31 Essential Kitchen Tools All Frugal Cooks Need
I cook semi-professionally. My cooking clients, who usually own every top-rated, food-related tool and gadget, are always shocked when they see how I cook at home in my tiny kitchen. Contrary to what you see on cooking shows, you can cook pretty much anything with these basic tools.
1. Deep Sauté Pan
If I only had room for one pan in my kitchen, that pan would be the vintage Magnalite Professional, 10-inch sauté pan that my husband brought into our relationship. It gets used constantly so it lives on the back burner of our stove. It's made out of anodized aluminum. Most people think that it's cast iron because it's black from years of seasoning, which also makes it so non-stick that it's our go-to pan for cooking eggs.
2. Nonreactive Dutch Oven
My second favorite pan is an 8-quart stainless steel Dutch oven. Since I make a lot of high-acid, preserved foods, I need a nonreactive pan to cook down everything from my marmalades to my tomato sauce. Because of its large size I can use the Dutch oven as a stockpot to make 8-quarts of soup, or to boil water for pasta. It also works as a roasting pan in the oven. This is my favorite pan for frying, as the tall sides keep grease spatter to a minimum.
3. Nonreactive, 2-Quart Saucepan With Lid
I am a big believer in multi-purpose tools for smaller kitchens. Why own a tea kettle if a 2-quart saucepan with a lid heats water just as quickly? And, as much as I like the convenience of a rice cooker, I learned how to cook rice from my Auntie Wa, who made perfect rice, every day, for 85 years, in a pan. I also use this smaller pan to cook my morning oatmeal, melt butter for recipes, reheat leftovers, and make pasta sauce.
4. 8-Inch Chef's Knife
The workhorse knife in any professional kitchen is a chef's knife. While a longer blade will obviously give more cutting surface with less effort than a shorter one, people with crappy knife skills should opt for a shorter knife, as it's easier to control. So, instead of buying a 10-inch chef's knife, go with an 8-inch or even a 6-inch blade.
While a great knife is a work of art, if you go into just about any restaurant kitchen anywhere in the country, you will find the kitchen staff making your food with a Dexter Russell knife. The Dexter Russell 10-inch chef's knife is actually my husband's favorite knife. He's used this knife daily for 20 years, so they are durable as well as inexpensive.
5. Paring Knife
Chef's knives are versatile, but paring knives are better for small jobs like peeling potatoes, shaving garlic, or supreming grapefruit.
The most expensive knife that I own is my Wusthof Classic 12-cm paring knife that I bought on sale for $40. At 4.5 inches, it is about an inch longer than a standard parer. The longer blade length turns this into a utility knife. Along with its paring abilities, I use this knife to filet fish and bone meat.
There have been endless gear tests of paring knives that show that there's not a whole lot of difference between a $5 paring knife and a $60 paring knife, so use what you've got.
6. Bread Knife
The long, serrated edge of the bread knife makes quick work of large, fibrous fruits and vegetables like squash, watermelon, and pineapple, and easily slices tomatoes. I own a Tupperware Chef Series Pro bread knife that I got for free as a hostess gift.
A Note About Knife Safety
I have horrific knife skills. The only reason I still have all my fingers is that I use the right knife for the job and keep my knives sharp. Contrary to popular belief, dull knives are the cause of more kitchen accidents than sharp knives. A dull knife is more likely to skid off waxy-skinned produce like tomatoes, and you have to use a lot more force to cut with a dull blade. In this video, a chef proves that a sharpened 99-cent thrift store knife can out-perform a $400 dull knife.
7. Kitchen Shears
If I had better knife skills, I wouldn't need shears. But I don't, so I use my kitchen shears to cut poultry. I save so much money by buying whole chickens and parting them out at home, that my Tupperware Multipurpose Shears paid for themselves in the first year of ownership. Although I have owned many pairs of shears, I find the Tupperware shears are the easiest to disassemble and clean.
8. Two Wooden Cutting Boards
Which cutting board is safer? Plastic or wood? My preference is for wood, not only because I believe this food safety study, but also because wood boards are more versatile. Even the most hacked up wooden cutting board can be used as a cheese board or a trivet and still pass for charming. Also, I've revived my jankiest wood cutting boards by sanding them down. Old plastic boards get gross looking over time, even if they are kept super clean.
To avoid cross-contamination, I own two cutting boards. I use one cutting board exclusively for meat, and one board for cutting everything else.
9. Wooden Spoons
I can't actually remember the last time that I bought new wooden spoons, as some of mine are over 20 years old. In addition to their durability, I prefer wooden spoons to metal and plastic, because wood stays cool, doesn't melt, and won't scratch my pans. Also, they are cheap to purchase. In my neighborhood, they sell for about $1 each at the hardware store.
10. Silicone Spatula
I always appreciate my spatula when I am trying to get that bit of cake batter out of the bowl for that last cupcake. It's a money and food-saving tool. I prefer using a silicone spatula over the less expensive rubber models because silicone is heat-resistant up to 400ºF. After seeing how mold can grow between the head and the handle of a spatula (gross), I prefer using one-piece design spatulas. I also like using dark-colored spatulas because they hide food stains that can't be washed out. Good quality spatulas cost less than $15 and will last years.
Most people call this tool by its generic name "spatula," but the technical name for the thing you flip pancakes with is "turner." I recommend getting the wood-handled, metal turner that is used by fry cooks everywhere. Look for a turner that is wide enough to flip fish and burgers without splitting them, but has a thin, sharp edge for lifting dainty cookies off a baking sheet.
