Your kids, relatives, friends, or good acquaintances have just finished up college and are about to move into their first real place of their own with a completely understocked kitchen. Here are a few of the most basic, inexpensive pieces of kitchen gear that any recent college grad should be outfitted with to help wean them off the dining hall buffet habit.
The items in this kit are designed to be inexpensive, functional, and adequate to comfortably help you cook for one or two people at a time. I've avoided the standard "toaster with built-in egg poacher" or "electric griddle sandwich maker" type items that might be convenient for a week or two, but wear thin very very quickly. Every item on this list is something you'll use every single time you cook. Many of them are inexpensive and won't last a lifetime, but they'll last until your giftee decides to settle down for an upgrade. You can get everything in this kit for $156.74, or if you include the extra-nice-kids gift a grand total of around $306.73.
The Victorinox Fibrox 7-inch Granton Edge Santoku Knife ($27.99)
It seems like more and more these days people are shifting from traditional German or French-style wedge-shaped curved knives into the slimmer, straighter Japanese-style Santoku knives. I personally find them to be far easier to control and much more versatile. The Victorinox Fibrox version has a razor-sharp edge and a comfortable grippy black handle. It's a little light and more seasoned chefs might not like the stamped blade, but it's a great size and weight for a casual home cook or a beginner. A granton edge (those are the little hollows ground into the face of the blade) helps prevent foods from sticking to it, making slicing and dicing a cinch. Its low price tag seals the deal. It's available from Amazon for $27.99.
The Victorinox Fibrox 3 1/4-inch Paring Knife ($8.94)
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. As with the Santoku knife, you could go out and get a very fancy paring knife (see my guide here), but the Victorinox Fibrox 3 1/4-inch paring knife ($8.94 off Amazon) is a fine, inexpensive alternative.
The Calphalon 3-Piece Wood Utensil Set ($9.99)
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 ($9.99) 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 and testing pasta or other food out of boiling water.
The MIU Slotted Metal Turner ($7.95)
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 (Global in particulate) to be too stiff. The MIU Slotted Turner ($7.95) is inexpensive, small, and agile.
The OXO Good Grips Locking Tongs ($11.95)
Restaurant cooks are macho, and restaurant chefs are often diabolically arbitrary. In many high-end joints, tongs are outlawed. Apparently, they can bruise, maim, or disfigure meat. I don't believe a word of it. For the rest of us home cooks, 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 ($11.95) set the bar for quality.
Simply Calphalon Nonstick 10-inch Covered Omelette Pan ($39.95)
So eventually, a home cook is going to want to upgrade to a whole array of pots and pans to deal with multiple cooking situations, but until that time, a single heavy-duty non-stick skillet should do you just fine. The Simply Calphalon Nonstick 10-inch Covered Omelette Pan ($39.95) heat evenly, is perfectly non-stick, and comes with a lid so you can do quick stovetop braises in addition to cooking eggs, sauteeing veggies, or searing meat. Can you get it as hot as a cast iron skillet? Nope. Does it have the browning power of a stainless steel pan? Uh-uh. But for sheer versatility and ease of use, it can't be beat.
The Lodge 6-Quart Enameled Dutch Oven ($49.97)
OK, so this is definitely the most expensive single item on the list, but I have yet to find a heavy-duty Dutch oven that can perform as adequately as the Lodge 6-Quart Enameled Dutch Oven ($49.97) for a cheaper price. With Le Creuset oven ranging up to several hundred dollars, it's certainly the best value. 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 make for 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 and dole it out throughout the week.
And If They've Been Extra Nice: The Tramontina 8-Piece 18/10 Stainless Steel Triply-Clad Cookware Set ($149.97)
A high-performance knockoff of All-Clad's legendary cooking equipment, the Tramontina Set ($149.95) consistently scores nearly as well in performance tests, but comes in at less than half the price. I've got both all-clad and Tramontina gear hanging up side-by-side on my pan rack, and to be honest, I don't pick and choose when I'm cooking—both heat evenly and quickly, retain heat well, and are perfectly weighted and shaped. Like the All-Clad, Tramontina pans are made of a layer of aluminum sandwiched in between two layers of stainless steel to offer the heat distribution properties of aluminum along with the retention and stain-free properties of steel. In addition to a 2-quart and 3-quart saucepan, you'll also get a 5-quart Dutch oven and two skillets (8" and 10"). Pretty much everything you need to get cracking. Unfortunately, you can't get most of these pans a la carte, but at this price, it'll make an awesome, life-long gift for the extra-nice college grad on your list.