Essential doesn't have to mean expensive! This is my list of kitchen gear that you can buy for under $50 and will use not just occasionally, but all the time. You won't find any odd unitaskers here or overly specialized gadgetry, just solid tools for real cooks who cook a variety of foods every day. What's more, all of these tools should last you years and years down the line.
The Polder Clock/Timer/Stopwatch
Did you know that in restaurant kitchens, croutons are the number-one item most burnt by line cooks? I just made that little fact up, but I can't tell you the number of times I've popped a tray of sliced bread in the oven for crostini, only to pull it out thirty minutes later after it finally sets off the smoke alarm.
At least, I used to, that is.
These days, I keep a Polder 3 in 1 Clock/Timer/Stopwatch ($15.18) around my neck at all times. 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.
With both a count-up and count-down function, what more could you want in a kitchen timer?
The Thermoworks Original Cooking Thermometer/Timer
While I'll always recommend using a Thermapen to spot-check your meat and other foods for doneness, a leave-in probe is a good first-alarm system to let you know when it's getting close to done. The Thermoworks Original Cooking Thermometer/Timer ($19) is inexpensive, big, loud, and accurate. It stands tall on your counter or sticks to your fridge with magnets.
I still like to have a separate lanyard-based timer to carry with me at all times, but this all-in-one-tool is great for backup.
The newer, fancier Chefalarm ($59) is also available and has features like max temp, min temp, and a faster, more accurate probe (though I've had a few issues with the new probe's robustness). It also comes at a higher price tag.
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 Wüsthof Classic 3-Inch Straight Blade Paring Knife ($49.95). A sturdy little number designed to last and last.
Check out this post to read up on why I prefer straight-edged paring knives to curved.
The OXO Good Grips Bench Scraper
A bench scraper is one of those tools whose advantages aren't obvious until you start using it regularly. I keep one on my cutting board whenever I'm doing prep work. It quickly transfers chopped mirepoix to my saucepot or carrot peels to the trash. I use it to divide up dough when making pizzas, or ground beef when making burgers.
For clean-up, a bench scraper makes short work of dough scraps that have dried onto the work surface, and efficiently picks up tiny bits of chopped herbs and other debris. Removing stickers from glass bottles or labels from plastic containers is also a snap.
With its comfortable handle, sturdy construction, convenient built-in six-inch ruler, and an edge sharp enough to rough-chop vegetables, the OXO Good Grips Multi-Purpose Pastry Scraper/Chopper ($9.95) is the scraper of choice.
A Microplane Grater
My favorite thing to do with a Microplane Grater/Zester ($12.95) is go to town with it on an orange and watch as the little mountain of zest effortlessly grows on my cutting board. Or wait—my favorite thing to do is grate delicate wisps of Parmigiano-Reggiano over my Bolognese.
No, I take that back. My favorite thing is to grate fresh nutmeg on top of my gin flip. (Or is it to sprinkle chocolate shavings over my soufflé?)
No, I've got it: It's being able to throw out my single-tasking garlic press and using my Microplane to grate garlic into tiny, even mince. Or ginger. Or shallots.
So many things to grate, so little time!
The OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale with Pull-Out Display
Did you know that depending on how you scoop up a cup of flour, its weight can vary by as much as 25 percent? No wonder the pizza dough that came out perfectly last week is suddenly too wet to handle this week. A good digital scale will make inaccuracies like that a thing of the past. A scale can also help you figure out how much moisture your chicken lost during roasting, or exactly how far you've reduced that stock. Hooray!
Things to look for in a good scale: at least 1 gram or 1/8th ounce accuracy, a capacity of at least seven to eight pounds, a tare (zero) function, measurements in both metric (gram) and imperial (pound) units, a large, easy-to-read display, and a flat design for storage.
The Oxo Good Grips Food Scale with Pull-out Display ($49.95) has got all of that, plus a neat pull-out display that allows you to read measurements with ease, even when weighing large, bulky items that would otherwise obscure the screen.
A 10.5 or 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
Whether you're searing a steak, sautéing some veggies, frying up a rösti or latkes, or even making a foolproof no-knead pan pizza, a heavy-duty, seasoned cast iron skillet is the pan to reach for. Its weight makes it ideal for retaining heat, while its ruggedness means that a single pan will outlive you (and most likely your children and grandchildren). Not bad for under $20, like Lodge's 10.25-inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet ($15.92).
You might have heard that cast iron is a pain in the butt to take care of. Not so! It's actually a lot more forgiving than people think. I spend about 30 seconds each time I use my pan wiping it dry, reheating it, and rubbing some oil into it. Heck, I even wash mine with soap and water! For more info, check out our guide to learn How to Buy, Season, Clean, and Maintain Cast Iron Pans.
NB: For more on pots and pans, check out our 7 Most Essential Pots and Pans here!
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!
The Unicorn Magnum Pepper Mill ($36.90) might seem pricey, 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 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.
A Benriner Mandoline
The Benriner Japanese Mandoline Sliver 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 ($22.36), 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.
Metal Mixing Bowls
Wanna know why television cooks use glass mixing bowls? It's not because they're better than the more inexpensive metal version. It's for one reason only: metal bowls are too reflective and make life difficult for the camera operators. Go into any professional kitchen and you'll find that mixing bowls are exclusively metal. They're lighter, take up less space, and last longer (and yes, modern microwaves can even handle metal!).
I used to work in one of those television kitchens. Guess how many of our glass bowls had chipped or flaked edges? At least half of them. You probably don't want to think about where those chipped edges ended up. Moral: Leave the glass bowls on the shelf and grab yourself a metal set.
If you've got access to a restaurant supply store, you'll find that the metal bowls are cheaper than anywhere else. If not, these Light Weight Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls ($28.25) come in a variety of useful sizes and should do you just fine.
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 Calphalon 3-Piece Wood Utensil Set ($12.21) gets you a round-headed one for stirring and tasting soup, a flat-headed one for scraping up fond and getting into the corners of pots, and a slotted spoon for lifting pasta or other food out of boiling water for testing.
The OXO Good Grips Locking Tongs
A good, sturdy set of tongs are like a heat-proof extension of your own fingers. 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 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.
A Slotted Fish Spatula
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 to be too stiff. The MIU Slotted Turner ($9.99) is inexpensive, small, and agile.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.