Letter: Setting up your First Kitchen Recipe

101 Cookbooks readers weigh in on how to outfit and set up a first kitchen.

Letter: Setting up your First Kitchen

A couple months back I posted A Letter from an Unwilling Cook, a 60 year-old English man who was trying to find inspiration and motivation in the kitchen. I posted the letter with the hope that you (my readers) would have insight and advice to share beyond what I might tell him. The response was unbelievable - 220 comments!

I received another letter this week. This one is from Olivia, a student ready to embark on her first summer in an apartment on her own:

Hi Heidi,
I'm a college student on a meal plan, and seeing your updates gives me hope in food after another greasy cardboard-flavored meal at the dining hall. Anyways, this summer is the first of several where I'll be working an internship and have my own apartment. The whole situation is simultaneously exhilarating and daunting, especially in terms of figuring out the whole living on my own thing. Part of that is, naturally, food.

I've cooked at home plenty of times, and a few times at school after interrogating everyone I know in search of a pot or baking pan. I can make basic meals on my own and follow recipes easily, but I'm not sure about buying food--I've always worked from an already-stocked kitchen, or else just bought the ingredients for a single meal. Where do I start? What basic staples would you suggest? Thanks for any advice you've got!


I thought I would open up the discussion to all of you.
I suspect many of you have recently been in her shoes, or maybe you have kids in college that are striking out on their own for the first time. What advice, suggestions, nuggets of knowledge do you have for Olivia? I suspect general guidance, basic equipment or pantry suggestions, personal stories, names of books and the like will all be much appreciated.

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Most of the "tips" have been sufficiently covered in the previous comments. I agree that your pantry/fridge should be "stocked" with the foods, ingredients you most like to eat. However, as a relative newcomer to the joys of cooking, I cannot say enough about subscribing to a monthly food magazine (Eating Well is a current personal favorite) and exploring the recipes contained therein. Since each issue is usually devoted to a particular theme, or ingredient, grocery shopping is a breeze and you will learn many different preparations (or, develop your own improvisations) of a single, seasonal, fresh ingredient. Another very good resource for every kitchen is A New Way to Cook. I highly recommend it for the detailed explanations of technique, descriptions of ingredients and inspiration of "improvisational" cooking. The bottom line is, have fun with it!


I agree with the "LEMONS!" comment! Three uses from a lemon: zest, juice, air freshener (in a pot simmering with some water and cinnamon). Even if you're going to be moving back into a dormitory in the Fall, I'd still recommend investing in two good pans and two good knives: one 10-inch, heavy nonstick and one stockpot; one 10-inch chef's knife or santoku and one paring knife. I do 90% of my cooking for one with these four utensils. I also second Kate's comment about buying spices in bulk. I've been able to experiment in ways I never could have if I had to pay supermarket prices for things like garam masala. I ended up making a frustrating number of trips to the supermarket in the first month I lived in my own place, but the result is that I can make almost anything. I love Mexican, Chinese, and Indian food, so I have chipotle peppers, hoisin and chilli sauce, 3 kinds of curry powder, and garlic, onion, and ginger on hand all the time. Brown rice, believe it or not, freezes really well, so I always have cooked brown rice. Canned beans, tomatoes, salsa, and soup are always in my pantry. Dried lentils, wild rice, couscous, etc., are good to mix it up. Pasta, of course. Jarred sundried tomatoes and spaghetti sauce. Frozen spinach (good in EVERYTHING -- eggs, pasta dishes, basically any Italian food, etc.)


