What is essential in a basic kitchen?

It keeps everything from happening all at once.

I’ve been thinking about that herb idea since Silenus brought it up and I’ve decided I’ve got to try it. At first I was thinking about the excess water and the fact that you’re just rupturing all of those cells. Then it occurred to me that it was very little water being added and rupturing the cells of herbs might be a good idea. You might actually wind up with even more concentrated flavor that way…

I think I’ll have to experiment this weekend with three batches of sauce…

Note that if you have electric burners (spiral ring or smoothtop), that using a real Wok may be a challenge - it’s hard to get them uniform and hot. At that point, you may as well go with an electric Wok (also hard to get suitably hot, but at least easier to keep even).

I’ve thought about getting a wok at times, but my current skillet has good, high walls and the fact that it’s so much wider than the coils gives me a good range of hot in the middle and warm on the edges. I’m pretty confident of my ability to stir fry in it; the trick is simply getting the ingredients together.

Additions to the list (after getting home from work and actually looking in the kitchen cabinets): Worchestershire Sauce, Crystal Hot Sauce, Tiger Sauce, Pickapeppa Sauce, a good soy sauce. These can turn an ordinary dish into a great one, used judiciously. I really recommend Tiger Sauce. It looks like it will blow the top of your head off, but it’s really quite mild and extremely flavorful.

If you add a Crock-Pot to your equipment, as several have suggested, you can whip up wonderful meals with very little effort. Between that and a rice cooker, you can feed multitudes with very little work at all.

Excellent advice, especially to a beginner. I’ve never “stocked up” on spices, but just accumulating ones as needed has given me a range in my cupboard that’s even (mildly) impressed Angua’s mother.

Actually, I’d suggest much the same advice about equipment in general. Many items are about convenience and precision rather than necessity. Kalhoun’s list seems pretty good as a starting point, though I’d probably add another small pot to it. When I started to learn to cook, I managed with much that set of equipment. You can then add stuff over time as you see fit.
Not only is there stuff that you can work around - I probably use my garlic press more than anything else in the kitchen other than the knives, but you can crush garlic without one - quite a lot of stuff is benign from the point of view of upgrading. That cheap item you relegated to the back of the drawer or cupboard when you got a better one has a habit of becoming exactly that spare pot or whatever that you need in a squeeze.
The major exception to that rule is knives. Those are the tools you’ll get most intimate with and fussy about. At absolute minimum, as soon as possible buy a set that’s good enough to stick with.

If a set is too pricey (and it should be, for decent knives) get yourself a good 5" Chef’s knife first, followed by a paring knife. These will do 90% of your slicing and chopping jobs. Like these, for instance.

Buy your knives piece by piece, rather than in a set. The block sets, even if they’re incredibly high quality, will often have knives you won’t use. Get the ones you’ll know you’ll use. Currently, I make do with a 9" chef’s knife, an 11" slicer, a 4" paring knife, and a bread knife. I like Shun knives, but YMMV.

Always follow the Alton Brown law of kitchen utensils: The only unitasker in your kitchen should be the fire extinguisher.

For the hardware, I would start (but by no means end) by reading Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen. He gets into what you need, what you need it for, how to use it and how different brands rank. It may be a bit dated on some models (a few years old) but gives good overall advice.

I used my fire extinguisher to crush a ziplock bag full of walnuts Sunday afternoon…

You’re a fan of Alton Brown and you don’t have his answer to your OP? Mine has been collecting dust for a little while, mostly because I’m not in the position to fully equip my kitchen just yet. I speak of Alton Brown’s GEAR For Your Kitchen. I highly recommend it. If you can’t afford the book ($18) then you might not be ready to totally outfit your kitchen yet. If you want his advice on anything specific, I’d be happy to quote from the book. PM me if you’re looking for something in particular, I’ll see if AB has a take on the matter.
[sub]DrainBead, if you want to borrow my copy, I’d be happy to lend it to you.[/sub]

I swear those last two comments weren’t there when I was writing this. I’manass.

I went on a shopping trip today, and ended up throwing myself into it with a little more enthusiasm than is probably warranted. :o I now have many, many spices I did not have before, along with some veggies and fruits I usually don’t get. Gonna try a stir fry sometime this week, see how it turns out.

I didn’t go too nuts over gear, which is probably a good thing from the sound of it. I did find a block set of Kitchenaid Santoku knives; I suspect they’re of significantly lower quality than the Henckel knives silenus suggested despite the similar design. Remember, I’m going into this not with aspirations of becoming an excellent chef, but just to have some basic gear to function around the kitchen. I can buy the good stuff if/when I find myself needing it.

Threadkiller and dnooman, thanks for the pointer. I didn’t really consider looking for books, but that will probably be my next step in addition to finding good cast ironware.

You are going to have fun with those spices. Read up on them, do a little research on recipes, and then start experimenting!

