Creating the perfect starter cookware set for cheap

I’m a huge fan of cooking. I’ve done it seriously for ten years, inhaling instructional cookbooks, blog posts, how-to’s, and forums the entire time. I’ve strived to own a cookware set that is able to work for nearly every dish I can concoct, while being both frugal and minimalist. This set will work well in a small or large kitchen. I’ve eliminated everything I consider unnecessary from the set to create an efficient cooking environment. There is no order of importance here. Each piece is needed to make this work well. I’m not making anything from any of the product’s below. I just happen to think they’re the best based on research. Here’s what I recommend for your set: 

Knives & Other Utensils

First off, you need a good knife. The Victorinox 8-inch Chef’s Knife is the way to go. It’s one piece of steel. The handle is super sturdy. And, it keeps its blade for several years. It’s like $35 on Amazon.

Get a boning knife for handling thin slices. I have this one and it’s really well-made.

Get a micro-plane.  You can zest lemons, grate cheese, grate garlic, shave horseradish, or do just about anything grating-wise with this beauty. I use it all the time.

You could probably use some peelers, too. Tim Ferriss loves these ones. They’ve worked pretty well for me. Things you’ll likely need to peel: potatoes, cucumbers, squash, carrots, celery (sometimes), and apples (sometimes). I also use peelers to serve larger shavings of hard cheese like Romano or Parmesan.

A pair of scissors will save your knifes and make opening things a breeze. Anything with a decently sharp blade will work. You can grab these from Wal-Mart or the dollar store. Kitchen shears are nice but not totally necessary. 

You also should own a pair of tongs for grabbing and flipping. These are my favorite.

Blade tips: a)avoid using your knife to cut anything other than food. b)Do not attempt to sharpen it. c)Store it in a place where it isn’t rubbing up against anything loose.

Cutting Board

Get a cutting board that’s wood or soft plastic. Wood is easier to cut with, plastic is easier to clean. Don’t get any material  the blade of your nice new knife will make a loud noise on or slip easily. You could grab one off Amazon, Wal-Mart, or a restaurant supply shop. This would be fine.


Get at least one large stainless steel pot with a lid. You can wait for a good one from a thrift shop or just buy it straight from Ebay or Amazon. The main order of business is to get one that is really sturdy. Anthony Bourdain has the right idea on this one.  The better of a weapon your pot could be, the better it will be at conducting heat evenly. Don’t bother with non-stick. It can’t handle high heat and is too high maintenance. If you have a Chinese restaurant supply store near you, they’ve got solid pots for great prices. This is the kind they sell. You use this for all liquid-based dishes. Cover food if it needs to cook through and can handle some extra heat. Keep the top off if you want to crisp things, reduce them, or keep the heat down. In general, the cooking I do with my pot is at the medium to low temperature range on the stove top. I’d buy this one.

Stainless Steel Saute Pan

This is where you do the higher heat cooking. Saute literally means “jump” in French, chosen because hot food bits and liquid pop and jump off the pan. Following the same principle as your pot, you want a pan that is super sturdy and not non-stick. 12 inches is a good size to start with if you’re cooking for two. This is the standard size used for cooking single orders “on the line” of a restaurant kitchen.  Here’s an example of a really good one. If you spend some time roaming local thrift shops, you might score a great pan. If not, look to Amazon. I’d buy this one. Make sure to get this pan hot before putting in your food.

Non-stick pan

Follow all the rules for sturdiness above but get something non-stick. This makes cooking eggs and delicate foods like fish much easier. You won’t find a good non-stick pan at a thrift shop because very few last long. Here’s one on Amazon that’s good.

Teflon Tips

a)don’t use metal on non-stick coating. It really does mess with it.

b)don’t heat up the non-stick pan past low heat without anything on it. It will greatly shorten its lifespan. 

c) things will be even easier to flip in the pan if you have a slotted spatula. They look like this.

Drain & Strain

You need two levels of strainer fineness. One to drain water, the other to drain out fine particles from soups and sauces. This will skyrocket your food’s quality. Any old collander is fine. Get one from a thrift shop. You should also be able to find a finer mesh strainer. Reddit seems to really love drum sieves. You could replace the strainer with that if you prefer.

Baking gear

One half baking sheet is all you really need.  Think this one. You should also get some aluminum foil to ease up the cleaning on this.

Food bakes a lot better when it has hot air on all sides. That is why a baking rack is so vital. These ones are super cheap and have served me really well so far this year.

Cleaning up

Get 12 blue huck towels. These things are awesome for grabbing hot pans and cleaning up messes. They will save you big on paper towels. I recommend these over regular kitchen towels because these have no residue or fibers that stay behind on clean surfaces. They were original created for operating rooms so you can feel good about using them in your kitchen for cleanliness.

That should cover you for cookware. To recount. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 8-inch Chef’s Knife, Victorinox
  • Boning Knife, Victorinox
  • Microplane
  • Peelers
  • Scissors
  • Tongs
  • Cutting Board
  • 6qt stainless steel pot with lid
  • 12-inch pan, stick
  • 12-inch pan non-stick
  • Half Baking Sheet
  • Cooling Rack
  • Colander
  • Strainer or Sieve
  • 12 Blue Huck Towels

This is a pure essentialist list. You’ll be using each of these items often in your kitchen for multiple purposes. You likely have plenty of room for all of them, and they’re not super expensive. 



