As a personal chef and recipe developer, I cook a lot. And not only do I cook a lot, I cook in lots of different kitchens. I’ve cooked in large, well-stocked kitchens, and I’ve cooked in kitchens that have one baking sheet and a square foot of counter space. I’ve even catered 20 person dinner parties in a tiny kitchen that I’d never seen before. I sometimes learned lessons the hard way, but learn them I did. So here’s my bare minimum list – my list of basic yet essential cooking items to get just about any job done. I have a packed bag dedicated to storing duplicates of the smaller essentials and I bring this whole list of items to any unfamiliar or under-stocked kitchen. In other words, this list is dedicated to the very most basic lineup of cooking tools that any well-stocked kitchen should have.
Before I start this list of essentials, I should note that I’m not including stovetop pots or pans of any kind here. There are just too many options and combinations dependent on factors such as how often you cook, what you cook, your budget and for how many people you cook. I am also not including larger countertop appliances for the same reason. On the bright side, not including these big ticket items means that everything on this list is quite affordable.
I also realize that this entire list might be a no-brainer to some people. But for someone setting up their kitchen from scratch, or for someone wanting to fill gaps but aren’t sure where to start, I think this list is a great starting point. So let’s get after it.
for a well-stocked kitchen
1. Sharp All Purpose Knives
At the minimum, you should have three knives for cooking. I recommend an 8” chef’s knife, a 4.5” paring/utility knife and an 8” serrated/bread knife. I’m adding kitchen scissors to this group too. You could get away with using your sharp knives for most scissor jobs, but why not have a pair of sharp kitchen shears on hand? OK, back to the knives. I haven’t tried enough brands to know which ones are best, but I personally like the Wusthof Classic Series. These are definitely high quality investment pieces, but functional cooking knives are available at all price points and for all budgets.
2. Cutting Boards
Nothing fancy, I pretty much exclusively use these Epicurean eco-friendly wood-fiber composite boards. They come in a set of three, and if you choose ones like these, without any type of gripper (like silicone), just use a damp cloth under the board when chopping to prevent it from moving around. I also like doing this because I then have a damp towel easily accessible for wiping down the counter while prepping.
3. Baking Sheets + Pans
I recommend having at least 2 large rimmed baking sheets. Add extras of different sizes according to your needs. In my kitchen I have two Nordic Ware “big sheet” rimmed baking sheets and two Circulon non-stick rimmed “half sheets.” In addition, I recommend two 8” or 9” round cake pans. These will work for baking any cake batter as well as for cooking smaller quantities of food in the oven.
4. Measuring Cups + Spoons
A full set of dry measuring cups, a full set of measuring spoons and a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. Pretty straight forward, lots of options, lots of price points. I love these All Clad nesting cups, and I have simple/inexpensive steel measuring spoons. My liquid measuring cup of choice is a Pyrex glass version, because it works perfectly with #5.
5. Immersion Blender
An immersion blender is seriously my kitchen hero. Whether for homemade hummus or a creamy vinaigrette, an immersion blender is powerful and versatile, blending both big and small quantities with ease. Some immersion blenders come with a blending cup, but I use mine most often with my Pyrex glass measuring cups. The All Clad immersion blender is unbelievably powerful at around $100. The Cuisinart version is a another good option at $40.
6. Vegetable Peeler
This unassuming and simple tool is actually very necessary. There is nothing worse than peeling anything (carrots, potatoes, cucumbers) without a good peeler.
7. Coarse Grater + Microplane
One option is to choose a metal box grater with multiple different grating options. If you get one with a standard cheese grater and also a microplane surface you can kill two birds with one stone. Alternatively, get two different individual graters, one rasp/zesting surface (citrus zest, ginger, garlic, hard cheeses) and one with a coarse grating surface (soft cheeses, potatoes, zucchini).
8. Nesting Prep Bowls + Pinch Bowls
By far my favorite prep bowls are the glass nesting ones that can be found almost anywhere kitchen gadgets are sold. They save a ton a space and give you every size you could need. I also like having a large stainless steel mixing bowl and a smaller one, as they’re lighter, durable and portable.
9. Cooking Utensils
Here’s what should sit in your utensils container/drawer by the stove… a wooden/bamboo spoon (or two), a flexible steel turner/spatula, a silicone spatula, a steel ladle, a steel whisk and a pair of steel tongs.
Whether for draining pasta, washing produce or rinsing cans of beans, you don’t realize how annoying it is to be without a colander until you need a colander. If you just have one large colander, you’re good. I have a set of nesting steel colanders and a set of nesting mesh colanders. I use them all, but honestly it’s way more than I need… two or three of different sizes is enough.
11. Can Opener
It’s another one of those tools that you don’t need until you need it…and then you really need it. Always have one of these on hand, always. Try this one by OXO.
12. Dish Towels + Pot Holders + Oven Mitts
Dish towels are kitchen all-stars and you can never have too many. We don’t use paper towels in our kitchen so having plenty of dish towels is a must. Folded up, sturdier and bigger dish towels can act as trivets for hot pots coming off the stove. I like to dampen smaller, lighter dish towels for underneath my cutting boards to keep them super sturdy while chopping. Professional chefs use dish towels instead of oven mitts most of the time, so I’m in the habit of using them in that way too (but NEVER use a damp towel as an oven mitt). I love the delicate, light kitchen towels from The Little Market, and flour sack towels are a classic option for both commercial and home kitchens alike.
THE BONUS LIST
a few more items to consider
1. Citrus Juicer
Sure, you could technically do without a citrus juicer. But if you juice a lot of lemons and limes, like I do, a juicer of some kind just makes it a whole lot quicker. I have a vintage glass juicer (similar to this one) which I absolutely love, but more portable options include this classic metal juicer (love it) and this plastic option (if you must).
2. Salad Spinner
You can get away with not having one of these. But I make salads using freshly cut lettuce A LOT both for myself and for clients. I always need the lettuce to be super dry immediately after washing, so this tool saves me a lot of time and energy.
3. Potato Masher
I make a lot of veggie burgers/patties, and a potato masher is honestly the best tool for mashing up the legumes/veggies when making them. A food processor also works for certain recipes, but for my quick bean based burgers, I don’t want to go through the trouble of the heavy machinery. Potato mashers are also essential for mashed potatoes, another vegetarian favorite (never use a food processor for that, trust me). So basically, a potato masher is an essential tool in my kitchen and for my vegetarian clients’ kitchens. But do you necessarily need one? No.
4. Meat Thermometer
Pretty self-explanatory. If you cook with a lot of meat, you will likely need this. If you don’t cook with a lot of meat, you won’t need this. I hardly ever use mine, even when cooking for meat-eating clients. I use it most often when cooking whole poultry and expensive cuts of beef or pork, like tenderloin.
5. Olive Oil + Vinegar + Salt + Pepper
Not technically equipment, but kinda. There is no excuse for your kitchen to not contain extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, fine grain sea salt and a black pepper grinder. My vinegar of choice is red wine vinegar, but white wine vinegar is another versatile option. Want two vinegar options stocked? Balsamic would be my number two.