Cooking is much more fun when you have all the right gear to make your food dreams into food reality. If you have a contentious relationship with your kitchen, the problem may have to do with things like dull knives or the wrong tools, requiring you to undertake boring, repetitive tasks to make the simplest things. We teamed up with a group of chefs to come up with a list of gear for your kitchen that will transform the way you cook—and eat—without breaking the bank.
I love to cook, and I think part of the fun for me is having the toys in my kitchen to play with when a recipe strikes my fancy or I get a crazy idea. Of course cooking is going to be more fun when you have the right equipment—laboring away in an under-equipped kitchen can lead to a ton of time-consuming, boring, manual labor that could be easily accomplished with the right multi-taskers in your kitchen cabinets. You just need to have the right equipment on hand to make cooking fun again. To find out, I asked three chefs which kitchen items they can't live without—the tools they suggest every home cook have. Here's what they said.
A Good, Sharp Knife
If you haven't used a quality knife while cooking, you haven't lived. There's nothing like flying through kitchen tasks with a trusty, sharp blade to make you feel like at home in the kitchen. Just make sure you buy quality, buy sharp, and buy a knife that compliments you. We'll get to that in a moment, but before we go further it's worth noting you don't have to break the bank on quality knives—consider them an investment, but there's no need to take out a second mortgage.
The Best Bang for Your Buck: Victorinox Fibrox 8 and 10-Inch Chef's Knives ($25/30)
A good chef's knife is a must-have for any kitchen, but a nice chef's knife can be expensive. The Victorinox chef's knife is a notable … Read…
We're big fans of the Victorinox 40520 8-inch Chef's Knife ($25) and the Victoninox 40521 10-inch Chef's Knife ($30), both of which perform like knives well over twice their price. We're not the only ones who think so—they've been recommended byCool Tools and the folks at Cooks Illustrated. Chef Anthony Thomas' explains, "Your knives do not need to be the latest and greatest available, only well maintained. Knives should fit who you are, your cooking style, your hand, and most importantly, your budget." We agree. Make sure you try out before you buy, and you should probably have two or three good, sharp knives that you like in your kitchen.
Keep Your Knives in Top Condition
Chef Thomas also suggests you keep your knives happy: "Sharp knives cut and dull knives tear. This is something that a chef in culinary school taught me and I will never forget it. Sharp knives allow you to be precise, get professional grade cuts, butcher proteins with ease and make chopping veggies a lot easier." He notes that if your knives are losing their edge, pick up a honing steel—something we've shown you how to use before. If you wait too long to use a honing steel and your knife is damaged, he suggests a 1000/6000 grit sharpening stone and a practiced hand. If you're not sure how to use a sharpening stone, read up first or find someone to do the job for you.
A Reliable Standing/Immersion Blender
Our chefs all agreed on the importance of having a good standing blender in your home, an immersion blender, or preferably both. They're versatile, useful for making drinks, soups, sauces, salad dressings, and just about anything else that requires you to mix liquids—and best of all, they save you from doing it by hand.
The Best Immersion Blender for Your Buck: The Cuisinart Smartstick ($30)
Chef Shaya Klechevsky explained that an immersion blender changed everything for him: "My life has literally been transformed from the invention of this amazing item. It's amazing for any kind of blending and instead of having to pour whatever you wish to blend into a blender, then pour it back out and have to wash the pesky blender pitcher, you just stick it into the pot or whatever is holding your ingredients, blend away, remove and then rinse! You're done!" Sounds good, but which one should you buy? He explains, "There are a bunch of different companies that make immersion blenders with various attachments (some have a food processor attachment and even a whisk attachment). The really good ones have at least 2 speed settings and some attachments. I would stick to known kitchenware brands however since you'd want a company you can trust in case you need to fix it." Sounds good to us. The Cuisinart Smartstick 200-watt immersion blenderretails for less than $30 and comes highly recommended at Amazon, but if you're willing to spend a little more, $100 gets you this five-speed KitchenAid immersion blender with all the attachments you could possibly want.
