I spend a fair bit of time talking to people who are either setting up their first kitchens or trying to break into homemade cooking after years of unfamiliarity or outright avoidance. It’s not unusual that I find them hesitating to get started because they don’t yet have a stand mixer, or they haven’t managed to collect a full set of knives or pans, or their stoves are small, or…they otherwise just generally don’t feel equipped.
If you’re nodding along with those sentiments as you’re reading, know this: unless you’re in a really serious kitchen situation where you don’t have a stove at all, or it doesn’t work (which I know happens!), you’re probably more ready than you realize.
I admit I’ve gotten myself into the same kind of rut, where all the things I thought I wanted to try seemed to require more equipment, space, or time than I had available. Add to that the fact that some popular recipe writers have a habit of assuming everyone has access to particular equipment and not providing alternative instructions, and it can be a real barrier. That said, with years of experience in the kitchen behind me, I know that there are relatively few recipes that you just can’t follow because you don’t have the right stuff. I don’t mean they’ll never turn up; they will, now and then. You’ll need a pot size you just don’t have and can’t figure out how to reduce, or you’ll need a particular shape of baking pan that’s just a fundamental for the chemical processes that need to happen, or you’ll stumble onto a recipe that requires a pot safe for both the stovetop and the oven. Overall, though, those things are really pretty rare in everyday meals.
One of my most used kitchen tricks, especially when I’m trying something new, is to try to think like a pioneer. It’s a little cheesy, I know, but given the fact that most of the recipes I use are designed to be home cook-friendly, usually with traditional roots, it’s often a good tactic. I pause, take a breath, and think to myself, how might this have been done in a time where most kitchens had one knife, one pot, and one skillet that doubled as a baking pan? What do I have that I could use instead of a dedicated tool for this purpose?
It’s a little bit simplistic (and, I recognize, not entirely historically accurate), but as a thought exercise to unblock myself, it usually does the trick. It’s said, “well, if we line this Pyrex dish with foil or parchment, it’ll probably be alright.” It’s worked around first not having any electric mixer at all and then only having a single-speed hand mixer (and often remind friends that I recommend hand-mixing every recipe at least once, as it gives you more control and a better feel for what’s happening). A similar tactic has helped me learn to work with flavor categories to find substitutes when I didn’t have the exact spice called for in a recipe.
All this is to say that you don’t need a lot of things to get your kitchen going. A few mixing bowls of various sizes are probably a must, and one sharp (and sharpenable) chef’s knife can manage a lot, but you can get by and manage a fair number of dishes with a pot, a skillet, and a half-sheet pan for a really long time. Your whisk will be a fork and you’ll cram a lot of things into cereal bowls, and if you’re like my mother, you’ll spend so many years doing all your vegetable prep with a cheap steak knife that it’ll take years of prodding from your family before you try better knives because you just know how those steak knives work, and in the end you’ll probably be just fine with the basics until you decide you really want to try something that requires something extra.
If you’ve got a little bit of purchasing power but want to experiment with tools to decide where you want to dedicate limited space and budget, think creatively. Borrow from parents, friends, neighbours, or The Kitchen Library. Attend workshops to learn new techniques—sometimes, you don’t need a new tool as much as a new skill, and in addition to The Kitchen Library’s own workshops, cooking and food workshops are hosted in all kinds of places, from Toronto Public Library, to community food centres like The Stop, to wellness centres and nutritionists’ offices. Experiment with flavours (I often recommend Karen Page’s The Flavor Bible as a great way to get started on more free-form cooking), techniques, and cuisines. Get to know yourself, your tastes, and your kitchen. Your cooking will be better for it!