(Approx. reading time 9 mins 24 secs)
I’m not the kind of person who supports buying things. I’m very frugal, I don’t like clutter, and I like knowing what I own. But there are some things that you just need in the kitchen if you want to do something beyond a bowl of instant noodles.
I divided the list between ‘get these now’ tools and ‘nice to have’ tools. The first section are things that you really need to get started. The second one, are things to buy as you get more interested in cooking and when you have some spare cash. Nothing is extremely expensive or takes up too much space.
It’s a very rare day when I will eat something that wasn’t cooked at home from scratch, and these tools are all that we use.
Get these now
With these tools, you will be able to do pretty much everything you need to do in the kitchen. I have all of them in my own kitchen, and I’ve had most for many years.
If you live in a small place or move a lot, they will take little space. And, while they can be found at all price points, it is very easy to find them in high-quality for little money. Of course, Amazon is always an option, but don’t forget to check local kitchen stores and second hand shops where you will be able to find low-cost and unique tools while supporting small businesses and charities.
Some kitchen cloths
Cheap cotton kitchen cloths will work just as well as fancy expensive ones. So get the cheap ones! If you sew, you can make yours with some scraps (So Sew Easy has a great roundup of kitchen towel patterns and projects). And if you knit or crochet, you can also make your own with leftover cotton yarn (Nobleknits has a good article and links for knitting, and the spruce Crafts has a nice list of crochet patterns).
You will probably come across zero-waste cloth rolls that mimic kitchen paper rolls and cost a lot of money. If you like these because of the aesthetics, go ahead and get them (or make them), but regular kitchen cloths will do the job just as well (if not better!).
Kitchen cloths are useful for the obvious cleaning and drying but also as kitchen gloves replacements. I don’t buy paper kitchen towels and I have never owned oven gloves. They also come in handy if you bake as a way of covering your doughs. When dirty, they go in the regular wash. I always have at least 3 in the kitchen at any given time, and the ones not in use live in a drawer.
Most people will tell you to get a big pot, but I’d like to make a case for a wok instead. Not a traditional wok, but one with a flat bottom designed for Western-style stovetops.
With a wok you can do stir-fries, and that’s useful in and of itself. But you can also cook anything that requires boiling and even frying. A wok is a great soup, pasta, and sauce pot replacement, which saves you space and money. I often use my wok to make popcorn and stove-top bread, and even as a mixing bowl when making a large batch of muffins or bread.
Because of its shape, a wok warms up quickly and gets things boiling fast. If you like frying, the shape allows for large batches. If you can get a rounded glass lid that allows you to see what you are cooking. And, if you can, an oil splatter screen. It will save your skin from burns and your kitchen from getting messy. You can use it when actually frying or when cooking thick sauces, stews, and soups.
A set of knives
One knife is good, a set of knives is even better. A basic set that has one little knife, one small knife, one chef’s knife, and a cleaver is perfect. If you can afford it a bread knife, scissors, and one of those sharpening stick things, even better!
The two small knives are great for fiddly things, if you cook with little ones, or if you have somewhat shaky hands. A chef’s knife is the most commonly used knife, it’s the one you’ll use for regular choping and cutting. The cleaver is great for big tough stuff (like winter squash, melons, and hard root vegetables) and of course, cutting through bones if you eat meat.
The scissors can be used for chopping fresh herbs and green onions when you’re feeling a bit lazy and don’t want to use a knife, for cutting cooked food without having to use a chopping board, and for some raw meats and fish. A bread knife is useful for, obviously, cutting bread, but also cakes and big pieces of meat (like a roast).
Make sure you always keep your knives as sharp as possible. A dull knife can be extremely dangerous! This is where the sharpening tool comes in handy.
I’m sure a properly trained chef would cringe at my descriptions and knife skills, but this is about home-cooking and making the most with a limited amount of tools.
A nice expensive high quality knife set is great if you can afford it and you want to get serious about food. If you just want to put dinner on the table, a cheap set (that you take good care of) is more that enough if you take good care of it. Just make sure you keep your knives sharp and wash them right after using.
A chopping board
If you can afford it and have the space a large chopping board is the best option. For years I only had the small one, and while I managed, it wasn’t very practical and in some cases it got dangerous!
Wood and plastic are the best options as glass or ceramic will dull your knives very fast (and make a lot of noise!). I personally prefer bamboo chopping boards because they are light, easy to clean, affordable and made of a renewable resource. However, if you do get a bamboo one, you need to make sure you wash and dry it fast or it could split.
If you have only one chopping board, it’s particularly important to make sure you avoid cross-contamination. Start with baked good, then fruit and vegetables, move to dairy and tofu afterwards, and last meats and fish.
A pair of tongs
Tongs are your hand extensions in the kitchen. You can use them for flipping things, move ingredients around, mix, and serve. A lot of people don’t own any and use a fork instead, but a fork means you will be poking your food, and you probably don’t want to do that.
If you know how to use them, a set of chopsticks will serve the same function and will be even easier to wash.
My prefered options are metal or wood. If you have non-stick pans, the best options are wood or metal with a silicon cover (silicon is more eco-friendly than plastic, just make sure to dispose of it properly).
A baking tray
You can use baking trays for everything from cookies to a roast. If you can buy one with a little bit of height (2 to 3 cms, or 1 inch), so you can keep any juices in and use it to do traybakes as well.
Buy the biggest size your oven will manage, so you can make the most of your oven space. If all you have is a toaster oven, you can find smaller ones too. For years I lived in a small studio and my toaster oven was used regularly to bake and roast.