The Best Standing Blender for Your Buck: The KitchenAid 5 Speed Standing Blender ($100)
What about a traditional standing blender? Chef Thomas says he can't live without his. "As a chef the blender is my go to tool. I love using it for a multitude of things. I can make sauces, emulsify vinaigrette, make soups (bisque), blend broths and much much more. You need a good, high quality blender, so if you are planning to splurge on your kitchen items this should be on the top of your list." A good blender doesn't have to cost a lot of money, but a super-cheap blender is almost always a bad one. Don't run out and spend $400 on the famous Total Blender from Blendtec, but do check out this KitchenAid 5 speed standing blender for $100. Fans of Good Eats may be more interested in this Waring Food and Beverage Blender, which Alton Brown often used on set, and is a little less expensive than the KitchenAid.
A Microplane, or Fine Zester/Grater
A fine hand grater is great for shredding cheese, grating spices, and more. Best of all, they're easily stored and inexpensive. You can pick one up without doing too much shopping around—just stick to a known brand and you'll be fine. Chef Chris Whitpan has a tip for you when you get one: "It shaves things very fine like hard cheeses and chocolate, but where it really shines is grating fresh nutmeg. It does a wonderful job of zesting citrus too." We couldn't agree more—there's nothing like grabbing a nutmeg seed and grating a little fresh nutmeg into your coffee, or getting real lemon or orange zest for your recipes as opposed to trying to peel off thin layers by hand. Photo by thebittenword.com.
The Best Fine Grater for Your Buck: The Microplane 46020 Premium Zester/Grater ($15)
Chef Thomas suggested making sure you get something with a pretty high grade—just to make the job of shredding anything you run across is easier, and to make sure your microplane grater will last as long as possible. For example, I have a variation on this $15 Cuisinart hand graterthat I picked up at a department store on a whim. I have no complaints with it, but Microplane is actually a brand name, and if you're looking for the real thing, this Microplane professional grater and zester is the same price, and extremely well-liked. They're cheap and they'll change your world, trust us.
Trusty Cast-Iron Pans
The last time we talked about some must-have tools for your kitchen, we said you needed to have at least five good pots and pans. You should definitely have a few quality ones (Chef Thomas notes, "Spend a little extra to purchase copper bottomed pans and be wary of buying sets at huge retail stores. If they also sell clothes, it's probably not the best place to buy your pots and pans."), but when it comes to pans, we—and the chefs we spoke to—agree: cast iron is the way to go.
"When seasoned and maintained correctly they provide a unrivaled kitchen companion with even heating, a non-stick surface, and durability," Chef Thomas explained. "This is a must have for any home cook." Chef Klechevsky went further: "Any self-respecting kitchen will have, at minimum, a cast iron skillet. Maintenance on cast iron is mid-to-high, but I find that the benefits of the cookware outweigh the slight difficulty and of course its heft. Cast iron is great for good even heat, its versatility in being able to go from stovetop to oven immediately, and prolonged use (and proper cleaning) makes for even better seasoned cookware."
The Best Cast Iron Pan for Your Buck: Lodge Logic 10-inch Pan ($17)
We've shown you several methods of seasoning your cast iron cookware in the past, so maintenance should be no trouble, but which should you pick up? Chef Klechevsky has a suggestion here, too. "You don't have to break the bank buying the highly stylized Le Creuset brand of cast iron(which is also enameled). I personally prefer the Lodge Logic brand of pre-season cast iron cookware. They're great quality, relatively inexpensive and already come pre-seasoned (update: a previous version of this story said the pre-seasoning was done with a Kosher oil. This was true in the past, but Lodge Logic has removed that statement from their site, and callers asking about it are told the oil is not Kosher, so we can only assume their pre-seasoning technique is no longer Kosher.). I love my Lodge Logic grill/griddle which could just as easily be used on a gas range, in the oven or directly onto a barbecue (also great for camping!). I also have a great 10" cast iron skillet which I've had for years and I love to cook with - especially tomato sauces for pasta!" That 10" Lodge cast iron skillet is only about $17 at Amazon, and I have one, so I can vouch for it too. I can also vouch for the Lodge grill/griddle pan he mentioned—it's about $40, and is staple in my kitchen as well, and does everything from steaks to bacon without blinking. When I'm done, it goes in the oven to keep its season while I bake other things.
