There are a couple of things I don’t like in the kitchen. I don’t like overly heavy bowls that are hard to store and just awkward. I don’t like pouring things into colanders to drain. I don’t like getting out a cutting board when I only have to do a little snipping. With that in mind, there are some essential kitchen utensils, for me, that are a must-have. So, for this list of kitchen tools, I’ll start out in an unusual way with some items that are often left out of lists, and then I get to all the other kitchen utensils you need to outfit your kitchen, including their names, uses, and pictures of each tool.
Stocking your kitchen with tools shouldn’t be that difficult but the truth is that most cooks take years to finally equip their kitchen with just the stuff they will use. Most of us end up with drawers and cabinets full of junk we never use. One of the biggest culprits is the one-trick-pony, those kitchen products that only do ONE job. While not every item on this list may be a must-have for YOU, I can guarantee that these are the tools you’d find yourself reaching for again and again.
Metal Mixing Bowls
You might be tempted to only buy glass bowls and plastic bowls. That’s fine. Plastic bowls are lightweight and can be easier to store than heavy glass bowls. However, there are some problems with plastic.
One is that over-time plastic can pick up smells and, due to their porous surface (surprise!) they pick up fats that never seem to wash completely out. They are not as lightweight as a thin metal bowl. As well, a metal bowl will tend to be cooler than the room. This helps to keep things cool. If you need a large mixing bowl, and you probably do, you can’t beat a big stainless steel one.
Uses: Metal mixing bowls are used for all mixing jobs from mixing cake batter to whipping egg whites or cream. And, if you really need to keep something very cold, a metal bowl sitting in ice water will get icy cold. And, you can put it over simmering water (a bain-marie) to melt chocolate or make egg custards, Hollandaise sauce, or anything that requires very delicate cooking. Also, for whipping egg whites or cream, a stainless steel bowl is much better than plastic and probably a little better than glass. This is mostly due to the aforementioned oil slick which forms on plastic and keeps the foam you are whipping from clinging to the sides of the bowl. While we’re on the subject, read about why you might want a copper bowl for whipping egg whites .
Due to all the reasons stated, including a big vote for easier storage, I prefer to have metal bowls on hand for mixing and for cooking. This set of FineDine stainless steel mixing bowls all nest together perfectly, taking up much less room in your cabinet than a bunch of random plastic or glass ones.
We’ve come a long way since our only choices were metal, glass, plastic, or wood, however, Now, many innovative products are made out of silicone. Although you should not choose for them to be the only mixing bowls you own, silicone bowls offer some distinct advantages.
The 3-Piece Silicone Bowl set from Norpro makes pouring a lot easier. The bowls are stable sturdy enough for mixing but flexible enough so that you can squeeze the bowl and make it easy to pour. Obviously, this solution would only make sense for huge bowls, but they come in 1, 1.5, and 2 qt. sizes.
Uses: These silicone bowls may not be your primary mixing bowls but they are helpful for pouring cupcakes and pancakes, and also are a handy solution for pouring flour and other ingredients into a bowl while mixing in a stand mixer. They can be used in the microwave and washed in the dishwasher. I include these because they are a very useful innovation you may not be aware of, not because they are essential.
My spider is always dirty. No, not my pet spider. Can you imagine giving a spider a bath? No, my spider is always dirty because it’s a kitchen tool I reach for constantly. In fact, I can’t seem to do without it.
Uses: Need to get some ravioli or tortellini out of the water? Reach for the spider. Need to retrieve some boiling eggs? Reach for the spider. Need to put something into the deep fryer without getting splashed by hot oil? Reach for the spider. Need to get something out of hot oil? You get the picture.
A spider is a large ladle-shaped or almost semispherical-shaped mesh spoon with a long handle used as a strainer and skimmer. It’s like a wide shallow mesh bowl on a handle. You’ll find them referred to as Asian because they were originally part of Wok cooking, and you may have seen one made of wire that comes with a new wok. I had an old-fashioned Asian-style spider made with wire-mesh and a bamboo handle like the one pictured above for years. The best kind to buy for our modern needs is a stainless steel model with a solid metal handle and some kind of grip on the end. Anywhere you’ve been using a big slotted spoon, a spider will make your life easier. The one that I own myself is pictured below, the Good Cook Large Spider Strainer. And, yes, if you do actually do plan to do a lot of wok cooking, you’ll need one of these, but they are useful for much more.
One of the main purposes of kitchen shears, also called kitchen scissors, is to cut up poultry. But even if you don’t cut up your own chickens, you will find many uses for a good pair of kitchen shears.
