Knives are important. They are your culinary pencil (or QWERTY, as may be the better analogy). There are chefs who spend $1,000 on a single knife, and spend years hunting down the right one. But you don't have to do that. In fact: don't do that. You won't really notice the difference, except if you cut your finger and, instead of looking for a band aid, go looking for your severed digit.
That said, don't get a horrible knife. Odds are you'll get frustrated and not use it, if you do it's much more likely you'll cut yourself, and you won't be able to cut food properly.
So given all this, how is a normal person supposed to buy a good knife set? For those of you (okay, us) with a miserly old man in the back of your heads screaming "buy?! wasn't the whole point of this mess to spend less money..." you don't have to worry, or go to a single overpriced culinary supply store. Mostly because they aren't for people who want kitchen supplies to cook with. If the sheer number of designer aprons you'd never want to spill on and scented hand soaps didn't tip you off, I will: those stores are for rich people who want designer looking kitchens. Happily, this means that the most expensive stuff there isn't the best, and you aren't being deprived because you're on a budget. Most cooks make $8-12/hr and buy their own knives, you can get perfectly functional stuff without breaking the bank.
What Knives do you need?
You'll be fine with 3 basic knives
- A big (chef's) knife. 6-12 inches long, its just a large blade with a handle, you know the type. It's a basic utility that can be used for almost all cutting/chopping.
- A small (pairing) knife. 2-4 inches long, it is a smaller version of the chefs knife above. It does basically the same stuff, but on smaller foods. Because you maybe don't need a sword to cut everything. If you have recently starred in a Lord of the Rings Movie, feel free to ignore this.
- A large jagged (serrated) knife. 7-12 inches, with a blade that looks like shark's teeth. This is what you'll use for slicing (its like sawing), cutting bread, and anything else where chefs knife would smush instead of cut.
Shockingly, you can get knives the same place you get everything else-- Amazon. Just know what to look for. If you're on a budget there's no reason you can't get all these knives for good quality and comfortably under $50. Searching for "khun rikon knives" and "dexter basics knives" will get you to all 3
- Khun Rikon are Swiss made knives, incredibly affordable, and all the knives are colorful and come with sheaths. I especially recommend the pairing knife, which you can get smooth or serrated depending on your preference. If you've cooked so little you don't have a preference, it doesn't matter which you get-- you wont know the difference.
- Dexter knives are often what broke cooks use. You can get them with a softgrip handle if you prefer. The chefs knife and basic bread knife are remarkably durable (though you will take good care of yours, because every time you abuse a knife a fairy somewhere drops down dead).
- If you have an anonymous benefactor/sugar daddy/parent endorsing your desire to plunge into self-sufficiency (or just want you to stop sponging off them) Wusthof Classic and Wusthof Gourmet are professional quality German knives. The large ones should be under $60 each, and there's really no reason to pay over $12 for a good pairing knife.
Be good to your knives. Just remember, they could jump out of the drawer and stab you in your sleep every night, and never do-- reciprocate the kindness and try not to kill them. This is pretty simple: a knife blade is basically a very long V-shaped piece of metal. You want it to stay that way, rather than becoming U-shaped. Much like the wood pencils of the olden days, every time the sharp part makes contact with a surface, it gets a little duller. The goal is to minimize this by having it contact as few surfaces as possible, especially not ones that are tougher than it.
- Get a cutting board (anything but glass) and use it every time you cut. If you cut on a plate, in the pan, or (my soul dies a little for even suggesting it) directly on the counter top, your knife will lose the fight to the hard surface, and get less sharp. Every time the tip touches something it gets less pointy, or breaks off entirely. You just spent $17 on that, don't destroy it.