I'm going to suggest a few staples and easy recipes I, also a college student, make over and over again. But first... get yourself a decent pot for boiling water to make soups, grains, etc. and a cast iron skillet, you can cook anything in a cast iron! William Sonoma was selling nice ones for $25! I suggest keeping grains like quinoa, rice, cous cous, etc. in your cupboard, it's so good for you and filling, see Heidi's post "big delicious quinoa bowl". There is a whole bunch of variations you can use. The great part about Heidi's recipe is that you can eat it warm or toss with chopped romain the next day and eat it like a salad at room temperature (I suggest keeping romaine in your fridge, it lasts longer than other more delicate lettuces, just keep in dry). I also always have a box of organic vegetable or chicken broth (low sodium) in my cabinet. I will never use water again to make grains.. it adds such great flavor. I also keep no salt added canned white tuna or canned red salmon (whole foods) to make quick fish cakes. Use one can drained, a handful of chopped scallions, a few pinches of salt and cheyenne pepper, a handful of panko crumbs, and one egg to bind. Roll the formed fish cakes in panko and pan fry until golden. I serve these with a quick homemade greek yogurt sauce over some greens. It's dinner or lunch in less than 15 minutes. Seriously. I'd say for the frozen food, always keep some frozen veggies like peas and spinach and a good brand of packaged organic cheese tortellini or ravioli in your freezer. You can make a quick cook tortellini soup. Heat one box of your broth, cook the tortelli to package directions once the broth boils, in the last minute of cooking add a handful of frozen peas and some chopped spinach (fresh or frozen). Good luck!


Ok, basic staple ingrdients. Spices; kosher salt, pepper mill, red chile flakes, cumin, soy sauce Fats; Canola oil, Virgin olive oil, butter Acids; Balsamic, rice wine vinegar, lemons Canned items; Tomato paste, whole tomatoes, white beans Produce; Garlic, Ginger, Parsley, Cilantro, Mix greens, onions, carrots, celery, white mushrooms Protein; Bacon, Frozen chicken breast, frozen shrimp. Grains; Pasta, rice. Thats it, you are ready for blast off, this list is a good basis for many different types of cuisine!


For the instruments, I think it strongly depends on two things: * how much do you want to get involved and * how much can you spend? If you just want meals to appear in proper time and you can afford to some modern stuff, there are lot of devices that are a must, rice cookers, toasters, waffle grills and so forth. If you want to come to the gourmet side, then forget about the microwave oven, the waffle grill and all that. Get yourself a fry pan, a deep pan (both with a lid), a jar, a couple of wooden spoons, and egg scrambler a nice mid-sized oven tray, a measure cup, a couple of bowls to mix things. You can get more as you need them, but no need to rush, or you'll end up with many things you'll never use. As for ingredients, the same choices apply. There is a lot of ready made food, but what I find more necessary as basic stuff in kitchen is flour, rice, potatos, TSP (because I'm vegetarian, change it for meat if you want) Soy sayce, sugar, eggs, milk, oregano, pepper, salt, cinnamon, olive oil, other oils, vineggar, some random vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, carrot, peas....) That's the very essencial set. With TSP, soy sauce, vinnegar and spices you can do a lot of things. With flour, milk/water, sal, eventually eggs and oil and a couple of variatiing things you can do from waffles and pancakes to exquisite breads, cakes and pies. With some random vegetables of your choice you can do pie filling. You can also use spiced TSP or some kinds of meat or cheese. You can also use the vegetables for risottos and alike. Beans, Garbanzos and the like can be useful for pates, as well as just eating them cooked with salt and water. Just some thoughs out of the blue, but I think this would be a good parameter for starting a kitchen.

Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote a great article about setting up a kitchen without breaking the bank.I believe it was called "a no-frills kitchen still cooks" Now, that doesn't help so much with what ingredients make a good pantry, a whole other ball game. As others have said, check cookbooks for pantry lists. Focus on your "every-day" needs before the obscure 'once in a while" items.


One absolute staple that I forgot to mention: LEMONS. You'll be amazed how a bit of juice or zest will brighten up meats, vegetables, and desserts. It's particularly refreshing in summertime, so buy a bag and keep it in your fridge. I bet it'll be gone in no time.

Un-Swiss Miss

Great recommendations already posted - I would add to begin stocking your pantry. Take a look at the back of good cookbooks like Joy of Cooking, or one of the books by Sally Schneider - they often have recommended pantry items (and maybe even equipment recommendations too) to always have on hand, which can be made into a number of great dishes. Some lists I've seen also recommend refrigerator and freezer basics like puff pastry, potatoes, frozen peas, etc. The authors of Real Simple also have a specific food magazine that recommends basic pantry and freezer items to have on hand. Good luck! Sounds like you're off onto a great new adventure!


There are a lot of great recommendations here- I have only two to add. Purchase an expandable steamer insert for your pots (you can find the metal flower-shaped ones at most grocery stores for around $5) and a Salad-Spinner (or a large tupperware container). With these 2 items you can prep a week's worth of lettuce and lightly steamed veggies a have them ready to go for salads and such during the week.

