Yes, you can make a great dinner using a small set of kitchen tools. It may take you a little longer, not as precise or cumbersome at times, but you still can do it. This article is about equipping your kitchen with the essential tools, and then building as you can by adding other tools that really make life easier in the kitchen.
I started out with the bare minimum and now I have taken over every nook and cranny in my house to store everything I have. Have I gone over board? Yes. But now you can benefit from my experiences and we can chalk my cooking obsession up to research. And now perhaps I can now start diverting those funds to buying a new wardrobe. ; )
** Note: Please see my “Common CookingTerms and Techniques” for definitions on terms used in this post/page. **
If you are just starting out on your own or with a partner, this section is for you. Chances are you will be able to find most of these in your parent(s) kitchen as duplicates or even triplicate, and if you ask really nice, you may be able to walk away with a solid starter kit.
I cover this in-depth in my “Pots and Pans” page. Below is an except for the basics:
- Large stockpot 12 – 16 quart (pasta, large batches of sauce, soups)
- Medium sauce pan 5 – 6 quart (heating up sauce, soups, making sauces, simple syrup, caramel..)
- 12 inch saute/omelet pan (Pan searing meat, browning, roasting, reducing sauce, Sauteing, omelets, Eggs any style, pancakes..)
- 8 inch saute/omelette pan (Same as 12 in but for smaller quantities)
- Roasting Pan 6 – 8 quart (browning meat, braising, roasting..)
- Cast Iron Grill/Griddle Pan Combo (indoor grilling, pancakes, Broiling food, skewers, Grilled veggies..)
SETS The most economical method to get started. Chose a known brand set (OXO, Calphalon, All-Clad, KitchenAid, etc.) to be sure you are getting something that will last. Unknown, you may be replacing the set or the most used items sooner than later. Check construction. If it has a wooden or stainless steel handle attached to a Nylon spoon, then don’t buy it. Over time, if not immediately, the utensil will not feel safe or sturdy in your hand. You want a solid constriction where you can trust it will not give out on you. Safety is a factor as you will be using these to handle very hot food and liquids.
Which Material to Chose?
There are multiple types of materials available, which is best? Below is the list of common materials and the pros and cons of each. There is no rule you only have to have one type in your house. Each has their use.
These utensils are made of a heat-resistant nylon material.
- Safe on any cooking surface (non-stick, speciality pans)
- Can be found anywhere
- Dishwasher safe
- Many colors available
- Heat Resistant, does not mean Heat Proof. They can still curl/melt when used at high temperatures if left in contact with the surface of the cooking surface for too long.
- Some spatulas are not stiff enough to really scrape up the food stuck on the bottom of the pan
- Bits will cake on to the front edge of the spatula and if not cleaned right away, difficult to remove making the spatula no longer ideal for flipping omelets or pancakes, as you cannot get under the food.
- May have to replace certain items in the set
- Not great when using to prepare baking items (mixing cookie dough, bread dough, etc..)
Silicone (NOT RUBBER)
Silicone is a material that is very heat-resistant up to about 500 degrees. Rubber is not. So do not mistake the rubber spatulas you use to scrape your cake batter out of a bowl for the silicone spatulas. The rubber spatulas will be destroyed when in contact with heat.
- Very heat-resistant
- Safe on any cooking surface (non-stick, speciality pans)
- Flexible, yet sturdy
- Tons of colors
- Can be found anywhere
- Dishwasher safe
- Lasts a long time
- Non-stick, food & sauces slide right back into the pan
- Can be used for cooking or baking prep
- Limited types of utensils available (typically available in spatula form)
- Not good at scraping up stuck on bits
Made of wood. When selecting wooden, you want to make sure it is smooth (do not want splinters), without a finish, as the finish may come off in the cooking. It should be solid wood.
- Very heat-resistant – except for direct contact with flame for obvious reasons
- Safe on any cooking surface (non-stick, speciality pans)
- Can scrape up the stuck on bits
- Can be found anywhere
- Lasts forever
- Good for baking prep and cooking
- Only color is wood, different shade of wood, but wood
- Not Dishwasher Safe – must be hand washed or it will warp
- Lighter colors can stain (tomato sauce), not a big deal for me, but putting it out there
- Food sticks, you can clean it ok, but when cooking, food will stick
Metal (typically stainless steel)
Wooden and Metal used to be the only options. Everyone one everywhere has metal utensils around. The quality has improved over the years and they are great when they are great – mainly – BARBECUE. This is the first time I mentioned and stressed a must have in this section. Metal is really the only material I recommend for outdoor barbecue, no matter open flame or not. You need at least ONE metal spatula, ONE metal tong, and ONE metal fork for flipping those burgers, steaks, etc!
