While in the process of getting divorced, and suddenly faced with what my new apartment would contain, planning a basic kitchen became a time consuming process. Admittedly, there were six kids to worry about, and none were married at the time. It was really scary. (Don't for a minute think that once they get married that you stop cooking for them. Accept the fact that from time to time, you now have an extra person to feed at the table. Just what you needed - another critic.) Somewhere in the back of my mind I was trying to figure out just how long I could get away with junk-food or the local take-out shop, weighing how much it would cost against spending the time shopping and trying to cook some basics. I began by formulating some lists which over the past few years have been constantly revised.
These are the basics and though I have changed almost all my appliances in the kitchen as time went on, the list below is what you need to start off with and then some. Do not overbuy. Do not go out and purchase a chef's oven when a small one will do quite well. One important note here. In Israel and other European countries, when you rent an apartment, there is no law that it has to come with any appliances. So perhaps some of this is taken for granted or you already own the appliances. Still it does not hurt to go over them. Though there is some very basic information here, I do wish someone had taken the time to go over it with me, instead of having to learn most of it by trial and error, which can be a costly process.
Additionally, if you keep a kosher kitchen some of the things mentioned below must be doubled.
I - Major Appliances
No, I am not treating you as a child or poking fun. Of course you need a refrigerator. But what kind? We are ice-crazy, so I purchased a refrigerator with an ice maker. I also bought one which could accommodate all the left over take-out food that would be stored for the next meal. I did not know at the time that it would have to keep soup and meat pots in it nor that I would require a big freezer.
Some people I know with a great many children do not have large refrigerators. They somehow make it through without storing all that food. However this means that you will make that much more trips to the Grocery or the Supermarket. I hate shopping for food, as I have said in this blog a million times. So, I would rather store food than have to make a trip to the supermarket every other day. It is simply a matter of need and preference.
Thankfully, one of the major miracles of refrigerators is no matter how much food you have to store in them, there always seems to be some more room you can find, even if you are forced to squish a bit. (No, NOT the lemon meringue pie!)
Rule of the Oven: Ovens can drive you crazy!
Each and every oven has its own temperament. You can own the twin of the oven that your neighbor has, same make, size, model and even color, and your oven will behave differently than theirs. Oven's are very individualistic and as time goes by you will learn the quirks of yours as well. I talk to mine, because it is so much more rewarding to be able to blame the burned meat on my idiot oven which was having a bad-heat day, than on the fact that I was playing spider solitaire on the computer and forgot I was cooking something. Over time you get used to how fast your oven heats up and when you should put in the food.
My aunt owns one of the most famous Matzoth factories in the United States. However, this factory is situated in one of the worst neighborhoods in New York City. From what I understand the neighborhood has recently improved, but for many years it was really scary visiting the factory. I once asked her why she just did not move the factory to another location which would make access much easier, and thus improve sales in the factory store. She told me that once the ovens were put in place over seventy years ago, they produced a unique taste in the matzoth that was not only due to the method of cooking and ingredients used. If they moved the ovens, the fear was that the taste would change and people would stop buying the matzoth. Whereas our ovens are not the large commercial ovens used in factories they still have their own temperament. Get used to yours and understand its quirks and its moods. When mine decides I am abusing it - it simply kicks its fuse or decides it would be a good time for a small fire!
If you can afford it, an oven with a built-in timer is great. It does help to alleviate the stress of always having to look at the clock and remember just how much time went by. However, keep in mind, that just because the timer turns off the oven, it is still hot inside, and the food will continue cooking from the heat. Figure that into the equation as well. My oven lets off a beep or a bell when the timer goes off, letting me know that I have to either cover the food, take it out, or add even more time to the cooking process. Little things like those beeps are incredibly useful and can save a lot of frustration from over-cooked food in the long run. (Especially when you are on the phone or talking to the dog!)
C. Gas/Electric Stove Top (Oven Top)
The oven(s) I have purchased in the past use electric to cook inside and gas burners on top. I once went out with a woman who was into nutritious cooking and tried to take over my kitchen. (In case you were wondering that relationship lasted a couple of dates.) She claimed that a gas oven cooks more "evenly". I have heard this before and I am inclined to believe it. However, I have this real fear of gas, (for reasons that are not part of this book, but trust me, they are well-founded), and thus I would never consider buying a full gas oven. That being said, I do think that most cooking on the stove-top is done better with gas. I find it much more difficult to control heat and thus temperature using electric burners.
When I purchased my recent oven, I also made sure the gas burners on top had an automatic gas shut off, if for some reason the flame went out unexpectedly. This can happen if the soup or water you are boiling spills over. If you have children, (and even if you don't) it is something to consider seriously, despite the few extra dollars you may have to spend on the safety feature. Again my well-founded fear of gas comes into play here.
Try and purchase a stove where each burner is a different size. You will find that it is much easier to control the speed of cooking and level of heat, which is at many times critical to the whole process.
D. Microwave Oven
I am not sure if this should be classified as a major appliance, a minor one (along with the bread-toaster) or on the "nice to have" list. So in this case it will remain in the major appliance list, due to the use it will probably get in your kitchen.
