Expensive tools aren't always necessary in the kitchen. You can do just fine with slightly-less-than-the-best, or even bargain-price products.
Not only are the high-end tools not always necessary, but sometimes they are just plain worse than their cheaper counterparts. Here's a set of All-Clad measuring cups that are as solid and heavy-duty as they come, but the handles tilt up, making it difficult to get a level cup of anything. (Yeah, they get great reviews on Amazon, but that's because of their heft and beauty, not because of their usability.)
On the other hand, there are items that you DO need to throw down the big bucks for. Some kitchen tools take a lot of abuse. They need to be sturdy and well-made, or you'll just keep replacing them over and over.
This doesn't always mean you need to spend a ton on them, but you have to do your research.
So, the moral is to know before you buy. To that end, we've put together a Splurge/Save list of kitchen tools, along with reasons and recommendations.
Splurge/Save At a Glance
Non-stick frying pan
Frying Pan/Saute Pan (except nonstick)
Bakeware (some, not all)
Basic, Non-electrical Kitchen Tools
You have to have good knives. You just have to.
This doesn't mean you have to buy the most expensive knives out there. You can get good knives at a decent price.
Just don't buy chintzy knives. They won't stay sharp. They won't cut evenly. They'll warp.
You are far better off with two or three high quality knives than a whole set of cheapies. Your kitchen time will be so much more fun/rewarding/easier with good knives.
High quality knives will last you a lifetime. So no matter how much you spend, averaged over the next several decades, the cost will be minimal. So definitely splurge, because in this case, splurging is saving...and may even be safety.
Victorinox is a brand recommended over and over by reputable kitchen sites like America's Test Kitchen. They make all types of knives (here's what's available on Amazon), including their most famous knife, the Swiss Army Knife.
Here are the two basic kitchen knives, a chef's knife and a santoku:
Wusthof is a German brand known for their high quality. They have several lines in several price ranges, and you can spend a few hundred dollars on a Wusthof. Here is one of their "starter" sets--not the best, but certainly nothing to sneeze at. The 2-piece set is a great set, and will cover about 90% of your cutting needs.
Wusthof Santoku (7 in.). This is my go-to daily knife. I've had it for years and absolutely love it.
If you want to see more Wusthof knives, check them out on Amazon.
Chef's knife or Santoku: Which one is better?
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Instead, it has to do with your cutting style. A chef's knife is suited to the classic rocking motion taught in American and European culinary schools. A santoku suits the Japanese style of cutting--it cuts with a flatter motion. A santoku also cuts with the entire blade at once (because it's flat).
If you're not sure which knife is best for you, experiment with your cutting style before you buy. Getting the right knife for your style is the important thing.
The Problem with Inexpensive Knives: Stamping Vs. Forging
Any knife under $100 or so is going to be stamped rather than forged, including the Victorinox knives above. Stamping is the most economical way to make a knife: it works like an industrial cookie cutter, "stamping" the knife shape out of a piece of sheet metal. The knife is then given an edge and set into a handle.
Forged knives go through a more intricate shaping process. It's mostly done by machinery today (hand forging still exists, but it's very expensive), and it creates a knife with a lot more nuance than a stamped knife. For example, stamped knives are all one thickness, while forged knives are thicker near the handle and thinner at the edge and point. For expensive forged knives, the thickness is carefully designed for balance, ease of grip, and probably other fine points that lie beyond my area of expertise.
Stamped knives can be great, and they can serve your kitchen for years. And when they come with a lifetime warranty like the Victorinox knives above, they can be hard to pass up. They are good quality knives.
It used to be that forged knives were superior in every way to stamped knives. Today, though, the lines have blurred. There are good quality stamped knives (Victorinox again), and poor quality forged knives, as well. As with most things, you have to do your homework. If you stick to a reputable brand, like Wusthof or Victorinox, you'll get a nice knife. There are other good brands, but these are two of the most popular.
How Do You Know If a Knife Is Forged Vs. Stamped?
First, read the description (if you're buying online). If it doesn't say it's forged, it's probably stamped. Next, look at the knife from all angles. If the steel is one continuous width (aside from where it's been sharpened to a blade, obviously), it's stamped.
