Kitchen Tools: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings
The most important tools in the kitchen are your hands. They provide important feedback about weight, temperature, and texture, and no mechanical tool can equal your fingers. Wash with hot water and soap often when handling food (see my article on food safety), but don't be afraid to use them.
Beyond them, you don't need a lot of really expensive toys. Sorry folks. You can do just fine with a few inexpensive toys. You don't need ceramic knives, copper mixing bowls, and enameled Dutch ovens.
So what do you need? I went through my cabinets and drawers and made a list of all my favorite tools and what you should look for when shopping. Almost all the tools below are items I have tested personally. The ESSENTIAL tools in blue, and a few extras that can help you fine tune your craft. Getting married? Birthday, Christmas, Mother's Day, Dad's Day? Sign up for Amazon's Gift and Wish Registry and link to the products you'd love to get.
Tell me in the comments below about your favorite tools.
Pots and pans and related tools
The size of a pot or pan is taken by measuring the inside diameter across the top.
8 Cup French Drip Coffee Maker — ESSENTIAL — Nothing could be simpler or make better tasting coffee than the French Press. All you need are grounds and hot water. No electricity necessary. You can even take it on the patio for that wonderful summer dinner. Or take it camping. Boil water, add a scoop of coffee, pour in boiling water, wait 3 minutes, press the plunger down, voila! Pour and savor. I like the LaCafetiere Rainbow 8 Cup Coffee Press and it's flashy red enamel finish.
8" Stainless Steel Frying Pan — This is for cooking small quantities of food. The 8" All-Clad Master Chef 2 Fry Pan with sloped sides is about as good as it gets. It uses two layers of sturdy stainless steel sandwiching an aluminum core designed to heat up quickly, hold heat, and spread it evenly across the base. Do not get uncoated aluminum. It can react with acidic foods like tomatoes, wine, or citrus.
The handles are riveted on permanently and they can go into the oven or on the grill, but beware, they get hot. You'll need to use a potholder with this pan. It is dishwasher safe, but hand washing is recommended. From date of purchase, All-Clad guarantees to repair or replace any item found defective in material, construction or workmanship under normal use and following care instructions. Stainless pans are the ones you want for pan searing meats before roasting or braising, or for doing things like medallions of pork or chicken cutlets, and then turning the brown bits in the pan into fabulous pan sauces.
12" Stainless Steel Frying Pan — This is the workhorse of the kitchen. Again the All-Clad is my choice. Not cheap, but it will last a lifetime. See the description above.
8" Nonstick Frying Pan — Non-stick surfaces scratch and wear off, so I go cheap for these and throw them away every five years or so. I don't use them often, but they are perfect for omelets. Get them at your supermarket. Go for the heaviest one you can find with sloped sides which makes sliding an omelet off easier, and check the way the handle is attached. They are usually screwed on. Make sure it looks sturdy.
12" Nonstick Frying Pan — ESSENTIAL — See my description of the 8" nonstick fry pan, above.
1 Quart Saucepan — ESSENTIAL — This is for simmering and boiling liquids. Occasionally you need to brown something in a pot, but rarely. So you don't need the high priced All-Clads. Go for something with a heavy bottom, and slightly curved sides so things don't get caught in there and burn. Don't get one with a pouring spout. It impairs the seal with the lid. Go for one with an oven safe handle, and I favor the tempered glass lid on the Simply Calphalon Stainless Steel 1 Quart Saucepan with Glass Lid.
2 Quart Saucepan — See my description of the 1 quart saucepan above. Go for the Calphalon Contemporary Stainless-Steel 2-Quart Chef's Pan with Glass Lid
4 Quart Saucepan — ESSENTIAL — See my description of the 1 quart saucepan above. Go for the Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 4.5 Quart Saucepan with Glass Lid
8 Quart Stockpot With Lid
All Purpose Pot Lid — The nifty Nordic Ware 12-Inch Universal Pan Lid will fit all your pots and pans up to 12" so you don't have to buy the expensive All-Clad lids. Great if you've lost or bent lids or if you have limited storage. Even if you have dedicated lids, this is the one to grab when something catches fire in the pan and you don't have time to dig out the correct lid. It has a vent in the handle to let off steam. It is not a high end stainless device, but it does the job.
