Ah, the college experience—four years of education, new friendships, and
drinking profound intellectual pursuits. While no student does college quite the same way, one thing is true of all of them: They need to eat. Depending on the school, dorm setups can vary greatly, but whether a student has to make do without a cooktop at all, can swing an induction burner in their room, or has access to a full kitchen, they won't want to be without a set of cooking essentials.
Before you shop, be sure to check the rules of the dorm where you (or the student you're shopping for) will be living. The list of permissible gadgets differs from college to college; some schools ban appliances like induction burners and electric kettles, for instance, but allow mini fridges and microwaves. You don't want to start off the year with demerits, so don't court an unpleasant encounter with the RA.
An Electric Kettle
Our electric-kettle review offers recommended products that span a range of functionality and price points, any one of them a good choice. But for these purposes, the Hamilton Beach Electric Kettle will do just fine. Its only function is to boil water, but it does so quickly and reliably, and in a dorm room, that's pretty much all you need. In seven minutes, you'll have hot water for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, pasta, mac and cheese, and more.
For the more discerning drinker who needs the precision of a variable-temp kettle, which allows you to heat water to different temperatures—important for getting the most out of good-quality teas—invest in this Cuisinart Cordless Electric Kettle. The cordless feature makes it easy to carry across a room, and this model shaves 20 seconds off the Hamilton Beach kettle's boil time. Twenty extra seconds to cram for an exam? We'll take it.
A Good Coffee Maker
In college, coffee is almost as essential as sleep (perhaps even more so during finals week). Having a good coffee maker ready and waiting in your room makes the prospect of an all-nighter look less daunting, and will save a whole lot of money and time besides. This AeroPress is ideal for a dorm room setting: It's small, portable, and plastic. It's also affordable, so it's easy to replace if it gets destroyed when a roommate, say, tries to use it as a bong.
Airtight Food Storage
The last thing you need in college—or ever, really—is a rodent problem. To keep critters at bay, you'll need airtight containers to store chips, cereals, and other snacks. These OXO Pop Containers come in a variety of sizes and stack to save space. But it's the airtight seal that's arguably their best quality, keeping food fresh and safe from unexpected visitors. For a slightly less pricey option, regular old snap-top quart containers and pint containers will do the trick as well.
A Mini Fridge
To keep yogurt, string cheese, milk for coffee or tea, and maybe the occasional six-pack cold, a mini fridge is a necessity. Kenji uses this model from Avanti when he's dry-aging meats, but it also happens to be a great size for a college dorm room and comes complete with crisper drawers for your fresh fruits and veggies. Note, however, that it has no freezer compartment. For an even mini-er mini fridge that does have one, this model from Magic Chef is a great choice. That minuscule freezer won't fit any handles of vodka, but maybe that's for the best.
A microwave is incredibly handy when you don't have a kitchen, and not just for reheating leftovers or zapping coffee. It's convenient for a whole range of tasks, like drying herbs, toasting nuts and seeds, cooking bacon, micro-steaming vegetables, and more. Or try Kenji's recipe for single-serving nachos, which sounds like one hell of a study snack to us.
A Pressure Cooker
Going without a stove means nothing when you're armed with a multi-cooker,* a simple machine that does so much, takes up very little space, and will make you look like a total badass. A powerful pressure cooker can break down tough meats for flavorful chili, cook dried beans, or (for the committed student chef) make a gelatin-rich chicken stock. These machines can also double as rice cookers, and the sauté function will allow you to brown meat and vegetables for stews and braises to keep you nourished throughout the cold months. We recommend a few different pressure cookers and multi-cookers, but for a student, the Instant Pot is a no-brainer. It's compact, easy to use, and under $100.
A Plastic Cutting Board and Knives
No matter how many gadgets you lug into your dorm room, you won't get very far with food prep if you don't have a few decent knives and a surface for cutting. We like this simple plastic cutting board by OXO, which is large enough to prep a soup's worth of vegetables and can act as a makeshift cheese board when necessary.
A paring knife is useful for small tasks, like halving lemons at cocktail hour, peeling apples, or slicing cheese for the aforementioned cheese board. This paring knife from Victorinox is particularly sharp, easy to hold, and less than $10. A good serrated knife is essential for cutting soft breads for your daily sandwiches. For everything else, you need a good chef's knife, and this one is perfect for someone who's just starting out—balanced, well-made, and affordable. If you have a little extra dough to spare, check out the rest of our favorite chef's knives here.
Opening a bottle of wine with a flip-flop may be crafty, but it's also dangerous, and utterly unnecessary when you can get a perfectly good and cheap corkscrew online. There are a lot of fancy options out there, but a simple waiter's corkscrew is easy to use and easy to store. This version also has a double-hinged lever system, which makes pulling out tough corks a lot easier. And, of course, it includes a bottle opener, for all your many bottle needs.
A Can Opener
Canned goods have seen generations of college students through many a meal, and we rely on them pretty heavily for a number of our recipes. Don't even think about using that knife of yours to pop the top—you'll destroy the blade. Get a proper can opener instead, like this one—it's especially cool because it cuts the can in a way that allows you to replace the top as a lid.
An Immersion Blender
Traditional pitcher blenders can be bulky, tedious to clean, and expensive. Immersion blenders are the exact opposite. This All-Clad hand blender can perform almost all the same functions, blending soups and smoothies directly in a pot or jar. The one thing it can't do is purée ice for frozen margaritas and the like. For that, you'll need a more serious blender, like a Vitamix. An early graduation gift, perhaps?
A Water Filter
Adequate hydration is key in college, whether you're studying for a big exam or recovering from a serious hangover (or both at the same time). Keeping a pitcher of chilled filtered water on hand makes this easy, since it promises icy-cold sips while removing any contaminants from the tap water. This one should fit nicely in your mini fridge.
An Induction Burner
If you don't have access to a kitchen and want to develop your cooking skills, an induction burner is a great tool.* We suggest getting one with a single burner for easy storage. Induction burners tend to be more responsive than a hot plate or electric burner, and you can adjust the heat more rapidly for easier, faster cooking. This burner is both well reviewed and reasonably priced. Do remember that an induction cooktop requires induction cookware; while traditional cooktops transfer heat to the bottom of a pot, induction burners use a magnetic coil to generate heat, which will only work with stainless steel and cast iron.
Good news for safety: Induction burners won't get hot until you place a pot or pan on them. They can still start a fire, though, so heed our safety warning and pay close attention while cooking.
Whether you have an induction burner or access to a real-deal kitchen, you'll want at minimum two pieces of cookware: a three-quart saucier and an affordable nonstick skillet, which should cover you for your eggs in the morning and your pasta at dinner.
All that's left is to fill a sturdy, attractive cooking crock with some basic utensils. That includes a silicone spatula, a whisk, and a set of tongs. If you're game to try some baking, a set of measuring cups, measuring spoons, and mixing bowls will serve you well.
Extras for the More Advanced Cook
If you've been a dedicated Serious Eats fan for years, then you'll clearly want to bring an immersion circulator to college. Let the drunken sous vide experiments begin! Grab a Cambro, too, so you can easily scale up recipes for dinner parties, and some Ping-Pong balls to reduce evaporation. Any extras can, of course, be used for beer pong.
* In addition to following the rules of your dorm, please use all of these items according to the manufacturer's directions. Cooking-related fires can result in serious injury, or, at the very least, a permanent reputation on campus as "the idiot who set the fire." It's not worth it.