If you do not cook outside over a grill, then these are not a must. I am sad to hear that, but for some it is just not possible (like living in NYC).
- About as heat-resistant as you get
- Sturdy and some can be surprisingly flexible depending on the design
- Can scrape up the stuck on bits like a pro
- Can be found anywhere
- Lasts forever
- Dishwasher safe
- The only choice for grilling
- Frying Foods
- NOT Safe on any cooking surface (non-stick, speciality pans)
- Only color is metal
Basic Sets Typically Include:
I say flat, because I am referring to the type of spatula you would use to flip a burger or pancake. It can be slotted (holes or slits). It can be angled up at the end (such as you would use for flipping fish). In addition to flipping things, it is also used in stir-frying, scrapping up the bits when you deglaze a pan, pressing down on foods as they cook to get a good sear on foods.
This is a spoon with the holes or slits in it. The purpose of this is to “strain” the liquid, oil, juice, sauce from the item in the spoon. For example, if you want to remove the solid items from a stock/soup/sauce, capture it with the slotted spoon, let the liquid drain in the pan, and discard the solid item. Another example is when removing an item from the fryer or frying pan where you want to leave the oil behind.
An over sized spoon. Use this when you DO want sauce on your plate or just stirring. You can also use for stir-frying and transferring sauces/liquids in small quantities from one container to the next.
A ladle (of any size) is used mainly for transferring soups or gravy from one container to another (like a bowl). You can also use it to scoop up batter and pour on to the griddle for pancakes, crepes, waffles, etc.. OR to pour a glaze over a cake or donuts.
This is the funny looking spoon/fork combo you see with holes/slots. It kind of looks like the top jaw of a ‘gater. Any time you have long strands of something you want to remove from a liquid/sauce, this is your tool. The obvious application is with pasta. It can be used instead of a strainer to transfer the pasta from the water to the pan with the sauce, you will still carry a little of the pasta water which is OK as it thickens the sauce. The teeth help to grab the long strands, unlike a spoon where it will just slide off. However, if you want to strain it all with no left over water – use a strainer, it is faster. I
Recommended add-ons to your Basic Set:
Rubber / Silicone Spatulas
I covered the difference between rubber and silicone above in the materials section. If you have a rubber spatula already, you can understand the benefits of a flexible spatula. It can get all the good stuff out of a bowl, pan, dish that a regular spoon can not remove. I have several.
Rubber spatulas are good for COLD or room temperature items. It is not made to withstand heat, ie: working with candy, stove top, etc.. If you have it, keep it. However, supplement it with silicone spatulas. If you don’t have any – just by the silicone, as they can be used for all temperatures.
I like the spoonulas (the spatulas that are curved like a spoon) as they allow for multiple uses. Not just scraping, but scooping as well.
Sizes: Invest in multiple sizes. You can get by with 3. A small (1.5 in long and 1 in wide), medium (2 – 2.5 in long and 1.5 – 2 in wide) and large (3 – 4 in long and 2 – 3 in wide). The small one is great for use in the small and mini choppers and small prep bowls. The medium and large are better for larger containers.
It is not just for rolling out pie dough. An old-fashioned heavy wooden rolling-pin is a great asset in the kitchen. Yes, rolling out dough is the most common use. With all the pre-made dough in your supermarket, you can make fresh pizza, cookies, pies, etc.. quickly. But you will need to roll them out.
In addition I have a post “Not so Fresh Breads” that provides another use for rolling pins – making your own bread crumbs out of day old bread.
You can also use it to crush dried cereals to make a coating for chicken, fish, etc.. Or for crushing nuts for toppings, coatings, mixing into breads, cookies, etc.
Using it lightly, you can use it to tenderize meat, or flatten out meats for carpaccios or just to make different pieces the same thickness.
