The Lazy Genius Guide to Essential Kitchen Tools
If you’ve ever read the beginning chapter of a cookbook, flipped through a Real Simple, or gotten married, you’ve seen The List of all the tools and equipment you need to have a fully functioning kitchen. Remember how you only need to stock your kitchen with the food you eat? The same is true of equipment.
The most essential tools are the ones you actually use.
To get us on the same mental page as we jump into the Lazy Genius list, I offer these rules.
Rule #1: Think about tasks more than tools.
I’m about to give you a suggestion to have a sauté pan, but the point isn’t the pan. The point is what the pan can do. If a tool doesn’t sound right for you, it might mean the task itself is off your radar. Or it might mean you accomplish that task a different way than I do. I have a potato ricer, not a potato masher, because that’s the tool I like for the task of mashing potatoes, and my mom mashes hers with an electric hand mixer. Same result but different tools.
Rule #2: Start small, and see what you like.
You don’t need the perfect kitchen immediately. Release the pressure to buy everything at once. Notice what you love, what you wish was easier to do, and take your time finding what works for your own needs. Your kitchen tools will change as your cooking skills and life stages progress, so only invest in what makes sense.
Rule #3: Invest in what you can’t live without.
If you can’t live without some way to cook without being home, invest in a real Instant Pot or a well rated slow cooker. I can’t live without baking and do it often, so my equipment is top notch. If it’s important, the cheap stuff will frustrate you. Invest where it matters, and settle everywhere else.
Rule #4: Never feel badly for not having an “essential” from someone else’s list.
The whole point of outfitting your kitchen like a Lazy Genius is that you choose what matters to you and skip the rest. Never feel badly about the skipping.
Rule #5: More isn’t always better; sometimes it’s just more.
Remember that line from Sabrina? Just because one awesome chef’s knife works doesn’t mean you need six. Only buy more when what you have is clearly not enough.
We’re using Rule #1 to structure our list and will organize every tool by its task. If you don’t need the task, don’t worry about the tool.
And while there are affiliate links to specific tools in this post (thank you for supporting The Lazy Genius Collective by clicking on them!), the specific tool isn’t king. If the task really matters, do a little research on possible tools to make sure you’re getting what works best for you. If something is a ride-or-die for me, I’ll say so.
Ready? Let’s start listing.
Task: Cooking Protein
Skillets are intended for quick, high-heat cooking which is essential for many proteins in your kitchen. The side is low so heat can flow (rhyme!), and the result is beautifully browned food that might even have a crispy edge. The task of sautéing is always best served with a little fat, whether from the protein itself or from olive oil, butter, etc., so don’t skip it.
Skillets come in all sizes and materials, and what you need depends on what you cook. Stainless steel and aluminum pans heat up quickly but are patchy in their ability to hold the heat steady, and they need a good bit of fat to keep the food from sticking. Copper pans conduct heat well but are a pain to maintain and are reactive to acidic foods (tomato sauce, lemon juice, etc.), making them taste metallic. Cast iron is fantastic for conducting heat but is also reactive to acidic foods and a pain to maintain. However, if you’re into frying chicken or breaded pork cutlets, cast iron is your best friend.
Choose your skillet based on what you love and how you cook. The high-maintenance nature of a certain material might still be your preferred tool for the task in front of you. No shame.
If you tend to cook an egg or a single piece of chicken at a time, consider having a six or eight-inch skillet for smaller tasks.
I’ve tried a good number of skillets over the years, and my current favorites are:
Tramontina Professional Fusion 14-inch Fry Pan: It’s heavy-gauge aluminum and enormous. It’s great for sautéing chicken breast, fish, frying pork cutlets, and stir-frying thinly sliced beef. I use it almost every day, but it is huge and would knock a grown man senseless with one swoop. I’ve had it for almost three years, and it’s still growing strong. Hand wash only, please.
