The kitchen is my sacred space. Cooking puts me in a state of Zen, it’s peak mindfulness. During this world health crisis, the kitchen has continued to be a haven. When life is turbulent and uncertain, I take solace in cooking a perfect pot of rice.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are both far-reaching and personal. The crisis has helped me to deeper wells of kindness, generosity, and compassion. And as stay-at-home orders are extended nationwide, cooking at home has become a more central part of daily life.
I’ve worked as a professional chef for more than 10 years, often taking on the roles of cooking instructor and coach for schools and private clients. My mission has been to help my students master fundamental skills and transform their kitchens into engaging, efficient spaces that produce delicious food.
But I’ve found that many of my clients’ kitchens are missing basic items, like heat-resistant spatulas, that would help them achieve beautiful scrambled eggs, or a food processor that would make quick work of chopping onions.
With households facing increased financial stress, buying new kitchen tools may not seem worth the trouble. But I’ve learned that it’s less about spending a lot of money, and more about investing it in the right places.
While the most versatile kitchen tool is a good knife, here are some other effective items that could make your kitchen a more enjoyable — and more efficient — place.
Cutting boards. Bigger is better, and safer. During meal prep, a generously sized cutting board, in both wood and plastic, can reduce injuries and increase efficiency. Look for boards that are heavier and measure around 14-by-20 inches. You want it to be sturdy and not slide around. Caring for your wooden cutting board is simple: Hand wash and dry after using, and buff in a little food-grade mineral oil once a month.
Spatulas. For cleaning out mayo jars or retrieving that last bit of peanut butter, silicone and rubber spatulas are excellent tools for reducing food waste, and they can withstand temperatures up to 500 degrees. You can mix, fold, flip, scrape, stir, and spread, and they are gentle on the surfaces of pots, plates, and pans. Fish spatulas or stainless steel turners allow you to expertly turn or flip delicate pieces of fish or pancakes.
Tongs. These are a low-cost extra pair of hands. Bionic hands. They can pull perfectly golden brown fish fillets out of hot oil, flip a filet on a grill, or dive deep into a pot of pinching lobsters. You can use them to serve salads, toss pasta, and even reach those hard-to-get-to spots in your pantry. All tongs are not created equal; they should be able to handle some abuse. Look for stainless steel tongs with a scalloped edge with a lock. For use on your nonstick surfaces or grill, look for tongs with a silicone or nylon covering. My favorites are the 12-inch locking tongs from OXO, are available on Amazon for around $13.
Whisks or whisk attachments. Narrow whisks are ideal for making vinaigrettes, beating eggs for an omelet or scramble, sifting flour, and combining dry ingredients. Wider whisks do quick work of incorporating air into egg whites, whipping heavy cream, and making hollandaise or gravies. To consider yourself adequately equipped, I suggest the OXO 11-inch silicone balloon whisk. It’s heat resistant, easy to clean, gentle on nonstick pans, dishwasher safe, and only $13 on Amazon.
Immersion blender. Why dedicate some of your kitchen’s real estate to an immersion blender? The simple answer is convenience: You can take this tool to the food instead of the food having to come to it. An immersion blender can mix pancake batter, turn canned chickpeas into creamy hummus, and transform vegetables into soup directly in a pot, measuring cup, or jar. An immersion blender, also known as a stick blender or hand blender, is small enough to be stored in a drawer or a roomy utensil holder. It’s light enough to be managed with a single hand. You can order one from Williams-Sonoma for under $30.
Spice grinder/coffee grinder. Get the most from your dry spices by grinding them as you need them. With a good spice grinder, this is as simple as it sounds. The economical way to purchase spices is to buy them whole and in bulk. You can create your own spice blends for seasonings and marinades. The quality of pre-ground spices disappears as quickly as three months, leaving your dried parsley bland and sad. Look for them at Target for about $20.
Digital kitchen scale. A kitchen scale is the ultimate efficiency tool for its precision. You can simply measure all of your dry ingredients into a single bowl and reset the scale back to zero when you add a new component. You’ll generate less waste and use fewer dishes. A scale is especially handy if you want to try sourdough or other bread recipes. Kitchen scales on Amazon are around $15.
Food processor. When you cook at home, you are typically cooking for a small group or a single person, so a small food processor is more than sufficient for your prep needs. If you are still improving your knife skills, making more substantial quantities, or just don’t want to pull out the cutting board, a food processor is a time and energy saver for grating cheese and slicing carrots, onions, and celery. The pulsing function is excellent for making not-so-smooth salsas and adding butter for biscuits. Look for processors with a 4- to 8-cup capacity. A quality machine starts around $45.
Cast-iron skillet. I would argue that besides the chef’s knife, the cast-iron skillet is the most versatile piece of kitchen equipment you can own. Cast iron is a master at distributing heat because of its consistent cooking surface, which also helps to keep food warm. A well-seasoned pan does the job of nonstick and stainless steel skillets, or even a wok. A 10-inch skillet from Lodge is under $20.
Baking sheets. Rimmed aluminum sheet trays can take just about anything you throw at them. I’ve often used them for food and equipment storage. They are easy to clean, economical to replace, and have multiple uses, from baking cookies to roasting vegetables to entire sheet-pan meals. I recommend aluminum trays with a 1-inch rolled edge in both 13-by-9 inch (quarter), and 18-by-13 inch (half) sizes. If you have a larger oven, a full-size sheet tray, at 18-by-26 inches, should fit comfortably. These trays can last for years with proper care. Two half sheets from NordicWare are available from Amazon for about $22.
Stand mixer. A stand mixer is an investment tool that can up your home-cooking game and increase your productivity. It’s a dream machine for home bakers. You can make better bread, cakes, and desserts without the aching arms. Popular brands by KitchenAid and Cuisinart offer attachments that allow you to grind meat, extrude pasta, churn ice cream, and spiral vegetables. A high-quality KitchenAid stand mixer costs around $200.
Multicooker. You know it as an Instant Pot, a tool that can steam, sear, and simmer. A multicooker makes everything from beans to yogurt. It functions as both a pressure cooker and a slow cooker. It’s an all-in-one machine that can reduce errors and cooking times. The average cost for an Instant Pot is about $100, but you can find other brands from retailers including Target and Best Buy for $50 to $75.
High-performance/high-speed blender. High-speed blenders have more horsepower and sharper blades than others, offering more power and durability. They have a larger canister size and tampers to help move ingredients manually. They can handle both hot and cold jobs and quickly produce smooth sauces and salad dressings, and velvety soups. If you like grinding your own flours and nut butter, you’ll want to invest in a high-performance blender from a brand like Vitamix, Blendtec, or Ninja. Prices for a quality high-powered blender start around $160.
Dutch oven. The Dutch oven is a workhorse — the original multicooker — that delivers delicious soups, stews, braises, bread, and more. It is the hero of the one-pot meal, acting as both cooking and serving vessel. It also plays well with others. Use a steamer basket for cooking vegetables or dumplings, go from the stovetop directly to the oven to finish a pot roast. A 5-quart Dutch oven from Target is about $60, but others can range, depending on size and quality, from $49 to $300.