Look - I'm not implying I only have fifteen things in my kitchen. I love to cook, to the point that I ask for new tools and gadgets for Christmas and birthday presents. But, I also cook three meals a day at home, and for 90% of them, it's with the same basic handful of utensils and cookware. When visiting some of my favorite restaurants with open kitchens, I started to notice the same handful of items on display - hanging on walls, at the prep station - as the ones that are so much used at my house they rarely leave the drying rack.
So, countertop appliances aside (blenders are great) and excluding standard utensil-caddy stuff like mixing spoons (I like bamboo) and dish towels (get some), here's ManMade's guide to the fifteen tools every kitchen needs, all selected with an eye toward buying quality items that'll last as long as you can stand by a stove. They might not be the only things you need, but they're darn close. And, if you wanna cook like a chef, shop like a chef and choose the restaurant supply version of many of these. They're made to take a beating.
1. Spring-Loaded Tongs: Hands down, the most used item in my kitchen. They're like a heatproof extension of your hands, providing for dexterity and precision tasks that a spoon or spatula just can't match. I keep a pair of silicon and steel-tipped ones on hand for nearly every meal, using them for most flipping, stirring, and mixing tasks. Recommended: Oxo 12-Inch Locking Tongs [$10.99 at Amazon]
2. Enamel-Coated Cast Iron Dutch Oven: An investment piece, but one of the most versatile. These things are heavy, stout, and efficient. Goes from stovetop to oven to grill to refrigerator, and if you take care of it, will last for life. A round model in the 7-quart range will accomplish most takes like braises, stews and soups, deep frying, and searing. Recommended: Le Creuset [pictured] are the standard here, but all French models are worth the investment. For a more affordable option, the Lodge Color Dutch Ovens [$79.99] get great reviews as well.
3. Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls: Unless you're using the microwave, forget the breakable glass or colorful plastic, and opt for affordable, built-to-take-a-beating restaurant-style mixing bowls. These guys can take heat, so you don't have to worry about them melting if they get too close to the flame. Find some with a nice lip and a low bowl shape for easy tossing and handling. I even use mine on the range for popcorn, or on the grill as a lid or to heat sauces. If you buy them all from the same manufacturer, they'll store nicely inside each other, taking up little space. Recommended: Crestware 8-Quart Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl [$10.50]
4. Butcher Block Cutting Board: Unless you're dealing with raw meats or other contaminating ingredients, don't waste your time or budget with a bunch of flexible plastic cutting mats, or glass or stone boards that will ruin your knives. Just get a large, heavy hardwood model, and use it for all your tasks. If you have the tools, these are a great project to make at home for much less (they also make great gifts), but if shopping, look for one at least 16x20 and 1-2" thick made of hard maple, cherry, or walnut. Bamboo is cool too, but hardwood will last for decades. These are a popular project for woodworkers (I can't count how many I've done), so check out local handmade shops and fairs or Etsy for cool ideas. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with pro models from John Boos or OzarkWest. Recommended: Boos Reversible 15.5 x 20" Maple Cutting Board [$58.10]
5. 8-Inch Chef's Knife: Forget all the fancy block set of micro-serrated blade and late-night ginsu infomercials, and just get the few knives you need. To start, invest in a quality 8" chef's knife for the majority of your slicing and chopping tasks. Trying them out in the store is best since different models fit different hand sizes, but a great all-around option (affordable) are the Victorinox Fibrox Series from the same folks who make Swiss Army knives. Recommended: Victorinox 40520 Fibrox 8-Inch Chef's Knife [$29.18]
6. 10 or 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet: I've made the argument before that every person should own a cast iron skillet, and I still stick by it. See that post for reasons and versatility, but seriously: what else do you own that can go from campfire to freezer to charcoal grill to blazing hot oven to electric cooktop, and then allow you to serve your dinner out of it? My vote is to buy old, unseasoned (or poorly seasoned) cast iron from the flea market or secondhand shop and season it yourself, providing for an unbeatable, long lasting cooking surface, but if you're just trying to move away from using Teflon for everything, starting with a pre-seasoned skillet is better than nothing. Recommended: Lodge Logic 12" Skillet [$18.97]