Remember to keep your knives razor-sharp! As you get used to them, you will discover their weaknesses and strengths, and this will help you when you trade up to better ones.

Hit the Second-Hand stores and garage sales when you start looking for cast iron. Some real bargains to be found.

One thing I’d make sure of having is a fry pan with a lid (whether this is your cast-iron or some other pan is up to you). If you’re buying a new one, get one that’s moderately deep as well. Cooking a dish in a pan and then covering it is a very basic technique, but I’ve been surprised at a number of people’s kitchens that have fry pans without lids, and pots that are too small to do this sort of cooking.

One piece of equipment that I really find useful (especially if you’re a single person) is a toaster oven. It’s of far more use than a simple bread toaster. Toasting any item or baking small amounts in it is easy. It will produce better results by reheating than a microwave for some dishes.
Don’t forget wine for cooking too. Get moderately decent wines - something just above the cheapest - though the best wines for drinking are not necessarily the best for cooking. Stuff sold as cooking wine is okay, but have added salt and tend to lack decent wine flavor. You’ll want a screwtop bottle (or get some sort of re-sealing device) since you won’t use it all at once.

Very cheaply. The local dollar store has a pepper grinder, built into a package of pepper, for something like $1.75.

Excellent to boost the (mostly nonexistent) flavors of chicken breasts and pork loin.

Having seen Martin Yan routinely crush garlic cloves with a simple broad-side knife-smash, a garlic press should be waaaaaaaaaaay down on your list of needs.

I have to disagree. You won’t need anywhere near this variety of spices as a beginner. Add them as you need them (omitting or substituting probably won’t work).

I have a side note about knives. First, don’t confuse a sharpening stone with a honing steel. Honing is for straightening, sharpening is what it sounds like (taking material off the blade in order to sharpen it). If you bought high quality knives do not sharpen them yourself, unless you know what you are doing. It’s well worth the price of having a guy who loves to sharpen knives do it for you. An inexperienced person can take years off of a good knife’s life.

My Dad is so fond of knives and the various methods of sharpening them, that it’s almost unbelievable. He has walked into numerous stores and left with super high quality knives that the sellers just thought were average. He used to ask the knife store guys about hardness testing, and they had no idea what he was talking about.

Two anecdotes regarding the sharpness of my Dad’s knives:

When I was still in Boy Scouts, my family had a garage sale. The leader douche, I mean guy, stopped by our house and was looking at the various knives my Dad had out. He knew that my Dad was a knife expert, and was fair almost to a fault as far as pricing went. My Dad made sure to tell him (and anyone else that picked up a knife) that the knife he was holding was VERY sharp. If my Dad was prone to swearing, he would have said “fucking sharp”.

So, the guy (a cocky bastard even by my standards back then), starts handling an antler handled Buck slim blade with a curved back. He played with the knife for a while (lockback, with the blade out) and then he dropped it.

He didn’t drop it on the driveway. My head turned when I heard the sound. It was one of those “Oh’s” that last for three seconds. The knife was stuck in his upper thigh, DEEP. I’d be surprised if it didn’t go deep enough to possibly hit a bone. His khakis turned crimson very quickly. My Mom had to cut off his pant leg, and give him a temporary tourniquet. He went to get stitched up, and all was fine. That will always serve as a lesson to me about being cavalier with really sharp objects.

The other anecdote is much shorter. It was Thanksgiving, and my Dad had honed and sharpened the Gerber slicing knife that we had for the turkey. That thing could have split atoms. So, after dinner was over and people were going home, my friend came over. He’s not clumsy, but if something can be broken by way of carelessness, he might do it.

So, he came over,and most of us were still at the dining room table which was adjacent to the kitchen. He was killing time in the kitchen and accidentally bumped the handle of the main slicing knife. Everyone saw it happen, including him, and he tried to catch it. It fell to the floor, and he put it back onto the cutting board. I was negotiating my exit, and the older people were content with their coffee. after a few minutes, my friend held up his hands and said something like “Oh my God!”

When he tried to catch the knife (not a good idea) the blade made it’s mark. There was a pool of blood on the floor, and his hand was pretty badly cut. Luckily no tendons were severed. He was flayed open, and felt nothing, not even the slightest twinge of pain. He was fine afterwards, thankfully. He’s my go-to bass player, and a great one at that.

My Dad turns knives into razor blades, when a friend asked for my Dad to sharpen his knives we had to consider his kid, and made it clear that these could be potential killers if left in the hands of kids.

If anyone in my area needs their knives to be sharper than one could imagine, I can arrange it with ease.

Buy spices as you need them. Buy the ones that you’re going to use for a recipe, and go from there.

I consider that to be a minimum for a beginner. Any less and you’re just jerking off. Why limit yourself right off the bat? Spices are cheap if you buy them wisely. That means staying away from McCormick and Spice Islands and shopping the ethnic foods aisle of your megamart.