Some might call them gadgets, others utensils, some are even appliances. These ten kitchen tools, in addition to some quality cookware, can turn whatever equipment you have into a functional multitasking culinary workspace.
1). Spring-loaded tongs. Hands down, this is the tool I grab everytime I'm in the kitchen. The rule in my house is that these don't go in the dishwasher, not because they'll get ruined, but because I'm going to need them before it gets run and emptied again. Once you learn to trust the tool - and you can as long as long as you don't skrimp and get the .99-cent option - these things basically become a heat-resistant extension of your own opposable thumbs. They can pick up hot lids, grab anything from the bottom of boiling water or bubbling oil, and are useful in every application from barbequeing to pastry making. I even use them to adjust the burner knobs when I don't want to reach across a super hot range. Two-pair, one with stainless heads and one with nylon (for non-stick cookware), are all you need to prevent cross-contamination and simply be super efficient. At least one person I love gets a pair every year for the holidays. Love 'em.
2). Bamboo utensil set. With the tongs above, a big flat metal turner for grilling, and a ladel, bamboo tools are nearly all I keep in my utensil caddy. They work equally well in stainless, non-stick, and cast iron cookware, and won't melt if left a little too close like plastic gear. Plus, they don't stain like Western wooden spoons, and in theory, are grown and harvested sustainably, 'cause they're made of bamboo. And, you can get a whole bag of 'em for around $10.00 USD.
3). Themometers. Seriously, don't mess around with undercooked proteins, and don't even bother with overcooked options. The perfect solution - monitor and learn the temperatures of properly cooked food. If you only own one, a digital instant-read probe is the first choice, but a complete set is made of three: the instant read, a digital remote, and the candy/deepfry.
4). Medium-Mesh Sieve. Whether you want to keep the solids and drain the liquid, or it's the other way around, a sieve does one thing, and does it perfectly. Some favorite applications include: thawing frozen vegetables, placing and removing items from a deep fry, straining one-two servings of pasta, making homemade broths and stocks, creating smoother purees, and serving loose-leaf brewed tea.
5. A Big, Heavy, Sharp Knife. One effective knife, strong-enough to actually get through the stuff on your cutting board is way more important than an entire block full of mediocre options. In fact, a heavy sharp knife is much safer than small, duller blades. Get a good one, keep it sharp, and it'll last you a lifetime.
6. Microplane Grater. This thing renders all other hand graters redundant. Hard cheeses, whole spices, ginger, root veggies, garlic, citrus zest, and chocolate all turn from solid masses to fluffy piles of deliciousness.
7. Spice Grinder. If your ground spices come from cans that have lived in your cabinet for years, you might as well just leave them out of your dish...it's kinda like drinking a cup of coffee made with decades old pre-ground beans. Spices contain essential oils that emmerge with complex flavor compounds when stored properly, toasted, and ground freshly. And all it takes is a $20 electric coffee grinder - here's my favorite model.
8. Butcher Block. If you've developed your knife skills, you deserve a fast cutting surface that can stand up to that sharp steel. I made mine from hard maple (how-to here), but models from John Boos and Osark West are a serious investment that will last a century, and the new bamboo models are pretty fine as well.
9. Reusable Chopsticks. For Westerners, mastering proper chopstick technique can be tough, but once you get it, these tools are incredible multitaskers. I love them for stirring any noodle, pasta, or rice dish, in a mixing bowl or in a screaming hot pan, and a single one makes a great swizzle stick to stir cocktails or other mixed liquids, and is my tool of choice for creating the slurry while making french press coffee. Get a set of ten, and you'll find a use for every one.
10. Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl. A set of nesting glass bowls fit well in any kitchen, but if there's a clean one, I'll always opt for a stainless steel mixing or prep bowl, found very inexpensively at the restaurant supply store. I love how quickly they change temperature, how fast a chilled one can bring down hot pasta for a salad, and how responsive they work in a double boiler. Plus, they're not as fragile as glass or Pyrex, and, because they can go on top of a burner, they empower one of my favorite food hacks of all time - popping popcorn in its own serving bowl.