Uses: If you just need to snip a bit of herb, you can use kitchen shears instead of having to get out a knife and cutting board. They are also helpful for opening tough packaging. Truth be told a decent pair of heavy-duty scissors will snip herbs, sure. But say you want to quickly cut up some celery or even carrot? Kitchen shears will do the job. I’ve even used it to cut up chocolate and well, call me crazy, pizza. Kitchen scissors make cutting up bacon much easier. They are also useful for snipping or cutting dough. And, who said you should never cut up lettuce? You can use kitchen shears for that too.
The Oxo-Good Grips Multi-Purpose Kitchen & Herbs Scissors have some useful innovations. First, the blades come apart for thorough cleaning. This way, if you cut up meat or poultry with the scissors, you can take them apart to be sure every last bit is cleaned before using them on raw herbs, etc. The blades are micro-serrated which helps them grip whatever you are cutting so they don’t just slip. As well, they come with a little herb stripper between the handles, useful for stripping fresh rosemary and other herbs. These are analogous to wire-strippers if that helps.
Boar’s Hair or Other Natural Bristle Paint Brush
No, I’m not kidding. A good brush is so very handy in the kitchen.
Uses: A high-quality paint brush is great for coating a baking pan with softened butter or oil. Great for putting on egg washes, glazes, or of course, good for putting butter on anything, including toast if you have melted or very soft butter. But you do not need a ‘pastry’ brush from the kitchen store. It is possible to use a high-quality nylon brush for cool or warm things, but hot butter could cause the nylon to melt. That is why it is better to go with a natural bristle brush like boar’s hair. That way, you can even use it for basting or brushing on barbecue sauce at the grill. It’s also a good ‘duster’ to use for something like flour or sugar spills. I use a paint brush to brush it into a pile and then carefully sweep it into a bowl below the edge of the counter (for transferring to the trash).
Natural bristle brushes will usually be labeled as China bristle brushes. They are made with Chinese hog’s hair. Either ‘black china’ or ‘white china’ should be fine for cooking use. As for what brand, get yourself a Wooster or a Purdy. This Wooster White China 2-inch brush would be a good choice. For a softer brush, it is also possible to find ox-hair brushes like this Purdy Ox-Hair 2-inch Brush.
If you find yourself struggling to turn over food or move it around precisely where you want it, you’re probably missing a pair of tongs. Many cooks turn to a spatula or spoon when tongs would be much more useful.
Uses: Tongs are great for turning sauteed foods. Like the spider above, they can be used for lifting things out of boiling water or from a steamer, especially larger vegetables. And, tongs are a must-have for the outdoor grill aficionado.
What’s important, however, is buying the right style of tongs. There are many to choose from but most of them are subpar compared to stainless steel tongs with scalloped gripping tips. These types of tongs are spring loaded so they open by themselves and they have a locking mechanism to keep them closed so they don’t take up too much room during storage. If you buy a pair of tongs with scissor-like handles, you’ve bought the wrong kind of tongs. However, since some spring-loaded tongs can be more difficult to close than others, you may want to try them out before buying, especially if you have small hands or have problems with arthritis. For nonstick pans, which might be scratched by the edges of metal tongs, you can buy similar tongues with silicone tips. I am quite happy with my pair of OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Locking Tongs, shown in the picture below. I use the 12-inch pair. I find no need for another size. However, they also come in 9-inch and 16-inch. A 16-inch pair would be useful for handling larger items, high-heat cooking on a grill or for reaching into an oven or smoker.
One Good Chef’s Knife to Replace a Lot of Junk
Before you go for one of the hundreds of choppers, with multiple parts to clean, and then end up cluttering up your cabinets along with all the other gadgets you never use, consider that you only need one high-quality knife to last you a lifetime. Yes! A lifetime (with proper care). The most useful knife in the kitchen is the chef knife like the one shown in the picture below.
One such knife is the Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Four Star 10-Inch Stainless-Steel Chef’s Knife. I’ve also written about the Global G-2 Chefs Knife and the Victorinox Fibrox and Swiss Class Chef Knives.
Another popular choice is the Shun Classic 8-Inch Chef’s Knife.
Uses: The chef’s knife is the one used the most and is suitable for many jobs. It is used for chopping, slicing, dicing, mincing, julienning, or anything else you need it for, even for jobs you for which specialty knives exist, such as cutting up poultry or butchering meat. However, there are a few other knives to consider owning. I’ve written an overview of the various kitchen knives and their uses, and provided advice to help you figure out which ones are right for you. I’ve also recommended some high-quality choices that, although they are not the most expensive possible, should be the last knife you have to buy.
A cutting board is absolutely an essential piece of equipment in the kitchen. You really can’t do without one. If you try to just cut things on your countertop you’ll ruin your countertop and your knife, not to mention making a big mess.
