Know a recent college grad who's finally starting their own real life? Or a transplant from a far-off land who needs to stock up a new kitchen? Or perhaps someone who's just recently gotten an interest in cooking but doesn't have the gear to do it up right?
The items on this list are perfect for those folks who are just starting out. The absolute most essential gear with no frills, no extras, and nothing that won't get used over and over and over again for years to come.
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 or 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. While I'm a strong advocate of saving up for "the one,"—the high quality knife that just feels perfect in your hand, if you're just starting out, the Henckels International Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife fits all that criteria at a very reasonable price.
A Cutting Board
You can go with a pretty-and-fancy wooden cutting board, but if pure functionality at a good price is what you're after, a heavy duty plastic board—preferably with rubberized grips—is the way to go. Forget the dinky foot-wide boards. They make cooking for more than one person a pain in the butt, and if you're going to be buying this board for your loved one this holiday season, they'd better be cooking for more than one! This spacious 15- by 21-inch model from OXO Good Grips is the way to go.
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 $30.
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!
An Enameled Dutch Oven
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 promise 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 to dole out throughout the week.
A Large Casserole Dish
Since they're intended both for cooking and serving tableside, a good casserole dish should be both functional and attractive. The Le Creuset Stoneware collection fits that description. Made with high quality glazed ceramic, not only do they heat foods evenly (and more importantly, store that heat so your food stays hot while you're trying to corral the family to the table), but their smooth glaze is practically non-stick, making them simple to clean up afterward, even with gooey foods like this Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna.
Rimmed Baking Sheets and Cooling Racks
I use rimmed aluminum baking sheets (in the industry we call them "sheet pans," and I use half-sized pans) for the vast majority of my oven tasks, whether it's baking off a tray of cookies, crisping up a tray of potatoes or broccoli, or even roasting a whole turkey or chicken. They're lightweight, inexpensive, and durable. Just be aware: you'll want to keep a separate set of pans and racks for high temperature roasting and for baking, as the ones used for meats and vegetables tend to get a bit beat up.
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 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 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 ($11.95)
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 set the bar for quality.
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 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.