Calphalon Ceramic Nonstick Skillets from this set: The reviews are mixed which I find interesting. Lots of complaining about scratched surfaces and uneven heating. I’ve never had trouble with consistent heating, and while there is a knick here or there, it doesn’t bother me or affect the cooking. You want to avoid metal utensils with these and they need hand washing like most pots and pans, but I love them. We’re on year four or five, and they’re going strong.
A good ol’ cast iron skillet: I use it rarely, but nothing works as well for frying chicken and a lot of baking tasks if you’re into that (cornbread, pineapple upside-down cake, and crispy fruit crumbles to name a few).
Grill or grill pan
Grilling is different from sautéing in that grilling doesn’t use fat to create texture and browning; it uses heat, often dry heat. The flavor is definitely different - smoky and deep, and the texture can certainly be juicy but only if you’re able to sear in the juices with a high enough heat.
If grilling is in your blood and you have space outside for an actual grill, you probably already have one. Another possibility many folks consider is a grill pan, usually made of cast iron because of the consistent ability to hold heat and a lot of it.
I would only suggest investing in a grill pan if you have great ventilation in your kitchen (hello, smoke alarm) and you prefer that grilled flavor and texture to a sauté. Grill pans are monstrously heavy and sometimes hard to store, and getting those grooves clean can be a pain if you don’t have the right tools for cleaning. Again, if you know you want to accomplish the task of grilling meat, you need to choose the tools that make the most sense for that task.
For my family, we have a gas grill outside that we use weekly in the summer and monthly when the weather cooperates. I love the option; you can’t get true grilled chicken flavor by sautéing it, but it’s not a high priority, aka we don’t have a grill pan.
Well, we did. But I got tired of playing cat and mouse with the smoke alarm. Bye bye, grill pan.
Slow-cooker or pressure cooker (Instant Pot)
If you’re looking to maximize your grocery budget dollars, cooking meat with a slow-cooker or pressure cooker should be on your essential list. The cheapest cuts of meat are best cooked low and slow with a good amount of moisture.
I prefer the Instant Pot to a slow-cooker because of the sauté function. Most slow-cooker recipes are on the bland side because flavor isn’t developed via heat, so the Instant Pot allows for the best of both worlds. That said, I know a ton of people who are ride-or-die for their Crockpots.
I have this Instant Pot model and couldn’t live without The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook to make it sing. And I do still have a cheap crockpot for heating up meatballs at parties. Gotta have them meatballs.
Have you seen those giant colorful pots at Sur le Table that weigh a million pounds and cost even more dollars? Those are Dutch ovens. If you want to accomplish the task of cooking meat low and slow (braising is the official word for cooking meat slowly in a little bit of liquid) but also want to be engaged in the process unlike the Instant Pot or slow-cooker, a Dutch oven is an essential.
I love my Dutch oven. Well, ovens. I have three. I know. But braising meat (also making really good stews and going from stove to oven) is a highly prioritized task in my kitchen, so Dutch ovens are essential to me.
Why three? I have a small 3.5 quart one that I’ve had over ten years; it was the perfect size when I was only making meals for two. Now I keep it for making cheesy dips at parties because the cast iron holds heat so well. It’s so cheap it doesn’t even have the brand on it. I have a 5 qt Crofton braiser I got at TJ Maxx or Marshall’s. It has rounded sides and is more shallow, perfect for making recipes where I need slow cooking but also want liquid to evaporate, i.e. bolognese sauce. And my 7 qt Cuisinart Dutch oven gets the most action. It’s enormous (I feed a lot of people on a regular basis) and a beautiful blue that makes me happy. The two big ones are on display, and the tiny one is in a cabinet.
Cooking meat rides on the lines of underdone and a piece of rubber. If you want to be proficient at the task of cooking meat, a digital thermometer is an excellent tool to know for sure when your chicken is done. I’ve used this model for months and love it.