Dirty Catholic

Just finishing up my kitchen needs and cooking for 1-2 people I have found that for food items I buy frozen veggies in a bag because they're cheap and I can get as much as I need at a time. I also keep a container of flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda & powder for baking things when the weather is chilly (I warms the house and makes it smell good, plus I bring leftovers to my neighbors house and make friends that way). Spices are also a must. I also keep a jar of spaghetti sauce that can be reclosed for future use. My biggest comment would to buy items that are an appropriate size for your needs. Buying too big may seem to save money, but the food may go bad before you can use it all. For cooking utensils I suggest a small slow cooker, a good frying pan, and a nice pot. Make sure to get about a medium size if you cook for others as well as yourself once in a while. A good set of knifes and flatware so you won't have to worry about rusting. Good luck with your new living environment, and wish you happy cooking!


hey! i went through this when i moved to nyc. a book that really helped me was this one: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?z=y&EAN=9780743250542&itm=4 it gives you a great pantry list and basic recpies which you can make your own. a lot of good advice has already been dispnsed, but here is a bit more. if you are near a grocery store buy produce on a need only basis - it can go bad pretty quickly. also planning your meals on the weekend, shopping and doing all the prechopping and marinading you can on sunday is VERY helpful. you have a game plan and don't need to think too much when you get home fromwork:) good luck!


The way I read your question, you're asking about food rather than hardware - and in any case, if you're going back to school in a few months, you probably won't want to lug around heavy pots and pans and ding up the nice knives you've just been advised about. While I agree planning ahead can be a good idea for saving time and money, I actually prefer to market as often as possible, buy the produce that looks the best, and plan my meals around that. Then I fill in whatever else is needed from the supermarket. Of course, this requires a certain willingness to take risk cooking. (Or willingness to spend an inordinate amount of time online researching ingredients!) I also like to cook a full-sized recipe, and have the leftovers later that week for lunch/dinner, or freeze them for even later consumption. The strategy helps when you're cooking for 1... Some basic staples that are universally handy, no matter what cuisine you prefer: flour, sugar, salt, pepper (get a grinder if you can), a few cartons of broth (chicken or vegetable), rice, vegetable oil, vinegar, and spices. If you can also get an olive oil, great, but if you're on a budget and/or hate waste, you can get away with only one neutral-tasting oil. I personally love mustard and garlic, so I always keep that stuff around. For spices, the earlier advice is very good. One thing I'd definitely add: avoid pre-prepared mixes, such as "Italian Seasoning." It's far better to blend yourself. Don't be afraid to invest in several types of spices, because at the end of the summer, you can dump whatever's left into labelled Ziploc bags. That way, they're very light to transport, and they'll keep for a while. One more thing: whenever I move to a new place, the first thing I do is find the local farmer's markets (Haymarket in Boston, Union Square in New York, etc) and the ethnic markets (Jackson Heights in Queens, for example). Because they have such high turnover, the ethnic markets seem to have the best, freshest, and cheapest fruits and vegetables. And locally grown produce always tastes better. Have a great summer, and happy cooking!

Un-Swiss Miss

I'm a student too - and one of my best kitchen purchases was an IKEA kitchen starter box. It's insanely useful and well-designed; the two nicely sized pots can fit together as a double boiler, the tupperware is good quality and the mixing bowls can also be used for big salads etc.; it even comes with a garlic press! From there you can buy the extra items you want (muffin tins and the like). I love to cook but when it gets around paper time I like to make the same healthy meals over and over again - the vegetarian chile at domesticgoddess.ca is amazing, and the rice and asparagus number Heidi posted a little while ago also fit into the cheap/healthy category. Good luck!


I set my daughter up with just a few things: a vacuum, a shmatta (rag) and a can of Comet because if ur kitchen is dirty u will not want to eat anything in it...a microwave because in a clean kitchen and livingroom even a Stouffer's microwaved tastes good!


