As a new set of college grads prepares to leave the dorms for the first time, it’s time to talk kitchen gear on a budget. The right kitchen equipment will make your meal prep and clean up dramatically easier – but most of us don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on Le Creuset and Japanese-forged chef’s knives.
To help you prioritize, here’s a list of 10 bare essentials. You won’t be able to open your own restaurant with just these 10 tools, but you will be able to put good food on the table without spending your whole life in front of the stove. As you grow into your own cooking style, you’ll figure out what else you want, and what you can skip.
A lousy knife is the most dangerous kitchen tool you’ll ever own. When even cutting an onion takes a lot of elbow grease, it’s easy to forget that even dull knives can take your finger off when they slip. But everyone respects a sharp knife, and you don’t need to jerk it around anyway since it slides right through whatever you’re cutting.
You don’t have to spend a huge amount of money on your kitchen knives (unless you want to). And you definitely don’t have to start out with one of those “knife blocks” that includes every blade pattern under the sun. In fact, skip those: they just make you pay for a bunch of junk you don’t need.
What you really need is one reasonably decent chef’s knife (you can get these for around $30) and a serviceable paring knife or two (cut corners on these rather than your chef’s knife if you have to). You won’t be able to shuck oysters or butcher a hog, but you’ll be able to cut just about anything else – with the important exception of your fingers!
2. Cast-iron skillet
A cast-iron skillet has a naturally non-stick bottom, heats evenly, adds a nice iron supplement to everything you cook, and will probably last longer than you do. For quick stir-fries, sautéing vegetables, searing meat, and cooking almost any kind of eggs, you'll want one of these.
To tempt you into buying one, have a look at this recipe for baked eggs with asparagus and leeks, where a cast-iron skillet lets you shuffle your eggs from stovetop to oven without getting another pan dirty. Can a cheapo rubber-handled frying pan do that?
3. Slow cooker
Slow-cookers are time-saving magic for busy cooks. Just throw in some chili, ribs, or stew when you head out in the morning, and come back to a house that smells delicious and a perfectly cooked dinner. Using very low heat over a long period of time, the slow-cooker is perfect for breaking down tougher cuts of meat like brisket or chuck roast.
With superpowers like that, you’d think a slow-cooker would cost an arm and a leg, but actually, you can buy a basic model for $25 or so.
Need some recipe inspiration? What about a big plate of fall-apart tender balsamic roast beef?
4. Roasting pans
A pan of roast vegetables is one of the fastest and easiest Paleo side dishes to make, and it tastes delicious every time. To make it happen, all you’ll need is a roasting pan: you can repurpose an old cookie sheet, or just go out and spend $5 on a big pan of your own (the bigger, the better).
Want a recipe for that? How about roasted cauliflower with bacon?
5. Cutting board
A good cutting board doesn’t just protect your counter from your shiny new chef’s knife. It also protects your knife from the counter. Plastic and wood are easiest on your knives; if you want to throw it in the dishwasher, get plastic. And make sure to get one big enough for your knife – no mini boards!
6. All-purpose pot (with lid)
Depending on how big your family is, your all-purpose pot could be big or small. Single cooks only really need a saucepan: the giant stockpots are overkill (especially if you also have a slow cooker for making bone broth).
This is where you’ll simmer soup, hard-boil eggs, render fat, blend sauces, and do a hundred different miscellaneous jobs. You don't need a fancy or expensive one; you just need something watertight that won't melt on the stove.
7. Oven-safe glass containers
These kitchen multitaskers do triple duty. Most obviously, they’re good for food storage: save your leftovers and avoid wasting anything by keeping it all organized for another day. You can reheat anything in them without worrying about plastics leaching into the food, and they’re even tough enough to travel with.
But that’s not all: you can also use them as cooking dishes. A deep rectangular Pyrex dish will work just fine for casseroles or for braising meats – and then you can just store any leftovers in the same container.
Circular bowls will also work second shift as mixing bowls: if you need to whisk together a sauce or mix a chicken salad, just haul them out.
Glass containers do cost more than the cheap plastic ones, but you get what you pay for, and the investment is definitely worth your money.
Maybe it’s cheating to group a spatula and a ladle together as “utensils,” but then again, a lot of stores sell them as a set, so you might end up buying them together anyway. Here’s what you’ll need:
- A spatula: for flipping vegetables or eggs or stirring anything in the skillet.
- A ladle or wooden spoon: for stirring and serving soups or other liquid dishes.
Other utensils that are nice to have (and typically very cheap) include: a whisk, a slotted spoon, a pair of tongs, a vegetable peeler, and a grater. You can get by without them, but they’re typically helpful.
9. Measuring cup/prep bowl
A solid glass measuring cup doesn’t just measure. It also doubles as a small prep bowl – say, for scrambling eggs, or mixing up spice blends, sauces, and marinades. And in a budget-crunched kitchen, multitasking is always a plus.
Two cups is plenty for most single people; if you’re cooking for a family, you might prefer to get 3 or more.
10. Cloth towels
Even in the era of all things disposable, cloth towels are still worth their place in the kitchen, and not just for nostalgia’s sake. Cloth towels save you a bunch of money in the long run, since you don’t have to keep buying paper ones. And they do double duty as oven mitts (just fold the towel up several times). Plus, they never tear in the middle of mopping up a tough spill. If you’re trying to save time and money, paper towels are a false economy; pay upfront for the cloth ones, and you’ll save more in the long run.
Honorable Mention: a Blender
You can squeak by without this if you’re really that strapped for cash, but a blender is incredibly helpful for making smoothies, salad dressings, and pureed soups, and they’re pretty cheap (you can get a basic model for $20-25). If you’re into soup, an immersion blender might be more your style; if you’re more on the smoothie side of the spectrum, a traditional blender is probably a more useful tool.
Again, this list was a bare-bones guide to just the basics, for those times when the budget is tight. It’s not a comprehensive guide to everything you need in a three-star Michelin kitchen!
If you’re reading this far, and you’ve been cooking your own meals for a while, you’re probably bursting with the one crucial thing we forgot. So, spill the beans: what’s your must-have kitchen tool? The first thing you pick up and the last thing you put down? Let us know on Facebook or Google+!