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The Paleo Starter Kit, Part I: A Functional Paleo Kitchen

So you’ve been inspired to eat real food: a paleo diet.

Great! You’re taking a big step towards better health and more energy.

But as you survey your kitchen, you realize that your refrigerator contains only beer and condiments, your freezer is full of precooked industrial products, your pantry is full of bread and pasta, you’re eating out all the time anyway—and suddenly you’re expected to instantly know how to cook all your own food from scratch when you can’t even use the few recipes you know?

Fear not! We are eating like predators, but that doesn’t mean we have to eat raw wildebeest out of a mud puddle that an elephant crapped in.

Let’s get started!

Kitchen Tools and Utensils

You don’t need a cupboard full of gadgets to cook and eat delicious food. I am all about the 80% solution: 20% of the effort (and cash outlay) solves 80% of your problems. And frankly, these are tools you should own no matter what kind of food you cook.

For your convenience, I provide links to purchase many of these supplies from Amazon…but if you can find them cheaper locally, go for it! (All links and recommendations are up to date as of 2/2013.)

I assume you already have a functional stove and oven, and some basic kitchen supplies like a 3-quart saucepan, measuring cups and spoons, and a dish brush.

  • You must have a good 12″ covered skillet.
    If you’re a kitchen klutz who will burn or scratch a non-stick pan, get a cast-iron skillet. (Here’s the glass cover.) Cast iron takes longer to heat up, heats less evenly, and it’s more trouble to keep clean and seasoned, but you’ll never completely destroy it and it’ll sear a steak better. (Seasoning and maintaining cast iron is a whole another article in itself.)
         However, I recommend a non-stick skillet: it heats up more evenly, cleans up more quickly, and is far more convenient to use. Non-stick cookware requires careful care, though: you must be careful to never overheat it, and you must NEVER use metal utensils. This one is quite usable, and here’s what I have. And here is a nylon spatula if you don’t already own one.
  • You must have a decent chef’s knife, and a steel to keep it sharp.
    You don’t need a $100+ Henckels, Shun, or Wusthof so long as it’s forged, high-carbon stainless and you know how to sharpen it. This is the cheapest usable set I’ve found because it includes the steel. If you’ve got a higher budget, I’ve owned these for over ten years. (They are likely to last the rest of my life.) And you can spend as much as you like…but if you want a handmade work of art, not just an expensive brand name, I would go here.
         Note that you only need one chef’s knife: think of the smaller ones in the set as slightly inferior backups.
  • You must have at least two large cutting boards.
    This lets you dedicate one board to meat, so you don’t have to worry about cross-contamination. Also, an outer groove is important when you’re cutting lots of meat so you don’t get blood on your counter.
         Wood is more hygenic, being naturally antibacterial, but you must keep it oiled or it’ll split—and if it doesn’t have rubber “feet”, you must prop it up to dry or it’ll warp. Here’s a reasonably priced, usable set: some swankier alternatives are here and here.
         Plastic harbors far more bacteria than wood (reference—hat tip to reader Scotlyn), but it’s dishwasher-safe and nearly impossible to ruin. These are good and well-priced.
  • You must have refrigerator storage containers to hold meat, veggies, and leftovers.
    Stretching plastic wrap over bowls and plates gets old quickly: Gladware, Takealongs, and Ziploc are the three big brands of reusable containers. Get two that are large enough to hold a roast or a steak, several that are large enough to hold a few vegetables, like a partially-used onion, pepper, and avocado, and several to hold individual servings of food so you can freeze them, take them to work, or just store leftovers. Stay away from off-brands: they often don’t seal correctly.
         These will be much cheaper at the supermarket—but if you can’t find the big ones, try here (click on “Large Rectangle”).
  • You must have a 6-quart or larger slow cooker.
    Get the kind with the lid that seals tightly: I like this one. (Here’s one with a thermometer shutoff, which is convenient but more expensive.) The inner ceramic pot doubles as an oven-safe container for roasts, stews, and chili.

Cooking Fats

Since seed oils are now off limits, you’ll need some delicious saturated fats to cook with!