Uses: Cutting boards are for cutting. They are used as an ideal surface on which to chop or slice vegetables, meat, or other foods. They are designed to both protect your kitchen surfaces but also to be gentle on the blade of your knife, while still having a surface that facilitates the movements of the knife. On a good cutting board, a sharp knife will glide along the surface without dragging and cutting into the surface of the board, while the edge of the blade itself is not damaged.
However, cutting boards cause more confusion and consternation than almost any other piece of kitchen gear. I’d venture to say that people are more hesitant about which cutting board to choose than they are which chef’s knife! This is probably because so many articles have made a big deal out of sanitary issues and durability.
Your main choices are wood, bamboo, rigid plastic, and flexible plastic cutting boards. There has been much debate about whether plastic or wood harbors more bacteria. The truth is that there is no good evidence that one is better or worse than the other. While wood may actually allow bacteria to live and grow under the surface, this bacteria doesn’t really seem to migrate to food. On the other hand, while plastic can harbor bacteria in the scratches that occur on its surface, plastic cutting boards can be washed in the dishwasher, and between the hot water wash and high temperature drying cycle, it is doubtful much bacteria will survive. Some dishwashers even have a sanitize cycle, if you feel you need it. As well, you can use bleach on a plastic cutting board to completely disinfect it. Or, choose an antibacterial plastic cutting board, although it is doubtful that they are any more bacteria-proof than any other board. Regardless, you absolutely cannot use bleach on a wooden cutting board and you should avoid submerging one in soapy water, certainly for long periods of time.
As for myself, I rarely pull out a wooden cutting board anymore. I like the convenience of being able to put the plastic cutting board in the dishwasher and having two different sizes. However, one problem I do have with plastic is that when my knives are very sharp, they have more of a tendency to drag or catch on plastic than on a good wooden board. However, even with wood, a very sharp knife can dig in, depending on the type of wood and the grain orientation. Still, I prefer plastic. This basic Stanton Trading Cutting Board is a heavy-duty plastic board that is easy on knives.
Both wooden and plastic cutting boards sometimes come with grooves around the edges. These are juice grooves. If you plan on carving a lot of juicy meat or poultry on your board or working with raw meat or poultry, then you may want a juice groove on a board you can set aside for this use. If not, avoid a board with a juice groove as it will just impede sliding chopped food off the board.
Flexible Plastic Cutting Boards
Of course, it is perfectly feasible to have a separate board for meats, vegetables, and carving. For multiple boards, a combination of wooden or dense plastic and flexible plastic cutting boards for easy storage is a great solution. Flexible plastic boards do not last very long compared to conventional boards but they are inexpensive and come in different colors so that each color can be designated for a different job to avoid cross-contamination. These boards can be easily folded to facilitate transferring food from the board to the pan or bowl. This set of Extra Thick Flexible Cutting Mats not only comes with four different colors but food icons for designated jobs.
Wooden Cutting Boards
Wooden cutting boards come in a dizzying array of styles and woods. As well, the type of manufacture varies. The three main types of traditional wooden cutting boards are face grain, end grain, and edge grain. Many kitchen oriented websites seem to be recommending edge grain boards. If I could venture a guess it is because America’s Test Kitchen gave a high rating to a teak edge-grain cutting board and stated that edge grain boards are superior. Are edge grain boards superior? This not a cut-and-dry question. There are also wood composite cutting boards or boards made of laminated material.
Below is a beautiful end-grain cutting board from Viking Culinary. This Viking Culinary Acacia Wood Cutting Board, like all end-grain boards, is thicker and heavier, resembling a butcher block. It can, of course, be used as a butcher block.
And here is a cutting board with juice groove by Amish Ridge made with face grain. The idea that soft grain is easier on knives is gilding the lily a bit. A sharp knife will be cutting against these soft grains and dragging. This is a fine economical choice and will serve you well, but for a better chopping experience, choose one of the higher-end boards like those shown above.
Use the following table to compare and shop for cutting boards.
For general measuring of ingredients, you’ll need a set of dry measuring cups, at least one liquid measuring cup, and measuring spoons. Dry measuring cups and liquid measuring cups actually hold slightly different amounts.
Dry Measuring Cups
Uses: Dry measuring cups are used to measure the amount, in volume, of any non-liquid ingredients, including flour, sugar, chopped vegetables, dried legumes, and anything else that is not a liquid.
For dry measuring cups, look for cups made with heavy duty stainless steel, including the handles. Most measuring cups on the market are made with think gauge steel and very flimsy handles. One of the biggest problems with these is that the handles easily bend and can break off after a short time. Thicker gauge handles can be attached more securely to thicker steel, and a quality set can last for decades. Unless you absolutely need to save money and need measuring cups now, don’t bother with plastic, although thicker rigid plastic cups can actually be more sturdy than thin metal cups. Also, avoid cups with overly short handles.