A ladle or large spoon
A ladle will come in handy with soups, sauces, noodles, grains, veggies, and even eating if you can’t wait.
There isn’t much to say about ladles, other than get a big one with a long handle. Metal and wood are the best options.
A strainer (or very thin colander) is a must if you’re going to cook any grains or pulses or boil vegetables. A mesh strainer is better than a colander as the holes are smaller and can be used for more things. You ca use it to wash grains, pulses, and vegetables, and even as a stand for fried foods to remove excess oil.
If you can, get one that can be used without having to hold it, you can find some with feet and others that hang over the sink without falling. When it comes to materials, metal will be durable and will handle hot temperatures without any issues. If you don’t have a lot of space or need something lighter, a collapsible silicone strainer is a good option. However, you need to be careful with these as they will break after a while.
A can opener
There isn’t really much to say about a can opener, it opens cans, that’s all it does. There are a lot of fancy can openers, but a simple cheap one will get cans opened. If you struggle with using your hands, look into electric one, but I would avoid them if you have full mobility as they are a more fiddly to use.
I personally prefer the very old-fashioned butterfly can openers. They are small, cheap, and will last you a lifetime. And I personally find them a lot easier to use than those that need two hands to use.
A spatula is useful for baking and using the last drop of batter, but it’s also great for general cooking. A spatula will double as a stirring spoon, with the convenience of having less tools.
I prefer a mid-sized spatula with a rounded corner and a 90-degree corner to get the most functionality out of it. Most are covered in silicone, and in that case you’ll want to go for one that is flexible but not flimsy.
Nice to have
These tools are not essential but they do make things easier and give you more options in the kitchen. Like the others, some I’ve had for years and years: my scale, for example, has been with me for almost 20 years now and my hand blender used to belong to my mother.
Graters come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Personally I prefer to have two: a mini box grater and a large flat grater.
Mini graters are about 5 cms (2 inches) tall and are a small version of a regular-sized box grater. They are great for fresh slicing and grating garlic, grating ginger, instead of a microplane got spices, and for other quick kitchen jobs. They are easy I use and clean, and take up almost no space at all.
A larger flat grater is better for larger jobs like grating cheese and large vegetables. Just like a mini grater, a flat grater is easy to clean and store.
A rolling pin
If you bake at all, you need a rolling pin. You can also use it as a makeshift meat tenderiser and save yourself from buying an extra tool.
I prefer wooden rolling pins. They are heavy enough to not need too much strength to roll, but light enough that they will not hurt your wrists.
A mixing bowl
A mixing bowl is a must if you do any sort of baking. But it is also useful for making sauces, breading, coating, and can even double as a salad bowl.
I prefer a large metal bowl for a few reasons. Plastic is really not eco-friendly and they can be much too light. Glass and ceramic are heavy and will get destroyed if dropped. And wood can also be somewhat heavy, and depending on the wood you could struggle with wet or hot ingredients. In a pinch, a metal bowl could also be used for cooking (stovetop or oven),
A set of measuring cups and spoons
Even if you live in metric country (like I do), you should get yourself a set of measuring cups and spoons. Many recipes you come across online and in books will use volume amounts and measuring cups will save you from a lot of converting.
Metal cups and spoons are the best option. They are light and easy to clean. Glass and ceramic cups and spoons can break and they can be a bit heavy, while plastic spoons can be hard to clean (especially if using oils or butter).
A kitchen scale
Same as above but the other way round. If you live in a volume-based country, you will come across many recipes that use weights. A scale will save you a lot of time. And if you do any form of caning, jam-making, or brining you will need a kitchen scale.
I prefer an electric scale, as they are more accurate than traditional scales. I would also recommend getting a flat scale instead of one with a rounded cup or container. That way you will be able to use your own bowl, plates, and containers to weigh (just make sure you put them on top of the scale before you press the ‘tare’ button).
An electric kettle
For some reason most people outside of the UK don’t usually have an electric kettle. But they are so incredibly useful beyond boiling water for your tea and coffee. An electric kettle can also save you a lot of time by boiling the water you need on the kettle and then using it for pasta, or rice, or soups. Even couscous and most noodles can be done a lot faster with an electric kettle.
There are really fancy kettles that allow you to choose the temperature of the water. If you have the money, these are nice to have, but a regular cheap kettle that only boils is more than enough.
A hand blender
Instead of getting a regular blender, invest in a good hand blender. They are cheaper, more portable, take up less space, are easier to clean, and can do absolutely everything a blender can do.
The main difference between a regular blender and a hand blender is that a hand blender doesn’t have a jug, so you can use it in all sorts of containers: from pots to cups to jars. You can use a stick blender to make a smoothie straight in the cup, or a soup in the pot, or a sauce in a bowl.
And, one extra one
A pressure cooker
A pressure cooker is not something you really need, but it is such a good thing to have. I use mine almost daily. I make soups, stews, beans, grains, steam vegetables, boil potatoes… the list goes on and on. It makes the best rice, and it has completely replaced our rice cooker.
There are some expensive pressure cookers around and some more affordable ones. Mine is an electric pressure cooker, very easy to use and clean. Electric pressure cookers are extremely safe and won’t explode all over your kitchen if used properly, and they can be left alone while you go about your life (which is really convenient if you are forgetful like me!).
Some pressure cookers come with a slow cooker setting, which can be pretty useful as well. And some come with a yogurt-making setting, which can be a real money-saver for those who enjoy eating yogurt regularly.