  • You must have at least one pound of butter in your refrigerator at all times.
    This rule is not negotiable. Butter is cheap, it’s available everywhere, and it makes everything taste better. (Yes, there are paleo purists who eschew butter: unless you’re frankly allergic, I view this as re-enactment, not science.)
         The downside of butter is that it burns at a relatively low temperature, so you’ll have to limit your high-temperature frying and sauteeing, or use something else, like…
  • Strongly consider coconut oil.
    Virgin oil tastes like coconut and burns a bit more easily…refined oil is more neutral-tasting and stands up better to hotter cooking temperatures. There are some claimed health benefits to the virgin/unrefined stuff, but it’s tough to cook with unless you want everything to taste like coconuts. I use organic refined coconut oil for most of my cooking.
         Grocery stores often hide coconut oil in the “health food” section. If you can’t find it, I buy mine here.
  • Consider ghee.
    Ghee is butter from which the residual proteins, sugars, and water have been removed (‘clarified butter’), leaving only pure butterfat. It’s frequently used in Indian cooking, and is suitable for high-temperature cooking and frying. And it’s delicious!
         Ghee is hard to find except at Indian markets: you can buy some here, and the big jar here. Make sure it’s real ghee: there exist synthetic seed-oil based ghee substitutes which are equivalent to margarine, and which are just as unhealthy.
         It’s actually not difficult to make your own ghee from regular store-bought butter: you can make a big batch in about half an hour. Here’s a tutorial: the more you make at once, the easier it is to just pour off the ghee, as the solids mostly stay at the bottom.
  • Consider beef tallow, preferably grass-fed.
    Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to find because of rampant saturated fat phobia, but it’s my favorite cooking fat for meat dishes and potatoes. I only know one source, and it’s expensive, costing over $10/pound for 2.25 pounds (but under $3/pound if you buy 5 gallons). If you have time, you can wet-render your own: here’s a tutorial.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.

JS

Are you getting hungry? Yes, you are. Continue to Part II: “The Paleo Scramble”, A Basic Technique For Real-World Cooking.


Have I missed something important? How can I improve this list? Please let me know by leaving a comment!

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37 comments to The Paleo Starter Kit, Part I: A Functional Paleo Kitchen
  • Wati

    “…but that doesn’t mean we have to eat raw wildebeest out of a mud puddle that an elephant crapped in.”

    That is so funny I burst out laughing!

    Liking your blog a lot. Keep up the excellent writing.

  • Jake

    Measuring spoons.

    I like to have three sets so I do not need to keep washing them while doing a recipe.

  • Wati:

    Thank you!  One of the unintended consequences of decades of terrible health advice (eat 'low-fat' foods, avoid red meat and saturated fat, do endless 'cardio' on machines while indoors) is that being healthy becomes miserable drudgery.  Good health and diet should be joyous and life-affirming!  If it isn't, we're doing it wrong.

    Jake:

    That's a good hint for people who have got serious about their cooking, but I don't think it's the first thing you buy.  Since you're obviously into cooking, I look forward to your input on Part II!

    JS

  • Jessi Hance

    I’ve always steered clear of non-stick cookware, so I’m glad to see your recommendation for a covered cast-iron skillet. Your links are very useful. Hope they’re affiliate links so you can get a few pennies.

  • Jake

    Since I am new to cooking I follow the recipes exactly so that takes a lot of measuring spoons.

  • Jessi:

    I personally find non-stick to be much easier and more practical for everyday cooking — but since people have very strong beliefs on the subject, I prefer to give multiple options.  

    And there are those people who repeatedly turn the burner up to HIGH and get distracted by the television, or who can't resist using that metal spatula “just this once” because they don't feel like scrubbing off the plastic one.  Reseasoning a skillet is a PITA, but it's cheaper than buying a new one.

    Jake:

    That makes sense.  Maybe I don't mind because my sink is right next to my stove.

    JS

  • Alex

    Is there any reason lard isn’t on your list of acceptable fats?

