The Food Lab's Top 10 Pieces of Kitchen Gear

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

An instant-read thermometer showing the temperature of a roast

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Sure, maybe early man got away with a fire and a stick, but any budding kitchen sleuth, or even a good home cook trying to up their game, knows that the right equipment can make life on the hot line a whole lot easier. None of the selections here are necessary, per se, to cooking a fantastic meal, but they happen to be the gadgets that I reach for most often in my own kitchen, whether I'm cooking 24 batches of the best chili ever, recipe testing, or simply packing lunch for my wife.

You may notice that I have not included measuring spoons or cups on this list. That's because when I need to be precise, for the most part, I use a scale and rely on weight measurements, which are far more accurate than volume, though I do keep a set of spoons and cups on hand for when I'm feeling lazy. If you want the official Serious Eats recommendations, here are our reviews for the best measuring spoons and measuring cups.

So here we go, in no particular order: The Food Lab's top 10 pieces of kitchen gear.

An Instant-Read Thermometer

A good instant-read thermometer is the only way to ensure that your roasts, steaks, chops, or burgers come out that perfect medium-rare every time. Forget about poking with your finger, relying on inaccurate timing guides, or the nick-and-peek method. Buy a high-quality, fast, accurate digital thermometer, and never have a piece of over- or undercooked meat again.

The ThermoWorks Thermapen has a hefty price tag, but it's money well spent. It's head and shoulders above the competition, with a stunning range of -58 to 572°F (-50 to 300°C), precision to a tenth of a degree, unparalleled accuracy, and a read time of under three seconds. Because of its wide range, you won't need a separate meat, candy, or deep-fry thermometer—a single tool does all three tasks, and how.

Aside from my knives, it's my favorite piece of kit, and it rarely leaves my side while I'm in the kitchen.

For a slightly more budget-friendly recommendation, we tested a bunch of inexpensive thermometers, and the Lavatools Javelin came out on top, along with the line of colorful ThermoWorks ThermoPop thermometers.

A Kitchen Scale

[Photograph: Emily Dryden]

Did you know that depending on how you scoop up a cup of flour, its weight can vary by as much as 25%? 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!

For a good scale, look for accuracy to at least one gram or one-eighth of an ounce, a capacity of at least seven to eight pounds, a tare (zero) function, measurements in both metric (gram) and imperial (pound) units, a large and easy-to-read display, and a flat design for storage.

This OXO scale has all of that, plus a neat pull-out display that allows you to read measurements with ease, even when you're weighing large, bulky items that would otherwise obscure the screen. The only problem? Annoying fractions in the display instead of decimals.

For a more minimalist design, our tests found that the Escali model will suit you just fine.

A Bench Scraper

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

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.

When it's time to 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 bench scraper is our go-to for home kitchens.

A Microplane Grater

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

My favorite thing to do with a Microplane 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 ragù 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 use my Microplane to grate garlic (or ginger, or shallots) into tiny, even mince.

So many things to grate, so little time!

An Immersion Blender

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[Video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Want a pitcher full of margaritas? The blender's your friend. Need to make two quarts of pesto? Okay, pull out the food processor. But for smaller, everyday blending tasks, an immersion-style hand blender is the tool for the job. I've owned mine for 10 years now, and I use it at least three times a week.

It's great for puréeing soups directly in the pot or rapidly breaking up whole tomatoes into rough chunks for sauce. I also use it to make my foolproof two-minute mayonnaise, beurre monté, or perfect two-person servings of whipped cream.

Ever get annoyed at those stubbornly large pieces of egg white you come across when breading food? Blend the eggs for a few seconds, and they'll be perfectly uniform and smooth. You like that froth on your hot chocolate? Heat it up in the pot and buzz it to create a luxurious foam. Lumps in your béchamel? All gone. After a lot of testing, we found the All-Clad to be the best-performing hand blender, blasting through ice, soup ingredients, and more.

