Equipping a Kitchen on the Cheap

by Elizabeth Skipper | May 22nd, 2013 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips

wall o skilletsIs it possible to have too many toys in the kitchen? Even I think so, although it’s tempting to accumulate more when it can be done so inexpensively. I’ve been adding to my kitchen collection for years now, and still find things I’d like to have. All I need is more room.

But let’s say you’re starting from scratch. If you look at cookware catalogs, or browse those departments at large stores or retailers, it seems a large outlay of cash is needed to outfit your kitchen with the finest catering equipment. Sometimes I think I’d like to start all over again just to see how cheaply I could do it, because it doesn’t have to cost the earth.

What do you really need? It depends on the kind of cooking you do and how many you’re cooking for, but certainly you can get started with a few basics. Decent knives (three – a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a serrated knife), a good size cutting board, one large and one small skillet, a range of saucepans (they don’t need to match), a Dutch oven, a roasting pan, a baking sheet, some baking dishes in different sizes, and some mixing bowls are a must. Wooden spoons, serving spoons, a spatula, whisk, ladle, granny fork, vegetable peeler, grater, timer, wet and dry measuring cups, measuring spoons, a sieve, and a strainer are essentials. One bible of a cookbook such as The Joy of Cooking, Fanny Farmer, or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything should be in every kitchen (you might want to look something up when the internet’s down.)

Not everything needs to be new. I have a spatula purchased new for $30.00 twenty years ago (that was lot, especially then), and it’s been a high quality purchase that’s lasted. It came with a “Forever Guarantee”, a warranty that if it ever breaks, the company will repair or replace it. I also have a spatula I bought used, probably for a dollar or so, that I actually prefer to the $30.00 one. It’s about fifty years old, the paint has all chipped off the wooden handle, and it’s not shiny. But the design suits my cooking style, and it’s my go-to spatula whether I’m flipping eggs, turning a delicate fish filet, or checking the sear on a burger. Which spatula was the better value for money?

A lot of new utensils are cheaply made; their older counterparts are actually better quality. My mom’s potato ricer made the best mashed potatoes, so I wanted one too. I bought a new stainless steel one, excited to have found this specialty utensil. The first time I used it, it bent into a hopeless mess that got tossed. A search of secondhand stores turned up one just like Mom’s, green chipped paint and all. It must be hand-washed and dried, but it’s sturdy as can be and is still going strong. $1.50 then, you can still find them in secondhand and antique stores for less than $10.00.

Browse secondhand stores, consignment stores, antique shops, estate and yard sales. Learn how to differentiate between things which may look a little funky but will clean up and those that won’t. A good quality cast iron skillet can be cleaned of rust and re-seasoned. On the other hand, rust will pit steel, and that can’t be removed; so pass on rusted baking sheets and pans. The proper cleaner and little elbow grease can remove questionable spots on items in otherwise good shape. A few grease spots will come off Corningware; crud baked onto scratched Corningware is another story, not worth your time and effort.

Freecycle, a nationwide organization of local groups, exists to maximize the usefulness of “stuff,” and keep it out of landfills. Offer things you no longer have a use for, and ask for items you need — it’s all free. I’ve given away Tupperware and wine racks I no longer needed, and acquired a nice large wooden cutting board. The cutting board smelled like it had been stored near highly perfumed dryer sheets, but a good airing cured that. Checking the site tonight, I see two cast iron fajita pans and a box of miscellaneous kitchen items (pie plates, casseroles, garlic press, cheese grater) being offered, and requests for a food strainer and re-cappable beer bottles.

Speaking of free, our transfer station & recycling center (aka the dump), has a “still good” shed. Pyrex custard cups, glassware, knives (mostly junk, but a 14″ serrated knife which cost $3.00 to sharpen was a heck of a deal), crock pots, food processors, bread machines, a Vitamix blender in excellent condition(!), platters, a pear corer, an asparagus peeler… everything, it seems, shows up there sooner or later. Now if I were looking for a pear corer, I’d probably be looking a long time, but we met up at the right time. The pots and pans are usually in tough shape, but one day there appeared a brand new 8″ Calphalon stainless steel frying pan. Guess whose kitchen it graces now?

For better selection and to buy what you need without waiting, you still needn’t pay retail. Stores like Marshall’s, Home Goods, and TJ Maxx carry kitchen wares at marked down prices. Who cares if it’s last year’s model? If you’d bought it last year, it wouldn’t be the most recent model anyway. Le Creuset has its own stores where you can buy first quality or seconds at excellent prices. Half the time you can’t find the flaws in a pan they consider a second, and it will at some point acquire a flaw in use, anyway. Don’t pay full price.

Enjoy having an eclectic mix of pots, pans, and tools in your kitchen. Mine have come from all over, and some of my favorites cost very little or nothing. Have fun collecting – saving money only adds to the enjoyment. Some of your favorite kitchen tools can be real bargains.

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