  • Kenny Younger

    Alex – exactly. When you eat 1/3 lb of bacon each morning, you end up with a ton of the best cooking fat in the world. I probably have 20 lbs of it stored in cans in my freezer. Not sure why, really, other than it seems like a waste to throw out :)

    Other great options: duck fat, lardo (cured pork fat), and honestly a little cold-pressed organic olive oil is a tasty option once in a while.

  • Alex, Kenny:

    I use much of the bacon fat when I cook bacon…but for cooking, I prefer tallow to lard because of the substantially lower n-6 PUFA content of tallow, and because store-bought lard is inevitably partially hydrogenated.  I wrote about this in more detail last time the subject came up, over here.

    That being said, I'd love to try leaf lard someday!

    JS

  • Cheese

    Not sure where you got the idea that cast iron heats less evenly. In my experience, and that of family knowledge is that iron distributes heat the best, although unwieldy in other ways.

    And these days you can buy pre-seasoned iron. Though I’ve never given it a go since I’ve inherited my set from my grandparents.

    Of course, I’m not a newbie to cooking and I’ve got my own zealotry — plus my big iron skillet is the only pan I have that’s large enough to cook an entire pound of bacon in one go. Good intro for other folks definitely.

  • 042611 – Tuesd

    [...] next step is to read my “Paleo Starter Kit”, so you’ll know what to do with all that [...]

  • Againstthegrain

    For a lot of reasons, I ditched plastic food storage containers a few years ago (except for a few I keep around that can be given away without need for returning). The final straw was when my new dishwasher flipped every plastic container upright, filling them with dirty water, no matter how I positioned and weighed them down when loading the racks.

    I replaced with glasslock tempered clear glass storage containers. These clear tempered glass containers have air-tight and leak-proof silicone gasket sealed plastic lids that lock down securely. They are great for freezer and fridge food storage, as well as storing dry foods in the cabinet. I think glasslock containers look nicer on the table than plastic, too. My husband packs his lunch in glasslock. The tempered glass is microwave safe, but not oven safe like Pyrex (though I’ve safely used the glass containers (covered with foil, not the plastic lids) in the oven at very low temp to keep food warm). Many of the newer container versions have sloped sides so they can “nest” with other containers when empty, saving storage space.

    Glasslock containers are sold individually at some grocery stores (see importer’s website below). Plus I’ve seen them at Bed, Bath & Beyond; The Container Store; Target (plus some two container sets that nest); on Amazon.com and other online retailers (Kinetic). Costco has been selling very good starter sets at an excellent price (occasionally with an instant or coupon discount).

    While tempered glass containers cost a bit more than the quality plastic storage containers, I’ve found with reasonable care, they are quite durable and economical in the long run (even with a grumbling and often careless 6th grader unloading the d/w most days). The company even replaced one of my lids for free when I inquired about obtaining a replacement lid for one that was inadvertently thrown out at a potluck party.

    This is a link for the importer-distributer for the US: http://www.dooilusa.com/2product/product.html

  • Againstthegrain:

    I agree that the Glasslock containers are great, and I might get a few of them for regular refrigerator-leftover duty.  

    I'm a bit nervous about freezing glass containers, though, like when I make a big pot of chili and freeze individual servings.  Also, I don't think the largest size is big enough for a tri-tip, which is critical for me.  But I'll check them out next time I'm at Costco.

    Thanks for the sourcing information!  You can get most things from Amazon, but small kitchen stuff is usually much more expensive there than it is locally.

    JS

  • Carol

    I recently bought a Earth Chef, ceramic skillet. Non stick, safe in the oven to 1000 degrees and contains no toxic or hazardous materials (at least that is what it says on the packaging.)

    Since I purchased it, it’s pretty much been the only frying pan I’ve used. Much lighter than the cast iron pan, you won’t get an arm workout, but if you are using other non-stick pans you’ll love being able to crank the heat and not worry about what kind of chemical essense you’re adding to your food.

  • Carol:

    Interesting!  I'm looking into the ceramic and porcelain coated stuff: I'm seeing mixed reviews depending on the type and manufacturer.  If I find one that works reliably I'll add it to the list.