12" Cast Iron Frying Pan — ESSENTIAL — These are heavy and heavy duty. And cheap. I don't use them for omelets or onions, I use them for steaks, chops, burgers, fish, and frying potatoes. I use them on the stovetop, in the oven, on the grill, on the side burner, or camping.
Cast iron gets very hot and transmits that heat to food rapidly. It is the best way to get a crust on a burger. After the surface is seasoned, it is practically nonstick. There are the only two downsides to cast iron. It is heavy, and they need a little effort to care for. The metal must be heated and treated with cooking oil to keep it from rusting and create the nonstick properties. If you scrub it with steel wool or soap, you ruin the seasoning. So cast iron must be wiped with warm water only. That said, I have two, one for fish, and one for everything else. The fish pan seems to always have a fishy smell when heated.
If you can find cast iron pots and pans in garage sales or flea markets, get them because they are probably well seasoned. But recently manufacturers have begun shipping pre-seasoned pans. Get one with a lip to make pouring off grease easy, and an ear opposite the handle because these suckers are heavy. The Lodge Logic 12-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet is the gold standard.
Cast Iron Griddle — ESSENTIAL — You need a good cast iron griddle. Especially if you like fish, burgers, grilled sandwiches, home fries, or pancakes. Coat the flat side with oil, and you can sear fish so it is golden and crispy on the outside just like that great pan-seared fish you get in restaurants. Throw some dried herbs onto the flame, and you'll get a whisp of smoke in the meat.
You can even bring it indoors and it will straddle two burners. Use the flat side for burgers and pancakes. Flip it over and you get grill marks and conduction cooking from the ridges on steaks, burgers, or asparagus, and the fats and juices drip into the grooves where they vaporize and flavor the meat and cook by radiation.
This is a very handy tool. One word of caution. You may need two. If you use it for fish a lot, the flavor will remain on the surface, even after cleaning, so you won't be able to use it for pancakes.
I have two of them by Lodge, known for quality cast iron, and I use the ridged sides of both, one on top and one on the bottom, for making paninis. And my spatchcocked (butterflied) Cornish game hens pressed between the flat sides are unbelievably crisp and juicy in only 20 minutes. I love my 20" x 10 7/16" Lodge Logic Pro Cast Iron Grill/Griddle.
Dutch Oven — It would be nice to own a high end Le Cruset French Oven, but they are very expensive and I would never dream of taking one camping. But it is nice to have a big heavy pot for use indoors and out. My Bayou Classic 8.5 Quart Cast Iron Dutch Oven does both beautifully.
It's perfect for whole chickens or slow braising in the oven or in the grill. You can even sit it on top of coals and shovel more coals on top of the flat lid with a raised rim, and you can cook classic chili, baked beans, cornbread, casseroles, and even cobblers. It is 13" wide x 7" high, weighs 21 pounds and includes a perforated aluminum basket for steaming, frying, or boiling. Click here for a complete list of all cast iron pots and pans available on Amazon.com.
Wok — The problem with stir frying is that most of the time you end up steaming rather than frying. Frying meat and veggies in with only a little oil conducting heat between them and the metal makes them browner, crispier, and more flavorful than boiling or steaming. But when you try to do this in a flat bottomed frying pan at home, you don't have enough heat to do the job in a hurry. As a result, they give up liquid, which settles to the bottom. Because water boils at a much lower temp that oil, the pan cannot get hotter than 212F until all the water evaporates. So you end up stir steaming. The beauty of the wok is that you can pull the meat up the curved sides and the juices settle in the bottom to boil off or concentrate.