2. Frying/Saute Pan
A frying pan is the hardest workhorse in your kitchen. It's used for multiple tasks, often multiple times a day. And it's used under the harshest conditions: high heat and hot cooking oil.
So you need a tough frying pan. It will be your go-to pan for about 70% of what you cook (used for so much more than frying).
I recommend two brands: All-Clad and Demeyere. All-Clad is slightly less expensive, made in the USA, and comes with a lifetime warranty. Demeyere is made in Belgium, and is super tough, super high-quality cookware with a 30-year warranty.
The best thing about Demeyere is that the handles aren't riveted, so there's nowhere for food to get crusted on and require scrubbing.
Both are top-of-the-line brands, and both will last a lifetime. The decision is up to you!
For more information, see the article All-Clad Vs. Demeyere: Which Is Better?
All-Clad and Demeyere have several lines. For induction-compatiblility as well as top quality, these are my recommendations:
All-Clad Frying Pan
All-Clad makes several lines of cookware, all with different construction, but all good. You may not need a 13-inch pan (yeah, it's big), but I love it because of its great shape and the loop, which makes maneuvering it around the kitchen easier and safer. Also, I always prefer to have too much room than not enough.
If this isn't the pan for you, check out the All-Clad pans available on Amazon. I suggest that you buy tri-ply stainless; bi-ply (i.e., MC2 and LTD2) isn't induction compatible, and 5-ply is more expensive without providing better heating properties. Copper Core is very nice, induction-compatible cookware (see the full review of it here), but also more expensive than the tri-ply.
Demeyere Proline Skillet
If you do decide to go with Demeyere (which would be an excellent choice! Congratulations on your fine taste in cookware!), get the Proline skillet. It costs more, but it's induction-compatible and as tough as nails.
You can get a smaller Demeyere Proline skillets, but they won't have the loop (and the loop makes it pretty much the perfect pan).
3. Sauce Pan
A sauce pan is second in line for most-used pan, so you should have one that can withstand a lot of use. My choice is the All-Clad. I love the straight sides, the handle, and the loop--if in doubt, always get the one with a loop! It's easier to handle--which makes it safer--and makes full pots a lot easier to handle.
What size? This depends on you, but I think the 4-quart is a good all-around size. Here's the Amazon page if you want to see more options.
4. Bakeware (Some)
Bakeware is use-dependent. Some you can save on, like baking sheets, cookie sheets, and pie pans. But bakeware used for temperamental divas like cakes and breads, you should splurge a little. Good bakeware can mean the difference between a beautiful cake and a puck, light crusty bread or a flat dense loaf.
Even if you only bake occasionally, get decent bakeware. You'll be glad you did. And the best news of all is that you don't have to spend a ton, even for the good stuff.
Cake Pan: Fat Daddio's 8-inch Round. This is a great cake pan, recommended and used by professional pastry chefs. It made a huge difference in the quality of my cakes when I started using it. Drawback: The perfectly straight sides make these pans un-stackable, so they'll take up a good amount of room in your cupboard or pantry. (If you have any clever storage ideas for them, I'd love to hear them!)
Cake Pan: 9x13: Gotham Steel Ti-Cerama Nonstick Pan. I don't like nonstick pans for cooking, but for baking, this is an excellent choice. It's also durable enough to double as a roasting pan.
Ceramic nonstick cookware has a negligible shelf life under the demands of frying. But for baking, it's a good choice, and should last quite awhile.
5. Pepper Mill
A pepper mill may seem like an odd item to group with high-end cookware and knives. But it's an item you'll use a lot, and buying a good one accomplishes two important purposes: 1) It will last for years, and 2) It is a pleasure (not a pain) to use.
I have had several pepper mills over the years, and two stand out as my favorites: the PepperMate mill, and the Cole & Mason.
PepperMate Salt and Pepper Mill. It's adjustable. It has a "cover" to catch the ground pepper if you're grinding a specific amount. It has a nice turning action, with a ceramic grinder and a lifetime warranty. And (maybe best of all), its flat shape, which takes up less room in the cupboard than round mills.
The only problem with this mill is a couple of quality issues. The grinding mechanism is excellent, but the plastic housing is a little chintzy. After taking the top off a few dozen times to refill it, it became loose and I had to use a piece of tape to keep it fastened securely. But this was after years of use, so for all its other great features, I still recommend it.
Cole & Mason Derwent Pepper Grinder. The Cole & Mason is pretty much everything you could want in a pepper mill. It's adjustable. It's easy to fill. It's attractive. And it grinds pepper like a fine precision tool. You can't go wrong with this one--it's worth every penny.
Why You Don't Need a Salt Mill
Salt mills have become popular in recent years, but they are more a fad than a kitchen necessity. The reason you grind pepper is because peppercorns stay fresh, while ground pepper begins to lose flavor the instant it's ground.
This is not the case with salt. Salt will taste the same no matter what form you buy it in. So if you have a preference for a certain grind of salt, go ahead and use a grinder. But from a flavor standpoint, it's completely unnecessary.
1. Non-Stick Frying Pan
I am not a fan of nonstick cookware in general. Even with all the modern gains in nonstick technology, it still simply isn't durable enough for use as your daily cookware. Don't believe the late night infomercials--ceramic pans will be great for awhile--often as short as a month--then lose all of their nonstick properties. And no matter what they say about durability, DO NOT use metal utensils on these pans, or put them in the oven at any temp over 400F. You will kill your pans faster than you can say polytetrafluoroethylene. (Teflon, that is.)
I have one pan that I use almost exclusively for eggs, and I recommend keeping one nonstick pan around for uses like this. But whatever you do, please, please don't spend a lot of money on your nonstick pans: whether you pay $30 or $300, your nonstick pan is going to have about the same life span. So get the cheap one and replace it every few years.
Anolon Nouvelle Copper Hard-Anodized Skillets, 8-inch and 10-inch. These are some of the heaviest duty pans you'll find of any type. And despite the copper and anodized aluminum layers, they are induction-compatible. The shape is a little funky, with kind of a small bottom surface, but you'll be hard-pressed to find better quality pans at this ridiculously low price.
2. Stock Pot
If you ever get a chance to peek into a restaurant kitchen, you'll probably see numerous beat up old stockpots--huge ones--simmering on the stoves. And these are just fine, and will make stocks and soups just as good as an All-Clad stockpot you spend hundreds on.
The reason? Stockpots are pretty much exclusively used for liquids, and heated liquids have natural currents of convection, so aluminum and copper layers aren't needed to provide even heating.
The one drawback of a cheap stockpot is that you may get scorching on the bottom. But when weighed against pricey stockpots, it's entirely forgivable.
Cook's Standard 12-Qt Stainless Stock Pot (with Stainless LId). It's stainless, it has a stainless lid (avoid glass lids--they're heavy and they break), and it's the right price. Go with the 12-qt one as this is the most versatile size. (Unless you don't have storage space, then go with the 8-qt.)
3. Cutting Board
People will tell you that you need to spend a lot of money on a bamboo, maple, or oak cutting board. These are pretty, no doubt, but the truth is that plastic cutting boards are just as durable (maybe more durable), and you can throw them in the dishwasher (big bonus points!).
There's a lot to picking out a cutting board. Do you want handles or no handles? Do you need a groove to collect juices? Do you want one with feet, or one with two usable sides? Do you want it to be pretty, or merely functional?
You should think through your cutting board requirements and buy accordingly. Just don't spend a lot unless you're sure of exactly what you want; it simply isn't necessary.
Get one big enough to prep veggies and carve meat, and consider getting a second (smaller) one for fruits, bread, and the like. Flexible ones are also very nice for dumping prepped veggies into a pan.
OXO Good Grips Cutting Board. Comes in different sizes, and at this price, you can buy a few.
Or get a set to be instantly covered. This Gorilla Grip set, although not very pretty, is highly functional:
And if you do decide to get a wooden cutting board, get a good one. The cheap ones will split and break within a few months. I recommend Boos products--here's their Amazon page.
