"I'm forgetful in the kitchen. I can't count how many times I've checked on croutons, saw they needed about 45 more seconds, then opened the oven an hour later to a tray full of blackened chunks. At least I USED to. That was before I got myself a loud, easy-to-use, inexpensive Polder 3 in 1 Timer, Clock & Stopwatch ($14.97). It's got a magnet that lets you stick it to the fridge, or a lanyard so you can tie it around your neck. Which means if your food is burnt or undercooked, well... you can't blame your tools any more." —J.Kenji Lopez-Alt
With regular stainless steel skillets, I go for the more expensive model—that pan needs to last me a lifetime. But non-stick wears out much faster. It's not worth it to spend the big bucks on a skillet I'm going to replace a few years down the line anyway. The Cuisinart Chef's Classic 2-Piece Stainless Nonstick 9-Inch and 11-Inch Skillet Set ($49.99) do the job nicely with a thick disk bottom for even heating, and a slick non-stick coating. Can you get it as hot as a cast iron skillet? Nope. Does it have the browning power of a stainless steel pan? Uh-uh. But for sheer versatility and ease of use, they can't be beat.
A Dutch Oven
OK, so this is definitely the most expensive single item on the list, but I have yet to find a heavy-duty Dutch oven that can perform as adequately as the Lodge 6-Quart Enameled Dutch Oven ($49.97) for a cheaper price. With Le Creuset oven ranging up to several hundred dollars, it's certainly the best value. An enamel-coated cast iron Dutch oven is the ideal vessel for slow braises and soups. In the oven, thick walls and a heavy lid make for really great low-and-slow heat transfer meaning your stews and pot roasts will come out more tender and juicy with minimal evaporation during cooking. On the stovetop, tall, wide sides make for easy and splatter-free browning of large amounts of meat and vegetables, with plenty of heat retention. It's great for deep frying, and, for someone hustling job interviews or working long hours to impress the boss, it's big enough to make a big batch of stew or soup on the weekend and dole it out throughout the week.
A Cast Iron Skillet
Everyone knows that the best pan in the world is that cast-iron skillet your grandmother has been frying chicken in for years, giving it a soft, smooth, completely nonstick surface that's good for pretty much anything. It sears, it pan-roasts, it sautées, it fries, it goes into the oven, it does pizza, it even does eggs with no sticking. In other words, it's the perfect pan. What's that? Don't have a grandma who cooked? Your next best bet is eBay, where you can find vintage Griswolds and Wagners for bargain prices.
Look for clean models that are 100 percent cast iron (no wooden handles, please!) from reputable buyers.
A Chef's Knife
A good chef's knife is a lifelong friend in the kitchen, used for every task from boning a chicken to chopping carrots to mincing parsley. You want a solid forged steel chef's knife that'll last a long time, with a balanced handle, full tang, and solid riveted construction. The Henckels International Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife fits all that criteria at a very reasonable $49.95.
A Good Paring Knife
To be honest, when I was cooking professionally, I didn't use my paring knife all that often, preferring to use my chef's knife for all tasks. These days, however, with a tiny-handed wife and a more, shall we say, domesticated outlook on life, I've come to appreciate the convenience of a paring knife for small, every day tasks like cutting off a pat of butter, taking the rind off some citrus fruit, or slicing up some garlic. My wife uses ours for everything. I like the shape and feel of the Wusthof Classic 3-Inch Straight Blade Paring Knife ($49.95). A sturdy little number designed to last and last.
A Slotted Metal Turner
Flexible enough to flip tender pieces of delicate fish without breaking them, yet sturdy enough to get every last bit of a smashed burger off the bottom of your pan, a fish spatula is what you'll find in the knife kit of every professional chef and one of the most indispensable (and luckily inexpensive) tools in the kitchen. It's also ideal for blotting excess grease off of cooked steaks and chops. Just pick up the meat from the skillet, and pat it on a paper towel without even removing it from the spatula before transferring it directly to the serving plate. The wide open slots in the spatula allow grease to drain off easily. I find some of the more expensive brands (Global in particulate) to be too stiff. The MIU Slotted Turner ($9.91) is inexpensive, small, and agile.
A good wooden spoon is any cook's best friend. I've seen macho line cooks come close to tears when their favorite wooden spoon finally cracked in half after years of loyal, obedient service. Whether stirring sauces, tasting soups, or making the creamiest possible risotto, with rare exception, the wooden spoon is the the most essential hand tool for any cook. I have a half dozen of various shapes and sizes that I use almost every time I cook. The OXO Good Grips Wooden Spoon Set ($11.99) gets you three sturdy ones in various sizes.
Restaurant cooks are macho, and restaurant chefs are often diabolically arbitrary. In many high-end joints, tongs are outlawed. Apparently, they can bruise, maim, or disfigure meat. I don't believe a word of it. For the rest of us home cooks, a good, sturdy set of tongs are like a heat-proof extension of your own fingers. With sturdy construction, slip-proof grips (ever try to grab onto a pair of stainless steel tongs with greasy fingers?), and scalloped edges perfect for grabbing everything from the most tender stalks of spring asparagus to the biggest bone-in pork roast, the OXO Good Grips 9-inch Stainless Steel Locking Tongs ($11.99) set the bar for quality.
A Good Pepper Mill
If your loved one has been inflicting that pre-powdered gray dust labeled "ground pepper" on your food, my deepest and most sincere apologies go out to you. Do yourself a favor and buy them a real pepper mill!
$45 might seem like a big chunk of change, but a real pepper mill is much better than the plastic disposable type, and it's an investment that will improve practically every savory food item you cook. The Unicorn Magnum Plus Pepper Mill ($45) is sturdy, has a tough, nickel-plated grinding mechanism, an easy-to-load design, and a quick grind-size adjustment screw. It puts out a heavy storm of pepper with each twist, and with care, it should last a lifetime.
How many times have you popped a tray of sliced bread in the oven to make croutons, only to pull it out thirty minutes later after it finally sets off the smoke alarm?
A timer, like the Polder 3 in 1 Timer, Clock & Stopwatch ($14.97) can prevent that. It's got an easy to read display, an unobtrusive size, intuitive buttons, a loud alarm, a magnet for sticking to the fridge, and a nylon lanyard for keeping it right around your neck, so there's no way you can forget about your roasting peppers—even if you leave the kitchen.
It's not a replacement for a good thermometer, but it's great to remind you of everything going on in your kitchen.
A Benriner Mandoline
The Benriner Japanese Mandoline Sliver ($25.45) makes short work of all of your slicing and julienning tasks. At one point in my life, I owned a fancy-pants $150 French model. And you know what? It was heavy, bulky, a pain in the butt to clean, and with its straight blade, didn't really do a great job.
The Benriner Mandoline Plus ($41.80), on the other hand, features a sharp, angled blade that cuts much more efficiently than the awkward straight blades or clumsy V-shaped cutters. Walk into any four-star restaurant, and I guarantee you'll find at least a couple Bennies—as they are affectionately called by line cooks—occupying a prominent place in the kitchen.
Faster slicing means more time to spend with each other for the holidays, which may be a good or a bad thing.
A Potato Ricer
The OXO Good Grips Potato Ricer ($24.99) is sturdy, stylish, and comfortable to use. It's the best way to get smooth, creamy, mashed potatoes in record time. With an extra large hopper and powerful lever action, you don't even need to peel or chop the potatoes before boiling. Just cook in their jackets, and press through extracting the flesh and leaving the skins behind.
It's one of those things that you might never think about buying for yourself, but once you get one, you'll never go back to the old potato masher again.