Microwaves are not the gourmet chef's choice when making any food. Indeed they are not the best choice for cooking any sort of food. However, some people cannot afford the expense of an oven, and others (myself included), do require a quick easy way to heat up yesterday's pizza and make popcorn for the kids while they stare at the idiot box. Microwave's are useful and in my home, a necessary addition to the major appliances in the kitchen.
If you plan on purchasing a microwave be aware that there are many different kinds. Some only cook using microwave technology. Others can be a fair substitute for a small oven, as they contain the ability to cook like an electric oven. I have never used a microwave to actually cook something (though the one I own does have this ability in case of an emergency), but it does come in real handy for the quick re-heat.
The newer models have different levels of microwave cooking. Be aware that bread left in the microwave too long, (and that can be all of ten seconds too long), including pizza dough and bagels, will become hard and impossible to eat. A trick I learned a few years ago was to cover the bagels with a napkin. For some reason the bread does not get hard, and maintains its fresh quality when heated up covered with a napkin or paper towel.
Never put any aluminum or aluminum foil in your microwave. That is asking for a quick, nasty fire. Children are not always aware of the rules in regard to cooking what, where and how, and even if there are any rules. The microwave is the one appliance you will find them using a great deal by themselves. Wise advice is to first make them aware of the rules, and then be prepared when they forget them. (Indeed, you will see listed below a fire extinguisher as one of the important side-utensils for your kitchen. And yes, laugh away, but I have had to make use of it.) By the way, a microwave that did have a fire inside, needs days to air out and some serious cleaning before you can heat anything it in again. That bit of advice comes from hard-learned experience as well.
Final microwave advice. If you are using an old one which has been borrowed or given you by a friend, check the insides for rust. NEVER cook anything in a microwave which has the slightest rust inside.
I loathe the thought of washing dishes whereas a woman I know absolutely loves cleaning and finds it incredibly therapeutic to wash dishes. Well, to each his/her own. I will do anything to make cleaning easier and more automated. To my mind, the most important appliance in a kitchen is the dishwasher and I honestly do not know if I would be touting the joy of cooking if not for the dishwasher. Though it is still considered by many a luxury, it should be seriously considered if you hate doing dishes as much as I do. Some dishwasher notes follow, which hopefully you will find invaluable when looking to purchase one.
It is a good idea to spend the extra minute or two when buying cutlery, utensils, pots, pans and even a food processor, and read the accompanying paper or booklet that comes with them. Purchase things that are marked as dishwasher safe, or that say something like "dishwasher friendly". You will be surprised how many attachments to certain food-processors, for instance, should not be put in a dishwasher. Plan ahead and you will avoid a lot of frustration and superfluous spending.
Most dishwashers have at least two 'fans' which twirl around spraying water from holes on their sides over the dishes to clean them. Due to the ecological care that dishwasher manufactures have shown, they try to use the least amount of water to accomplish the task. Some manufacturers have made these holes fairly small in an attempt to further control the amount of water that is used. Unfortunately, over time, food particles tend to end up inside these fans. At that point the dishwasher does not clean properly anymore. Since the fans are usually one piece of molded plastic, it becomes a Herculean task to get the food particles out. You are left with spending hours shaking those plastic fans to rid them of the stuck food, or forced to buy a new part, which inevitably is incredibly expensive and out of all proportion to its real worth. So if you are going to purchase a new dishwasher, look at the holes on the fans at the store. If they seem fairly small, find out if the fan can be taken apart. If not, do yourself a favor, save a lot of heartache, and skip that model no matter how "cool" it looks, and no matter how much the salesman touts its incredible powers. In the end a dishwasher has to do one thing. Wash your dishes and get them clean.
One other small point. If your spouse or current relationship suddenly quips in front of your friends, "He has a great dishwasher. Me!" take that as a subtle warning. It is time to buy the real thing or make sure you begin doing all the dishes from then on.
Sooner or later you are going to have to wash a dish or some silverware. I know the thought is depressing, but there is nothing to be done about it. Obviously, unless you are building your own house, or redoing your apartment, you do not have a great many options. You take what you get. However, if you are doing the kitchen from scratch, spend some time in deciding, not only on how beautiful the sinks are, but on their utilitarian purpose - to wash dishes. Try and get one with a deep "belly" so the dishes that pile up inside are not strewn all over the place. I have a penchant for stainless steel, because they are fairly easy to keep clean, do not stain, and usually come in models which have deep 'bellies'. (They are also great when you have to switch the house over to Passover, as they are easy to make 'kosher' for Passover - or "kasher" as some people call it.)
Most kosher homes have two sinks. One for meat dishes and one for dairy dishes. Sometimes these are double sinks sometimes, if the kitchen is big enough, they are two distinct units placed on their own in the kitchen.
If you can get a faucet that has a spray nozzle, it will come in handy to spray some of the leftovers off the dirty dishes before dumping them in the dishwasher. Again this is a matter of budget and ability. And of course, no matter how important the kitchen is, school books, clothes and other essentials for the children come before any luxury items (except for the espresso machine!)
End of Part One of What In Heaven's Name Is A Kitchen?