7. Microplane Zester/Grater: These guys originated as woodworking tools for rasping and shaping edges, but chefs soon realized they were the perfect thing for finely grating hard cheeses, chocolate, citrus, aromatics, and spices. I prefer the non-handled models, because you can flip the case over and use it to catch your shavings. I also prefer handle-style graters to box graters in general - I only ever use two sides of that thing anyway. Get a large, fine, and zester size Microplane. They take less room to store, and cost less money. Recommended: Microplane 40001 Stainless Steel Zester [$9.24]
8. 1 1/2 Quart Stainless Sauce Pan with Lid: For all those liquid-heavy tasks where the dutch oven would just be overkill, a heavy-bottomed sauce pan works perfectly. Boiling water for grains or rice, reheating leftovers, making potatoes, simmering sauces, etc. Recommended: Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless Steel Saucepan with Cover [$49.99]
9. Instant Read Thermometer - If you cook proteins like meat or fish, there's nothing worse than overcooking them to dryness, or not cooking them to safe temperatures. Pro chefs can do this by sight and touch, but most of us home cooks cannot. An instant read thermometer costs less than $20, and avoids either error. Also great for coffee making and food crafts like cheese, jellies, pickles, and candy. Recommended: CDN DTQ450X ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer [$17.50]
10. 1 Qt Measuring Cup: Perfect heat-resistant complement to the baking set in your utensil drawer. Great for boiling water in the microwave, catching draining liquids, as a small mixing bowl for salad dressings or sauces. I'll usually eat soup in one, too. Recommended: Pyrex Prepware Measuring Cup [$9.99]
11. Half Sheet Pan and Cooling Rack: Forget the dark, non-stick surfaces and airbake technology, and invest in a few restaurant style half-sheet pans and accompanying racks. You can do everything from roast vegetable to bake cookies to your Thanksgiving turkey on one of these, and the rack makes a perfect surface for resting a steak or draining homemade french fries. Buy these together so everything fits perfectly and stores nicely in very little space. Recommended: Norpro Stainless Steel Jelly Roll Baking Pan [$14.00]...but check the restaurant supply store first.
12. Non-stick skillet: As much as I love the crust and caramelization created by stainless and cast iron, there are some notoriously sticky ingredients that really do benefit from non-stick: eggs, fish, pancakes, crepes, and the like. While I definitely don't recommend a whole set, keeping one around for special tasks is helpful. No need to be a hero. But do know these don't last forever, so there's no reason to spend hundreds of bucks on one. Recommended: T Fal Ovensafe Non-Stick Fry Pan
13. Mandoline Slicer: Many wouldn't consider these an essential, but you'll see them in every chef's knife kit. They make such quick work of repetitive tasks, and allow you to make cuts you couldn't do with a knife, such as super thin slices for homemade potato chips. They're super helpful for food craft projects such as canning and pickling, and if use it safely, will find a way into your daily rountine as well. Just use the hand guard, or better yet, a cut-proof glove. Recommended: Benriner Japanese Mandoline Slicer [24.99]
14. Mesh Stainer: Another great restaurant supply store find. After grabbing a few of these, I rarely get out a colander anymore, and especially love that these help save the liquid, the solids, or both. I prefer medium mesh options for nearly everything, and love the little arms that attach to the side of my quart measuring cup or stainless bowl. $7.00 very well spent. Recommended: Food Service Medium Single Mesh Strainer 8" [$6.88]
15. Stainless Steel 3 Qt. Saute Pan: The last piece to complement the cast iron and non-stick. Stainless is great for searing and developing deep caramelization flavors. I like using this over cast iron when high heat retention isn't as essential, or when I want the ingredients to stick a bit, such as browning veggies or onions. It's like color guarantees you won't burn the flavorful bits at the bottom, and it's high, straight sides make it great for cooking things that start out big but reduce a lot, such as greens or cabbage, or for making quick work of sauces. A great everyday workhorse. Recommended: All-Clad Stainless 3-Quart Saute Pan [$109.99]
Remember: If you're out on your own for the first time, or just trying to build a quality kitchen arsenal, buying the better quality thing once is better than having to replace everything every few years.
What would you recommend? Share your ideas, and the pieces that you'd sub them out for, in the comments below.