Building your own data-driven food tour

Food touring has become my default mode of exploration during my travels. I believe food is one of the best ways to engage a culture and it’s unique traditions. What better way is there to do this than a well-crafted food tour? We hop from restaurant to restaurant, in a seemingly random geographic sense, ending up in a city’s lost corners among it’s real citizens. We get to try the food that excites the people that live in that place. Doing this helps me avoid tourist traps, expensive chains, and otherwise boring food. I see food as part of the destination, not a necessary evil to work in between museum tours. As with all other things, the food tour has become an outlet for my near obsession with data and achieving the best possible experience for my money. Within the budget I usually work with on vacations, this generally means using online research to create an efficient, frugal, and super delicious route of a few restaurants. I seek out the best food and hop around place grabbing small bites at each, preferably splitting with friends. At the end of the day we almost always have discovered new neighborhoods that “tourists” would not see, encountered many locals about their daily routine, and had some really amazing and affordable food. I recently scheduled one of these tours by bike in DC, and had some great success. I’ll break down how I did it and talk about how you can set your own up. I want to note that I’m still refining this method, but it’s certainly going to be much better than randomly walking into restaurants or even using a single service like Yelp for finding a place.  This method will work for any major city in the Western world and can be modified to fit your own personal preferences. For instance, I don’t like to eat the same cuisine at multiple places during a tour nor do I want to spend more than $10 at one place.

How to design your food tour based on data

  1. Choose your city, time-frame, and preferences.

The major questions you’ll have to answer here are:

How much freedom do you have over what you’ll be doing on this trip? Do your companions have dietary restrictions or preferences? Are they open to spending hours walking around eating? How long do you have in the city? A full food tour of 5-7 restaurants will likely take you 6 hours. Do you have that much time? What is your budget? What will the weather be like? How widely spaced is the city? Are there specific landmarks or neighborhoods you really ought to see?

Once you’ve answered these questions you can begin planning the tour itself. It’s a fun process.

2. Build a base list.

Find the website that has the most robust number of average ratings per restaurant for the city you’ll be visiting. In my case, for Washington DC, happens to be very strong. So that’s what we’ll be using. You may also consider Zomato, TripAdvisor, Zagat, Eater24, or Chowhound to build your base list. Once you’ve decided on a site, open up a new Excel spreadsheet or Google Sheet. Start by listing out the top 25 highest-rated restaurants in a column. Only choose places located within a reasonable distance of where you’ll be staying (~10 miles).

3. Verify that list with other sources

Since you’re a budding data scientist, you know that using data from a single sample is not good data management, especially when sites like Yelp can be heavily biased by confirmation bias and other research biases. Really, its kind of shocking how far off some seemingly statistically significant restaurant reviews can be. I’ve got all kinds of theories as to why this is the case, but I won’t get into that right now.

To verify the restaurants you have as being worthy of your food tour there a couple things you can do. First, plot out them on a map. This can be done pretty easily with Google Maps or within the Yelp site using the Map List feature. Remove all places from the list that are too far from your desired general area. For DC list meant avoiding places that were in Northern Virginia and MD. These were out of biking range and didn’t make sense for us.

Make sure you don’t have any coffee shops on the map. Yelpers really love and inflate a comfy coffee shop, but we don’t want them on our food tour. I also usually eliminate chains and hipstery-looking places that I know will be overpriced.

Now for the actual verification. This involves a bit of groundwork, but is totally worth it. In separate columns on your spreadsheet, list out the scores for your current list on Google Places (just Google the restaurant name), Zagat (I just use the food rating #), and Zomato. I don’t think TripAdvisor is a good place to find restaurants so I don’t use them. If a place does not have a score on one of these sites, you assign it the average score minus a 15% penalty for not being noteworthy enough to make that site. Make sure you apply similar criteria to Google, Zagat and Zomato when it comes to $Price and location.

Now you should have 4 columns of ratings. Add a fifth called notable mentions. Here you will either mark a 0 or 1 depending on whether the restaurant is mentioned on notable lists for that city. Try Eater24, Chowhound’s forums, Serious Eats Articles, and local newspaper “Best of” lists. CityPaper and local universities usually maintain good lists. If a restaurant appears in any of these places in a positive way, they get a 1 in this column.

4. Ensure there are no outliers.

If there was a restaurant that kept popping up in your searches in step 3, but is not on your list. Put it on the list. Repeat step 3 for any new places you’ve added.

5. Total the scores.

In your sixth column input a formula like the following to sum up your data:

Yelp scorex6+Zagat+Googlex6+Zomato*6+Mention in Blog 1 or 0= Aggregate Score

You now can sort your data based on the aggregate scores. This should give you a pretty good idea of the most well respected and enjoyable restaurants in the city.

Depending on your time and ability to move around, you have a great list to work from for an introductory look at the food of that city. if you have time, take a peek at pictures and menus of the food on Yelp. How are their portions? How are the prices? Is this a sit-down place or a take out joint. In general, anything with $ on Yelp will be carryout, $$ will be casual sit-down, and $$$+ will be fine dining.

Here’s a link to the Google Sheet I used for DC. I can’t say that this method is perfect. But is does to a pretty good job of helping to narrow down places but on certain criteria. So you shouldn’t end up somewhere totally terrible or out of your price range.

Get out there and enjoy some amazing food!


Want monthly email insights on ways to travel cheaply but well, optimize your bedroom, hack your health, design food tours based on your preferences, and more random productivity/living improvements?

The Optimized Now is a travel hacks and practical productivity newsletter with the details I use to custom build my life.

%d bloggers like this: