As a 34-year-old “elder millennial,” it strangely feels like I’m one of the only people I know my age who knows what they’re doing in the kitchen. Sara on our team and maybe two of my friends seem to be the only exception. So, of course, that makes me the token advice giver when anyone needs help distinguishing between a zucchini and a cucumber or knowing what to buy when you suddenly get tired of eating out and want to cook more than frozen Trader Joe’s go-tos.
Even our dear, sweet Emily told me she was pretty helpless in terms of knowing what she needed to buy to set up her kitchen when she got DEEP into souping. She compared herself to a baby vampire from the Twilight franchise…she “rabidly, maniacally bought all the things, yet didn’t actually have any of the things I really needed.” I hear that. That was me about 9 years ago. While I learned how to cook at a young age out of (sort of) necessity (neither of my parents was very, uh, good at it and I liked to eat good, varied food), I didn’t get a chance to really dive into the world of kitchen tools for myself until I moved into my first apartment in my mid 20s. I BOUGHT EVERYTHING. If it looked cool or was pretty or I even sniffed that I could need it, I bought it and stupidly spent money I could have used as a “rainy day” fund on lemon zesters, ALL the pots and pans, only the best-looking vegetable peeler. Do not do this. Learn from me. After nearly a decade of cooking in my own kitchen, here’s what I learned: just because something looks good doesn’t mean it’ll work well and probably better yet, you do not need a special tool for everything. All that does is clutter up your counters and drawers. That Yonana machine you thought was a good idea can only do ONE thing: smoosh frozen bananas. Guess what can do the same thing and also a ton more? A really good food processor.
So, if you find yourself always asking your friends/coworkers/strangers on the street/the internet for what knife you should buy, or never having on hand what you need when meal prepping (or souping) or even just moving into a new home and starting from scratch, I hope my personal experience using (and not using) items in my kitchen will help guide you to getting what you really need that will hopefully last you a long, long while (instead of rusting over and cracking at the first go in a dishwasher…here’s looking at you KitchenAid can opener).
First up, my every day (as in, I use them every day) kitchen essentials:
Before diving in, I want to say something, though. My biggest tip for ANYONE just starting to cook or outfitting a kitchen is to know how and what you like to cook and start there. If you’re a souper like Emily, you’ll want to get a great chef’s knife for all that veggie chopping, a cutting board and a big stockpot. If you make a ton of family meals or want more hands-off cooking, invest in an Instant Pot or the large half sheets and Silpats I mention below. 30 minutes in, you have yourself dinner with very few dishes to wash. Make eggs or pancakes every morning? A non-stick pan is where it’s at. If you want to be the kind of person who makes a smoothie every morning but you know you never will, you do not need a fancy blender. You can always add more as you need it, but I bet you’ll find yourself not needing as much as you think. Okay, let’s get into my tried-and-true must-haves.
1-2. Silpats + Half Baking Sheets: I honestly use these 3-4 times a week for just about everything. Veggies, potatoes, chicken, fish. I love a one-pan meal on a weekday and the half sheet is large enough to accommodate both protein and veggies (but still fit in my rental oven). I used to have those little dinky dark-coated non-stick cookie sheets and one day for my birthday, I gifted myself these larger versions (with the Silpats) and my cooking completely and utterly changed. I thought both of these things were more for whipping up tons of cookies or macarons, but I was so, so wrong. My Silpats, in particular, are probably one of my top “never be without ever again” kitchen items. These are “name brand” but people have told me the ones from the Amazon Basics line are also great.
3. End Grain Cutting Board: I eat a lot of fruits and veggies, so a quality cutting board is a MUST for me. This one is considered “end grain” (looks like it was made from lots of little wood blocks). These tend to be a little more expensive, but there’s something magical about the end grain that self-heals after coming in contact with a knife so it actually lasts much longer than an edge grain board. Just be sure to oil it often and DO NOT PUT IT IN THE DISHWASHER.
4. Dough Scraper: This little doohickey looks pretty unassuming, but man is it useful basically every day. I use it to scrape up, say, all the garlic I cut on my board (but because my stove has no counter space around it, I’d rather not walk my heavy cutting board across the kitchen with other veggies rolling off the side just to transport said garlic). It’s called a dough scraper, but it’s a little kitchen tool I find myself using regularly for far more than dough.
5. OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler: Repeat after me—Invest in a quality peeler even if it isn’t “cute.” For years, I fell victim to the need for “cute” things in the kitchen. That’s almost embarrassing to admit. My candy-colored KitchenAid peeler looked nice (in a drawer, where NO ONE SAW IT), but that thing rusted over, cracked, and the “metal” coating chipped off…TWICE). I finally wised up and got a VERY good peeler that’s so sharp, it’ll split a fingernail as easily as a hot knife through butter so be careful.
6. OXO Good Grips Can Opener: Same goes with a can opener. I also went the “attractive” route here and had the same issues with rusting, cracking…ugh. This one from OXO is fantastic and very high quality. No more jankily opened cans of crushed tomatoes in my kitchen.