    JS

  • Edward

    I am surprised you did not mention Stainless Steel skillet! I loathe nonstick skillet! they wear out fast even if I used nylon spatula and I don’t overheat. I don’t know why I own nonstick and lately I have learned they are not MOST SAFEST, but can become dangerous toxic over the time due to wear and tear. you don’t want that!

    Cast Iron skillets has been used by people over hundred decades and are very safest cookware and you get some iron as nutrient when cooking in them. I just bought Lodge cast iron skillet couple weeks after my nonstick finally show signs of wear and tears after 2 yrs probably cheap brand Cucina?

    Yes, it’s PITA to season the cast iron every time after cooking. Also buying new one prevent you from cooking anything that is acidic like tomatoes, lemons such like that till it is well seasoned over the time before cooking them.

    I have fond memories of using 12″ Revere copper-clad stainless steel that my mother owned and has been in the family for decades. That memories has me considering getting Revere copper-clad SS cookware set for sure. Stainless Steel cookware is easy to care and is ready to cook anything including acidic foods! http://www.shopworldkitchen.com/revere

    I am also considering stoneware for baking: http://www.traditionalcook.com/stoneware.shtml

  • John P

    I good cast iron skilled properly seasoned and cared for can last a lifetime…and you can cave in a skull with one if you need to. Just sayin.

  • Dave RN

    I keep a seperate smaller cast iron skillet just for cooking eggs. Once seasoned with tallow, it’s as non stick as any of the non stick pans. Back when I though vegitable oils were the way to go I tried to season with that, but it just doens’t work. You gotta use tallow.
    You can get suet (the fat from around the cows kidneys) when you order your half a beef for your freezer. I took 11 lbs of it, rendered half of it and still have lots left. I put some chuncks in a little glass jar and keep it by the stove…

  • Dana

    Ditto what Dave said. When I was growing up we used soybean oil on our cast iron. Don’t ask me why. Both my dad and my stepmother came from farming families. Dad still uses soybean oil for seasoning, to this day. The finish on his cast iron is sticky and unpleasant. I’d heard it was supposed to be mirrorlike but had NEVER been able to achieve that. Then I started cooking in butter, and later coconut oil. Bingo. Animal fat probably works a bit better than coconut oil, but if you’re going to use a plant oil it needs to be mostly saturated. (I find pork fat works pretty OK too, even though it’s less than fifty percent saturated!)

  • Edward:

    Stainless is great, and it does last forever…it's just a bother to keep clean.

    John, Dave, Dana:

    Apparently there are two schools of thought on the seasoning: the “use heavily polyunsaturated oil and cook it until it turns to varnish” school, and the “just keep a lot of saturated fat on there” school.  I don't have enough experience to have an opinion.

    JS

  • Paul Lee

    Reading Kenny’s comment earlier about storing fat reminded me of my Grandma’s fat pot in her fridge, which was constantly topped up for roasts. As kids (in the UK) we were fed “dripping” bread which was beef dripping spread on bread, sometimes with a little salt. Just a shame about the bread!

  • @Paul – “Dripping Bread” is gorgeous! We used to call it a “Mucky Fat Sandwich”, which I think is mentioned in the wiki for dripping. You can get good dripping in the UK – Britannia brand, carried by most supermarkets. It's beef dripping.

    I keep the fat rendered from bacon and from sausages in a ramekin in the fridge – I fry mushrooms in it, which soaks it up beautifully and seems to bring out a real nutty flavour in chestnut mushrooms.

  • MDFaraone

    For those looking for a good non-stick skillet I HIGHLY suggest the T-fal Signature series, or any of T-Fal’s higher end pans, I have had mine for two years,take great care of them and they still look and perform like brand new, Americas Test Kitchen on PBS also tested about a dozen pans under $30 and the T-Fal was by far the winner. They had to stop the test after frying 76 eggs consecutively with no oil and still NONE stuck, the runner up pan stalled at 42. As mentioned by JS though, DO NOT cook on high heat and DO NOT use metal utensils and these pans will last forever and are, in my opinion, 100x less aggravating than cooking with cast iron.