Task: Cooking Vegetables
The number of ways you can cook vegetables is just outpaced by the number of vegetables you actually have. This is one of the best places to think about task before tool.
Roasted vegetables are God’s gift to a cook, so if you haven’t ventured into that space, listen to this podcast episode. Roasting pans have higher sides than sheet pans, usually to allow for an actual beef roast or whole chicken to have plenty of room on the vegetables. I had a roasting pan for a few years but found that the same tasks could be accomplished with sheet pans and Dutch ovens. You, however, might find that a high-sided roasting pan is the exact tool you want for this task.
Sheet pans are possibly the biggest workhorses in my kitchen, and cooking vegetables is one of the most common uses. Cover one with foil and parchment, dump your oiled and seasoned vegetables on top, and you’re done.
Sheet pans are best made of heavy-gauge aluminum and with about an inch lip all the way around. I get mine from a local restaurant supply store which I highly recommend searching out in your own area. If you live somewhere that has restaurants, the chances are good you’ll find a restaurant supply store.
Make sure you know the width of your oven before purchasing. I might or might not have tried to stick a pan in my oven and it didn’t fit. Maybe.
If your task is to steam vegetables, you can accomplish that with steamer bags that go from freezer to microwave, a stainless steel steamer basket, a bamboo steamer, or the vegetables in a pot with a little water and a tight fitting lid.
I personally use a stainless steel steamer basket because it’s small and dishwasher-safe. I once owned a bamboo steamer because the Internet told me to, and it got moldy and disgusting in no time. I don’t need to steam dumplings and cabbage rolls, just broccoli. The steamer basket is my best tool for accomplishing that task.
If you like sautéed vegetables, a skillet is essential. In the section about cooking meat, you’ll see the thoughts on materials. I like a surface that isn’t too finicky and the vegetables won’t stick to. If you, for example, prefer steamed and roasted vegetables and also like for your meat to be cooked with an intense sear, you might be just fine with a steamer basket for steaming and a cast iron skillet for cooking meat… no nonstick skillets required.
Those little pots are used so many ways, and cooking vegetables is one of them. If you regularly need to accomplish the task of heating up a can of green beans or slowly cooking carrots in simmering chicken stock, you might want a couple of saucepans. “Meat and three” meals require them.
Personally, I rarely use a sauce pan to cook vegetables (I roast and sauté all the way), so I only have the two from this set and use them primarily for sauces and grains. Again, if it’s not essential to you, it’s not essential.
Grill pan (+skewers)
If you adore grilled vegetables, you need a tool to accomplish that task, and a sauté pan isn’t going to cut it. A grill pan will probably serve you better if the task is vegetables because you don’t need the same level of heat you do for meat. That said, an essential tool for you if you’re a vegetable griller is to have skewers for easy flipping and serving.
Task: Cooking Grains and Carbs
Rice, quinoa, barley, oatmeal… depending on how much you make, how often you make it, and whether or not you want to babysit your grains (see the next option), a saucepan is essential. Choose sizes and materials that make sense for what you need. This is where Google is your friend and will answer questions like “what’s the best saucepan for cooking rice.”
I don’t like babysitting grains, and we make rice multiple times a week. Guess what’s essential in my kitchen? A rice cooker, no doubt. My in-laws are Japanese and so is my rice cooker, but there are many great choices online. Some cook more than rice, so recognize what tasks you want to accomplish, and buy a model that meets those needs.
I’m new in this arena, but the Instant Pot does quinoa, oatmeal, dried beans, and even pasta really well. If you need to cook a lot of hearty grains on a regular basis, this could be your best tool. It cooks in a fraction of the time without you having to babysit bean water and overflowing brown rice.