This is the quickest way to mince garlic, but be sure to do over a bowl so you can capture all the wonderful juice that comes with it. I also use a garlic press on olives, ginger, capers, sardines/anchovies when making caesar salad or if I do not have an electric chopper available. You can even use it as a mini juicer.
I love this tool. I use it for everything. In fact I use it to remove pasta instead of the pasta fork. I like it better. One of the primary benefits is also when handling meat. When I was first learning to cook, I used a fork to flip steaks, chicken, pork, etc. What I did not know then that I do now is that every time I poked that meat with a fork, I lost precious juice and flavor. About 7 years ago, I found the tongs. Always had them, never thought of using them. But now I do. I find it the most valuable tool in my kitchen, and I have several. Different lengths and different finishes. I have just regular stainless steel (my favorite), but then I also have the rubberized/silicone tipped. I use these for non-stick surfaces… however, I still have not found one that grasps as well as the regular stainless steel.
Yes – add these to your kitchen. When purchasing, check to make sure when you press the ends together, they touch firmly. If they give or bend at all, move on to the next, as food (such as pasta) will slide out and frustrate you.
Kitchen sheers are sharp scissors committed for just kitchen use. No crafts as you can cause cross contamination. Some selections also have a slight serrated edge. So many uses for these:
Cutting twine (before and after use)
Breaking down chicken, cutting fins of fish (be sure to sanitize after using with raw meats/poultry/fish)
Cutting the stems off flowers
Cutting into rolled out pastry/dough for shaping or trimming
Using for shaping any food item for decorations
And the list goes on
No need to break the bank here. You can go to your local hardware store and buy a small paint brush.. Just run it through the dishwasher to sanitize it and you are off to the races. Pastry brushes are thought of as brushing an egg wash on breads or pastry (hence the name) before cooking to give a nice brown shiny finish. However, it can also be used by the manly men to slop that sauce on a set of ribs while standing over a hot grill on a hot day drinking a cold beer.
It is also used to baste foods and “dress” crostini and bruchetta (or bread), or vegetables with oils, melted butter and sauces.
Electric or hand cranked, No kitchen can be without, unless you never use anything out of a can. I do. I would love to have the time and land to grow and make my own stock, lasting fresh tomatoes, fruit, soak and cook those hard beans, etc.. So, I take advantage of the companies that do make good quality products I can use year round and enhance my cooking and save me time. So I have a can opener. A hand cranked one as I don’t typically open enough in one day to justify an electric one (i know I can justify something I will use once every 2 years, but not this.. well to each his/her own). I doesn’t bother me at all to do it by hand.
For when you don’t have a can opener, you can pierce the can to pour out the ingredients. Just be sure to pierce in the front and back (the back will be opposite of the first hole you make) as this allows air to escape to prevent everything from splattering everywhere. If there are chunks you need to get out, you can pierce it around the entire perimeter to release the cover. However, this is NOT recommended as it is very unsafe. There will be many sharp edges. But if that is all you have, then make the best of it – just be safe.
Not just for pizza, cutting dough, cutting crust of bread, shaping eggs, slicing sandwiches
Regular – Have larger holes that will allow come herbs, spices and small food particles through. They are great for straining past, but if you want a smooth sauce, you are better off using a strainer with smaller holes.
Fine Mesh – These strainers have very small holes, can take longer to strain foods that are chunky. It is better to do one pass through a regular strainer, then use the fine mesh strainer to finish off the sauce or soup. A cheese cloth or clean terry cloth to give the most thorough straining.
I suspect every home has at least one. Finding one that works and works well is a little easier today than years ago. Good Grips produce reliable products, so when in doubt, they are a good bet for just about everything on this list.
The peeler, no only removes the outer skin, but can also be used to make ribbons or very thin slices of vegetables. These ribbons can be further sliced to give the type of cuts you may find in sushi, or great for topping off a salad, or even with cucumbers and zucchini, give a wrapper used to make rolls/sushi with out the seaweed wrapper.
I have also seen these ribbons used (mainly with zucchini, summer squash, eggplant) to create a low-carb “pasta” dish.
Whisks give a quick way to scrambled eggs, re-vive whipped cream, remove lumps from a gravy or sauce. I have a couple of different sizes and materials. I have a silicone one med-sized to whisk sauces right in the pan of non-stick pots and pans. I have my stainless steel in a small and medium for all other needs. They are more sturdy than the silicone and I find they do better.