I think a lot of it depends on what you grew up with. My family is Asian, so my kitchen revolves a lot around that. I've moved a lot in my two years since college and I've found that you don't need a big stack of pots and pans and staples. A few things are neccesary though: a non-stick pan( I like cast iron) a saute pan a pot to boil pasta in a rice-cooker or crock pot (You don't need the following, but I like them: a enameled cast iron dutch oven[mine is from target and rated very well], a wok, a george forman grill) I also lived for years off of one wooden spatula, a whisk, a chef's knife and paring knife and a slotted spoon. Tongs are handy I've found, as is a microplane for grating. I also adore my mandolin. What food to put in your kitchen is tricky besides the flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, etc. I always have mushrooms, onions and bell peppers in the freezer (I tend to cut thee up myself and put them in freezer bags) chick peas, coconut milk, pasta of varying sorts, soy sauce, fish sauce, a jar of crushed garlic, a general spice mix (I use 21 spice salute from TJs, red pepper flakes and olive oil. I bet you can probably forgo a lot of things and make do for now, and as your culinary skills and budget grow, you can add things to your liking. I know some people that would die without the highest quality olives in the fridge, but I dont use them. I must have nice dried mushrooms, but others might now. Start cooking, and don't be afraid to screw up. I learned a lot from friends of varying cultures.


This is an excellent resource for all ages and will definitely help this college student and the 60-year old English man. Visit Rouxbe at http://www.rouxbe.com/ for delicious, healthy, homemade recipes with step-by-step video instruction. Cheers!


How many months will you be in your own apartment? And can you store your stuff when you move back to the dorms? I would say buy equipment as inexpensively as you can. Dollar store wooden spoons and measuring cups...they'll be fine. Pans: yard sales, thrift shops, big box store, or even TJMaxx or Marshalls/Homegoods. My cast iron skillet is from Target and it was $10. It's a good one too...not enamelled, just plain old cast iron. I used it for eggs, burgers, grilled cheese. Once you have it seasoned, you're good to go. Knives: get something decent, but don't spend your rent money on them. You can trade up when you're older and settled. Pantry: don't go crazy at first. For the first week or so, you need basics, milk, bread, cheese, veggies (fresh or frozen), olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, canned beans, some kinda grain (rice, quinoa, barley), pasta, sauce, meat/protein, yogurt, cereal, sugar, coffee, tea. Then go from there...what did you wish you could make last week? And don't be afraid to try making something new or unusual; you never know what you're going to like! When I was a kid, my mother used to let my sister and I pick out one unusual (read: weird) veggie or fruit every grocery trip to try. Some were hits (carambola) and some not (breadfruit)...but we wouldn't have known if we hadn't tried. Oh and check out the craigslist and the freecycle lists in your area for free/inexpensive stuff. You might get really lucky, and if it's free stuff, you don't have to love it.


I agree with just about every piece of advice that has already been given so some of my suggestions will definitely be repeats, but here goes after I beg you to carefully consider the use of non-stick cookware. If you choose to use it, follow the instructions about proper use, especially in regards to heat levels and what kinds of utensils to use. Buy one from a reputable vendor, not a cheapo one. People cooked extremely wonderful food for a very long time without non-stick cookware and it can still be done ("hot pan, cold oil, food won't stick."). That said, it sure makes things a lot easier, just get a good one. What kind of budget you are on will definitely influence how much you can spend on things like cookware, knives, and gadgets. There are some decent lines out there that are not name brands and don't cost as much, such as Lodge (for cast iron) or even going to Macy's or IKEA for their in-house brands. I have collected many different pieces of brand name cookware over the years, but darn-it-all, I still occasionally use most of the pieces I got in that Revereware copper-bottom 10 pc set that I bought at a warehouse sale 25+ years ago. They boil water, eggs and pasta just fine and I can still use the double boiler to melt chocolate, so if budget is a concern, don't let the brand name prices intimidate you. Good knives are even more important and a Chef's knife and paring knife are the most essential. More importantly though is keeping them sharp. Invest in a sharpener and learn how to use it properly. It doesn't matter how expensive it was originally, it won't cut nuthin’ if it's dull. Several cutting boards in both wood and polyurethane for food safety reasons, tongs, and a couple of good quality whisks are helpful too. I couldn't agree more that planning your week’s menu will be really helpful. You will know how much and what to buy and cut down on waste. It will also allow you to incorporate leftovers in later meals (grilled chicken from dinner tastes great on a salad the next day). And you can pick up staples as you need them, thereby cutting down on the up front expense. If you are able, buy your spices and staples from a bulk source. No, I don't mean buy a lot, quite the opposite. Especially if you are single or only cooking for a small number of people, buying only what you will need for the next few weeks or months (depending on the item) will ensure that your food is fresh. Spices, oils and flour, etc. do have a shelf life and there is nothing more disappointing or embarrassing than being ready to cook and finding that one of your ingredients has gone bad. The ability to buy bulk will depend on the stores available to you, but you can buy small quantities of spices online. I find I go to my Fanny Farmer cookbook for a lot of basic stuff, and Heidi's cookbook is a must of course! Good luck, have fun and bon appetit!