  • MDFaraone:

    T-Fal seems to make some pretty good pans, certainly for the price.  I like the lifetime guarantee on my Calphalon, but then again, I got it for $50 back when they sold it as a loss leader to get you into their other high-end stuff.  Today I'd probably just get the T-Fal, as I take good care of my non-stick.

    Ikea non-stick, on the other hand…

    JS

  • Scotlyn

    Excellent advice – and I love my cast iron skillet!

    I have to disagree with you about chopping boards, though. I live in a fishing village, in which the word came down from on high, a few years ago. EU bureaucrats, in their wisdom, had decided that all wooden filleting stations, wooden filleting knives and wooden fish boxes must go, and be replaced by plastic. Unfortunately, this led to fish processing areas that were much more difficult to decontaminate and to de-”smell”, as it turns out the traditional wooden tools and filleting boards were naturally antiseptic and antibacterial, certainly far more so than plastic, especially once it has been scored by a knife. (Also, apparently, the unriveted plastic handled knives wouldn’t hold their edge as long as the wooden handled ones – anecdotally from fish filleters paid piecework rates).

    I never oil my wooden butcher block kitchen counters – yes, my whole kitchen is one big wooden chopping board! I just wipe with a damp cloth, and, if any residues remain, scrape with a dry kitchen “scratchie”. I always make sure the surface is bone dry before each new use.

  • Scotlyn:

    I'm jealous of your kitchen.

    And that's a very interesting article!  I'll have to spend some more time reading the references, but it's possible that I'll end up revising my recommendations.

    JS

  • I have a couple of large wooden boards and a thick butchers' block. Very occasionally, I oil the two daily use chopping boards.

    I tried plastic a number of years ago when they became the new sliced bread and just didn't get on with it. I found my knives slipped and after some use the frayed plastic could get into food. Not good.

    I view plastic boards much like margerine! It seemed like a good thing at the time, but as it turns out … the old wisdom, tried and tested over generations is the best.

  • Maggie

    We have become hooked to making bone broths in our slow cooker. I can’t imagine our kitchen without one!

  • Paul:

    Yes, the research Scotlyn linked to looks pretty convincing.  I'll probably revise my recommendations.

    Maggie:

    Slow cookers are great…and if you replace the plastic knob on the cover with a ceramic one, you can even take out the inner pot and put it in the oven for better temperature control.  I do this a lot.

    JS

  • typeogirl

    Just wanted to let everyone know you can buy jars of organic ghee at Whole Foods. There is a delicious brand of grassfed ghee available by this manufacturer at some stores around the US http://www.pureindianfoods.com/index.shtml. I also wanted to say that I have a ceramic knife, it is one of the best things I have ever purchased, I hardly use any other knifes now, it makes slicing anything so easy and saves so much time. But a ceramic knife does have limitations, so I cannot get rid of my other knives altogether.

  • Tracy

    Re: non-stick pans: I just got a Green Pan (mineral-based non-stick coating) and I LOVE it. You can use it on high heat, won’t blister or peel. I usually use cast iron for steaks, but tried searing in this pan and it worked great (though, I still prefer cast iron for meat). Wipes clean with a paper towel – just awesome.

    I would say another item that is essential for the kitchen is a ramekin (well, ramekins) – great for holding herbs, spices, veggies etc that you’ve cut up during prep, great for serving small side dishes, great for lots fo things… and you can get ‘em at a dollar store.

    Another – a silicone muffin pan. Why? For freezing ‘pucks’ of bone broth. Pour 1/4 – 1/2 cup of broth in each muffin cup, stick in freezer, then pop out the pucks when frozen and store in a big ziploc in the freezer (they’ll peel right out of the cup). Super easy to grab a puck or two when you need them and chuck them in a pot. They are also great for freezing single servings of, say, chicken liver mousse.

  • typeogirl:

    You’re right about the limitations.  Ceramic knives are great for cutting…but you can’t use them for boning, or for anything where the blade might hit something hard.  And yes, real ghee is delicious!

    Tracy:

    The “green” non-stick pans I’ve seen get terrible reviews because the non-stick doesn’t like to stay on the pan…do you mean the Ozeri version?  Because it seems to be the best of the lot — and even there, a meaningful number of the reviews say that the coating either stopped working or flaked off relatively quickly.

