Know a recent college grad who's finally starting life on their own, maybe in their first real apartment? Or a transplant from a far-off land who needs to stock up a new kitchen from scratch? Or, perhaps, a friend who's only recently taken an interest in cooking, but doesn't have the gear to do it up right?
The items on this list are perfect for cooks who are just starting out in one way or another. We've divided it in two sections: The first lists our picks for the absolute most essential gear—no frills, no extras, and nothing that won't get used over and over and over again for years to come. The second offers a few items that, while not quite mandatory, will definitely make your cooking life a heck of a lot easier.
A Chef's Knife
A good chef's knife is a lifelong friend in the kitchen, good for nearly every task you'll face, from boning a chicken to chopping carrots or mincing parsley. You want a sturdy, forged-steel chef's knife that'll last a long time, with a balanced handle; a full tang (meaning the knife is constructed from a single piece of metal that runs straight through the handle); and solid riveted construction. While we strongly advocate saving up for "the one"—the high-quality knife that feels absolutely perfect in your hand—if you're just starting out, the J. A. Henckels International Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife fits all those criteria at a very reasonable price. It may still be one of the more expensive items you purchase when you're outfitting a kitchen from scratch, but trust us—it'll be worth it. If you have some extra dough to spend, then take a gander at some of our favorite knives, along with the badass skills you can apply them to.
A Serrated Knife
Though a chef's knife is more essential and more versatile, a good serrated knife, a.k.a. bread knife, is hard to substitute: Nothing does a better job of slicing through the soft crumb of fresh bread, or the skin of a ripe tomato, than its saw-toothed blade. Because of that serrated edge, your bread knife will be nearly impossible to sharpen, meaning it'll require replacement every five years or so. Translation: There's no reason to spend a lot of money on one. The Tojiro Bread Slicer 235mm F-737 has a slightly flexible blade that helps with more delicate tasks, like skinning tough winter squash, and sharp teeth that'll slice cleanly through anything you throw at it.
A Cutting Board
Of course, you can buy a pretty and fancy wooden cutting board if you have the cash to spare. But if pure functionality at a good price is what you're after, a heavy-duty plastic board, preferably one with rubberized grips, is the way to go. For everyday use, forget about the dinky little foot-wide cutting boards: They make cooking for more than one person a pain in the butt, and, if you're buying this as a gift for someone else, you should be encouraging them to cook for more than one, right? This spacious 15- by 21-inch model from OXO is the way to go.
A 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
Whether you're searing a steak, sautéing vegetables, cooking up a frittata, baking Southern-style cornbread, or even making no-knead pan pizza, a heavy-duty, well-seasoned cast iron skillet is the pan to reach for. Its significant weight helps it retain heat better, and its rugged construction means it will probably outlive you (and, most likely, your children and grandchildren)—not bad for a piece of cookware that costs about $20. A 12-inch pan will be big enough for just about any recipe.
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, and it takes all of about 30 seconds to wipe it dry, rub some oil into it, and reheat it with each use. Heck, you can even wash it with soap and water! For more details, check out our guide to seasoning and maintaining cast iron.
A Nonstick Skillet
You can get away with cooking just about anything on a well-seasoned, well-cared-for cast iron pan. But when it comes to cooking egg dishes like omelettes and scrambled eggs, as well as delicate items like crepes, you can't beat a modern nonstick surface. Luckily, adding another skillet to your collection won't break the bank—no nonstick pan is durable enough to last more than a few years, so there's every reason to buy 'em cheap. This Farberware 10-inch nonstick skillet is our go-to, but any good restaurant supply store will stock something comparable.
A 3-Quart Saucepan or Saucier
For making most sauces, from béchamel to caramel, not to mention custard desserts like butterscotch pudding, a quality saucepan in a versatile size is essential for ensuring that the contents heat evenly and the finished product comes out velvety-smooth. Even better than a saucepan is a saucier, whose gently sloping sides make thorough whisking a breeze. Look for one that combines the durability of stainless steel with the superior heating ability of aluminum, like this Calphalon Tri-Ply 3-Quart Chef's Pan. It isn't the cheapest pot out there, but it's a steal compared to our top pick (the excellent but wedding-registry-pricey three-quart saucier from All-Clad), and, as with your chef's knife, this is one piece of equipment you don't want to skimp on.