We've discussed how to season cast-iron cookware before, but for those folks really serious about maintaining their cookware, or who have money… Read…
When we discussed using flax seed oil to season cast iron cookware last week, Lifehacker reader and food expert emannths brought up a great idea in… Read…
An Easy to Use Timer and Thermometer: The Polder Digital Timer/Probe Thermometer ($25)
Another item that appeared on several of our chefs' must-have lists is a good digital read thermometer and timer. Specifically, this $25Polder Digital Timer and Probe Thermometer. Good Eats fans may recognize this one too, Alton Brown used it when he wasn't using his trusty Thermapen. The Polder, however, features a heat-shielded cord to the probe (so you can keep the probe in your food and the thermometer base out of the oven while the door is shut), and the probe is detachable from the body so you can set the timer and carry it off with you. You can also set the thermometer to go off at a specific temperature, so you'll know the food is ready to eat by that beeping sound coming from your kitchen.
Bonus Gear: Salt and Pepper Mills, Pressure Cookers, and Other Items to Splurge On
In addition to the budget gear that we asked our chefs to put together, we also asked them what they thought would make a big impact in a home cook's life if they were to save the cash to buy it. Some of the items are small purchases that may sound superfluous (at least, until you have one in your own kitchen), and others are big purchases that are for the most dedicated home cooks and home bakers. Here's a quick rundown.
- A quality salt mill and pepper grinder. Chef Thomas noted that both of these are small purchases, but there's no replacement for a good wooden salt mill and a quality pepper grinder. Find two that match your style, grinds the way you like, and use them often. In the same vein, Chef Whitpan suggests you always keep your kitchen stocked with a big box of kosher salt, a suggestion we can't argue with.
- Le Cruset Cast-Iron Cookware. Even though we mentioned the brand earlier as one you don't have to buy, Chef Whitpan pointed out that if you can get your hands on some from a restaurant supply store or outlet, do it. They're definitely high-end and out of reach for most people, but he loves his: "The one that I just love, and have from the first time I cooked with it, is a good, solid, enamel coated cast iron pan. Nothing can compare to the distribution of the heat, the consistency of how it cooks, and it's even easy to clean. Who can ask for more? Start small, buy one at a time, buy seconds at an outlet with a coupon, and you can have a set rather affordably."
- A Good Cutting Board. Again, the rules are pretty loose here, and you should get one that matches your style and the amount of prep space you have in our kitchen. If we can offer a few basic rules though, consider wood before plastic, and never glass—they'll damage your knives and if they ever break, you'll regret it. Chef Thomas reminds us that a good cutting board will make your job easier and even keep your knives sharper longer.
- A Pressure Cooker. Chef Klechevsky says his pressure cooker is one of his favorite kitchen appliances. "I have one of those old school ones where you lock it into place and then it just builds up the pressure and you just cook. I also received as a gift a pressure cooker with a low and high-pressure setting so you have a greater level of control over the kind of pressure inside your pot. Whenever I can, I pull those pots out and get to work - it really saves me a tremendous amount of time in the kitchen."
- A Chinoise strainer. If you love velvety soups and sauces, or vinaigrettes that are so smooth they seem to coat your tongue when you eat them, you'll want a Chinoise strainer. It's extremely fine mesh will strain out solids in just about any liquid you pass through it, and the end result will be smooth and silken. Chef Thomas explains, "This strainer is so fine that it makes for the smoothest sauces that you will ever taste. During my time working in a local restaurant, I had to use a Chinoise five times on a particular sauce. Yes, FIVE TIMES, but using it made it the silkiest sauce that I have ever tasted."
It's quite a shopping list, but odds are that if you're reading Lifehacker, you already have some of these in your kitchen. We know many of you have and cherish your cast iron pans, and many of you will have a lot to say about our knife selections—and are ready to offer your own!
So what would you add to the list? Do you have alternative suggestions for the gear we mentioned above? What does your must-have kitchen gear list look like? Share the tools you'd never set up a kitchen without in the comments below.
Chef Anthony Thomas hails from California and works for Fresh and Natural Food Service, Inc.
Chef Shaya Klechevsky is the owner of At Your Palate and the author of the At Your Palate Blog. He competed on an episode of Food Network's competition cooking show Chopped, and is a personal chef and food writer in the New York metro area.
Chef Chris Whitpan is a 20-year kitchen and restaurant management veteran, and the author of The Kitchen Hacker.
All of these gentlemen volunteered their expertise and experience for this post, and we thank them.