    Ozeri seems to be replacing the unhappy customers’ pans, but I’m still skeptical.  Plus Calphalon just replaced my 12″ skillet, and it has a lifetime warranty.  Now that I have a cast iron skillet I use that to cook bacon and sear hamburgers (I also use it with a rack for prime rib).  Anything with eggs goes in the Calphalon.

    I've seen the muffin tin trick done with spaghetti sauce and chili, too.  I eat way too much, though, (these days I'd go through an entire 12-pack of frozen chili “muffins”, so I use the Takealongs.

    JS

  • Formidable

    J,

    Quick question: Any thoughts on Chris Kresser's cookware post?

    I love my anodized aluminum pan (per your recommendation!) and am loathe to toss it. Any thoughts on the absolute risk of my pan? Any thoughts on alternatives?

    (FYI: I have cast iron and treat it well, but it doesn't compared to my anodized skillet in non-stick-iness and low-maintenance-iness. Also, I have family members (who I hope aren't reading this post!) who aren't diligent about pan care when it comes to my cast iron.)

    Thanks!
    @

  • Formidable:

    PFOA is indeed a suspicious chemical (and we will hopefully learn a lot more about it this year), but Teflon pans are a trivial source of it in our environment — and probably aren't an important source in our bodies AFAIK.  See this table of typical PFOA content, which shows that butcher paper (and food contact paper of all kinds, including microwave popcorn bags) can contain thousands of times more PFOA than Teflon.  

    Also note that the main sources in our environment are “stain repellent” carpet and upholstery treatments, sealants for stone, tile, and wood, food contact paper…and there's a lot more PFOA in dental floss than there is in Teflon cookware!

    In support of this, wastewater treatment plants emit more PFOA than they take in, because it's a breakdown product of all these carpet and fabric treatments.  (There's no PFOA in Teflon: it's a chemical used in manufacturing.)

    My opinion: be very careful not to burn your Teflon pans, and don't use any that are losing their “shine” or flaking, whether from overheating or long use.  However, as of now, I'm much more concerned about the carpeting and furniture in my house and workplace, and about the use of “wax paper” and dental floss.

    That being said, I use cast iron for bacon and for searing meat, because a 12″ Lodge skillet costs only $20 and can withstand high temperatures without risk of damage.  The Calphalon comes out when I need to fry eggs or veggies.  And I see no need for Teflon saucepans, deep-fryers, or anything else.

    JS

  • Mitch

    I get the convenience of non-stick pans but can’t trust the chemical processes used for any of the surfaces; I do not want to be a chemistry experiment. I prefer the traditional cast iron, and I am so used to them that I find the seasoning on balance no more time consuming than the effort to avoid using the wrong utensil with the non-sticks.

    Another benefit (or so I have heard) of cast iron is that thye provide an extra source of iron in the diet. Not so important in the grass fed red meat paleo world but still a plus, especially for menstrating women.

  • Mitch:

    I love my cast iron too — but no matter what its partisans claim, eggs simply won't slide off the way they do with a good non-stick pan.  Personally, I'm a lot more concerned about what's cooking in the pan…though I'm open to being proven wrong.

    JS

  • [...] next step is to read my “Paleo Starter Kit”, so you’ll know what to do with all that meat.) Postscript: More [...]

  • Lala

    Hey…just wanted to put in my 2 cents on the nonstick/cast iron/steel thing in the comments here.

    There are other options for those who don’t like either…Real Pyrex CorningWare and Pyrex Visions are ceramic and glass that is safe for oven, microwave, and stovetop…in fact the Pyrex Visions glass that I have is resistant enough to heat shock that it can go from freezer to oven (or at least was advertised as such back in the day!)

    Digging this site, by the way!

  • Lala:

    I haven't used any of those since I was little…what advantages do they offer over, say, stainless steel?

    Thank you for the support!  I can see the web statistics, but it's always good to hear directly from my readers.

    JS

  • Ana

    What about grilling? Doesn’t the smaller direct contact between the meat and the hot metal have its advantages too? :)

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