An Enameled Dutch Oven
An enamel-coated cast iron Dutch oven is the ideal vessel for slow braises (like these Chinese-spiced short ribs) and soups. In the oven, the pot's thick walls and heavy lid are ideal for low-and-slow heat transfer, meaning stews and pot roasts will come out juicier and more tender, with minimal evaporation during cooking. On the stovetop, its tall, wide sides retain heat well and promise easy, splatter-free browning when you're cooking large amounts of meat and vegetables at once. Plus, it's great for deep-frying, boiling pasta, and—if you or your giftee is regularly burning the midnight oil at a new job and struggles to find time for home-cooked meals—it's big enough to make a batch of stew or soup on Sunday that'll last all through the week.
The Lodge 6-Quart Enameled Dutch Oven may not have quite the robustness of its more expensive cousin from Le Creuset, but you can't beat the bang for the buck, and it'll still last for years and years.
A Large Baking Dish
Like the Dutch oven, a good-sized casserole is a necessity for the big-batch comfort-food dishes that you can eat throughout the week, or even freeze for hectic times to come—we're talking creamy spinach lasagna and shepherd's pie blanketed in rich, buttery mashed potatoes. This 10- by 15-inch casserole from Pyrex may not win any beauty awards, but it's sturdy, functional, easy to clean, and economical. Besides that, for baking recipes like Rhubarb Crisp, Stella chooses tempered glass over stoneware for its heat conductivity and nonreactive surface—read more about her preference for tempered-glass pie pans here.
Measuring Cups and Spoons
As much as we appreciate—celebrate, even—the precision offered by a scale, there are times when it's either impractical or just plain unnecessary to weigh out your ingredients. To get accurate quantities by volume, you've gotta have measuring cups for both dry ingredients and liquids, plus a set of spoons. Because these OXO liquid measuring cups are angled, you can see the markings from above, saving you from having to squat down to read them. Meanwhile, thanks to their magnetized handles, these dry measuring cups and measuring spoons conveniently stay together in a drawer, but don't require much effort to pull apart.
Rimmed Baking Sheets and Wire Racks
Rimmed aluminum baking sheets, called "sheet pans" in the restaurant industry, are used for a huge number of oven tasks: baking a batch of cookies, crisping up a tray of broccoli, or even roasting a whole turkey or chicken. Even beyond those functions, sheet pans are endlessly useful—say, for spreading out vegetables or tofu to dry before frying, or for providing a steady, easily grabbable surface on which to place a pie for baking, cooling, or chilling. Quarter and half sheet pans are the most versatile sizes for a home kitchen. They're lightweight, durable, and inexpensive enough that you may want to spring for a couple in each size. In fact, if you can, you'll want to keep one set for high-temperature roasting and one for baking, as the pans you use for meats and vegetables will tend to get a bit beaten up.
You'll also want to pair your half sheet pan with a simple wire rack to ensure that your resting meats or cooling cookies get the air circulation they need. This set of two 10- by 16-inch racks fits the bill perfectly, and it will barely make a dent in your budget.
A Box Grater
A Microplane is a terrific tool, and highly recommended for creating a fine shower of Parmesan, lemon zest, or fresh nutmeg. But if you need to shred two whole pounds of cheese to make Daniel's Classic Baked Mac and Cheese, a box grater is a far better bet. The larger holes will make short work of the block of cheddar, and its upright position makes it easy to grip while you shred away.
An Instant-Read Thermometer
If all you're doing in the kitchen is making simple, forgiving, largely vegetable-based dishes—things like stews, sautés, and casseroles—you can get away without a thermometer for testing your food's internal temperature. But if you want to cook any kind of meat and cook it well, a thermometer is a necessity. We've long recommended the ThermoPop as a good budget alternative to the pricier Thermapen. It read temperatures in under three seconds in Kenji's testing, and it comes with a good long probe for poking into the center of a roast and an easy-to-read rotating display.
An Oven Thermometer
Theoretically, setting an oven to your desired temperature should be as simple as pressing a few buttons and waiting for the beep. But many, many home ovens out there don't run true to temperature. A cheap oven thermometer hooked to the rack allows you to understand whether your own appliance runs hot or cold, so you don't have to constantly monitor your food or fret over uncertain timing. Armed with this knowledge, you can even try recalibrating the oven according to the manufacturer's instructions, if you're feeling handy.