A Digital Timer

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Did you know that in restaurant kitchens, croutons are the number one item most burned by line cooks? 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 30 minutes later after it finally set off the smoke alarm.

At least, I used to, that is.

These days, I keep a ThermoWorks Timestick Trio around my neck at all times. It's got a backlit display, intuitive buttons, a loud alarm, a magnet for sticking to the fridge, and a 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. Trying to time more than one thing at a time? This baby's got three separate timers, plus a "locked" setting that'll keep you from accidentally switching anything off. What more could you want in a kitchen timer?

A Salt Cellar and Pepper Mill

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Why would anyone need a salt cellar? Seasoning food properly is the fastest and easiest way to improve your cooking, and, as any chef will tell you, the best way to season is with kosher salt. Pick it up between your thumb and fingers, and taste, taste, and taste again.

Having a salt cellar in a prominent spot by your prep station or stove is a constant reminder to do just that. I guarantee that if you don't already have one, putting a salt cellar on your counter will make you a better cook. (And Daniel agrees.) Any covered container with a wide-mouthed, easy-open lid will do, but this one does it with style.

And pepper? If you've been using pre-ground pepper, do yourself a favor and buy an inexpensive jar of pepper with a built-in mill. Taste the fresh-ground stuff side by side with the pre-ground. Which would you rather be putting on your food?

Forty-five dollars 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 pepper mill is sturdy and has a tough, nickel-plated grinding mechanism; an easy-to-load design; and a quick grind-size adjustment screw. It was the fastest mill we tested in our pepper mill review.

I keep one loaded with black pepper and a second with toasted Sichuan peppercorns for grating over hot bowls of mapo doufu (yes, my wok gets a good workout).

Prep Bowls

Here's a mantra for aspiring chefs: An orderly kitchen is a good kitchen.

Isn't it annoying trying to chop carrots on your cutting board when that little pile of parsley in the corner is getting in your way? Or what about frantically trying to scoop up chopped ginger to get into that stir-fry-in-progress before your bok choy fully wilts?

I use several prep bowls with a small capacity (we're talking one cup or less) pretty much every time I cook to keep chopped aromatics, measured spices, grated cheese, whatever, off my board, within easy reach, and organized.

Any small bowls will do—I own a dozen 25¢ cereal bowls from IKEA for this very purpose—but if you want to look like a pro, go for durable miniature stainless steel versions, like the ones included in this set of stainless steel mixing bowls.

A Salad Spinner

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Yes, they'll get your greens dry, and we all know that dry greens are better at holding dressing (right?), but the salad spinner is one of the truly great multitaskers in the kitchen. I like to fill mine with water and pick herbs directly into the bowl. Once they're picked, I swish them around, lift them up in the basket, dump the sandy water, and spin dry.

Line it with paper towels to dry delicate items like berries and extend their shelf life by a few days. Take whole chopped tomatoes for a spin for easy seeding (seeds slip through the basket while the pulp stays put). Washed mushrooms, peppers, broccoli—anything you could think of stir-frying or sautéing will cook better after a thorough drying in the spinner.

Use the power of centripetal force to whip away excess marinade from shrimp, chicken, or kebab meat. And as long as you've got a sturdy one with small grates, like the Zyliss salad spinner, there's no need to own a separate colander—drain beans, pasta, and vegetables directly in the spinner basket.

A Plastic Mandoline

Sure, you can train for years and spend hours a day sharpening and honing your knives to get to the point where you can whip out fennel wisps so thin you can read through them, or slice through your prep work at 100 onions per hour. And I'll be the first one to tell you that you're really, really cool.

But for the rest of us, a mandoline makes quick work of repetitive 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, and a pain in the butt to clean, and, with its straight blade, it didn't really do a great job.

The Benriner, 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 in the city, 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. You can read more about our favorite mandoline slicers here.

Random trivia: Benriner means "Oh, how handy!" in Japanese, despite the fact that the Japanglish on the box front proclaims "Dry cut radishes also OK."