For 18 months I lived in a studio apartment with nothing but a wok, a tea kettle, and a sauce pan. I didn’t have a microwave, a coffee pot, or any other fancy gadgets. Odds are, you already have more than that, but I want to keep this as simple as possible. If you want to keep things to a bare minimum, the above is really all you need. I’ll explain why.
A 14″ Wok
You think stir fry, I think versatile, multipurpose tool. With a broad enough flat base, about 6″, you can make pancakes, french toast, bacon, hamburgers, and anything else you’d use a flat frying pan for. If it’s deep enough, about 4″, you can boil water to cook pasta and rice.
This is for things that don’t need something as large as the wok to head up, like canned soup. While you’re making a main dish in the wok, you can head up a vegetable for a side dish in the saucepan. Burgers or hot dogs in the wok, beans here. As the pasta comes to a boil in the wok, you can warm up your spaghetti sauce.
Not only for (instant) coffee and tea, but anything that only requires the application of hot water, such as instant oatmeal or ramen. If you get a French press, you can even make “real” coffee and feel less ghetto and more fancy about your minimalist kitchen.
There are two reasons why I use wooden spoons: they don’t scratch non-stick surfaces (unless you really, really work at it) in the way metal utensils can, and they don’t melt like plastic utensils tend to do, especially if you use super-cheap plastic utensils. You can probably find affordable bamboo utensils if you have an Asian market nearby, but if you have to resort to a “cooking” store or more upscale department store to get them, they’re still worth the investment.
Some folks call it a spatula; technically, it it’s a turner. I had to search for a wooden one, for the reasons named above. They are not cheap, but I consider it a good investment because unless you’re doing something strange it will last forever. Worst case scenario, go with a good plastic one.
I have a long set (about 12″ long) and a short set (8″). Get good, practical cooking tongs, not fancy serving tongs. You can still serve with cooking tongs, but you can’t always cook with serving tongs depending upon the materials used. Invest in silicone-tipped tongs, so they don’t scratch your cookware.
Chef’s Knife and Cutting Board
If you only have one good knife, get a chef’s knife. A good-sized blade you can chop vegetables and cut meat with. Make sure it’s a quality blade, and that you get a sharpener and keep it sharp as well; you’re more likely to cut yourself using a dull blade, because you’ll apply more pressure when cutting and are more likely to slip or lose control of the knife (and a nice, precision cut is also easier to stitch up and less likely to scar — I’m just being realistic here).
My only criteria for a cutting board is that it’s easy to wash and won’t scar to allow bacteria to embed itself. Hard plastic or hard wood good, soft plastic or soft wood bad.
The first and only “kitchen gadget” thing I broke down and bought is a rice cooker. Rice can be a pain to cook properly in a pot, and the cooker does it perfectly every time. You can make not only rice, but oatmeal in it. I got one that also steams vegetables. A small one cost me under $20, which is less than I’ve spent on a good wok.
Making an Investment
All of this stuff can be acquired on the cheap; if you ask around, you may find friends or family members who have an excess of cookware and can set you up. Don’t dismiss thrift stores and garage sale as a source, so long as everything is clean and in good shape. Over time, though, you’ll want to invest in good, sturdy stuff that will last you a long time. Cheap pots and pans don’t distribute or hold heat as well as higher quality ones; cheap utensils break, melt, and fall apart where better quality stuff, again, lasts longer. You can balk at paying $15 for a good turner, until you find yourself replacing the one from the dollar store every 3 to 4 months. You don’t need a lot of equipment, and you don’t need the most expensive stuff on the market wither, but life is easier with good equipment.