Metal Mixing Bowls
Wanna know why television cooks use glass mixing bowls? It's not because they're better than the cheaper metal versions. It's for one reason only: Metal bowls are too reflective, and they make life difficult for the camera operators. On the flip side, they're also lighter than glass, take up less space, and last longer (and yes, modern microwaves can handle metal bowls!). Go into any restaurant kitchen and you'll find that the mixing bowls being used are exclusively metal.
Moral of the story: Leave the glass bowls for the TV chefs, 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 there than anywhere else. If not, this set of nesting stainless steel mixing bowls will furnish all the sizes you need.
A good wooden spoon is any cook's best friend, whether it's used for stirring a sauce, tasting a soup, or making the creamiest possible risotto. For the true aficionados among us, it's not unusual to end up with half a dozen wooden utensils in various shapes and sizes. You can start off with this set of three OXO rounded spoons, though eventually you'll want the turner set as well: The flat edges are ideal for scraping up fond and getting into the corners of pots, and the slotted tool will help you lift pasta or other foods out of boiling water for testing.
A well-made set of tongs is like a heatproof extension of your own fingers. With solid construction, slip-resistant grips (ever try to grab onto a pair of stainless-steel-only tongs with greasy fingers?), and scalloped edges perfect for grabbing the most tender stalks of spring asparagus or the biggest bone-in pork roast, these OXO Good Grips 9-inch Stainless Steel Locking Tongs set the bar for quality.
A Slotted Fish Spatula
Flexible enough to flip delicate pieces of fish without breaking them, yet sturdy enough to scrape a smashed burger off the bottom of your pan without missing a morsel, a fish spatula is something you'll find in the knife kit of every professional chef, and it's 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, pat it with a paper towel (no need to remove it from the spatula first), and transfer it directly to the serving plate. The wide slots in the spatula allow grease to drain off easily.
We reviewed some of the best-rated inexpensive fish spatulas on the market and found the Victorinox Chef's Slotted Fish Turner lightweight and easy to maneuver, slipping gently under fragile foods without disturbing other items in the pan. For a dishwasher-safe alternative, try the Wüsthof Pro Slotted Fish Spatula.
Heat-Resistant Flexible Spatulas
This is a very different beast from a fish spatula, or from the wider turner you might use with your nonstick skillet. Rather than turning and flipping with it, it's what you'll grab for scraping out every drop of custard, batter, or sauce from the inside of a pot or bowl. The silicone heads on these Good Cook spatulas are especially light and flexible, and the bamboo handles are easier to grip than silicone ones, which can get slippery over a steamy pot.
A Salad Spinner
It may look suspiciously like a unitasker, but a salad spinner, much like Liam Neeson, brings a very particular set of skills to the table. A good-quality one, like the Zyliss Swift Dry Salad Spinner—the top product from our tests—makes quick work of drying out herbs and leafy vegetables, without which process your salad greens are destined to be a mess every time: wet, limp, unappealing, and sadly resistant to harmonious interaction with their dressing. (Yes, you can spread out your greens to dry on a baking sheet or clean kitchen towel instead, but that's a far more time-consuming method.) The real reason this item is a must: Despite its unitasker feel, its interior basket can double as a colander—for cold foods only!—until you decide to pony up for the latter.
A Fine-Mesh Strainer
When making stocks, sauces, and creamy, smooth soups, you need a tool that can remove all those bits and pieces of aromatics without fuss. That tool is the simple, humble strainer, which should be rust-resistant, fit snugly over your bowls and pots (check for hooks on the rim that will allow it to do just that), and relatively inexpensive—this OXO Good Grips strainer will do the job. What else can you do with a strainer? Squeeze out seed- and flesh-free citrus juice, poach perfect eggs, sift flour, steam vegetables, and more. And, of course, your strainer can also serve as a colander for draining pasta and the like, a nice hot-foods counterpart to your salad spinner.
