Essential Tools

9 Essential Tools for Cooking All the Vegetables

Produce whisperer and author Deborah Madison on how to stock our tool kits.

April 14, 2022
Photo by MJ Kroeger

As with any other kitchen, what is considered essential in a vegetable-forward kitchen depends on what you like to cook. If you like stir-fries, then you might want to grab a wok. If you have a fondness for braising, as I do, then you might rely heavily on a shallow Le Creuset braising pan

While I've listed some of my favorite, most essential tools, I didn't mention my food mill, which I use only for two purposes (tomato sauce and applesauce) yet wouldn't be without, or my salad spinner. Nor did I mention hands, which are the best tools for feeling the food you're cooking; or noses, for smelling; or ears, for hearing when a process subtly changes on the stove; or eyes for discerning the beauty or flaw contained in a vegetable. You don't have to buy these; you're equipped with your senses already.

But what does stand out for me as the most essential items for a cook dealing with a lot of vegetables are good knives and a large cutting board. Without those tools, cooking isn't fun or efficient. From there? A mortar and pestle, and maybe just two more. Ahead, tools that are essential in my kitchen, and maybe in yours, too. 

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1. Good knives and a way to keep them sharp
A few good knives are essential to any cook, but especially to one who is cooking a lot of vegetables because they usually require a fare amount of slicing and dicing. You don’t want a boning knife or a knife with a curved blade because you want to have as much contact as possible with your board in order to get the job done.

A good paring knife is very useful. I do a lot with my petite 4-inch knife: peeling, chopping, and getting into small grooves, like the stems of cauliflower florets. Mine is wider than most paring knives, which is why it’s so versatile, but really, any will do. You’ll also want one heavier chef’s knife or cleaver for whacking dense winter squash into pieces.

It should also go without saying that you need a knife sharpener because they can slice, rather than crush, your veggies. And they won't slip over the skin and nick your fingers, either. If you need some expert recs on sharpeners, we have 'em right here.

2. A big cutting board
Giving yourself a lot of room to work is essential. You’ll feel cramped and frustrated using a small cutting board like the cheese board you got for a wedding or graduation present. Wood or plastic, that’s up to you. I used a large, plastic board for years before buying myself a gorgeous walnut cutting board because I prefer the look and feel of it (and because it was my birthday). Since I'm often hovering over the board, I want it to be something I love to use. It’s not huge—my plastic one is twice as large—but it’s fine when cooking for two, which is what I usually do, and I also have backups when needed.

I recommend having a second board for cutting fruit. Fruit with a trace of garlic just doesn’t taste right, and if you don’t have fresh fruit to slice very often, it needn’t be large. 

3. A fait-tout pan, such as a saucier
This is a pan I use probably every day. Mine happens to be a stainless steel All-Clad. It’s large enough for whatever I want to do, and its shape is wonderfully versatile. You can do just about anything in it—except maybe make an omelet. 

4. Beautiful multipurpose bakeware
To me, it’s important that my functional pots and pans also be beautiful. I have a collection of earthenware vessels: casseroles and shallower dishes from Cook on Clay, micaceous pots made by native New Mexico potters, Italian baking dishes, and so forth. When they're not being used for actual baking, I use them to hold eggplants or tomatoes that are too gorgeous to be hidden in the refrigerator.


5. Tongs
There are few things more useful than a pair of tongs. A long pair allows you to stand back from the fire or grill, while shorter ones let you to get close to your food. You can use them to turn vegetables over in a pan or retrieve them from a pot of boiling water and check for doneness. My go-to? Simple, spring-loaded tongs—nothing fancy, no need for serrated bottoms.  

It helps if the tongs close when not in use so that they fit easily into a drawer, but if they don’t have the gadget on them that makes that possible, a rubber band works just fine.


6. Mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder)
There’s something about pounding garlic with a little salt that makes it so much better than merely pressing it. And the smell of freshly roasted spices is so wonderful as you work them over the rough bottom of a mortar. I use a small, inexpensive marble mortar and pestle for garlic and spices, and a larger one if I’m actually going to make a sauce in it. A spice grinder also makes quick work of grinding spices into a fine powder.  


7. More pots and pans (this may be cheating, but they’re all important!)

  • I use my set of solid, well-made saucepans with inserts for steaming vegetables nearly everyday. One good non-stick skillet is a must for eggs and pancakes; otherwise, I use my cast-iron skillet or grill pan.  
  • A deeper pan with a lid or a Le Creuset Dutch oven is essential for braising vegetables or making risotto
  • A wide pot, about 6 inches deep, is key for making big soups or for boiling water for pasta. 
  • I have two double boilers: one a fancy copper affair and the other an old-fashioned blue metal one that I bought because of its color. I use them for holding mashed potatoes or other vegetable purées, making the base for a soufflé or a sauce, cooking polenta, or melting chocolate. A double boiler lets you keep foods warm without worry. I don’t know why we let them go out of style—they’re truly so useful. 
  • Finally, a one-quart saucepan for hard-boiling a few eggs, making hot cereal in the morning or quinoa in the evening, and for reheating soup for lunch. 