When buying, the bigger the better. You don't want to crowd your food. You can buy cast iron, but those are really really heavy, and they don't cool off fast enough when you turn down the heat. You can buy non-stick, but they're easy to scratch and you don't get the brown bits sticking to the sides that enrich the sauce. That leaves carbon steel, and that's the stuff they use in Chinese restaurant. Carbon steel needs to be seasoned and can rust so you need to wash and dry by hand, but if you want to cook authentic Chinese, you need an authentic wok. Make sure to get a wok spatula, a special curved spatula that fits the curved bowl, a dome lid, a ring for it to sit on, and a drain rack. I also like woks that have a handle on both sides so it is easy to lift and a small flat bottom. I bought mine on the cheap in a store in Chicago's Chinatown, but if you don't have a Chinese hardware store, go for Helen Chen's Asian Kitchen Flat Bottom Carbon Steel 14-Inch Lidded Wok Set.
Steamer Basket — First you pour some water in the bottom of any pot. Then you drop in this gizmo. A bowl is formed by perforated fans that open to fit the diameter of just about any 1 or 2 quart pot. You want stainless steel or silicone so it doesn't rust, you want legs to hold the food above the water, and you want a pin in the center that you can use as a handle to lift it out. This Norpro Silicone 9-Inch Steamer Insert is a lot easier to clean than the old fashioned metal ones. A lot cheaper than a steamer pot.
12" Splatter Guard — This mesh screen can go over a red hot 12" cast iron pan cooking a burger or bacon and allow the steam out but keep the grease splatters (or is it spatters?) in. The Oxo Good Grips Splatter Screen with Folding Handle has stainless steel mesh and ridges to help it fit different size pots and pans. The folding handle makes it easier to store. Makes cleanup and married life a lot easier.
2 Large Trivets — ESSENTIAL —
Oven Gloves — ESSENTIAL — Who needs pot holders? I have one set of these Extra Long Suede Leather Gloves for outoors where they get all burned and greasy, and another for indoors. These are real heavy duty suede gloves with cotton lining that go almost to my elbow. Outdoors I use mine to lift hot grates, push coals around, reach into the fire box to place logs, lift food from deep down inside the Weber Smokey Mountain. I have even used it to pick up hot coals.
Gloves beat mits because they have fingers making it much easier to manipulate tongs and handle grates. When they get dirty I just put them on and wash my hands with a bar of soap. Ranked #1 by Cook's Illustrated.
2 Stainless Baking Pans 9" x 13" inside — ESSENTIAL —
Large Roasting Pan with Rack — ESSENTIAL —
Broiler Pan —
2 Loaf Pans —
Muffin Pans —
2 Cake Racks — ESSENTIAL — These are chrome or nickle coated wire grates like the ones in your oven only smaller. They are very useful for putting on top of pans to hold food so they can drip into the pan and not sit in the drippings. I also use them to put water in the pans so the meat is surrounded by humidity. They are also important for cooling baked goods where airflow on all sides is important.
Assorted Disposable Aluminum Roasting and Baking Pans — I buy a variety of them for dirty jobs, like drip pas in the grill. You need a large one for turkey, and small ones for holding wood chips.
2 Half Sheet Pans or Cookie Sheets — ESSENTIAL — A full sheet pan is 18 x 26" with a 1" lip. I rarely need a full sheet pan, but half sheet pans, which are 18 x 13 x 1" are great multi-taskers. Use them for drip pans, baking, cookie pans, drying peppers, or roasting nuts. They are usually aluminum or non-stick. I get the aluminum ones because the non-sticks scratch too easily and I abuse them on the grill.
2 Pie Pans — You do like pie, don't you? Metal or Pyrex pans work fine, but metal is cheaper.
Teakettle — I like the ones that whistle when the water is hot, because I often turn on the flame and walk out of the room. You want one that is easy to clean, because if you leave it on the stovetop it will collect spatters from other things you are cooking. You also want one with a well insulated handle that is far away from the body of the kettle so it doesn't get too hot to lift.
Other tools in my junk drawer
Measuring Spoons — ESSENTIAL — Ordinary spoons used for eating are not accurate measures. You need a good set of metal measuring spoons that you can toss in the dishwasher. Pick a set held together with a ring, and with the sizes marked large and easy to read. There should be at least 4 spoons: 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, 1 tablespoon. It's nice to have more than on set around for when you are making dishes that have dry and wet ingredients, like barbecue sauce.