A Vegetable Peeler
Every kitchen needs at least one vegetable peeler, and, if you're a regular reader of this site, you'll know by now that our peeler of choice is a Y-peeler. Each of these Kuhn Rikon Y-peelers is outfitted with a carbon steel blade, which stays sharper longer than a stainless steel one. The broad handle is more comfortable than the slender one on many swivel-blade models. The peelers are so cheap ($10 for a set of three), you can easily swap them out when they finally start to get dull or rusty. They're even colorful. What more convincing do you need?
It's true that beating egg whites and whipping cream are made much easier with the help of a stand mixer (or a handheld electric mixer), but if you're still saving up for one, a good old-fashioned whisk-and-bowl combination works, too. For pastry applications, look for an all-stainless construction, which won't impart off flavors to highly acidic recipes, like jam, Key lime pie filling, or lemon curd. For more general use, a balloon design, in which the tines form a fairly open cage, will minimize clumping of sauces and batters in the whisk's crevices. This set of whisks from Philonext offers both features at a low price.
A Paring Knife
A paring knife can't do too much that a chef's knife can't, but, after your chef's knife, it's the chopping tool you'll likely reach for most often. For small tasks, like halving lemons or mincing shallots, or tasks that require closer attention to detail, its size and light weight make it a more convenient choice. (You'll also inevitably find yourself using it for some other, more offbeat purposes—it makes a fine cake tester in a pinch.) As with a bread knife, it's not necessary to invest too much cash in a paring knife. For our money, and based on our testing, the Victorinox 3.25-Inch Forschner is plenty sharp and comfortable to hold.
A knife can handle most of your kitchen cutting work, but you're going to hate opening packages with it, especially while there's a pot of water boiling over or a pan of oil getting too hot on the stove. While a pair of standard scissors will solve that problem, it won't cut it, literally, when you're trying to break down a chicken. These heavy-duty kitchen shears from Messermeister can do that and more—they've got a built-in screwdriver, a nutcracker, and a bottle opener, and the blades separate for easy cleaning.
A Kitchen Scale
It's tempting to label this one a must-have, since your kitchen life will improve immeasurably (heh) once you have it. If you bake regularly, whether you're making your own pizza dough or a special-occasion coconut cake, there's no question that you need a scale. We don't always recommend measuring by mass or weight, but using volume alone doesn't take into account varying density among ingredients, and baking demands a higher level of precision. In some important ways, it also makes measuring easier, since you don't need to juggle a whole set of spoons and cups in different sizes—just set a single large vessel on the scale, tare it, add flour until you hit the right number, dump it out into your mixing bowl, and repeat with the next ingredient. Plus, scaling a recipe up or down is way simpler when you have grams to work with, as opposed to figuring out the ratio between a third of a cup and two teaspoons. Our choice is the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale, which has a backlit pull-out display, fine accuracy and precision, and a removable stainless steel weighing surface.
A Bench Scraper
Often erroneously thought of as a baking-only accessory for tasks like portioning dough, once you have one of these, you'll find a million different reasons to keep it nearby. If you're like us, you'll be using your bench scraper to move piles of chopped vegetables from board to bowl, or board to skillet. Or to scrape your board clean of scraps and residue before you start another round of chopping. Or to cut a lasagna into neat squares. The more food you prepare with it, the less you'll be able to get along without it.
A Tempered-Glass Pie Plate
What's true for rectangular baking dishes is true here, too: It may not be worthy of a Martha Stewart photo shoot, but a simple pie dish made of tempered glass, like Pyrex, will conduct heat more quickly to your crust, producing more beautifully golden, crisp, and flaky results than any fancy-pants ceramic model. It's also nonreactive, making it safe to use with citrusy pies like lemon meringue and Key lime.
A Loaf Pan
Quick breads are a great way for novices to try their hand at baking, but a loaf pan is also handy for making meatloaf, pound cake, or simple yeasted loaves. This one is made from aluminized steel, which is long-lasting, rust-resistant, and helpfully nonstick.
A Thermometer for Pastry Projects
For sweet projects, Stella is passionate about her Polder digital thermometer, which offers a whole slew of features: ultra-fast reading times, ideal for candy recipes that require exceptionally precise timing; a clip-on attachment, so you can test temperature hands-free; and temp alert settings, letting you keep track of your custards if you happen to walk out of the kitchen. The probe allows you to use it on roasts, too.