The sizes matter depending on amount that needs to be whisked. Shape, not so much. I use the regular basic shape for just about every thing. But if you find a flat whisk or another shape that works for you, then by all means go for it.
A meat tenderizer is a kitchen hammer. It can have a square or rectangular head with two flat sides and two sides with different shaped “diamonds”. Or it can have two flat sides.
The flat sides do just that, flatten food. Used to think out meats, fish, poultry for creating carpaccio or making the pieces of protein uniform in thickness. When all pieces are the same thickness, they all cook at the same time.
The rough diamond sides help to break down the tissue and “tenderize” the meat. The goal is end up with a tender bite, and not a chewy or tough bite of food.
Bowls who doesn’t need or have bowls? They come in all shapes, sizes and materials.
Prep Bowls – For me these are essential. I have many and in many different sizes. These provide a very valuable role in the kitchen. The best way to cook, is to have all of your prep work done in advance of turning on any heating element, why? Because some items cook faster than others, and if you are adding as you go, you will have some things over cooked, burnt and some under cooked.
It also frees up your focus. If you are not worried about chopping, measuring, etc.. then you can put your focus on the cooking, tasting and timing.
Cut, wash, separate, measure, and use prep bowls to hold your ingredients. If you notice this is exactly what they do for all cooking shows? If you notice, having it done in advance, how fast they can turn out their dish? This is also known as Mis En Place – french for “Everything in its place”.
You do not have to go fancy, use Tupperware, take out containers, your every day dishes, covers, etc. If you are making more than one dish, organize them so all ingredients for each dish are together. This practice is especially good for baking.
For tacos, no problem cutting up the vegetables while the meat cooks.
Mixing Bowls – Typically med – large for making cakes, brownies, bread, coating protein, etc. I have smaller sizes for combining herb combinations, whisking a couple of eggs, holding liquid , making dips, spiced mayo, etc.
You can find mixing bowls in not only different shapes, but also materials. So why would you need more than one type? Below explains the different materials used and why it may be good to have more than one type. It all depends on what you like to cook.
Metal (stainless steel)- Great for creating ice baths, double boiler (place over a pan of simmering water on the stove), yeast breads or holding hot temperatures. They can be used for just about anything that does NOT contain any Acid. Acid comes in the form of alcohols, citrus juices, vinegars, tomatoes, and colas (or other sodas). If you use a stainless steel bowl, you will have a chance of the food reacting with the metal and creating a metallic taste. This is not desirable.
It is easy to clean, does not stain and dish washer safe.
Plastic – This is good for anything, including acids. BUT it is not good for retaining temperatures on food, nor can it be used near the stove or for double broiler needs. It does stain and will melt near heat elements.
I have a few with a rubber bottom. That is good as it keeps the bowl from slipping. However, this may make it hand wash instead of dishwasher safe. Always check with the recommendations from the manufacturer. Depending on quality, they can warp or melt in the dishwasher.
Glass – If you are to buy one set of bowls, glass bowls would be my recommendation. They can be used for heat and acids. However, direct contact on the stove top can cause it to break and most mixing bowls are not oven proof. They can be used in the microwave, which is not recommended for Plastic and a big NO for stainless steel.
They are heavier, and may be a breaking hazard for kids. For kids learning in the kitchen, you may want to keep at least one plastic or stainless steel bowl available. If it drops, the bowl will not break.
You will need hot pads for a couple of reasons: Removing items from the Oven, Handling pots and pans on the stove top, and flat hot pads for resting hot items away from the stove top to cook and/or serve.
The good news is they come in all different colors allowing you to match your kitchen decor.
If you are a baker, cooking racks are a must for cooling down cookies, cakes, and breads. But, they also come in handy cooking foods. When you buy one, be sure you have at least one that can fit into a standard half sheet pan. No more splattering bacon. Just heat the oven to about 350, line a sheet pan with tin foil, separate the strips, lay on top of the rack in the sheet pan, check and flip after about 10 minutes. The grease separates, the bacon is crispy and clean up is a snap.
They can also be used as hot pads to hold and cool a hot pan with food. This is because it will allow the air to circulate all the way around the pan, not just from the top.