Measuring Cups — ESSENTIAL — I like 2 cup capacity Pyrex measuring cups. It's also nice to have a set of individual scoops that can be nested and range from 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, and 1 cup.
Fat Separator — This is a measuring cup with a tubular spout that pours from the bottom of the cup. Because fat floats to the top, this lets you pour off the pan drippings free of fat.
Large Colander — ESSENTIAL — Get one with a base that will stand in the sink, but wide enough to sit in the top of your stock pot. You also want handles to you don't burn yourself.
Fine Mesh Sieve — This is good for washing fruits and veggies or for draining pasta. A colander will do the job pretty well, so it is not essential, but for things like draining cans of tomatoes, or big pots of tea, it's the best tool.
Tea Strainer — Designed for keeping the leaves out of your tea, this little sieve comes in handy for fine filtering broth, tomato juice, and other liquids.
Tea Ball — Designed to make a pot of tea, tea balls are good at holding spices in soups and other liquids when you want to remove them later.
Food Mill — My wife grows lots of tomatoes and cans her own sauce. A food mill is a must for getting rid of the seeds. It can also puree pretty well, and could save you the cost of a food processor. The Sunbeam 2-Quart Food Mill comes with three stainless steel blades.
Silicone Brushes — Silicone brushes are the best thing to happen to barbecue since the charcoal briquet. I long ago relegated my natural and nylon bristle brushes to cleaning computer keyboards. The silicone brushes load up with lots of sauce, deliver it evenly, and are so easy to clean and decontaminate. They are dishwasher safe. We have three: One for barbecue, one my wife uses for egg washes and other baking, and one for whatever. Grill Friends makes my fave long handled brush.
Tongs — Rated #1 by Cooks Illustrated and winners of the Tylenol/Arthritis Foundation Design Award. Dishwasher safe stainless steel with OXO's popular nonslip rubber handles. The ends are scalloped for better gripping. There is a loop for hanging and a mechanism that locks them in closed position for storing (which has failed after several years on all three pairs that I have). Regardless, they are still my faves. I just store them with a cardboard toilet paper core over the ends. I use mine for everything from the grill to tossing salads. OXO Good Grips makes the best 12" tongs.
The 18" tongs don't have the locking mechanism, but they are necessary if you have a deep pit. But be warned, the longer the tongs, the less leverage you have and the harder it is to get a grip.
I also recommend their 9" nylon tipped tongs for use on non-stick cookware.
While you're at it, get some salad tongs for mixing and serving salad, and some small ice tongs that will come in hand for any number of odd jobs.
Fish Tongs — A jumbo hybrid of tongs and spatulas, this is the proper tool for flipping fish, burgers, and other crumbly foods. Rosewood handle protects you against the heat, and there is a leather loop for hanging. They come with a lifetime warranty. I find them to be indispensable. Lamson Sharp is the model I have.
Balloon Whisk — ESSENTIAL — A good whisk is an essential kitchen tool for mixing, whipping, and adding air to sauces. I especially like my OXO Good Grips Nylon Balloon Whisk because it is nylon and I can use it vigorously on a coated frying pan without scratching the surface. This model is sturdy, comfortable to hold, and has a hole in the handle for hanging.
Also, I like having a 6" mini whisk that I can use to beat one egg in a coffee cup or mix a small amount of salad dressing. This link will get you two of them.
Trudeau Garlic Press — ESSENTIAL — When a recipe calls for garlic to be crushed, minced, or pressed, I use a garlic press. A good garlic press releases more oils and flavors than mincing with a knife and pressed garlic coats the food more evenly than mincing. A good garlic press is an important kitchen tool. Get one that is sturdily built, that is easy to grip, that is easy to clean, and has a large hopper to hold big cloves. Avoid non-stick models. I have a well-used Trudeau Garlic Press and I recommend it.
Wooden Spoon and a Wooden Spatula — ESSENTIAL — You need these for stirring and scooping with your non-stick pans. They wont scratch the surface.