Hi, Olivia! I'm not long out of that either -- in fact, I only moved into my first flat by myself last year! In terms of pots and pans, my answer depends on whether or not you're going back into dorms/shared housing in the fall. If you are, buy cheapy pots that you don't mind getting wrecked, lost, stolen, or otherwise abused by drunkards or ignoramuses. If you're going to be living reasonably on your own from here out (or, say, with a couple of other foody-minded friends), then buy all means throw out a bit more money for something nice. I heartily agree: buy a rice cooker or crockpot. Or even both! It's so nice not to have to fiddle with rice, especially if you like it and will eat it a lot. In terms of food, think about what you like to eat, and go with that. I personally found that eating essentially vegetarian was cheaper and less hassle than eating a lot of meat. It's difficult to buy meat for 1, for instance, and if you don't have a freezer, like me for years, also difficult to store extras. Soup was my friend, either made with whatever fresh/frozen/canned veggies I had around sauteed with olive oil, seasoned, and set swimming in veggie bouillon and tomato paste (done right, this tastes *just like* Campbell's alphabet soup, which I can't get here in the UK!) or squash/sweet potato/whatever cooked and pureed with veggie stock. A stick blender is enormously helpful here. Soup is also helpful to feed a crowd: the best year I spent in grad school, my housemates and I used to gather in the kitchen and just share our food, and my veggie soup featured highly! I also base many, if not most, of my everyday dishes on canned tomatoes. In fact, my staple dish is this: Finely chop one small onion, then saute in (olive) oil until golden. Add one can of tomatoes, one drained and rinsed can of kidney beans, a squeeze of tomato puree, a dash of chili powder to taste, a pinch of sugar, and a pinch of salt. If you have other spices (cumin, coriander, cinnamon) or a splash of balsamic vinegar, they also go well. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, and serve over rice. Couscous is wonderful: all you need is a bowl and a measuring cup, and boiling liquid (water, stock, etc). Put a measure of couscous in the bowl, add an equal measure of boiling liquid, let stand 5 minutes! Wonderful base for all sorts of stuff. Oh, yes. In the middle of last year, I discovered the deli down the street did veggie box deliveries. Saved me hassle getting them back from the store, were nicer and fresher, and didn't cost much more than store veggies! My "don't leave home without them" list would include: 1 small pot (for milk, soup, reheating, etc) 1 large pot (pasta, etc, or just lots) 1 small saute pan (omelets, crepes, etc) 1 wok, if you like Asian food (may replace large pot) Lids for the pots and pans if you possibly can 1 can opener 1 vegetable peeler 1 paring knife 1 chef's knife 1 colander 1 sieve a set of measuring cups and spoons 2 wooden spoons (1 sweet, 1 savory!) 1 large and 1 small mixing bowl 1 spatula 1 rubber mixing spatula 1 cookie sheet 1 loaf tin at least 1 chopping board And, because I'm living in the UK: 1 electric kettle (SO handy!) tea (and strainer if it's leaf) sugar (I don't have it in tea, but friends do!) 2 mugs (1 for you, 1 for a friend) :)


Make sure you buy pots with handles and lids that can go in the oven. Many inexpensive sets don't have oven-proof handles and lids. Other commenters have made good recommendations on the size - don't buy pots so big you can't handle them yourself and avoid whole sets. Start with a pot for boiling and a pot for frying. Or just one for both, about 10-12 inches in diameter. (You can fry or boil in a high-sided pot, by the way. Keeps the stove surface clean.)


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