Mortar and Pestle
If you do not have a spice grinder, than this is your next best bet for grinding herbs and spices. It takes a little elbow grease, but well worth it. I use one when I just have a few grinding to be done, or when I want to make a paste, such as with roasted garlic. Some times the old methods are superior in providing the right texture and result over electronics.
Hate having to wash your lettuce and herbs because you end up with a watery salad? No need to fear, salad spinner is here. It is one of the best tools in the kitchen. Good for “drying” all kinds of leafy foods, including herbs.
The salad spinner will save you in paper towel costs as well as time. It is easy to use, clean and gives fast results. The spinning of the ingredient is fast enough to pull the excess water away from the food item.
They come in a couple of different sizes. If you are only cooking for one, two or three (possibly 4), you don’t need the big one. the medium-sized one will be fine. If you tend to have parties, cook for more, then go for the bigger size.
Go for dishwasher safe. I tend to use funnels for transferring oil from a large container to a bottle I use daily. The large container (more economical), is cumbersome to use for every day.
Same with stocks or other liquids to transfer to different containers.
Ensuring it is dishwasher safe is good, as the dishwasher does a great job at getting the oil out, then hand washing can be a little less thorough.
I would be surprised if a house existed that did not have some form of a grater. There a few standard options:
Micro-Plane: This is similar to the fine mesh, in that it has the smallest holes (grating surface) of the different types. It is mainly used for grating ginger, hard spices like nutmeg, and citrus for creating zest.
Hand Held: This typically is about the 3 – 4 inches long and about 2 inches wide. It only has one size holes that are larger than a micro-plane, but will still create a thin great. I use it for cheese when I want the cheese as a topping as if for tacos.
Box Greater: There can be 4 – 6 sides to a box grater. Each of the sides have different size and shaped holes. If you want a larger grate on a cheese, vegetables, fruit, the box grater would be a good choice. You would not need the hand-held grater, but I would still recommend the micro-plane.
This is another tool no kitchen can go without. Especially with baking. No need to go crazy, having one set of measuring spoons, measuring cups and a kitchen scale. Scale is optional, but a good tool to have around, especially for measuring portions and baking.
There will be a separate page containing more information on knives. For now, I am listing the basics needed for cooking. As for brand, there are many brands available for reasonable prices. Stay away from any set that only has serrated blades. These tear food apart. Buy the best you can and keep them sharp. Sharp knives are the safest knives to have in the kitchen and make preparing food so much easier. Wusthof and Henckels are two of the more common high quality German brands. They offer professional levels, but also sets that are more affordable.
6 – 8 in chefs knife
6 – 8 in Santoku knife
6 in boning knife
4 – 8 in serrated knife (bread knife or tomato knife)
Understanding the cooking temperatures of food and taking those temperatures will greatly improve your cooking. You will better decide when to remove the food from the flame, stove-top or oven. You will become more consistent in your cooking and your family and friends will marvel at the perfect doneness of fish, poultry and steaks.
Instant Read – This is the tool you will see sticking out of just about every Chef’s jacket. It is metal rod about 3 – 4 inches long with a gauge on top (either needle or digital). When you insert it into the food item, only push it in 1/2 way. You want to read from the center of the meat.
Fork – Is typically a digital measuring device. It works similar to Instant read, except there are two prongs and the reading will display the temp but also display where the temp falls for different proteins.
Digital Probe – There is about a 4 inch probe that is inserted into the meat, roast, and connected to a device that will read the temperature. The probe is left into the protein throughout the cooking process. Some of the readers are attached and need to be left by the stove and some are remotes and can be taken to a different room.
Candy / Oil – Is not a probe, but a fully enclosed thermometer that is made of material that can withstand the heat needed to make candy and prepare oil for frying. These temperatures can reach past 450 degrees. Were as measuring meat, poultry, fish, you will not go above 180 or 200 degrees.
You can also get a thermometer to measure the temperatures in your oven (if you suspect hot spots or need spot on cooking conditions), and your fridge or freezer. Some foods are required to be kept and maintained at specific temps. This is where it may be good to have separate thermometer.
These are great to have handy when making every day foods. The larger items for these are great if you tend to cook for many people, cook and freeze, canning, etc.
Combo – chopper, immersion blender, whisk ($100 – $130)
The chopper if excellent for herbs, garlic, shallots, cheese, making dips, spreads – but not good for onions unless you want mush. If some cases, mush is what you want.
