The Thrifty Cook

Setting up your first kitchen? Moving to a bigger one? A lot of people will tell you that you have to buy the very best equipment. But forget the $30 silicone baking mats and $200 Le Creuset Dutch ovens. You can outfit your home with all the basics—for $100. I'd say only a fifth of my own kitchen tools came from upscale cookware shops like Sur La Table. Sure, I've geeked out on a few pieces like my Wusthof knives and my KitchenAid mixer. But years ago, when I was still working in restaurants, I had an epiphany about market-price cookware. My friends with corporate jobs would ask me whether they should purchase the $500 set of Calphalon pots or the shiny $600 All-Clad starter kit, while at work, my chef used blackened aluminum pans to put out some of God's favorite meals. That's when I began shopping for cookware at Goodwill. If you want to do the same, a few guidelines: 1. Thrift stores are packed with decent cookware that yuppies discarded when they traded up. I've picked up most of my esoteric tools—pastry cutters, salad spinners, springform pans — for $1 or $2. For $15 you can assemble a more attractive set of china, silverware, and wine glasses from Value Village than you'll be able to steal from your college cafeteria. A few warnings: If it's rusted out, extremely sticky, too flimsy, or coated with Teflon, pass it up (Google "Teflon and toxic fumes" to see what I'm talking about). Also, when shopping for pots and pans, buy the ones with the heaviest bottoms. The thinner the pan, the easier your food will scorch the moment you turn your back. If you ever see cast iron at a thrift store, buy it. Cast iron requires a tiny bit of extra work to season and clean (you can find instructions online), but the $10 skillet I bought at a flea market 15 years ago is still the only one I use to sear steaks and brown potatoes. 3. Spend a little extra money ($20–$25) on one good knife. At Asian and Western restaurant supply stores, you'll find a selection of plastic-handled 9-inch chef's knives or all-purpose Chinese cleavers. No, they're not Sabatier or Universal, but 95 percent of the prep cooks I've ever worked with have used these knives, and those guys could cut faster and more precisely than I ever will. Just make sure the blade has some heft to it, and sharpen it regularly. 4. On the whole, restaurant supply stores are great for essential stuff like strainers, spatulas, and cutting boards. In fact, if you have a little extra cash to spend on your kitchen, I'd say that all the pots you'll find at these stores are worth their price. They won't be as pretty as anything Macy's sells, but they're made to be slammed around and set over high flames over and over for years. (Some restaurant supply places offer steep discounts for folks who claim to be in the industry. Just putting that out there.) 5. Bed Bath & Beyond or Target are better than thrift stores for electric appliances like blenders, mixers, microwaves, and other things that may not work properly secondhand. Buy one or two starter pieces at a budget housewares store and trade up later. I'll confess now: My blender comes from Walgreen's. It sucks, but since I only turn it on four times a year, I can't justify replacing it with a $100 one. As for Le Creuset—well, if you do get serious about cooking someday, you'll appreciate why the expensive stuff is so great. But millions of cooks who've gone before you have cooked phenomenal meals using dull paring knives and rusty pans. Remember: It's not the pot, it's what's inside it.

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