Ladle — ESSENTIAL — Get at least one with a mouth about 3-4" wide for serving soups, or moving hot liquids like spaghetti sauce from pot to pot or to a serving bowl without pouring, spilling, and scalding. I also keep a small ladle around for serving small amounts of sauce, gravy, or dressings.
Large Long Handled Spoon — ESSENTIAL — Necessary for stirring pots of sauce or scooping them out.
Large Long Handled Slotted or Perforated Spoon — ESSENTIAL — You need this when you want to scoop the meatballs out and not the sauce.
Spaghetti Scoop — ESSENTIAL — The best way to get spaghetti from bowl to plate.
Spider — This is the Asian version of a slotted spoon and perfect for lifting food out of a deep fryer.
Heatproof Silicon Spatulas — ESSENTIAL — These guys are flexible and there's no better way to every bit of barbecue sauce out of the pot or frosting out of the bowl. Get one large and one small.
Stiff Metal Spatula — ESSENTIAL — They come in slotted and solid, and I recommend the solid with a good insulated sturdy handle. The solid is best for pressing things down on a griddle, like when you are making Diner Burgers on a griddle or in a frying pan. I like the Weber Style 6446 Professional-Grade Fish Turner.
Thin Flexible Metal Spatula - This spatula is used for spreading, not lifting or pressing. You use it to spread icing on a cake or cheese in a lasagna.
Pie Spatula — This pointy tipped spatula is the one you need for lifting pie and quiche slices from the pan.
Ice Cream Scoop — Not only handy for ice cream, but a great way to portion ground meat for burgers.
Fish Scaler — Makes quick work of fish scales.
Wire Potato Masher — You can mash potatoes with an electric mixer, but you run the risk of introducing too much air and if you go too long the glutens will get gluey. I like the old fashioned masher. With very little elbow grease you can mash them plenty smooth, or if you prefer, as I do, you can leave in a few lumps. Besides you can't make skin-on smashed potatoes in a mixer. I recommend the Oxo Good Grips Wire Potato Masher.
Salad Spinner — There is no better way to clean your lettuce or spinach. Submerge it in water and then spin off all the water. You can blot off the water with paper towels, but that's wasteful and not as effective.
Can Opener — Skip the electric can openers. You want something lightweight, with a good comfy grip, with a large cutting wheel. They should be dishwasher safe because the gunk that builds up on the cutting wheel is a lovely bungalow for bacteria.
Lid Opener — If you didn't marry a crushing handshake, this little rubber pad helps a lot buy getting a grip on that stubborn slippery %^&*$#!
Bottle Brushes — Cleanliness is next to godliness, and you need bottle brushes to get down into those thermos bottles, jelly jars, and most importantly, basting bulbs.
Scrubbie Sponges — I don't know who invented sponges with scrubbies on the back, but he or she deserves a place in heaven alongside the person who invented post-it notes.
Citrus Juicer — There all kind of fancy gizmos designed to get the juice out of citrus including one that looks like a giant garlic press. It works fine, but you've gotta be strong. Nothing works better for me than an old fashioned juicer with a little built-in bowl and a strainer like grandma used. I bought a nice glass one at an antique store. Check this stainless unit out: Stainless Steel Citrus Juicer.
Nut Cracker —
Nut Chopper —
Bag Clips —
Corks — I always have a drawer full of corks for a variety of tasks, especially for recorking open bottles. The T-top corks, the kind that are used on sherry and port are especially good for this. I use regular wine corks for holding my digital thermometer probe just above the cooking surface of my smokers.
Assorted Funnels — ESSENTIAL — You can get by with two funnels. You want a wide opening on the top and a small opening on the bottom, and one with a wide bottom that fits neatly into the standard ball jar. I also recommend a small funnel that will rest on top of a spice jar without tipping it over.
Spice Rack — I've never found one I like, that holds a variety of bottle diameters and heights. You?
Mortar & Pestle — Useful for grinding seeds.