Sets of measuring cups come with cups measuring 1/8 1/4, 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, and 1 cup. The 7-pc KitchenTour Measuring Cups Set, pictured below, is made with heavy duty stainless steel and features longer handles.
Liquid Measuring Cups
Uses: Liquid measuring cups are used to measure all liquid and semi-liquid ingredients. This includes not only water, milk, and other watery fluids, but also ingredients like sour cream.
Liquid measuring cups usually come in glass or clear plastic with clearly marked marks showing graduations of 1/4, 1/2, 2/3, 3/4 cups etc. There are also marks showing the same levels in liquid ounces. A basic cup holds 8-ounces, or once cup. These are also available in 2-cup, 4-cup, and 6-cup sizes. In terms of sheer quality, you really can’t beat the tried and true Pyrex 1-Cup Liquid Measuring cup, which comes with bold red markings.
There are many innovations in liquid measuring cups, including plastic tubes with plungers to help you measure and dispense thicker ingredients like sour cream. Another useful innovation is markings that are situated in such a way as to be easy to read on the inside of the cup. This allows you to gauge the level of liquid in the cup without holding the cup up to your eyes or bending over to look. The Angled Measuring Cup, shown below, is an example.
Uses: Measuring spoons are used to measure both dry and liquid ingredients that are used in small amounts such as dried herbs or spices, flavoring extracts (like vanilla), or any other ingredient used in small amounts.
Measuring spoon sets come with 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and 1 teaspoon sizes as well as 1/2 and 1 tablespoon sizes. As with dry measuring cups, look for heavy duty stainless steel spoons, including the handles. It is best also to buy measuring spoons where the spoons and handle are all of one piece, just like your flatware. Some very cheap sets have the handles attached to the spoons, which can and will come off with time. This 1Easylife 18/8 Stainless Steel Measuring Spoons Set is a high-quality choice.
One problem with standard measuring spoons is that the larger sizes will not fit into standard spice jars. For this reason, I like these Spring Chef Heavy Duty Stainless Steel Metal Measuring Spoons, shown above. Instead of a round shape, the spoons have a more rectangular shape so that even the tablespoon size will fit into most spice jars.
Many are familiar with the whisk. The classic type has a bulbous shape and consist of curved stainless steel wires that bend into loops and then come together into a long handle.
Uses: The wires of a whisk help beat air into liquid ingredients such as eggs or cream or are used to stir sauces or salad dressings. A whisk, like the one in the picture below, of course, has many uses as a general stirring tool.
Many do not realize, though, that there are several different types of whisks suited for different uses. The main type of whisk that most cooks will want to own is a basic balloon whisk. Once again, I turn to OXO Good Grips because their products are consistently high quality and comfortable to use. The Oxo Good Grips 11-inch balloon whisk is a good choice for what most cooks need, which is something to beat small amounts of egg whites, cream or just eggs. Read the article I linked for more information on whisks and their uses.
Mircroplane Classic Zester and Grater
The Microplane fits my requirement for being a multi-purpose too because it not only replaces your citrus zester, and makes it much easier, but also makes grating hard cheeses like Parmesan a breeze. I use my constantly and I imagine you will too!
The Classic Microplane model 40020, is all you need for zesting citrus fruits and grating hard cheese, but other models are available for different sorts of jobs. The ribbon grater works for chocolate, carrots, and softer cheeses. The extra-coarse grater works for potatoes, apples, and soft cheeses. They also make a spice grater for nutmeg and cinnamon. Although you might not want all of them, they all do a great job and make the job easier.
You may be thinking that wooden spoons are cheap replacements for metal or plastic spoons but the fact is most experienced cooks will reach for a wooden spoon more often than not. The main thing that makes them so preferred? They feel good in the hand. They are perfectly balanced. The relatively high strength and light weight of a wooden spoon makes it the friendliest stirring implement in the kitchen.
In addition to their light weight and balanced feel, they won’t scratch nonstick pans, or anything else, for that matter. And, they come in many different sizes and shapes, including spatula-shaped. I wrote out the reasons I think wooden spoons are a must-have for cooks in a previous article.
Uses: They are used for stirring together ingredients including cake batters and for stirring hot foods while cooking, including sauteeing. When used for cooking, you will find that one of the biggest advantages of a wooden spoon is that they do not transfer heat to the handle. If you leave a wooden spoon in a hot pot of sauce for 5 minutes and then grab the handle with your bare hand, you won’t get burned. On the other hand, I’ve burned myself this way on metal spoons.
Given the sustainability issue with wooden kitchen tools, a great and sustainable alternative is bamboo. I love this set of Bamboo Kitchen Tools from Lipper International, pictured below.
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