter much easier, as I can put milk or buttermilk, melted butter and eggs in the jar, beat well with a fork, and pour into the dry ingredients. Using a jar means I don’t have to fiddle with multiple measuring cups (and fewer dishes to wash, which is definitely A Good Thing).
- Stainless steel cooking pans – get the heaviest, best-quality set you can find. Although glass lids are nice, metal lids with metal handles will last longer, and you can put them in the oven. A set will probably be less expensive than buying them piecemeal, but if you’re outfitting your kitchen at yard sales, you might not have that option. You need three saucepans in sizes from about 1 ½ quarts to 3 or 4 quarts. I also have a little-bitty stainless steel barbeque sauce container, meant to be used on a barbeque grill, that is just the right size for a single-cup serving of a hot drink or soup. The other thing you may want is a large stockpot (mine easily holds two gallons) for making big batches of chicken or beef stock, chili for the freezer and soup ditto.
- Two smallish fry pans and one big one. These can be stainless steel or cast iron. You can often find old cast iron at yard sales, rusted and looking just awful, for a few dollars. Snap it up, take it home and you or your housemate can put the wire brush attachment on the electric drill. Or you can use a wire hand brush and sandpaper; it just takes longer. Sand off the rust (inside and out) with the wire brush, wash thoroughly, and apply lard or beef tallow to the entire surface. Heat overnight in a 200 degree oven. If it’s not quite non-stick yet, repeat the lard or tallow on the inside surface again. After that, use a little coconut oil, lard or tallow (tallow is the best choice, in my experience) every time you cook, and the pan will become non-stick. Cast iron lasts forever if you take care of it – just wash quickly (don’t soak) in the same water you’ve done your dishes in, rinse and immediately dry by hand. Re-oil (don’t use vegetable oil; use tallow, lard or coconut oil) as necessary, but once it’s seasoned, it’s not likely to need re-oiling. Cast iron is also the sort of thing that goes from a regular stove to a camp fire, in case you’re camping for fun or for survival reasons. I have three cast iron skillets and use them constantly.
- Baking pans – I have some glass loaf pans for bread and some Pyrex/Corning Ware casserole dishes with matching lids in assorted sizes. Just because something is meant to be a casserole dish doesn’t mean you can’t use it for a cake or bread. I also have some small Pyrex dishes in half- and one-cup sizes that can go in the oven. I use them for the extra cheesecake batter or zucchini bread that will otherwise overflow and make a mess. I have some round cake pans, a couple of cheesecake pans with removable bottoms (my family likes cheesecake) and several 8 X 8, 7 X 11 and 9 X 13 glass pans. As you may notice, I don’t mention aluminum or non-stick here, because I try to avoid both. I’d love to find a stainless steel cookie sheet that fits my small oven, but so far, no luck. This group gives me enough versatility to bake pretty much anything. By the way, using glass pans mean you can set the oven temperature down about 25 degrees, thus saving fuel and money.
- For food storage – most of the baking pans double as storage pans and a few of them have lids. Otherwise, I like glass jars, ceramic and glass bowls in various sizes.
- A rolling pin – when you need it, nothing else will do. A plain old wood one is fine.
- Cutting boards – at least two, and three is better. Get wood rather than plastic; wood is less likely to allow a knife to slip and has a natural antimicrobial action. I wash these quickly in hot soapy water after use, rinse and let them air dry.
- A can opener – while many cans now come with pull tops and you won’t use a lot of cans anyway in my kind of kitchen, there are times when nothing else will do. I don’t preserve my own olives, for example, and they come in can-opener-required cans. Using a spoon to open a can is definitely doing it the hard way.
- A big, sturdy electric mixer. I’m on my second Kitchen Aid in 35 years. I have the attachments to grind meat and make pasta and am saving for a grain grinder. Grain is best when freshly ground, and with as little baking as I do these days, grinding just before I bake is not an onerous task.
- A food processor. Get one that’s a decent size. Although they come with lots of blades, I use the grating blade and the steel chopping blade the most. Mine’s a Cusinart, and again, it’s my second in 35 years.