Spice Grinder —
Egg Timer — This inexpensive little gizmo is amazing. It really works. You just put this heat sensitive plastic egg in the boiling water with the real eggs, and it changes color at the same rate as the eggs. It's easy to read the scale and get perfect soft, medium, or hard boiled eggs every time, no matter what altitude you are at or how many eggs in the bath. Click here to order the Norpro Egg Rite Egg Timer.
Magnetic Can Opener — You want one that can cling to your fridge door because you never know when you really need a beer and a lot of the better beers are still not twistoff.
Corn Holders — Corn has to be served hot, and although I rarely butter mine, a lot of folks do, these little guys keep hot buttered corn from slipping into your lap.
Rolling Pin — A simple tapered wooden pin is all you need. In a pinch, you can use a wine bottle that doesn't have sloped sides, the kind cabernet comes in.
Heatproof Silicone Mats. Silpat is the standard for these amazing newfangled non-stick mats. They're unmatched for rolling dough and baking cookies or frico cheese crisps. Yes, they can handle oven temps. No more parchment paper needed.
Scale — ESSENTIAL — There are a number of good digital scales on the market nowadays. The best can weigh in pounds or metric, and have a tare setting so you can put a bowl on it first, hit the tare button so it sets itself at zero, and then you can weight the fruit of flour without having to do math and subtract the weight of the bowl.
Large Serving Platters — ESSENTIAL — Big enough for a turkey and a mound of ribs. You should probably have two of them.
Adjustable Pepper Mill — ESSENTIAL — The Kyocera Everything Mill Adjustable Grinder came into my life after trying many many pepper mills. This one is easy to adjust the size of the grind, and that is really important.
I want coarse grind for some things, like steaks, and fine grind for use in sauces. Yes, the size of the grind is important. It influences flavor. And yes, freshly ground pepper is better than the pre-ground stuff in the metal box. It has one other really smart feature. The grinder is on top. That means that it won't leave a little pile of pepper dust on your table.
Kitchen Towels — ESSENTIAL — I prefer terry cloth. Cheaper the better. White so you can bleach them and no fringe to catch fire. Get 6 of them.
Butcher String — ESSENTIAL — It's really just food grade kite string.
Double Strength Aluminum Foil — ESSENTIAL —
Plastic Wrap — ESSENTIAL — You need this stuff for wrapping food to keep air off it and keep it fresh. The best are the kinds that cling to bowls so you can cover the coleslaw.
Rubber Bands — ESSENTIAL — Needed for holding the plastic wrap tight around the food.
Duct Tape — ESSENTIAL — 'Cause I'm a guy.
Canister Set — If you don't put the flour in an airtight canister, it can lose quality, but worst of all, it will attract pantry moths, a most unwelcome infestation that can swarm like an Alfred Hitchcock movie in a few days and carry away your children and pets. You need a canister for flour, sugar, brown sugar, all your rices, coffee, and tea.
Plastic Storage Containers — ESSENTIAL — They need to be easy to use, come in various sizes, keep all liquids within, stack neatly, withstand multiple diswasher cycles without melting or cracking, not absorb odors, easy to store, and it would be especially nice if one lid fits different sizes. Rubbermaid Stain Shield Containers meet all my criteria. One word of caution: I always remove food from plastic containers before microwaving. I am just not convinced that the plasticizers and other compounds in these things are perfectly inert and harmless when heated.
Nesting Mixing Bowls — ESSENTIAL — You need at least three sizes of mixing bowls that will nest inside of each other for easy storage. Heat proof glass like Pyrex and stainless are good choices because they can go in the oven. Glass can be used in the microwave, metal cannot. Glass also looks nicer as a serving bowl. Stainless is lightweight and can be used on stovetop in a pinch. Don't get aluminum, it can react with acidic or salty foods.
Assorted Jars and Lids — ESSENTIAL —
Thermos — Not for coffee, but for gravy and sauce that you need to keep warm, especially if you are going over the river and through the wood with a turkey and gravy.
Juice Pitcher — At least one gallon capacity with markings on the side for quarts and a tight lid so you can shake up the OJ without splattering the ceiling.
Zipper Bags — ESSENTIAL —