7-9: J.A. Henckles Zwilling Gourmet 10-Pc Cutlery Set, Zwilling Kitchen Essentials Set, Zwilling 8-Inch Gourmet Chef’s Knife: Okay, so I have three different varieties of knives here. When I got my first apartment, I bought a very similar knife block as #7 one (I couldn’t find the one I had online anymore). Zwilling knives are my favorite for the price point. Very solid, well balanced and LONG lasting. I’ve had my set for 9 years and they still look and cut like new (with a little sharpening here and there). But, you absolutely positively do not need a 10-piece knife set. Honestly, I really only use my chef knife and paring knives, and I promise, unless you’re constantly deboning chickens and fish, you also do not need more knives than you have fingers. Budget hack: Look for these at HomeGoods and TJMaxx because they often sell this brand for WAY less than retail (same goes for A LOT of the stuff on this list).
10. Anchor Hocking Glass 4-Cup: I’m pretty sure even my 90-year-old Puerto Rican grandma used Anchor-brand measuring cups decades ago so I learned to trust the brand. Yes, I also have dry measuring cups and spoons, but this baby is a regular protagonist in my home cooking show. I bought the set of 3, but the 4-cup is the only one you need. I NEVER use the 1-cup or 2-cup because, uh, the 4-cup also has those same measurements.
11. Snapware Glass Food Storage 24-Piece: I have a household of two, but cook for four so we have lunch for the next day, and these are the best storage containers I’ve found. I bought mine at Costco for about the same price.
12. 10-Piece Glass Mixing Bowl Set: My glass prep bowls are like my right hand in the kitchen. I’m not a huge mise en place-er (too much to wash), but I use these for almost everything. There’s a size bowl for basically anything you need, plus they neatly stack into each other to save a ton of space.
13. OXO Locking Tongs: Tongs that pinch you or easily open are a huge pet peeve of mine. I love these and recommend you get two (one of each size) to avoid having to rush to wash raw chicken juice off before turning your asparagus. They’re also great for tossing and serving salad (so you def don’t need a specific serving set for that).
14. Sur La Table Flex Core Mini Silicone Spatula & Spatula Spoon Set: I’ve had my fair share of beautiful rubber spatulas with pretty wood handles. Guess what? You can’t put that in the dishwasher (or at least, it’s not recommended that you do…they will dull, crack, fall apart). These are all rubber and one-piece construction, and ideal to throw in the dishwasher over and over again.
15-18. All-Clad Hard Anodized 8″ & 10″ Nonstick Frying Pan Set, Cuisinart MultiClad 5 1/2-Quart Saute Pan with Lid, Cuisinart Stainless Steel 3-Quart Cook and Pour Saucepan with Lid, Cuisinart Stainless Steel 8-Quart Stock Pot with Lid: I have a lot to say about pots and pans, but mostly it’s this: just like knives, you likely do not need a set of 6-10 pieces. I cook A LOT, and consider myself a pretty adventurous cook as in I make lots of different varieties of things, and even I only really use these four things. I make eggs about 4 times a week, so a non-stick pan is clutch for me and these are GREAT. I also use these regularly for sauteing without too much added fat. Aside from these that basically just sit out on my stove because I use them that much, I use a higher walled saute pan with lid, a 3-quart sauce pan for almost everything (rice, small servings of pasta, sauces, beans, etc.) and a stock pot for large batches of pasta, boiling corn, making soup, etc.
Next up is my list of “nice to haves.”
These are things I have in my kitchen that I don’t necessarily use EVERY day but still think are very good to have on hand if you have the space to store them.
1. Cuisinart 14-Cup Food Processor: This is another scenario where “Arlyn picks the cute kitchen appliance” turns out to not work all that well. I had a KitchenAid food processor which was perfectly fine, but the lid broke on it after not much use (and yes, I took great care of it). It also didn’t come with the attachments I needed and found it collecting dust on the shelves of my laundry room. BUT THIS ONE IS DIFFERENT. My friend who is another avid cook recommended it to me and man I love it. It’s pretty no-frills in that it only has a “pulse” and “on” button (i.e. no speeds), but it’s powerful, can fit a whole head of cauliflower (or, let’s get real, block of cheese), comes with three blade attachments and is just generally awesome.
2. 6-Quart Instant Pot: I know the Instant Pot has a lot of devotees, but also, on the other side of the fence, people who are like “why?!?!?” (Emily being the latter). But as someone who has a habit for collecting small appliances, this thing has helped to replace my slow cooker and rice cooker, plus I probably use it for a VERY fast weeknight dinner about 2-3 times a week. It’s a one-pot wonder, people. The 6-quart is a great size for my smaller household, but if you’re cooking for more than 4, you might want the 8-quart.
3. Cuisinart 9-Speed Handheld Mixer with Storage Case: I have a KitchenAid stand mixer. It is a prized possession (a 30th birthday gift), but I am here to tell you that YOU DO NOT NEED A $400 STAND MIXER. It looks good, yes, and I have fun attachments for pasta and whatnot, but it’s a pure luxury. If you whip up a batch of cupcakes like…3 times a year, a hand mixer is all you need. I have this one and I love it because it has a ton of speeds and has a snap-on case that stores all the attachments.
