Back to Basics

Every once and a while it's a good idea to get back to basics. This Craig Claiborne cookbook was published in 1969 and I probably first came across it in the early 1980s. At that time, I thought I could learn to cook just by following recipes. Don't get me wrong - sometimes following a recipe will teach you technique. But for the most part, a recipe, especially a complicated one, only makes sense if you know the techniques required to execute the strategy. For example, a recipe might tell you to whip egg whites to stiff peaks but if you've never done that before, and you don't know a stiff peak from a soft one, your souffle might fall flat. That's where Craig Claiborne's Kitchen Primer comes in.

I love this cookbook.  Along with Julia Child, Craig Claiborne pretty much taught me how to cook.  Truly great food writers don’t just write recipes; they describe technique and they teach you how to cook without a book.  I lost my Claiborne Primer decades ago, or maybe I left it on someone’s bookshelf when I moved my things out in the dead of night.  So when I spotted a copy at the Goodwill store last weekend for $4, I had to snag it.  When I started RE-reading it, I realized how fundamental and important this book was to me.  There is still much to learn from this book.  And even though Claiborne referred to his cookbook as a “primer,” if you can cook everything in this book, you are more than a beginner in the kitchen.  Claiborne’s instructions for making a souffle are so clear and reassuring, even a novice might be encouraged to give it a try.  To someone like me, who considers herself a pretty proficient souffle maker, Claiborne’s discussion of souffles is brilliant.  A souffle is a “simple white sauce to which a solid of some sort is added… The thing that makes a souffle puff are the beaten egg whites that are folded in.”  Well, there you have it.  If you can make a Bechamel sauce and beat egg whites you can make a gorgeous towering souffle. 

You Don't Need a Big Fancy Kitchen
To Cook Big Fancy Meals


Claiborne's List of Basic Equipment for a Small Basic Kitchen

These are the items that Claiborne says you need for a small kitchen:  A frying pan, a whisk, a 1 1/2 quart saucepan, a paring knife, a 12 inch chopping knife, a swivel-headed paring knife, a metal spatula, a long two pronged fork, a large metal spoon, a slotted spoon, measuring cups, measuring spoons, a set of mixing bowls, a can opener, a bottle opener, a sifter, a grater, a lemon squeezer, a funnel, a strainer, an 8 inch pie plate, a pair of kitchen tongs, a rotary beater, a colander, a wooden spoon, scissor, a French wire salad basket, a teakettle, a teapot, a coffee maker, a toaster, a pastry brush, a rubber spatula, a pepper mill, a kitchen timer, a draining rack, a basting syringe, an egg slicer, a chopping block, a 3 quart heavy metal casserole (Dutch oven), spices, a corkscrew, cannisters, an ice pick, a pastry board, a rolling pin, a pastry blender, waxed paper and aluminum foil. WHEW!!!  If you have all of those things, you can cook ANYTHING from a turkey to  puff pastry.  And some of the things Claiborne says you “need,” you really don’t, in my opinion.  like an egg slicer!  You can slice an egg without that little gadget, surely.  And an ice pick?  I really don’t think you need one of those either.  You need a kitchen timer, but you can use your Iphone!  You don’t need a lemon squeezer – cut the lemons in quarters and squeeze them in the palm of your hand.  HOWEVER, Claiborne’s list is a good place to start if you are equipping a basic kitchen.  Below are the items that I think you need to get started — and my list will equip you to make souffles, casseroles, fried chops, and crisp salads, pretty much everything you’re going to cook unless you are a true professional chef or running a catering business.



Cooking vessels:  Get a quality set of pots and pans.  I like Allclad skillets and saucepans.  You can get a good set at  And I like Le Crueset Dutch ovens and casseroles.



You need: A couple of good whisks to whip eggs, wooden spoons for sauces, a metal and rubber spatula for burgers and pancakes, some big spoons and forks, a pair of good tongs for flipping chops, an inexpensive screwdriver to open bottles of wine, a vegetable peeler, a chef's knife, and a strainer or colander.
You also need a good set of measuring cups and spoons. And I really like Pyrex measuring cups because you can use them to make sauces and salad dressings, then store them in the frig.
And buy the best utensils you can -- they will make cooking easier and they will last a long time, saving you money in the long run.
Below is the big jar I keep on my counter stuffed with the utensils I use the most. As you can see, there are scissors, a big Chinese Spider Strainer, a zester, a meat pounder and a hot oil thermometer for deep frying.


If there is one thing I would invest in if I were equipping a small kitchen it would be a Kitchenaid stand mixer.  This appliance is invaluable for creaming cake batters, whipping egg whites (although I often prefer a hand mixer for making meringues), and mixing doughs. You can buy one of these in all sorts of great colors!  You can buy accessories to make ice cream, sausage, or pasta!  I use my Kitchenaid stand mixer constantly and couldn’t live with it.  Okay, maybe that is a slight exaggeration.  But, every good baker needs one of these if she can afford it, and if she can’t, she should skip paying the rent for a month and get one anyway. 

If you are equipping a small kitchen, or if you are starting graduate school and you're living in a small apartment, you don't need a fancy coffee maker. Buy a simple Mr. Coffee and when you make partner you can graduate to a fancy Italian espresso machine.


You don’t need a lemon squeezer or a garlic press.  You’ve got hands and knives for those things.  You do need a corkscrew if you are opening bottles of wine, and why wouldn’t you be?  You need a good can opener.


Claiborne mentions aluminum foil and I would have to agree with that.  Foil, Saran wrap and plastic bags are a must even in a small kitchen.  Parchment paper is crucial to baking.  It wouldn’t hurt to have butcher’s string and toothpicks, either.


Love is the most important thing to have in your kitchen.  Oh, who am I kidding.  Okay, love and a Kitchenaid stand mixer.  


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