Big soup pot
If you make pasta, you need a big ol’ pot to cook it in. I have a big soup pot from that set I’ve mentioned, and I use it often for soups and things that require more than boiling water. That said, when it comes to boiling water for pasta (which happens every Monday at least), I have the cheap stuff. I bought an aluminum soup pot at Walmart for maybe ten bucks, and that puppy hits the dishwasher every dang time. I don’t put my good pots in the dishwasher, but since washing dishes is on my Loathe List, I “invested” in a piece of garbage that would accomplish the task of boiling pasta and the task of keeping me away from a sink of suds.
If you make soup in a slow-cooker (we’ll get to that in a second) and have no need for a big pot except for pasta, don’t you dare buy something expensive. Tools and tasks, man. Make them dance together the way you need them to.
Anything cooked in water needs to be drained away from that water, so if that’s grains like barley and pasta or even vegetables that need a good shake, a sieve is important. The size of the holes depends on what you’re draining, so think about that before buying.
I have a fine-mesh sieve for rinsing beans and getting seeds out of fruit purees (two tasks I do often) and not much else. But, Kendra, how do you drain all that pasta? My cheap pot has a lid with holes in it, and I usually lift the pasta out of the pot and into a skillet full of sauce with tongs or a spider (both of which we’ll get to). Yes, I need to accomplish the task of draining pasta, but I don’t have to do it with a giant space-stealing colander, and neither do you. Unless it’s the best tool for your task, then do your thing, girl.
Task: Making Soup and Sauces
This is a fancy word for those big metal pots that you see in movie restaurant and army kitchens. Do you need one? That all depends on if it’s the best tool for your task. If you make a lot of soup for a lot of people or make seventy gallons of tomato sauce to freeze, you’ll love having a stock pot. If you actually make stock from chicken bones and carrot nubs, you’ll love having a stock pot. However, you can accomplish soup- and stock-making in a slow-cooker or Instant Pot, so only use it if it’s your favorite tool for the necessary task.
A great tool for making soup (and obviously many other things), but only choose it if it makes sense.
We’ve covered the goodness of the variety of saucepans. If you make your own barbecue sauce or like to hit up a bottle from the fridge, a saucepan that makes you happy is a good idea. Harkening back to my cheap pasta-boiling pot: if you use a saucepan often but hate washing it, buy a cheap one to put in the dishwasher for stickier jobs like that barbecue sauce. It might be essential if it saves your sanity.
If soup is your jam (I’m mixing food metaphors now), an immersion blender is worth putting on your essential list. You don’t have to worry about pouring hot soup into a blender (or owning a blender at all) and can just stick the immersion blender into your pot and go to town.
The only downside is that they’re not as powerful as, say, a Vitamix that results in crazy creamy soups. However, if you’re not serving judges on Top Chef, I think you’ll be fine. Bonus tip: a lot of immersion blenders come with attachments for whisking cream and even chopping small amounts of vegetables.
Task: Baking Savory Food
Quiche, frittata, chicken pot pie. If those are essential to your meals, pie plates are essential to your kitchen.
I personally like standard glass pie plates; they conduct heat well enough but are sturdier and easier to clean than their aluminum and ceramic counterparts. While ceramic plates are so pretty to look at, my resident pastry guru, Stella Parks of my beloved Bravetart cookbook, did a lot of testing with pie plates and concluded that the beauty of ceramic isn’t worth the tradeoff of unreliable heat conduction. Take that for what you will.
Big ol’ bakers are perfect for baked ziti, chicken casseroles, bread puddings, sausage and eggs breakfast bakes, and any other mixed-up concoction with cheese on top. If these are your go-to for feeding your crowd or supplying friends with meals when they need them, don’t be afraid to stock these. Since casseroles rarely need the kind of heat conduction that, say, a pie crust needs, casserole and glass are both great. If you often have the task of transporting baked savory foods, invest in dishes with lids.
Disposable foil bakers
If you stock the freezer, if you like to take food to people and don’t want them to worry about returning your dishes, or if you just like the ease of disposable pans, disposable foil bakers could be essential for you.
I personally rarely use them because they’re flimsy and hard to transport, but they’re a great tool for their specific task.