4. Staub Round Cocotte, 5.5-Quart: Okay, so a $340 cast iron French/Dutch oven will not make your chicken taste better than a $50 Dutch oven. But I understand wanting a “status” kitchen item. I’m personally a Staub girl (instead of Le Creuset) because the black interior doesn’t stain and scratch like the white ceramic interior of LC. Plus, I just like the dark inky colors of Staub better. OH, and Staub lids have these little raise dots on the underside that help to better distribute steam and juicy goodness that LC does not have (good for braising). I was lucky enough to find my first oval Staub for $60 on clearance at HomeGoods (check often because they have them), and my other two as “landmark” birthday and anniversary gifts. I will have them likely longer than I’ll be alive, which is why they’re worth the steep price tag.
5. Lodge 10″ Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet: “Hands and pans” videos will have you believing you can’t survive without a cast-iron skillet. You can. However, they are fantastic but high maintenance, which is why they are on my “nice to have” list instead of my everyday essentials. The time I spend scraping, oiling and re-seasoning my skillet makes it too annoying to use on a daily basis, but Lodge makes a great one (I have a 10″ but 12″ is also great) for very little money that, as long as you take care of it, will probably be found fossilized in your home because it’ll last THAT long.
6. OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner 4.0: I tend to not like “single purpose” kitchen items, but I have a few exceptions, including a salad spinner. It literally does nothing more than dry my greens, but I eat a lot of salad and detest wet sopping water messes at the bottom of my bowl so…this is a must in my kitchen. OXO makes a great one for under $30.
7. Microplane: Yes, I have a standard cheese grater, but I probably whip out my microplane more. I use it for, well, cheese (hard cheeses like parmesan only), ginger, fresh turmeric, lemon and lime zest, garlic (sometimes), nutmeg and beyond.
8. Orblue Garlic Press: The only other single-use item on my list is a garlic press. It’s a “nice to have” because you can absolutely just chop up garlic with a knife and be done with it, but if you have a recipe that calls for anything more than 3 or 4 gloves, a garlic press will be your best friend. This is my favorite one I’ve ever owned (I’ve had several that have all snapped) and I feel like it’ll last me a very long time, hasn’t rusted, has an easy-to-clean compartment and inflict brute force on those cloves.
9. Flexible Cutting Mats With Food Icons: These are probably more of a “you do not need these” item but I like to use them in conjunction with my wood cutting board (better for your knife) so I don’t have to spend time washing between cutting chicken and slicing carrots. Plus, if you’ve ever cut garlic on a wood cutting board and forgot, then went to cut up some luscious strawberries and were unpleasantly surprised…these will save you every time.
As if I haven’t written enough words here today, I can’t finish without telling you what, from experience, I have learned you absolutely do not need (some I’ve already touched on but want to revisit as a reminder):
- Niche one-use tools, like an avocado slicer (use a knife and big spoon), spiralizer (you can use that good-quality peeler I just recommended to you instead), lemon zester (use a microplane or fine cheese grater), Yonana (yes, I’ve owned one of these banana ice cream machines) or any other novelty items. They will take up space, collect dust, and you do not need them.
- A Vitamix. This is another one of those things. The internet will have you thinking that you are NOTHING without a luxury blender. I could never bite the bullet on one of these and bought this KitchenAid blender (after MUCH research, not just because it was pretty and blue…I promise I’ve learned my lessons) for like 1/4 of the cost and it’s EXCELLENT. I use it about two times a week for my homemade almond milk and it has never failed me. Wait, why didn’t I include it in the “nice to haves” roundup from above? Let’s pretend I did.
- A big knife block set. I already talked about this, but it’s a nice reminder. You really need 1-2 good quality knives and that’s it for most daily cooking. Save yourself the money and space if you’re short on both.
- A big, beautiful stand mixer. I love my KitchenAid mixer, I do, but I probably use it like 4-5 times a year and it really is more of a “status” item than anything else.
- All the pots and pans from a set. Look, buying a set is typically a VERY good value, but when I think about the space all the sauce and fry pans I rarely use take up, I would have been better off just buying the three things I NOW know I only ever use. In general, unless you have a plethora of cabinet storage, I’d recommend starting with just a few pieces and building from there as you find the need for something else. But honestly, I think most of the time, you’ll find you are 100% fine with less.
I hope this was useful. I know it’s a lot, and you definitely do not need everything. Your life will go on without a microplane, it will. Mine is just made easier in the kitchen with these things without feeling like too much or kitchen “fluff.” P.S. that is a peek into my kitchen. It’s really not much bigger than what you see there (the stove is over to the right kind of on its own, and the fridge is alone on the opposite wall…awesome). Most of the stuff I included in here is stored inside that gray IKEA unit you see to the left of my dining room, FYI. That and a little console table I brought in next to my fridge.
Now, my inner cooking and kitchen tool enthusiast wants to know ALL about your must-have everyday essentials or best brands you use. Please spill all the details because I am not an expert, just someone who cooks a lot and is relatively proficient behind the stove.