MVK Redux

A couple weeks back I guest posted on the Priconomics blog about a minimum viable kitchen for cooking gourmet food. It got a great response, with lots of discussion on Hacker News, other blogs, and some people emailing me directly.

Overall I thought the article was pretty well-received. The audience it was aimed at is sort of infamous for being very opinionated, even when not very knowledgeable, so I expected some ridiculous replies such as “you don’t need a whisk” or “boiling meat is a perfectly acceptable way of cooking,” which, I suppose, is true if you’re an 18th century Englishman. But overall the level of discourse was good.

There were a lot of intelligent comments that were repeated often and that I thought are worthy of addressing, so I figured I’d write a quick post here to do so.

First up was my advice to buy a set of pots and pans. I said to just get a decent 10 piece set in your budget range, and a lot of people said something like “just buy pieces individually as you need them.” Those people mostly don’t realize that cookware sets count lids as pieces. You don’t need 10 different pans for sure, but you’re really getting 6, which is at least really close to what you do need. A typical 10 piece set is something like:

  • Large Sauté Pan w/lid
  • Large Skillet
  • Small Skillet
  • Large Saucepan w/ lid
  • Small Saucepan w/lid
  • Stockpot w/lid

I suppose you could argue that the large skillet is redundant and that you could use the sauté pan instead. A professional would tell you that they are different tools used for different purposes,  but even if we concede the point (which I’m inclined to for home users) if you were buying pieces individually you’d end up with the other 9 for sure and you’d pay more for having done so.

One caveat though, budget 10 piece sets often skimp on pan sizes. Make sure you get one with a 12” skillet as the large, a similarly-sized sauté pan, and a 4qt saucepan, not the 10” and 3 qt you often see on cheapo units. Sam’s Club has a decent 3 ply set for under $150 that meets the proper dimensions.

Anyway, I’ll stand by the original advice because I bought a 10 piece set awhile back and rarely does a week go by where I don’t use every pot and pan in it. And I’ve never needed to buy another, though I did buy a couple more saucepans because you so often find yourself multi-tasking with them. I have a 1, 2, 3, and 4 qt, and some dishes use them all.

Some commenters said to pick up aluminum pans at a restaurant store. That might make sense. There are some people who object to aluminum for health reasons, but they are cheap and heat evenly. The good stainless steel sets have aluminum in the middle because of that. That may be good advice if you live near such a store (I never have) and don’t believe it will give you Alzheimer’s. I’ve read that aluminum also deforms easily and doesn’t last long, but again, I’ve never purchased one, so I don’t know.

Another one I heard a few times was to buy a cast iron skillet. That’s probably not bad advice, and would be one advantage of not purchasing a set. The thing about cast iron is that it’s not really necessary, and it’s a pain in the ass to take care of. I do have one cast iron piece that to be honest I’m like as not to get too wet and have to scrub rust off of and re-season every time I clean it. Your mileage may vary, and it’s quite possible I’m just too dumb to use them properly, but I just don’t find them worth the trouble generally. I consider that one a matter of personal preference.

Almost nobody argued with my objection to non-stick pans. Good! 70% of all cookware sold in the US is non-stick though, and this confirms my suspicion that’s because 70% of people don’t know what they’re doing.

A common objection, mainly due to price, was the electronics. The mixer, blender, and ice cream maker were deemed unnecessary. I added them because I felt my initial definition of a gourmet kitchen required them. Many soups use a blender. Almost every dessert uses either a stand mixer or an ice cream maker, and the cookbooks I said I wanted to be able to make over 75% of do have dessert sections. I probably eat fewer sweets than 95% of people, but I still find myself making desserts for holidays, entertaining, etc. Still you could leave them out and still make lots of great dishes and save a couple hundred bucks.

Some people said to get a food processor instead of a blender, but I feel that’s terrible advice. These people, without exception, are the ones who think it’s ok to chop vegetables in one. It’s not, at all. The result will be uneven, and culinary school 101 teaches that you want the ingredients to be evenly chopped so they cook at the same pace. And perhaps worse, the processor macerates cell walls. Ask anyone who has chopped parsley for tabouleh in one. The result is much soupier than if done by hand, and kind of gross looking.

Sure, you might be saying I’m being overly perfectionist on that point. But isn’t that the point of gourmet cooking? Loving detail is what separates Spiaggia from Olive Garden. 

If you want to save time chopping, get a mandoline. It’s a lot cheaper than a food processor, and will give you even cuts quickly without liquefying your veggies.

I have a food processor and I use it for one thing, which is making pie crusts. I use my stand mixer and blender quite often, and generally not for desserts. But your mileage may vary. Except for the whisk. You need the whisk.

What it comes down to in the end is what types of food you’re making.  Do you have a family that loves ice creams and sorbets? That $40 ice cream maker will pay for itself, and the stuff you make at home (especially with sorbets) will be much better than the stuff you buy. Find yourself making lots of soups? Spring for a good blender.

My goal was to leave the door open for just about everything. Sure, many recipes will require something specialized (and usually inexpensive). Want to make a quiche? You’ve already got the stand mixer (crust), the blender (aerating batter), and the baking sheet. Now you just need a 9”x2” cake ring for $16. Want to make Thomas Keller’s famous cornets? Get the cream molds for $7. John Besh’s crawfish pie? Grab a set of 8 oz. ramekins for $11.

I did miss a few things. Measuring cups being most noticeable. It’s hard to follow a recipe without those. If you made it through the first article and this far in this one, you might like a book I’m reading that explains, among many other things, the history of measuring cups and other forms of cookware called Consider the Fork. It’s far more interesting than I’ve likely made it sound.

Anyway, I’m always interested in what people would have done differently. I’m still nowhere near an expert in the kitchen. I’m just a guy with a lot of really good cookbooks and the equipment to make the stuff in them.

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One Response to “MVK Redux”

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