The immersion blender is a favorite of mine. When making a soup or sauce on the stove top, having an immersion blender avail will save you time, mess and risk of burns by blending the sauce or soup right in the pan on the stove top. The only other step you may need is straining.
The whisk I really don’t use as much, but is good for processing sauces, making whipped cream, blending ingredients, etc.
Hand Held Mixer / Beater ($20 – $40) can add dough hook attachments ($20)
This would be in place of a stand mixer. If you have a stand mixer, you do not need this for separate. Use it for making cooking, doughs, etc.. The power is less than a stand mixer, so be careful when mixing doughs that are very thick.
Blender – The blender is a very useful tool. Pureeing sauces, soups, drinks, ice, in place of a chopper/food processor for some items. It is a good substitute for a food processor, but there are jobs a food processor just does better. Mainly due to the types of blades a blender has. It is built for crushing and breaking items down. But, you may find food gets stuck under the blades, especially if there is not enough liquid. But some foods you don’t want a lot of liquid, such as making breadcrumbs, or chopping nuts.
MAKE LIFE EASIER
Skimmer – A tool that looks like a shallow or flat ladle, except with holes. These holes allow you to skim the surface of a sauce or soup to remove any fat that has floated to the surface. If you have time, you can also remove the fat by placing the dish into the fridge and remove the solid fat from the top. If you have a day to wait, using the fridge is easy. Otherwise, do it by hand.
Bench Scrapers – is a flat tool about 5 inches wide and 3 inches tall with a handle running along the top. It is primarily used when handling dough. As the dough sticks to the counter or other surface, a scraper is used to loosen it. Some also have sides so you can easily transport freshly chopped food from the cutting board to the pan or bowl.
Stand Mixer – If you can afford one, go for it. It is good for making stiffer doughs, kneading breads, cookies, cakes, etc.. Where a hand mixer may work, a stand mixer can fit more ingredients and can be more hands off.
Electric Grill / Panini Press – Fast easy way to create delicious hot gourmet sandwiches. You can also use it to cook / grill meats a low-fat way, as the fat drains away from the meat. There are items on the market that support multiple functions. They are a nice to have.
Food Processor – A food processor can do more than just chopping food. They typically come with multiple blades making it easy to create french fries, shredded vegetables (including potatoes), uniform cuts on foods and have a capacity of 4+ cups. This increased size is great when cooking for a large family and/or parties.
Spice/Coffee Grinder – Perfect for grinding hard spices and nuts. If you need a coffee grinder, I would recommend a separate grinder for spices and nuts, and a separate one for coffee. If you just have one, then you risk everything you make tasting like coffee.
Melon Baller – This is more for presentation. You can not only use it to create uniform fruit balls, but also herbed butter, scooping frozen foods, etc. It is good to have multiple sizes available if possible.
Batter Dispensers – This is purely a nice to have. If you use runny batters, this may be a good investment for you. Cleaner, controlling portions, etc. If you don’t have one a ladle or measuring cup with a pour spout will be fine. A little drippy and messy, but will work.
Speciality Bowls / Vacuum Seals – There are items available that will create a vacuum seal on bags or in a special vacuum bowl. These are great when you don’t have time to marinade food for hours. Using these tools you can infuse flavor into food in a much shorter time period, as long as 2 hours to as little as 30 minutes.
Onion Goggles – Onions as best prepared by hand. They do not fare well in a food processor. I usually use the white or valdia onions as they tend not to make me cry. On a whim, I purchased the onion goggles last year because I had a ton of onions to cut in prep for a party. I had many dishes to cook and could not afford to not see what I was doing. So I figured I would try the onion goggles. Especially after seeing my son put on his scuba mask when he was cutting onions. It was a site to see and one of my favorite pictures and memories. Anyway – the onion goggles worked. They are not expensive.
Potato Ricer – Is basically a mini food-mill. It presses cooked potatoes through a sieve making them into rice sized “pellets”. This method is typically used to make a light and fluffy gnocchi. It can also be used on other starchy food to make “cakes” or “balls” as appetizers.
If you have any questions on other equipment or if I forgot something, I am more than happy to correct or adjust. I am sure over time, I will add and adjust on my own as well.