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"I'm going to cook more this year," you told yourself over a thoughtful list of resolutions, penned (not typed!) in a handsome notebook, a cup of loose leaf oolong steeping beside you (because you're also going to "write more" and "escape the screens" and "drink tea instead of coffee," right?). It's still January—month of unlimited resolution do-overs, a re-set safe space, if you will—so it's okay if you "just haven't started yet." Or are totally unprepared, logistically, to start maximizing that fridge place they call kitchen.
To help you glide into the world of "I brought my own lunch" and "do you want to come over for dinner?" we've ID-ed the essential items you need to start cooking. Our list includes shopping tips and product suggestions to cut through the madness of 90-piece all-in-one starter kitchen sets (just... no), so you have everything you need and nothing you don't. Grocery shopping's on you, though.
Skip the 18 piece knife sets (who. honestly. needs. that. many. knives.) and think, instead, of knives as a wardrobe you'll build over time. Start with a basic bundle (a parer, a chef knife, a utility knife, maybe something serrated), which you can get for around $30, then upgrade piece by piece if the cooking kick sticks. Pick up a knife block with room to grow your collection (it's kind of like the closet for your new, sharp wardrobe).
You'll need something to cut on, after all. Like any long term union, what you're looking for in a cutting board is stability. OXO Grips makes good, non-porous plastic boards for $9—$25 depending on size, and Boos is reliable for heavy duty maple wood boards, $16—$55.
Measuring Cups & Spoons
Your great grandma may have been able to cook with a "pinch" of this and a "handful" of that, but you, beginner, are going to need to play by the (cooking) book and actually measure out proportions. Measuring cups and spoons aren't expensive (which is good, because they're a "more is more" item in the kitchen), and come in a lot of options to suit your style slash kitchen decor. A set of eight stainless steel cups and spoons goes for $7, or try a colorful plastic bundle for $10. A liquid measuring cup is another necessity, in a two- or three- cup size. This classic one is only $3.60.
A basic stainless steel set won't run you much (here's a five-piece for $24), and it's nice to have a batter bowl on hand, too, designed with a spout for pouring (pancakes, we see you). Joseph Joseph makes a great nine piece set for $50 that includes measuring spoons and cups, two mixing bowls, plus a sieve and a colander for draining, all nested colorfully together.
Tongs, a turner, and as many spatulas as you can fit, comfortably, in your kitchen are musts. There are a ton of sets on the market that have way too much (20 pieces and three are whisks? Pass.); we like this simple, sturdy three-piece set for $15, made of nylon and silicone that are heat resistant to 400 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.
Pots & Pans
Here's another area that often comes in enormous sets with weird extras you'll never use. For both pots and pans, what you're looking for is a small range of sizes (small, medium, large) and lids, so you can "reduce to simmer and cover" like a boss. For $143, this nonstick set of two pans and three pots (plus lids) is a good place to start. For cast iron, Lodge does a good job at easily digestible prices: a 10" skillet will cost you just $16.
The beauty of the casserole dish is that it goes from oven to table. That means it's worth buying one you kinda like looking at (and you will find uses for them far beyond casseroles, trust). For $40 you can get a Le Creust stoneware dish about the size of a piece of paper, which is great if you're scaling recipes down to two to four portions, and they come in a rainbow of pretty color choices.
Baking Sheets & Cooling Racks
For everything from baking cookies to heating up frozen sweet potato fries, you'll need a solid baking sheet. Like the cutting board, you want weight and stability here. The $15 half sheet from Nordic Ware is like the LBD/blue jeans/ankle boots of baking sheets. You don't want whatever you're baking to burn on the bottom when you take it out of the oven (that sheet is still conducting heat!), which is where a cooling rack (also $15) comes in. Ventilate, cookies, ventilate.
Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of leftovers that aren't takeout. Glasslock's 18 piece set ($32) is great because it offers a variety of sizes, is BPA free, leakproof, and safe for the oven, freezer, and dishwasher. All you have to do is not lose the lids.