- Keep them somewhere safe. By this I mean in a drawer or a knife block. And you are cheap, so why buy a knife block when chances are your kitchen already has a drawer. For bonus points put a towel in it so the blade has a nice soft bed that won't damage it
- CLEAN THEM AND PUT THEM AWAY WHEN YOU'RE DONE. RIGHT AWAY. IT TAKES TWO SECONDS. YOU SPENT LONGER READING THIS THAN IT WILL TAKE. Really. Run a soapy sponge over them, rinse them off, and put them back in the drawer. Knives will not survive in an empty sink, much less one full of the dishes I know you are neglecting to wash. Putting them in the dishwasher is about as good for your knives as it is for your cat to go in the washing machine.
All Other Hardware
So, my love affair with knives aside, there are a few other things you're going to need. Again, don't go to specialty stores for these things, you can get cheaper and better elsewhere. That said, with one exception, I will advise you to ignore better and get the cheapest possible of all of these things. Go online, or to Target/K-Mart/Bed Bath and Beyond (with a coupon). Most of this stuff, especially things like plates, you can get at the dollar store. See how much you can buy using nothing but coins. Look for a sale, or buy a cheap pack with a bunch and split it with your equally broke friends who can't afford restaurant life either. The point of cooking is to save money, and the point of this blog is simple, easy, cheap, and quick-- if it requires fancy expensive cookware you're not gonna see it here.
Some wisdom on dishes-- if you're getting a bunch, get dishwasher safe. Because, with any luck, one day you'll have a dishwasher, and if you are going to outfit yourself fully (i.e. if someone else with a credit card is there) you may as well do it right.
No matter what, get microwave safe. Do I really have to tell you the joys of nuking leftovers for instant food? Do you want to eat melted pieces of plate? I didn't think so.
Quantity: so one of each will be enough, but it may be worth getting a few more. If you are awful at remembering to do dishes, only having one forces you to wash it every time you want to eat. But it also makes it more likely you'll find an excuse not to eat in if it means more work. Decide what strikes the balance for you. Also consider that you may want to show off your new cooking skills for your friends, and they'd probably enjoy each having their own fork when they come over. As a basic guide, if you plan on having people over often, get 1.5 to 2 times as many of each item as you plan to have people (some will be dirty, you'll need serving dishes, etc.) If you don't plan on entertaining often you can get 2-4, then use paper/plastic if you need a bunch once or twice.
- cutting board because you may not use your knives on any other surface. Ever. Wood and plastic are both fine, glass is not (I don't even know why they make glass cutting boards...) and both have advantages and disadvantages you don't care about that I won't bore you with. Get whichever is cheaper.
- Mixing bowl usually these come stacked in a bunch of sizes like Russian dolls. If that's an option, and within your budget, having a big and a small can be nice. If not, just get the big one, you can still use it to mix small things. Or, if you are a small thing, you can use it as a boat in case of flood.
- Baking pan there's a lot that'll work here. The easiest is a big (appx 9x11) rectangular pan made of glass, metal, or ceramic. If you already have a round pan it will work too, don't break the bank. Once you've gotten the hang of cooking, and saved some dollars, you can decide if you want the upgrade. As long as your pan is at least 2 inches deep, and you're not obsessed with your food having right angles, it doesn't much matter what you get.
- Rubber spatula, plastic spatula, slotted spoon All of these should be cheap. Very cheap. And they should all be made of rubber or plastic, that way they won't damage the nonstick lining of your pans.
- Strainer you want something that stands alone in the sink, so you can pour the pot of pasta and water into it without splashing yourself.
- Pasta pot this pot can be used for a lot of things, 90% of the time you'll use it for pasta though, so make sure its big enough that you can put spaghetti in there (diagonally is fine) and has a lid so you can boil water quickly
- Frying pan this is the one time I will advise you spend a little extra for quality, and get a non-stick pan. It's not hard to find, look for one that says non-stick. Still shouldn't cost you too much. If you can only get one size, I'd advise 10inch. They usually come in 3-packs for about $12. If you can find one with a metal handle that's better, because it can go in the oven without melting.
- You may also want to invest in some tupperware for leftovers, or have enough dishes that you can leave food in them, and cover with plastic wrap or foil