I love to cook. Maybe you don’t (yet)—and that’s okay! But just as having a cute, comfortable outfit for the gym can actually motivate you to exercise, I have found that having the right equipment can make cooking more enjoyable, too. And like my culinary hero, Alton Brown, I have a great love of tools that can be used for multiple purposes and functions—no “unitaskers” in my kitchen!
Now, without further ado, I present you with what I—humble home cook that I am—believe are some of the most essential kitchen items to help you craft (almost) anything.
01. Rimmed baking sheets
Baking sheets are for more than cookies and frozen French fries. They truly are a kitchen workhorse, and along with being great for baking things like cookies, biscuits, focaccia, and pizza (and even sheet cakes if the sides are high enough), they can be used to roast veggies, potatoes, fish fillets, pieces of chicken, bacon (yes, trust me, it’s better—and less messy—in the oven!), and more. Choose the heaviest gauge you can afford to ensure that they won’t warp under the intense heat of your oven, and remember that high rims are your friend.
Line with parchment paper, aluminum foil, or a silicone baking mat (the environmentally friendlier option) for minimal cleanup (this actually works so well that I almost never have to wash my baking sheets).
02. Enameled cast-iron braiser with lid
This might seem fancy, but my braiser is easily one of the most versatile items in my kitchen. The sheer breadth of dishes it can produce is nothing short of astounding, so it’s worth investing in a good one. I was gifted a Staub, but you don’t have to turn to one of the fancy (read: pricey) French brands for quality; most agree the American-made Lodge brand is just as good as Le Creuset or Staub. I absolutely love mine for making homemade curries, Dutch babies, flat-roasted chicken, risotto, caramelized onions, pan-seared pork chops, pancakes, scrambled eggs, and so much more.
03. Enameled cast iron pot with lid
Are you sensing a theme here? I love enamel! You get the benefits of cooking with cast-iron (like the ability to move seamlessly from stovetop to oven), but without the upkeep. A 4- or 6-quart enamel pot (also called a Dutch oven) is great for making stews, soups, sauces, and—yes, really—bread. In fact, that’s why I first got mine: for easy, no-knead, homemade bread. Again, as with the braiser, pricey French brands are nice, but not necessary.
04. Cast iron round griddle
I was going to put “frying pan” here, but then I realized: there’s actually very little I use a frying pan for nowadays, because my braiser has essentially made frying pans obsolete. But we cook a lot of fried eggs in our house, and this little griddle makes hands-down the best fried eggs. Plus cleanup is a snap, because it’s already been pre-seasoned. We’ve also used it very successfully to sear homemade burgers (and toast buns), and make pancakes. A fish filet or two would be another great option, as would a single, large steak.
05. Measuring cups and spoons
To be honest, my measuring cups and spoons don’t see too much use when I’m cooking. Once you get the hang of cooking, you might find you can start to “eyeball” things and rely less and less on your measuring gadgets. But when you’re first starting out, they’re essential to have.
They’re also essential in baking. While cooking is more of an art—where pinches of this and dashes of that are totally fine (welcome, even!)—baking is a science. And in science, measurements matter. If you want to get really nerdy about baking, you can even buy yourself a cheap scale for weighing out dry ingredients.
06. A bowl
Pretty self-explanatory. You will need at least one, decent-sized bowl. Lightweight stainless steel is a good option, as is Pyrex glass. Ones with lids are nice to double as food storage or when preparing things ahead.
07. Electric beaters
So a whisk—heck, even a big fork in a pinch—will work in a lot of cases where hand-held electric beaters are called for. But I have two little kids and my arms are not the strongest, so I just don’t have the time or strength to whip cream, cream butter with sugar, or beat mashed potatoes by hand à la Mrs. Patmore, okay? Truth be told, I have a KitchenAid stand mixer (gifted to me one birthday by my sweet husband) that even does the work of holding the beater for me. But a stand mixer is pricey and by no means a bare-bones essential—especially when a hand mixer can do most of the same work just as well at a fraction of the cost. (Oh, but I do so love my stand mixer.)
08. Wooden spoon
I adore my flat-edged wooden spoon, which allows me to scrape the bottom of dishes and pots while stirring without scratching the finish. It’s also a must-have when stirring big batches of heavy things like cookie dough or mashed potatoes, where a plastic spoon would snap under pressure (ask me how I know!).
09. Metal spatula
This one is also pretty self-explanatory. While a fork can work in a pinch to turn over big, solid foods like steaks, a spatula is necessary for more delicate foods like burgers, fillets of fish, freshly-baked cookies, eggs, and pancakes.
10. Box grater and/or microplane
Some might argue that a box grater is a stretch when it comes to bare-bones essentials, but it really is not if you commit to making this one, life-changing choice at the grocery store: stop buying shredded cheese. Buying cheese in bulk-cut form is not only cheaper, but it will blow your mind how much better it tastes. Yes, it is less convenient. Yes, it is worth it. We eat a lot of cheese in my household, so a box-grater is essential, but it’s also an excellent tool for grating cold butter for things like biscuits, scones, and pie dough, as well as grating veggies like carrots and potatoes.
And if you want to really step up your game, the box grater’s baby sister, the microplane, is excellent for adding things like freshly grated parmesan, lemon zest, and nutmeg to your dishes and baked goods.
11. A good, heavy knife
You don’t have to invest in a whole block of knives when you’re first starting out. One awesome knife can be used to do so much. I use my Santoku-style knife for 95 percent of the cutting I do, while my husband prefers our chef’s knife. Try other people’s knives out to get a feel for what you prefer before investing in your own. Oh—and keep them sharp. A dull knife is a bad knife, no matter the quality (and they’re actually more dangerous, too).
12. A solid, heavy cutting board
Cooking from scratch does involve quite a bit of chopping, slicing, and dicing. For this, a good, solid cutting board that won’t be sliding all over the place is a must-have. My husband actually hand-made me a wooden butcher-block cutting board, but there are a lot of wooden options out there in a range of prices. My cutting board is such a kitchen workhorse that it gets a permanent space on the countertop—which is significant, considering the very limited real estate of my small galley kitchen.
Bonus: Spoon spatula (aka “Spoonula”)
A spoon spatula is perfect for scraping dough or frosting from the sides of a mixing bowl or getting all the last, delicious drops of sauces and juices out of pots—again, without scratching the finish. Useful? Yes. But maybe not a strictly bare-bones essential.
There you have it: one home cook’s baker’s dozen kitchen essentials. Everything on this list I use, if not everyday, at least a few times per week. And, truth be told, if everything else in my kitchen disappeared, it wouldn’t change my cooking habits all that much (but oh, I would so miss my stand mixer).
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