SEATTLE -- If you're like me, you're still hanging on to a hodgepodge of cheap kitchen stuff from your college days.
A knife block with missing knives? Check.
A scratched-up frying pan from Kmart? Check.
A dull chef's knife of unknown provenance? Check.
A cheap thin-bottomed stockpot from a yard sale? Yup, that's me.
But before you go whole hog and plunk down hundreds of dollars for an expensive 12-piece set of pots, pans and every single size knife you've ever dreamed of, stop! You are not Mario Batali, and thus don't need all these tools. What you do need is a decent collection of just the right kitchen gadgets.
Once you go cast-iron, you never go back.
A few years ago, I bought myself a three-piece cast-iron set from Kmart. After years of getting the pans good and seasoned, I stupidly gave them away when I moved cross-country. Cast-iron pans might seem weird if you've only used nonstick, but they are magic. You can start cooking a dish on the stove, and then pop it into the oven to bake or broil, thus saving you clean-up time.
And cast-iron pans are one of the only items in your kitchen that will get better the more you use it, as flavors from your foods soak into the iron.
And yes, you actually get iron injected into your food from the pan--weird but cool.
Check out the Basic Essentials Three-Piece Cast-Iron Fry Pan Set ($19.99) from Kmart.
What's up, homeskillet?
When picking out your skillet, fry pan and stockpot, you have to consider some things. Are you cooking for just a couple people, or are you cooking for a large family? That will help you zero in on what size pans to buy.
Do you want a nonstick pan or a metal one? Copper is considered great for more delicate items and cools off the fastest, but it can be quite expensive; aluminum or stainless steel can be the most versatile; and nonstick is the most practical (though many are wary of the chemicals in Teflon nonstick pans--and they aren't great for high heat.).
The 8-inch Swiss Diamond Fry Pan ($49.99) from Amazon isn't the cheapest of the cheap, but this heavy-duty aluminum pan can handle higher heats and has a virtually indestructible nonstick surface. It can also be placed directly in the oven. If you'll be doing a large amount of cooking with this type of pan, the price tag is more agreeable.
As for a stockpot, the most important thing to remember is that it must be heavy-bottomed. It doesn't matter whether you have a smaller size (8-quart) or a larger size (20-quart) pot.
If its bottom is thin, your sauces and soups are gonna burn. Look for three-ply bottoms, which are composed of aluminum sandwiched between stainless steel.
Many tout the Tramontina brand as a good lower-cost alternative to the more expensive All-Clad brand.
The Tramontina 12-Quart Tri-Ply Clad Stainless Steel Stockpot is just $79.97 at Walmart and gets rave customer reviews, while the All-Clad version is $364.95 at Amazon. Big difference!
Don't forget the knife
That dull knife has to go away. You need a good chef's knife.
For most cooks, it's a 6- or 8-inch knife that can handle the bulk of chopping, slicing and dicing duties.
You don't want the handle to be too heavy, and it needs to fit in your hand just right. Good Housekeeping tested a few and recommends the tried-and-true Wusthof or Henckels knives, but Esquire is very impressed with a lesser-known German brand called Messermeister.
The men's magazine adores the Meridian Elite Chef's Knife, which goes for $125 on the Messermeister website or for $94.99 at Amazon. Either way you slice it, it's a good deal for a good knife.
* Tricia Romano is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle.