When you love food—both eating it and preparing it—it's easy to accidentally spend your whole paycheck on cooking gear. It's true that some of the basic equipment that every kitchen needs isn't cheap, especially if you want high-quality versions that'll last—a good chef's knife, Dutch oven, or saucier is always going to be something of an investment. But many inherently cheap kitchen tools are nearly as indispensable as those costlier items. I'm talking equipment that'll make your cooking easier and your food better, and their price tag won't force you into panhandling on the street with your Mauviel copper pot. Here's a whole list of the inexpensive kitchen tools (all under $20!) that we consider to be most essential.
A Vegetable Peeler
When I was working in a kitchen, aside from a sharp knife and a Sharpie for labeling, a Y-peeler was the most important tool I carried around. You've read why we think the Y-peeler is the best: It works for both lefties and righties, and the wider handle makes for a more comfortable grip. The Y-peelers from Kuhn Rikon, our recommended model, also have carbon steel blades, so they stay sharper for longer, and come three to a pack for roughly $15.
Precise measurements are essential in many, if not most, recipes. While we often suggest using a scale to get accurate weight measurements, you'll still need measuring spoons for small doses of leavening and seasonings—most scales aren't accurate enough for those. These little ones are especially useful because the wide, shallow design makes it easy to clean out sticky ingredients, like molasses, with a small spatula.
A Paring Knife
In the kitchen, bigger isn't always better. Sometimes a small knife is just what you need—when you're peeling onions or garlic, say, or mincing shallots. (It's also useful when you need to take a sneaky sample of fresh-from-the-oven brownies.) We did some testing to find the best paring knife, and this one came out on top. It's nice and sharp, has a comfortable grip, and should fit any budget. We don't recommend you lick it after you test those brownies, but what happens in your kitchen stays in your kitchen.
A Fine-Mesh Strainer
A fine-mesh strainer has a multitude of uses, from removing the aromatics in creamy soups to poaching eggs and getting pesky seeds out of freshly squeezed fruit juice. A really good strainer will also be rust-resistant and dishwasher-safe, and have hooks on its rim so that it nests snugly over bowls and pots. We like this one, which also has a heat-safe handle—no need to worry about scorching your hands as you drain spaghetti.
Growing up, I assumed that wire racks were used exclusively for cooling just-baked chocolate chip cookies (and, in the process, slowly torturing me). It turns out that they're good for much more than that. First, they're ideal for resting meats, especially when placed over a half sheet pan to catch any drippings. If your goal is shatteringly crunchy baked chicken wings, resting the meat on a wire rack before you cook will provide even air circulation and help to dry out the skin, ensuring it crisps up nicely in the oven. Buy a set of two 10- by 16-inch racks, and they'll quickly become some of the most essential tools in your kitchen.
Rimmed Baking Sheets
Aluminum sheet pans, often called rimmed baking sheets, are the MVP of restaurant kitchens, and will be the MVP of your kitchen, too. Use them for a variety of sweet and savory cooking projects, from baking cookies and roasting veggies to cooking a whole chicken. Half sheet pans are most common, but you can also find them in quarter sizes, which are great for holding modest quantities of ingredients, or baking a smaller batch of cookies (just kidding—no one wants that).
A Slotted Fish Spatula
Despite the name, fish spatulas aren't just used for flipping delicate pieces of fish. We reviewed quite a few of the best-rated inexpensive ones on the market, and the Victorinox Chef's Slotted Fish Turner was the clear winner. It's lightweight and easy to grip, flexible enough to turn fragile foods, but strong enough to serve up a hefty burger patty.
A Heat-Resistant Nonstick Spatula
A fish spatula won't work for everything—for one, the thin metal flipper on it will do a number on your nonstick pans. If you're using a nonstick skillet to make airy pancakes or Crispy Fried Eggs, we suggest you turn to a nonstick turner, preferably one with a flipper coated in heat-resistant silicone. In our rigorous testing, we found that the Silicone Cookie Spatula by OXO performed the best. Its smaller size is great for maneuvering items in the pan, and its strong silicone-and-steel flipper is flexible, with sharp edges that can slip right under delicate foods.
A Bench Scraper
Bench scrapers aren't just for pastry. Sure, they may have been intended for portioning dough, but you can also use them to coax big piles of vegetables into a bowl, or clear scraps from a messy cutting board into the trash. Your bench scraper will be an unbelievably valuable tool for the little money you spend on it, especially if you like to keep things tidy in the kitchen.
A Pie Plate
There might be fancier-looking pie plates out there, but we've found that the plates made of simple tempered glass, like this one, will create a more golden and flaky crust than a ceramic version. (Everyone will be looking at the pie anyway, not the plate.) The words "cheaper is better" really are true here, and we're not complaining. Also, because it's not reactive with acidic ingredients, this dish is safe to use with citrusy pies, like lemon meringue.
A Rolling Pin
Speaking of making perfectly flaky pie crust, or festive sugar cookies, a rolling pin is a necessity for either project. A wine bottle may work in a pinch, but a tapered rolling pin will yield much better results (plus, it's way easier to clean). Save the wine for drinking, and use the rolling pin for its intended purpose.
A Honing Steel
There are many different honing steels out there, but before you even decide to invest in one, you should learn what it's actually for—i.e., not sharpening. They're actually for realigning your blade, so that the knife cuts through your food with less resistance. This stainless steel honing steel will do the job at a reasonable price. You can hone your knives as often as you like, especially if you cook a lot, but if you start to feel like honing isn't helping, then it's time to break out the whetstone and give them a real edge.
We did some testing to find the best cheap mandoline slicers, and the great news is that one of our favorites made the sub-$20 list. So what's all the fuss about a mandoline? It's key to getting slices of restaurant-level thinness and uniformity at home. Use it for making super-crisp potato chips or thinly shaved radishes for a salad. If you want to make a ratatouille like the one from the movie (technically a tian), a mandoline is essential for that, too.
For grating small shreds of hard cheese or citrus zest, a Microplane should be your tool of choice. It creates a fine shower of Parmesan cheese that'll melt right into a sauce, it can easily take the most delicate shavings off a lemon rind, and it'll turn garlic into a purée in no time. Just be careful to avoid shredding your skin while you use it. This can happen, and it hurts as much as you'd expect.
Ultra-Deep Cake Pans
When Stella says that her favorite cake pan is this one from Fat Daddio's, we listen. It's the brand she worked with at restaurants, and it continues to be her preferred model today. Why, you ask? For one thing, the anodized aluminum it's made from ensures that the cake pan itself is nonreactive, meaning you won't get weird flavors when using it with acidic batters. Second: the depth. Extra-tall sides act as a shield for your cake in the oven, so it rises nice and pale, with a delicate crust.
A Citrus Juicer
If you rely on freshly squeezed OJ in the morning, having an electric juicer at home can help you crank out a ton of juice at once. But if you need only a little bit for a recipe, why dirty up the whole contraption when you can use a quick-to-clean manual juicer instead? Our testing found the Chef'n FreshForce Citrus Juicer was a great juicer for lemons and limes. We also liked the OXO Good Grips Wooden Reamer for a reamer-style pick.