- Crockpot or slow cooker. I finally lost my 40+year-old crockpot (inherited from my mother-in-law) because the ceramic lining cracked. It was so old it was the Harvest Orange color popular back in the 1970s, and was one of the original Rival crockpots. Being flush at replacement time, I bought two. One is about the same size as the old one. The other is almost twice as large. Both have removable liners, which makes them easier to wash.
- An electric roaster – these are like a portable oven and slow cooker combined. The one my daughter has holds 18 quarts; absolutely wonderful for making large batches of apple, pear or tomato sauce to can. Better yet, you can put it outside in the heat of summer (which is when you’re making the aforesaid apple, pear and tomato sauce) for most of the cooking process and bring it in when you’re ready to fill the jars. I don’t recommend doing the jars outside unless you have a screened porch, as you’ll attract lots of insects. Get help! These things are heavy, and you don’t want to burn yourself. Since the roaster is a big rectangular tub, it’s the easiest thing in the world to use a Pyrex cup to dip hot applesauce into hot jars, clap on a lid and seal. Much faster than ladling. It also means you can have your big stockpot or water bath kettle going on the stove instead of moving the various kettles around as you can your applesauce.
- Glass jars – To paraphrase the late Duchess of Windsor (nee Wallis Warfield Simpson; she precipitated King Edward VIII’s abdication), who was alleged to have said that a woman can never be too rich or too thin, a ranch wife can never have too many canning jars. You will find dozens of uses for these: drinking glasses, liquid storage, canning, food storage, mixing milk and flour for gravy, freezing home-made butter, emergency measuring cups (some have cups, ccs and ounces on the sides – great for a pancake batter that takes three cups of milk when you have a two-cup measure), refrigerator pickles, fermented foods, wildflowers, hand cream and dried herbs. You can pick these up at yard sales for pennies and sometimes even for free. I have a couple of dozen glass gallon jars that I use primarily for milk, but they can also be used to make sun tea or brined vegetables or for soaking a stained shirt overnight. I tried recycled gallon jars but eventually went back to using pickle jars – pickles are about the only food product you can find in big glass jars anymore. The gallon pickle jars are definitely sturdier and have thicker glass compared to the recycled ones I bought. They’re also less expensive. I feed the excess pickles to the chickens and pigs. I would not turn up my nose at non-mason jars, either. You often find them in yard sales. While you might not want to use them for canning, they’re great for freezing, fermented veggies and general storage. I do also use them for canning; supposedly they are more likely to break in a pressure canner but my experience is that’s a rare thing. And yes, contrary to what the experts tell you, you can reuse those jars that come with the sealing compound in the one-piece lid (known as a lug lid). These are the kind of jars commercial food producers use for jams, jellies, pickles and relishes. If you notice, the lids have a pop up button that becomes indented when the jar seals. As long as your finished product has an indented button when it cools off, you should be fine. Using them saves your regular canning jars for stuff you need to process in the pressure canner. And you can always use them for freezing or dry storage.
- A blender – good for smoothies, mayonnaise and such. You can make mayonnaise by hand, but it’s very tiring to the wrist, and I find it’s harder to dribble in the oil, because you need a hand for the bowl, a hand for beating and a hand to do the dribbling. I suppose you could make mayo with a partner…
- Some baskets, boxes or similar large containers for bringing in the veggies from your garden and the fruits from your orchard.
- Cloth napkins – although I do use paper towels, mostly for something like wiping the grease out of the pan or the butter out of the dish before I wash it, cloth napkins and dish towels make better economic and environmental sense.
Things to Avoid in the Kitchen
- Aluminum pans and mixing bowls – acidic foods will react with the metal, which leaches into your foods. In addition to making the food taste like metal, aluminum has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Cast iron will also leach with high-acid foods, but it’s mostly a matter of time. Simmering something like spaghetti sauce for several hours is a problem; scrambling some chopped tomatoes into eggs is not.
