Bonus Post: Essential Tools for the Home Cook
There are thousands of kitchen tools out there, and there are always new ones coming out. How do you decide if you actually need a new tool or if you can do it just as well (or even better) with something you already have? Here’s my list of essential tools and why they’re so important.
I’m also including a second list at the bottom of stuff that is not necessary for a cook starting out, but it will be a good thing to have if you cook all the time or like to experiment. I love quality, but I also appreciate a good bargain. Heavy duty kitchen electrics like blenders and stand mixers can almost always be found refurbished and in perfect condition for less than half the price of a new item (for instance, my stand mixer is refurbished and has worked like new for 6 years now).
Also, it can be tempting to get the top-of-the-line everything because some companies want you to think anything else is total junk, but that’s not true. My rule for most of this stuff is to buy middle of the road. Don’t get the cheapest steak knives from Dollar General, but you also don’t need a $2000 knife block to cook great food! Unless you’re an award-winning chef (and really not even then), you don’t need that kind of stuff. Cuisinart, Kitchenaid, and OXO Good Grips have great small tools, and those are brands I tend to trust.
Blender: Perfect for smoothies, milkshakes, frozen drinks. You can also use it to make sauces, salad dressings, or even puree soup.
Canisters: If you ever bake, it is so much easier to keep canisters of your basics on the counter. Once I started storing dry baking ingredients like this, I found baking much less daunting. I keep 4 large canisters—one for flour, sugar, brown sugar, and oats.
Can opener: Not electric, just a sturdy handheld. (This is the one I use.)
Cast iron skillet: A 10-inch (or larger) cast iron skillet can be used for braising, pan frying, frittatas, pancakes, and even stir frying. (This is the one I use.)
Colander: I use mine for draining everything from pasta to canned beans, and I also use it to wash fruit like grapes. Most of the time, you can give the colander a quick rinse and put it right back in the cabinet.
Cutting boards: You should at least have 3—one dedicated to meat to avoid cross-contamination, plus one small and one large cutting board for everything else.
Dutch oven: Le Creuset 5 ½ quart comes to mind, but don’t freak about the price. You can find ones with very minor dings for about 60% off retail price if you go to the outlets or to stores like Home Goods or Marshalls. The Dutch oven (sometimes called a French oven) can be used for soup, braising meats, and even cooking bread. (This is the one I have, but I got it heavily discounted because it has a tiny chip on the rim.)
Electric hand mixer: As happy as I am to have my stand mixer, I use my hand mixer way more. Getting a good hand mixer and my dry ingredient canisters have made baking much more fun. The hand mixer is small, quick, and easy to clean, and it’s only about $30. (This is the one I use.)
Fine Mesh Strainers: Mine came in a set of 3. I use the small one for things like dusting powdered sugar. But I use the large one every single time I bake for sifting dry ingredients. If you only get one, get the large one. (I use these.)
Food processor: You may be able to get by without a food processor, but I don’t think I could. It’s perfect for grating parmesan cheese, pureeing soup, making sauce, or pureeing vegetables for soufflés or for baby food. If you get a good one and take care of it, it will last a very long time.
Glad Press and Seal: I’m not a brand snob, but Glad Press and Seal is so much better than regular plastic wrap. It creates an airtight seal, and it’s perfect for people who like to make things ahead or meal prep.
Glass casserole dishes: (at least one, but 2 is better). There are weeks when I don’t use a casserole dish, but often I’m using both at once. They’re so versatile and can be used for cakes, casseroles, baked pastas, chicken parmesan, or stuffing. I had one for a long time and bought a second before Thanksgiving one year. (These are the ones I use.)
Grater, box: I grate all my cheese myself. I always buy blocks of cheese (see my pantry basics) because it’s cheaper and much fresher tasting.
Grater, flat: A flat grater is how I zest fruit. I also use it for ginger, nutmeg, and garlic. I prefer it to a Microplane zester. (This is the one I use.)
Heavy duty foil: I don’t even bother with the regular foil because it always, always rips. Not only does heavy duty perform better, you can almost always reuse it. Unless it has perishable food remnants on it (like melted cheese or juice from raw meat), just fold it in half, and save it for next time!
Ice cream scoop with a trigger: This is great for portion control, not only with ice cream, but with things like rice and potatoes. (This is a good one.)
Indoor grill/grill top: This is perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches and quesadillas. But it’s also great if you are making protein for just 1 or 2 people, or if it’s raining outside and you had meat for grilling. (This is the one I use.)
Ladle (2): It’s always good to have a back-up, and you’ll use this not only for soups, but for rice, sauces, and even serving casseroles during the week.
Kitchen shears: It’s important to keep your food scissors separate from arts and crafts scissors. Kitchen shears are useful for snipping fresh herbs, dealing with kitchen twine, and dealing with raw meat and their containers. (This is the knife block I have.)
Knife, chef: This is the most important knife in your kitchen. You can get a nice knife block with all the knives I’ve listed for about $120. I would actually recommend having 2 chef knives, though: one for raw meat, and one for everything else. (This is the knife block I have.)
Knife, paring: These are great for handling small fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, strawberries, pears, and stone fruit. They don’t take up any room, and it will most likely come in a knife block. (This is the knife block I have.)
Knife, serrated: Serrated knives are best for cutting bread or large fruits like watermelon or pineapple. It will also probably come in a knife block. (This is the knife block I have.)
Knives, steak (4): This should be enough, and it will come in a knife block, too. (This is the knife block I have.)
Mason jars, assorted sizes: I can’t tell you how useful these are! I just started using them 2 years ago to make jar salads. But now I use them every single time I make a homemade marinade or dressing. They’ve got measures on the sides, and the seal is airtight. I have a variety of quart, pint, and half-pint by Ball.