Task: Baking Desserts
I already said they’re the workhorse of my kitchen, and baking desserts is one of their many uses.
Cookies, blondies, and a sturdy surface to park an overflowing pie, sheet pans are essential for any baker’s kitchen. I once had a baking business, so my stash is excessive. In your kitchen, two pans might be plenty.
Other uses? Carrying a lot of ingredients from, say, your garage freezer to your kitchen freezer, corralling ingredients and sticky spoons in one place when you’re baking, and offering a surface for cookie dough balls and muffins to freeze completely before putting them in freezer bags.
If you make muffins or cupcakes, there’s no hack to make them without tins. Only essential if muffins and cupcakes are essential. (In my house, they so are.) I like these nonstick versions with the extra wide handles so my thumb doesn’t sink into a pretty dome and crush it.
Again, only essential if cake is essential. If you dabble in one or two cakes a year, don’t feel badly buying cheaper pans that nest together and take up little space. For me, I use these. They’re bulkier but do the job perfectly. An even bake, plenty of room for a proper rise, and really sturdy. If you bake cakes, find room for these in your kitchen.
We forget that we can actually throw away those overripe bananas, but in the event that they must become banana bread, loaf pans are a great thing to have around. Most muffin recipes can be baked in a loaf pan; just bump the temperature down 25 degrees and extend the time by about double. I’ve done glass, aluminum, and the cute ones from the clearance section at Marshall’s. Nonstick aluminum tends to be my favorite.
This is an investment, people. Don’t let Martha tell you this thing is essential unless you find your hand cramping from a handheld mixer on a fairly regular basis. A stand mixer takes up a lot of counter or cabinet space, it costs a good amount, and if you don’t use it, it looms over your head. I have two because I’m an insane baker person, but if it’s not essential to you, it doesn’t belong in your kitchen.
You might not need a stand mixer, but if you ever want to bake cookies, whip cream, or even mash potatoes like my mom does, a handheld electric mixer is nice to have. Don’t splurge unless you plan on letting the motor run awhile. A standard, well-reviewed model is just fine.
If you decorate cakes or spread batter, an offset spatula is absolutely essential, and you might not even know it. Some folks swear by it to flip tiny bits of food, wrestle muffins out of their holes, and even spread stuff on bread. It’s essentially the perfect spreader, so if you do a lot of spreading, it could be worth the few bucks and tiny space in your drawer.
I made cookies and cupcakes for years without a food scoop, and now I don’t want to make them without one. Or the four that I have. Again, restaurant supply stores are your best bet, but if you don’t have one close by, check your standard Williams Sonoma to get a feel, or get a well-reviewed one on Amazon. I do recommend one with a plastic handle vs. metal, hashtag blisters.
Roll out pie dough, crush nuts and Oreos, and flatten chicken. (That last one isn’t so much for desserts, is it?) Don’t break the bank on this. I found my favorite rolling pin at a flea market for a dollar. Just get what feels good in your hand.
Cast iron skillet
If you like to bake rustic desserts but don’t want to invest in a ton of baking equipment, a cast iron skillet is a great tool to consider. Sure, it’s perfect for fried chicken and getting a solid crisp on vegetables, but it’s also perfect for sturdy, hearty desserts like crumbles, upside-down cakes, cornbread, and skillet cookies. Yes, skillet cookies. Have you ever heard chocolate chip cookie dough baked up in a skillet with a bunch of ice cream on top? Magical.
Task: Cutting Food
Unless you only eat at restaurants, you need a good knife. This is about as essential as it gets. Splurge on something good, and it’ll last you for decades. This one is my ride-or-die, and it’s still killing it after over ten years.
(Also, when I say killing it, I don’t mean people. I mean onions and stuff.)
Knife rules: don’t put it in the dishwasher EVER, and keep it sharp. A lot of kitchen speciality stores will sharpen them for you, or you can buy your own. I prefer this kind to the rod.