4. French Press
I recently read a review site article on French presses that picked out the absolute worst presses on the market as their favorites. (It's one of the things that prompted me to write this article.)
As with most things food, those French folks know what they're doing. A French press is the best way to make coffee. Bar none. It makes the freshest, most deeply flavored coffee, and when you're done, you can put the press out of sight--no appliance taking up counter space, no filters or tiny plastic (non-biodegradable) cups to dispose of. I don't for the life of me understand the investments people make in clunky, countertop-cluttering technology that makes mediocre coffee and produces the maximum amount of waste (but hey, to each their own).
And you do. not. need. an expensive press with fancy plungers or "patented technology." The simplest, most utilitarian, and least expensive French press on the market also happens to be the best one. Believe me, you are not sacrificing a thing by buying this press. First of all, it's stainless, so no glass to break. (Its plunger is also all stainless, so no plastic to degrade from the acids in the coffee--which is not the case with some more expensive presses!) It's double-walled (keeps coffee hot and your hands cool). It's big (is one liter enough coffee for you? If not, there's a bigger size!). It has a great handle. It pours superbly. And you can throw it in the dishwasher, too.
I love, love, love this press.
And you will, too.
Secura Stainless Steel 1000ml French Press Coffee Maker. If you never take my advice about anything else, take it about this. Don't even look at other presses. Honestly. This is the best one on the market--and all for about $20!
5. Sheet Pans
I use sheet pans for everything. I roast veggies in them, roast bones and chicken carcasses for stock, toast nuts, make pizzas, you name it. I even use shiny new ones for trays (they look nice and corral objects well.)
About the only thing I don't use sheet pans for is sheet cakes. (Unless you're a baker, do you need anything larger than 9x13?)
I cringe when I see sheet pans in cooking stores for upwards of $30. It is not necessary to spend this much on a sheet pan!
If you want to buy on Amazon, this $10 pan from Wilton is all you need:
But frankly, you can find them under $10 at restaurant supply stores. Here's one from Restaurantsupply.com for about 7 bucks (although with shipping, it might cost you as much as one from Amazon).
Buy a few, in a few different sizes (half- and quarter-pans are the most useful sizes). You will use them often, and you will be glad you have them.
6. Basic, Non-Electrical Tools
You don't need to spend a ton of money on basic, non-electrical kitchen tools. Items such as tongs, spatulas, wooden spoons, colanders, measuring cups, ice cube trays, mixing bowls, and storage bowls. You can spend a lot on any of these items, but will you get your money's worth? In my opinion, you won't.
So unless you've had a negative experience with a low-end tool, there's really no reason to buy top-notch stuff. For example, you don't need an All-Clad colander, or any other non-cookware All-Clad products. All-Clad is known for their clad stainless technology that heats spectacularly evenly--this is not necessary for a colander. Also, only their clad stainless cookware is made in the US; everything else is made in China.
On the other hand, you don't want to go too cheap on utensils, either. Use your common sense. Don't buy spatulas at the Dollar Store--they'll last one use, maybe two, and crack in half just when you need them the most.
OXO is a really good line of reputable kitchen tools. They have nice, ergonomically-designed handles for ease of use, and the quality is very good. For more information, check out the OXO page on Amazon.
The tools you buy for your kitchen should be good quality; in some cases, they should be excellent quality. But not everything has to be top-of-the-line, and not everything has to cost a fortune.
In a nutshell, the tools you use frequently should be high-quality; not only because they'll last longer, but because high-quality tools are a pleasure to use and make daily kitchen work more fun. You should also be willing to spend a decent amount of money on electric appliances, or at least do your homework so you get the best ones in a lower price range. Going cheap here will not be rewarded (and this is true regardless of how many positive reviews a cheapie product may have on Amazon).
But for some tools, you can go low-end. There's no sense to buy top-of-the-line tools that you're not going to use every day, or just because they have a respected brand name. OXO is a good brand for most kitchen tools that will give you years of happy use without spending a fortune.
This is a very rudimentary list, but I tried to touch on the necessary kitchen basics, and also give some good general advice. I hope to add more detailed articles in the future. Any thoughts or ideas? Please share in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!
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