8. Pressure Cooker
I love my pressure cooker. It makes lentil soup or sweet potatoes in 20 minutes when you really don’t have an hour to make dinner, and is especially great for bean dishes and long-cooking grains. I don’t use it as often as other pots and pans, but I’d feel adrift without it. Plus, the insert can double as an extra mixing pot.


9. A Kitchen Scale
I really think every cook should use one. Kitchen scales are ideal for baking, but a more accurate way to measure by weight. Sometimes it’s surprising to see how much a vegetable, a cup of flour, or two cups of rice really weighs. Imagine you have a chunk of leftover butter or cheese or chocolate. Put it on the scale, then you’ll know if you have enough to make that recipe. After a while you can pretty much judge accurately by eye, but until then, a scale can be helpful—if not essential—for getting it right on the money. Mine reads in both ounces and grams, which is useful when you’re using recipes that are written by English cooks like Nigel Slater.

This post was updated in April 2022 with new essential tools for cooking all the veg.

What tools do you turn to when preparing and cooking vegetables? Share with us in the comments below!

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Written by: Deborah Madison


Melinda R. December 13, 2017
Could you please share the kind of knife sharpener that you mentioned? i have one by a good brand and I don't think I am doing it right. The knives don't come out any sharper. I may be being too tentative with it.
Tom W. September 12, 2015
Best way is don't try. Stains and the patina of use are part of the magic of these earthenware pots. As explained by Paula Wolfert
In "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking" this patina and the associated flavors are what make these pots so wonderful to cook in.
You could uses oven cleaner, but there is a risk of putting in a flavor you don't want.
I A. September 12, 2015
Hi! Anybody have a recommendation for effectively cleaning a Romertopf? I was given this thing as a gift and it looked beautiful until I cooked a meal in it. The meal turned out wonderful but the unglazed parts of the oven, where the lid and the basin meet, were blackened and no amount of scrubbing or elbow grease has removed the discoloration from the clay. Thanks for any thoughts about this. And, yes, I have emailed them but my German needs a lot of work.
Tom W. September 12, 2015
And one of our favorites:
Deborah M. August 29, 2014
Lazyretirementgirl: Glad you now have a reason to use your pretty bamboo cutting board!
Deborah M. August 29, 2014
About a scale: Mine happens to be made by OXO, but what's important (and why I like this scale) is that you can easily go back and forth between pounds and kilograms (important if your recipe is written with grams rather than ounce weights) and you can put a bowl right on it, zero out the weight, then add your ingredient for an accurate reading without having to subtract the weight of the bowl. Simple things, but they make the scale much easier to use. Mine also has a light feature that illuminates the read-out, which I just discovered while giving my scale a closer look. I've never used it but it could be helpful if your eyesight is poor or your kitchen is really dark.
Lazyretirementgirl August 29, 2014
Thanks so much for the "fruit only"cutting board idea. I recently bought a bamboo board to augment my collection of dishwasher safe plastic boards, and found myself ignoring it -- can't use for alliums, it will stink. Can't use for meat -- it will be contaminated. Now I can make a virtue of necessity and use it as my exclusive fruit board.
helicopterina August 29, 2014
What digital scale do you recommend ? (And thanks for the simple but totally spot on recommendation to have pair of longer tongs)
Deborah M. August 28, 2014
Lisa - Pressure cookers aren't that hard to find, really. I do suggest thought, that you choose one that's stainless steel and well made. I have used Tefal brand pressure cookers in the past and present and am very happy with them - easy to use and a good price. You don't have to spend a fortune on one, even though there are some pretty pricey ones out there.
Deborah M. August 28, 2014
Christina - absolutely!
christina August 27, 2014
a very large mixing bowl- for easy soaking and washing leafy vegetables!
Layla C. August 27, 2014
I would not even know where to buy a pressure cooker.
Lisa August 27, 2014
They're pretty much available in any well stocked store that sells pots and pans, from Wal-Mart to Macy's to name a couple of mainstream options. They're hardly specialty items, per se. They're also not to be intimidated by either, as they're easy to use once you get the gist of them--and that's not hard to learn. It's basically a strong pot with a tight fitting lid and valve to release the steam.