You don’t have to be as tender with this one. You just need a little knife to cut strawberries and cucumbers that you can throw in the dishwasher. No splurges necessary.
Close to essential but only if it makes sense for the tasks you have. If you slice loaves of bread, slice tomatoes, or chop chocolate, a serrated knife can’t be beat. If you find that your chef’s knife does the trick on all your cutting jobs and you just buy pre-sliced bread, you’re all good.
This is where I get bossy. I’m a cutting board snob.
I’m begging you - BEGGING YOU - to not buy those little plastic sets where the boards are as thick as a piece of notebook paper and have pictures of steaks and chickens on them. I can’t, you guys. Cutting boards have one task - to receive the cut of the knife. When you cut on those pieces of garbage, you’re not giving your knife any chance at follow-through. The board slides around, the food is uneven, and the boards eventually warp and can be rolled up and used to play Pirate Ship.
Please, PLEASE, invest in a good cutting board for all of your produce-chopping needs. And they double as a cheese board or serving tray in a pinch.
For the record, I have nothing against plastic cutting boards. I use them every day, in fact. But they have grips on the ends, a rim around the edge to catch liquid, and they can go in the dishwasher. Perfect for cutting up fruit for the kids and raw chicken.
But for all that is good in the world, if you have the space for a wooden cutting board, get one. Snobbery over.
This is another tool that wasn’t essential until I had it. If you want to cut up things quickly, kitchen shears are where it’s at. Green onions and fresh herbs are easily sprinkled over your dinners. Do you need to cut your kid’s spaghetti? Kitchen shears will win the day. So many tasks for one tool, and you’d never know it.
If your task is to cut vegetables thinly and precisely, the most professional knife skills can’t mimic a mandoline. I don’t have one because it plays into my irrational fear of slicing off an entire layer of skin, but many folks love having one in their kitchens.
Cheese, cucumber, carrots, cinnamon sticks if you’re fancy… a good four-sided box grater will accomplish a multitude of tasks, but if you buy grated cheese and don’t like tiny things in your salad, you might be fine without one.
Essential if you take the zest off a lemon, grate your own hard cheeses like Parmesan, or grate fresh nutmeg. I use it for those three things alone, and it’s still top of my essentials list. I’ve had mine for over ten years, and it’s as good as the day I bought it.
Pro tip: buy a Swiss peeler. They’re so much easier to hold, and therefore they do the job better. I have a stash because I’m always peeling stuff, and you can score at restaurant supply stores. Otherwise, Amazon wins again.
We have one because my husband loves using it. I just use a knife. Same task, different tools. You do you, man.
Task: Moving Food Around
Wooden spoons are my all-time favorite food movers. They don’t scratch diva pans, and they’re pretty, sturdy, and cheap. I have a dozen in a jar on my counter because they make me happy. Some women collect shoes; I collect wooden spoons. One or two would be plenty. Go for one with a straight edge to break up food and another that’s round. And unless it’s coated with that slick stuff, it’s fine to put them in the dishwasher if you’re feeling lazy.
If wooden spoons are the drive-thru carwash, silicone spatulas are the detailers. No drip or drop is left behind, and if you’re talking about ganache or barbecue sauce, that’s a delightful thing. I don’t use these for regular stirring of meats and veggies (although you could), but I definitely love them when I’m scraping out pots, mixing batters, or getting out every last bit of sauce.
Sometimes a spoon won’t do if you need to whip air into something (cream or eggs) or mix ingredients that naturally argue (oil and vinegar, i.e. salad dressing). If your tasks lean in the baking direction, go for a big balloon whisk. If you’re more “I need to mix up this little bowl of something or other,” stick with a smaller whisk until another becomes necessary.