12. Metal Tongs
Obviously metal tongs are great for grilling. In addition to gripping steaks, they are also great for pulling bones out of hot chicken stock, grabbing cooked spaghetti, and moving cake pans around in the oven when you realize you left your hot pads in the laundry hamper. I use 14-inch long tongs. Anything shorter puts my hand too close to the heat.
13. Hot Pads
I have small hands, so oven mitts never fit me properly. This makes me clumsy. This makes me dangerous. I prefer using the old-fashioned, quilted, square hot pads instead. They are easy to make and cheap to buy. Also, they double as a decent trivet in a pinch.
14. Metal Ladle
I don't know why everyone doesn't own a ladle. Using a coffee cup to scoop soup into bowls is not a great work around. I like metal ladles because I don't have to worry about them melting if they touch a stove burner by accident.
15. Fine Mesh Strainer
Strain soups and jams. Use it as a colander to wash small amounts of food. Sift together dry ingredients for baking.
16. Can Opener
Plus, it'll be a crucial tool you'll need during the zombie apocalypse.
17. Measuring Spoons
I like metal spoons because I'm old-school. I bought my set at a restaurant supply store for $5.
18. Measuring Cups
Yes, you really do need both dry and liquid measuring cups if you want accuracy. Cook's Illustrated found that people mismeasured by as much as 23% when they used the wrong type of measuring cup. I bought my latest set of dry measuring cups at a restaurant supply store. They cost $5 and look identical to the set that costs $40 from a fancy cooking catalog. I use a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup that I bought at the grocery store. It's dishwasher, refrigerator, and microwave-safe, so it's great for pouring melted butter over popcorn and mixing salad dressing.
19. Citrus Reamer
Ever wonder where the saying, "You got reamed," came from? Now you know. Because I have access to so much free citrus, I actually bought an electric reamer to help me keep up with my lemon tree, but I like this manual juicer because it comes with two different reamer sizes.
20. Mixing Bowls
Just like with pans, it's better to go too big than too small when it comes to mixing bowls. Get the biggest bowl that will fit in your kitchen. I got a set of four nesting Pyrex mixing bowls years ago as a gift. If I had my druthers, I would ditch all but the biggest bowl. Alas, my husband likes to prep his ingredients like he's cooking on a TV show, so he uses the smaller bowls all the time. Luckily, the bowls look nice enough to double as serving bowls for most meals.
21. Food Processor
I bought my 11-cup Cuisinart food processor at a garage sale 20 years ago for $30 and I think I've collected every blade that fits my model. (It hides my poor knife skills.) In addition to chopping, slicing, and pureeing, I use it to grate cheese, cut pastry dough, and whip the best whipped cream
Pro Tip: To save money and storage space on appliances, share them with a neighbor. I share my Cuisinart and many of my specialty tools with my neighbor Alexandra, who also loves to cook.
22. Food Thermometer
You'll have to pry my Thermapen Mk4 thermometer from my cold, dead hand… and then use it to assess my time of death. It's super accurate. I cooked for a long time without a food thermometer, which means that I spent years worrying that I had overcooked the bread and undercooked the chicken. It makes canning so much easier, now that I can tell the instant that my marmalade has reached gelling point. I don't have to manually test to find out that my candy has reached the soft-ball stage. And I can check that my freezer and refrigerator are set to the right temperatures for food safety in less than five seconds.
23. Oven Thermometer
Over time, every oven loses calibration. The temperature knob may say 350º, but the internal over temperature could be as much as 100º off. For example, to bake cookies at 350º in my vintage Wedgewood oven, I have to set the temperature knob to 375º. To ensure that your food is cooked at the proper temperature, invest in an oven thermometer. Even if it saves you from burning just one dinner, it's worth the price.
24. Hand Mixer
I love my KitchenAid stand mixer, but if you only bake a few times a year, an electric hand mixer will get the job done. You can buy hand mixers for around $15 new, and for even less at garage sales.
25. Rimmed Baking Sheets
Instead of a flat cookie sheet, I prefer to bake on jelly roll pans. The small edge of the jelly roll pan keeps my oven clean by preventing melted cheese, frosting, or glaze from dripping off the pan and fusing, concrete-like to the bottom of my oven. Because I bake around 80 dozen cookies during the holidays, I need four pans to keep the baking process speedy.
26. 9 x 13 Inch Baking Pan
Professional bakers use multiple baking pans, but I own just one 9 x 13 Pyrex baking dish to bake all my sheet cakes, bar cookies, pastries, lasagna, and casseroles.
27. 9 x 5 In Loaf Pan
I learned to bake bread inside a coffee can, which is still my preferred method. Not only can I fit more cans in my oven, the slices come out perfectly round. So cute! If can cooking is too hobo for you, I recommend owning two bread pans, because many recipes make two loaves. Since they stack inside one another, the second loaf pan takes up only a small amount of extra room.
28. Coffee Pot
I use a four-cup French press to make my coffee. It makes up to four cups of coffee at once, has a slim profile, generates no trash other than coffee grounds, and is easy to clean. Oh, and I can make a great cup of coffee in it!
If you are on a budget, you can save on the cost of paying a professional knife sharpener to sharpen your knives (and scissors, and shovels) by learning how to sharpen your edged tools using a whetstone.
The Crock-Pot is a brilliant tool for people on a tight budget and a tight schedule. They are also great for taking the stress out of holiday entertaining.
31. Fire Extinguisher
The best way to avoid a kitchen fire is to own a fire extinguisher. Safety first.