Whisk ’Til Combined: 10 Kitchen Essentials for the Home Cook

Get what you need to be a kitchen goddess (or god, for all you dude readers). 

Text by Jamie Hausman

Illustrations by Grace Molteni

Trying to cook in a strange kitchen immediately throws me into a frustrated frenzy of banging cabinets and drawers. I’m not a neat freak, but I like to know that all of my necessities are exactly where they should be. For those of you who think you can’t afford the staples touted by Williams Sonoma or West Elm catalogues, have no fear. Here are 10 of my kitchen staples that are easy to source.

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1. Cookbooks

Cookbooks can be expensive, so I try to only buy ones I know I’ll cook from. That’s why I always keep Cook Yourself Sexy by Candice Kumai and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman on my kitchen counter. Just a few weeks ago, I unknowingly spilled water on my edition of Kumai’s cookbook and recklessly packed it away in a moving box only to discover it was ruined when I unpacked. I immediately ordered a second copy to be overnighted to my new apartment. That’s how much I use that book. Kumai is a model-turned-chef who touts eating well and savoring good meals. Perelman is a self-proclaimed fearless cook who avoids “excessively fussy foods and/or pretentious ingredients.” What I love about her recipes is the simplicity and ease with which she writes them, and the relentless tests she puts them through. I never become frustrated or confused with her recipes, and she always provides helpful notes on substitutions should you realize you left buttermilk off the shopping list.

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2. Potted Herbs

I no longer have the luxury of an outdoor patio or a backyard to garden in, so I put my green thumb to work indoors on small projects. I recently planted a store-bought basil plant that I impulsively bought for a recipe that hardly needed it in an impulsively bought Anthropologie planter. The planter doesn’t have a drainage hole, however, so I went to a nearby garden store for some orchid bark and high quality soil. I give my plant, which was once little and now reaches high above my windowsill, about a half-cup of water and plenty of sun every day. This way, I don’t go out and buy overpriced basil at the store, only to let it rot in my fridge. Now, I clip it as needed for recipes, use it in drinks and make basil ice cubes.

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3. Family Heirlooms

My grandmother taught me how to cook, so when she passed away in 2009, my mother gifted me several of her kitchen tools, including a red glass mixing bowl and mid-century brown nested measuring cups. My sister also recently sent me almost 30 of my grandmother’s recipe cards so I could begin recreating her recipes at home. Cooking has always been a family activity for me. Now that I live far away from my immediate family, I feel spiritually closer to them when I whisk eggs in my grandmother’s red mixing bowl or measure flour in the brown cups for her famous oatmeal cookies.

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4. Pots & Pans

I don’t believe in spending a lot of money on kitchen gadgets you’ll use once or twice, but I am a firm believer in splurging on high quality pots and pans. My smart boyfriend gave me a Le Creuset Dutch oven for Christmas last year, along with a Le Creuset tea kettle, teacups and sauté pan. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes when I roast a chicken in my Dutch oven versus the old Pyrex pan I used to use. Because I usually cook for two, I hardly need more than that one Dutch oven, the smaller Le Creuset saucepan his parents gifted me for my birthday and my sauté pan to satisfy all my cooking tasks. The best part: they last for decades. They are incredible heat conductors and easier to clean than any other pan I’ve come across. Plus, my teakettle keeps water perfectly hot for more than an hour after I’ve turned off the stove.

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5. Technology

I can’t slice a mango for the life of me. I always attempt to cut it like an avocado and end up stabbing the thing for its flesh at awkward and unproductive angles. Lucky for me, I have a Nutribullet and a small-batch food processor that take my awkward mango slices and blend them into the perfect marinade or smoothie to destroy the evidence of my incompetence. I use my food processor to chop herbs and cut time on all sorts of prep work.

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6. Chef’s Knife

I have a rather complicated relationship with my chef’s knife. A co-worker of mine donated some kitchen supplies to me after her wedding, and she gave me a very sharp knife set. I sliced my hand open on an avocado shortly after I began using those knives and have since learned to keep my fingers out of their way. The chef’s knife in the set is incredibly sharp and I use it to slice everything. If an entire set of knives is not in your budget, I recommending just buying one good chef’s knife. It slices any assortment of fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, wrappings, etc. One thing to remember: dishwashers dull knives and ruin their handles, so hand wash them for posterity.

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7. Spice Staples

Like one of my favorite blogs, I don’t believe in food without salt. A little goes a long way in that case, and I usually keep both coarse and fine salt on hand for cooking. On the other side of the flavor spectrum, I don’t enjoy the taste of black pepper. Lucky for me, there are plenty of options out there, so my go-to peppers are red pepper flakes and a lemon pepper grinder from Trader Joe’s. I typically cook with limes or lemons, so the lemon-based pepper complements just about everything. I usually also add a pinch of red pepper flakes to oil when I start cooking to pump heat into the flavors. Many recipes call for too many pinches of this and that, but I’m a firm believer in using what you have on hand and not buying an expensive jar of spices for one recipe.

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8. Sauce Staples

My dishes usually fall into two categories when I cook: Italian or Asian. It’s not on purpose, but I find myself falling into those cuisines the most, so I often start off with an olive oil base or sesame oil base. To offset the oil bases, I keep balsamic vinegar and rice vinegar, respectively, on hand from Trader Joe’s. These four things are all you need to bring out natural flavors in vegetables and meats when cooking, so don’t buy into the funky grapeseed oil or peanut oil, unless you prefer the taste and can handle the price tag.

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9. Simple Utensils

I mentioned this earlier, but I believe less is more in the kitchen, especially when it comes to utensils. A utensil drawer or canister can get out of hand quickly, so keep a good wire whisk, a wooden spoon and rubber spatula on hand. I also have a great pair of tongs that I use all the time, especially when cooking chicken because washing your hands every two seconds gets old quick.

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10. One Good Candle to Whisk It All Away

My boyfriend made fun of my candle collection when we moved, but I just love the way candles can transform a messy, cooked-in kitchen with one match. Light a candle after cleaning, walk away for 20 minutes and return to a completely reset space. Despite how much I love to cook, it can sometimes be a frustrating time for me. Whether I’m working out something that happened during the day or something in my future, I love that I can sweat it out in the kitchen, light a candle and just walk away. I usually peruse the candle selection at Anthropologie because they’ve got a great variety of brands and scents.

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Jamie Hausman is a Chicago native, Mizzou graduate and a resident of Atlanta, Ga. She adores her adopted home and spends her time writing, editing and pitching stories to local and national online publications, as well as exploring new neighborhoods and restaurants. Check her out on Twitter@jamiehausman.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram or at her personal website.