Essential, y’all. There are too many tasks these things can do when it comes to moving food around. They flip pieces of meat, pull baked potatoes out of the oven, toss salads, pull spaghetti out of boiling water, and just about anything else that could use a super powerful, grippy hand. Hands are, in fact, one of the most essential tools in your kitchen, but when you don’t want burns or greasy messes, tongs are the tool for numerous tasks.
Some tasks don’t have multiple options for tools, like flipping pancakes, burgers, or delicate pieces of fish. A thin spatula is a great tool for your kitchen, and the more flexible the flipping part, the better.
This is in my top ten essential kitchen tools. It moves food from cutting board to skillet. It cuts butter into pieces for pie crust. It is the absolute best tool for scraping up sticky rice and spaghetti on and under tables. When I make dough and those little bits are left on the counter and dry into soul-killers, the bench scraper is my knight in shining armor. It feels random to have one around, especially if you’re not baking bread with a bench to scrape, but once you start using it, you’ll never want to live without it.
Task: Measuring Food
When it comes to baking, I prefer a kitchen scale, but most of us have the task of measuring rice, stock, and ingredients for your grandma’s famous honey mustard sauce. You probably don’t want to measure them by weight, so measuring cups are king. Just remember that ounces and fluid ounces are different. Which leads me to…
Fluid ounce measuring cups
If you’re going to measure fluid ounces of any liquid - water, milk, buttermilk for biscuits, you need those glass or plastic pitchers with numbers on the side. However, even if you rarely use the measuring option, those spouts are great for pouring liquids like homemade salad dressing, stir-fry marinade, and all the eggs, milk, and melted butter you need for blueberry muffins.
Most kitchens need these for sure. I’ve often fallen victim to the siren song of beautifully rustic enamel teaspoons, but when I want to measure a teaspoon of cinnamon, there are flecks of cheap enamel in my cinnamon rolls. Ew. Practical over pretty is worth it here. It might be worth it to go for two sets for when you’re measuring both wet and dry ingredients in one bout of cooking. It’s annoying to measure vanilla extract and then need that same teaspoon to measure baking powder.
I’d like to be buried with my kitchen scale. Is that weird? If you bake, I beg of you to make this an essential tool. Accuracy is integral to successful baking, and a scale the most accurate measuring you can do. Plus, you don’t dirty up a ton of measuring cups going back for cup after cup of flour and sugar, and y’all know how much I hate dirty dishes.
I have this one. It’s definitely pricier, but it’s worth it because of the zeroing out function. Anything to keep me from doing math.
Task: Prepping Food
If your task is to keep pans from getting dirty and food moving easily from place to place, parchment paper is the best tool. Line sheet pans for everything from cookies to tater tots, sift flour into it to save that whole “mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl and set aside,” and use it to wrap blocks of cheese and food headed for the freezer.
Same task as above but a different tool. I prefer lining pans with parchment over foil because foods often stick to the foil, but it might be your preferred tool, especially with the other tasks it can cover. I mean, of course, I have foil in my kitchen. I just use parchment paper more often.
Sometimes you need food to hang out somewhere other than a pot or pan. This is where you need to think about your tasks more than the tool. If your task is serving food more than prepping it, go for pretty bowls. If you’re tossing salads and baking bread and mixing up spinach dips, mixing bowls are a great essential. I have glass and restaurant-style aluminum ones. Glass is prettier; aluminum is easier.
Do you have a lot of salads? Do you need to accomplish the task of rinsing off those lettuce leaves? Some people shake the lettuce like crazy and then put it in between paper towels. Others put the lettuce in a dishtowel and swing away. Your preferred tool might be a salad spinner, and if it is, go forth and spin. If you do go this route, opt for one with a spout where you can drain the water without taking off the top.
Sure, you can squeeze the lemon into your hands to catch the seeds or fetch them out with a spoon so your lemon cheesecake doesn’t have a fun little surprise, but your preferred tool might be an actual juicer. I use mine more often than I thought I ever would.