- Non-stick pans – POFA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a chemical found in the non-stick coating. There’s research linking it to cancer in laboratory animals and problems such as reduced fertility in people. Depending on the expert you listen to, it’s either perfectly safe or potentially harmful. I’m always leery of experts who tell me something is perfectly safe, for a couple of reasons. First, the experts may have a vested interest in whatever they’re pontificating about. Their research is often funded by the company that makes the stuff, for example. Second, experts have been known to falsify their research (I can think of numerous examples) or suppress research that doesn’t fit the desired outcome. Just one example: the tobacco industry and the research on the harmful effects of cigarettes. Third, we’re being assaulted by all sorts of chemicals in our air, water and soil these days, while scientists test a single chemical in the confines of the lab. Your body – or those of the research animals – might be able to handle one substance in isolation that it can’t handle in combination with other assaults. Fourth, there’s a difference between an occasional exposure to something and a lifetime exposure. A single cigarette once a month might not do you any harm. Even half a pack a day, however, has a number of negative effects on your lungs and circulation. So, my conclusion is: stay away from non-stick pans.
- Plastics for most food storage, and definitely for serving or drinking – especially for fatty foods that are poured into the container hot or heated in the container. Plastics are apparently most prone to leaching in the presence of heat and fat. BPA, the best-known chemical of concern, has been found in high enough concentrations in human urine that what people – especially kids – are ingesting must also be significant, as we clear the stuff out of our bodies pretty quickly. High levels mean the body has so much to deal with, it can’t purify the system fast enough. Children, by the way, are more susceptible to chemicals because their brains and bodies are still developing and because they have a smaller body mass. A child’s dose of medication is always much less than an adult’s for that reason. So chemicals in the environment that won’t necessarily bother an adult will bother a child. Anyway, back to plastics. I will sometimes use Ziplock freezer bags for fruit and vegetables, which are frozen when I pack them and have no added fat. Although the Ziplock folks say the bags don’t have BPA, I’m still not comfortable with the idea that they’re made from plastic. I freeze the fruits and veggies in thin layers on big trays, and when they’re frozen solid, quickly pack them in the bags and get them right back in the freezer. I don’t defrost them in the bags, though. Since they’re individually frozen, it’s easy to pour out what I need and let them defrost in something made of glass or ceramic. I also freeze leftovers and casseroles in Pyrex dishes, then dump the frozen item out, wrap it in waxed paper or parchment paper and put it in a Ziplock bag. That way the plastic doesn’t touch the food. I’m gradually moving to freezing things in glass, however. I just have to build up my storage containers. I do use food-grade plastic buckets to store dry beans and grains. For eating, I prefer to use china or pottery plates, and for drinking, glasses or ceramic mugs. If we still had small kids around, I would stock up on some stainless steel cups and glasses – otherwise the breakage rate is rather remarkable…
- Microwaves – research on these is mixed, but there is some research that indicates microwaving changes the food, and not for the better. All cooking affects food; some methods such as high heat destroy nutrients, for example. Still, microwaves are relatively new on the cooking scene, having been invented in the 1950s and released to the general public in the 1980s. I am by no means a Luddite – I use computers, cell phones and similar items of high technology. But I’m not real comfortable about using microwaves for actual cooking. A brief heat to warm a flour tortilla is probably OK, or to heat water for a cup of tea. By and large, though, I prefer to use the stove or oven, even for reheating leftovers or cooking frozen dishes. If I need to defrost something, I take it out ahead of time.
- I can’t talk about cooking without mentioning one thing many people never consider – the quality of the water they use. Like the ancient Romans, who used lead piping to carry their water and may have caused cases of lead poisoning as a result, we don’t often think about what might be leaching into our water from the pipes that carry it. The Romans eventually got smart and started using ceramic pipes. Here on the ranch, we haul our drinking water from our main spring and store it in glass jars. If I lived in town (heaven forbid) and had no source of water other than tap water, I would use a top-notch filtering system on my drinking and cooking water. I would also leave it to sit overnight on the counter, uncovered, to allow the chlorine to dissipate. I wouldn’t buy bottled water, because of the plastic leaching and landfill issues.