Measuring cups, dry: A metal set with quarter, third, half, and cup measures should do the trick.
Measuring cups, liquid: If you only have one, get a 2 cup measure.
Measuring spoons: Essential for all baking (metal). (I use these.)
Pan (2-4 quart sauté): Perfect for browning meat, making an omelet, or cooking one or two pieces of protein.
Pan, baking (8×8 or 9×9 inches): A baking basic— perfect for brownies.
Pan, muffin: For muffins and cupcakes.
Pizza cutter: Perfect for quesadillas, too.
Plastic mixing bowls (as many as possible): I use these for everything from storing food to mixing salad or making a cake. (I use these.)
Pot (7 quart soup): For soups or boiling pasta.
Pot (2-3 quart sauce): For rice, sauce, or gravy.
Serving pieces: A good set of 6 is about $30.
Serving platters, assorted sizes: I say go for all white because it won’t go out of style. Think of what will go on it: snacks and appetizers for parties, large pieces of meat. Since they stack up nicely, get as many as you can. This is also a great thing to look for at Goodwill.
Sheet pans, stainless steel half size: Not only are these great for baking chicken, roasting veggies, and cooking frozen pizzas, they also can help add fridge space during the holidays because you can create shelves with them. I also use one every time I cook lasagna or any other similar dish to catch any spillover. You should get at least 3, but 5 is even better. (I use these.)
Slow cooker, 6 quart: If you don’t have a slow cooker, you are missing out. You can get one for under $50, and it’s perfect all year round for the easiest meals ever. I actually have 2 slow cookers -one old and one newer- and that’s super helpful when you have a large family! (This is the one I have.)
Slotted spoon, metal: Use for turning veggies while roasting, mixing a casserole or slaw-type salad. Also good for poaching eggs.
Slotted spoon, wooden: Use for turning veggies while roasting, mixing a casserole or slaw-type salad.
Silicone baking sheets: A must-have for baking. They’re so much easier to deal with than parchment paper, and I’d recommend getting 2. (I use these.)
Spatula, rubber: Get 2 if you can. I use it for omelets, cookie dough, and everything in between. (I use these.)
Spatula, metal: Perfect for lifting delicate things off baking sheets.
Tongs (Extra long for outdoor grilling): If you grill, you must have these.
Tongs (Metal tipped): Perfect for mixing salads, pastas, and picking up individual things.
Tongs (Rubber tipped): Perfect for mixing salads, pastas, and picking up individual things.
Vegetable peeler: For potatoes, carrots, and hard cheese.
Wire rack: At least one, but two is better. Use them to let hot food aerate after cooking. Also great for cooking bacon in the oven. (I use these, and they fit in my half sheet pans.)
Wire whisk: Good for hand mixing things that don’t need the electric mixer. Also good for mashing potatoes. (I use these.)
This next list is stuff that is definitely not necessary for a home cook, but it can become necessary if you start to venture out and cook for fun. The more you cook, the more you may feel like you need. But sometimes it’s good to step back and consider if something you already have can do the job as well or better than the specialty product.
Blender, high power: I don’t even have one of these yet, but I’m looking at a refurbished Blendtec, at about 75% cheaper than the new version.
Cake stand: I can’t say this is a must-have, but if you bake, it really is.
Dish, Soufflé: The name says it all. You can cook soufflé in a small casserole dish, but it just won’t look as pretty. This is also something that would be great to look for at Goodwill.
Dish, trifle: This shows off the food really well, and it’s great for parties. This is also a great thing to look for at Goodwill.
Food grinder, mini: I use mine all the time for grinding up things like flax seeds and lavender. But less adventurous cooks can do without one. (I use this one.)
Griddle: Not a necessity, but I love this griddle/grill/waffle iron combo from Cuisinart.
Ice cream maker: Not necessary, but fun to have, especially if you have kids.
Knife, Santoku: This will actually probably come in your knife block. (This is the knife block I have.)
Mandolin: This is necessary if you love salad or you want to make scalloped potatoes. (I have this one.)
Mixer, electric stand: This is necessary for making Belgian waffles, pizza dough, whipped cream, whipped potatoes, and lots of other things. You can get by for a while with just a hand mixer, but if you get serious about cooking, you’ll want a stand mixer. (I have a refurbished Kitchenaid.)
Pan, Bundt: These are just fun for making festive cakes, breads, and retro gelatin molds. (This is the one I have.)
Pan, loaf: If you want to cook anything like banana bread or zucchini bread, this is necessary.
Pan, pie: Also great for egg casseroles, cookie pies, and spinach artichoke dip! A great thing to get a Goodwill.
Reusable silicone muffin cups: Better for the environment. Also good for packing kids’ lunches. (I use these.)
Rolling pin, French: Much better than a standard rolling pin because it’s all one piece, it’s longer and thinner. (I have this one.)
Slow cooker, small: Good if your family is small. Also good for things like queso dip.
Spatula, offset: If you like to bake, this will quickly become necessary. (This is the one I have.)
Steamer, bamboo: Until last year, I’d never thought I’d use this. I got it for steaming fish, but I now steam all my fruits and veggies in it, too. (This is the one I have.) Also make sure you get the ring and the parchment rounds.
Vegetable slicer, spiral: A fun way to eat veggies. If you’re gluten-free (I’m not), this is probably a necessity. (This is the one I have.)
Waffle iron: Not just for waffles, but also fun for grilled cheese–lots of crispy edges. (I love this combo.)
Now tell me, is there anything you can’t live without that I didn’t include on the lists?