The task is obvious here - minced garlic. Your most likely tools are a knife, a mortar and pestle, or a garlic press. You have your task, friend; choose your best tool! I don’t have one because I use a knife, but I know folks who would lose their faces without their garlic press.
Mashers and muddlers
Sometimes soft foods need to be mashed. It’s not a task displayed in many cooking magazines, but it’s real - avocado, potatoes, sweet potatoes, any foods required for baby mouths. A lot of folks like the potato masher tool. I personally love a little plastic muddler you use for cocktails. It’s perfect for mashing up guacamole and black beans when you want to fry them in lard.
Task: Serving Food
If you make a lot of vegetables cooked in liquid, this one is essential. Not many tools can handle that task. I personally don’t have one. Shocking, I know.
This one I do have because I use it for fried things and pulling pasta out of boiling water when tongs won’t do. If you have an Asian grocery store in your town, check the equipment aisle. You can probably get one for a couple of bucks. Again, removing pasta from water and chicken nuggets from oil are essential tasks, so the tools I choose to use are essential but not the tools themselves. Use a colander and a slotted spoon, and we end up in the same place.
I will say, serving soup or cider without one of these is tricky and takes long enough to become frustrating. If it’s a task you need to fulfill, this tool is definitely worth it.
Big fork and spoon
I don’t mean the ones on Frank and Marie’s kitchen wall. (That suitcase episode? One of my favorite episodes of television ever.) A big fork and spoon can work separately or together for a variety of tasks. They’re great for tossing and serving salads (so are tongs and those fancy wooden salad claws). It’s also nice to have big utensils to pop onto platters of potatoes and chicken for efficient grabbing of food around the table.
Only essential if tongs and a big fork and spoon aren’t your preferred tools.
Sometimes a spatula is too wide for certain serving tasks. Anything round doesn’t always play well with a classic spatula. You don’t need anything fancy, but a standard pie server will serve your pies, cakes, and pot pies well.
Do you serve a lot of food at once around the table? Are the aesthetics part of your task of serving food to your people? A pretty bowl or two might be essential then. I’m partial to white because it goes with anything and never goes out of style, no matter what my kitchen looks like.
Platters and trays
What are you serving? Do you throw dinner parties or always serve snacks when friends come over for a movie? Are you a cheese board pro? The task of serving food on flat surfaces can be accomplished with regular dinner plates and sheet pans covered in parchment paper and tea towels, but you might prefer a different tool and that’s fantastic. I personally have a three or four white platters of various shapes, a couple of wooden and marble trays, and three or four cake stands for height. I entertain a LOT, so that task is extra real in my kitchen. It’s okay if it’s not in yours.
Deviled egg tray
I’d be doing my southern heritage a disservice by not mentioning this. If you prioritize the task of making and serving deviled eggs, you need the tray, y’all. Otherwise the eggs just slide around all willy nilly and it’s weird.
Task: Storing Food
I have both glass and plastic, but I definitely prefer square and rectangular containers because they fit better in the fridge and freezer. I use a variety of sizes and love large ones that can hold an entirely prepped meal inside. I’ve seen containers with sections for packing lunches, but we never use the ones we have, mostly because that task isn’t on our radar too much. It might be on yours. But I’ll sing the praises of really well made containers, and the glass ones were one of my favorite investments.
If you have the task of storing a lot of bulk food or of being as efficient (and maybe cute) as possible in your food storage, glass jars are a great tool option. Plus they double as drinking glasses in a pinch.
Remember, start with the task, not the tool. If you go through your cabinets and drawers and think, “Do I use this?” you probably don’t need it. Or consider if you have another tool that will accomplish the task equally well.
And if you end up with a kitchen full of one-use gadgets that make your heart sing, werk. No one gets to tell you that you can’t have that stuff.
Except for those notebook paper cutting boards. That’s where I draw the line.
P.S. If you’re motivated to get your kitchen working for you again and want some help with meal planning like a Lazy Genius, check this out.