Essential Tools

The Tools You Need to Make Almost Any Recipe

April  3, 2017

When I moved into my first apartment and was faced with the reality of outfitting a space of my own on a New York budget, I resisted buying anything I didn't absolutely need.

And so once I purchased super-cheap cookware and a knife set on sale at a big department store, a 19-piece Pyrex set (mixing bowls, leftover containers, a pie pan), and a plastic cutting board, I was done.

My restrictive kitchen equipment was often frustrating (sawing through carrots, washing the cutting board 30 times in one night, eating pasta out of mixing bowls), but it helped me to stock my kitchen carefully, each piece at a time. I only bought "bonus" items after I had proven to myself (multiple times) that they really would improve my cooking life: The rolling pin came after I'd rolled pie dough with an empty wine bottle three times; the salad spinner after we found a living cicada in our "washed" kale.

So here, from someone who stocked her kitchen very, very slowly is a list of the essentials I know that I need (and that I think you need, too).

Disclaimer: This is not what my kitchen looks like. At all. Photo by James Ransom

For "Roughly Chop" or "Finely Dice"

You'll need a knife set that has an all-purpose chef's knife, a serrated knife (for bread and tomatoes), and a paring knife, at least. (You'll also need somewhere safe to keep them.)

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Top Comment:
“The word "need" is greatly overused among us, but I will go ahead and say I need a cookie sheet. The saucepan and nonstick skillet can be pretty well replaced with one of those Americanized nonstick woks. I have wooden spoons, but haven't used them for years- the silicone spatulas do everything better.”
— Smaug

And for using those knives, you'll need a cutting board or two. I like to confine the chopping of onions, garlic, and other alliums to one cheap-ish plastic cutting board in order to avoid onion-flavored apples. You might also consider having separate cutting boards for meat and non-meat.

More: Find the right cutting board for you, then take good care of it.

For "Stir Till Well-Combined," "Whisk to Incorporate," or "Spread Evenly"

Try preparing two days-worth of meals without a whisk, wooden spoon, or spatula. Q.E.D. You need these.

Whisks, if only for vinaigrette. Wooden spoons, if only for Alice Medrich's cocoa brownies (40 strokes with a wooden spoon!). And heat-proof spatulas, if only for soft scrambled eggs—and 5 million other things (like marshmallows!).

Extra points if you get a crock or jar to store these in.

For "1 Onion, Chopped" & "In a Medium Bowl, Stir Together"

It might look artsy to have all of your ingredients in neat piles on those cutting boards you invested in—but it's less cute when you're totally out of board space and the raw vegetables are toppling onto the counters. You'll need small bowls to hold your mise (why, of course!) and larger bowls for—well, you know what you need bowls for.

Bonus! Pretty mixing bowls double as serving bowls for those of us (ahem, hello!) who do not (yet) have the funds for fully-intended serveware.

For "Line Baking Sheet with Parchment Paper" & "Butter a 3-Quart Casserole Dish"

Roasted vegetables? Galettes? Roasted vegetable galettes? If you have a reliable rimmed baking sheet, you're ready to take on the oven! (Also, cookies.)

But wait. For soupier, meltier dishes (casseroles, stews, pot pies) that exceed the shallow baking sheet, you'll need an oven-ready dish. There are workarounds (I know this because I just got my first ovenproof baking dish): In a pinch, use cake pans, loaf pans, or ovenproof saucepans.

For "In a Small Saucepan" & "In a Non-Stick Skillet Over Medium Heat"

For soups, for fried eggs, and for all of those things you make yourself when you don't feel like cooking, a saucepan and a frying pan are indispensable.

I like an oven-safe saucepan (you can transfer it straight from the stove to the oven to keep food warm at a low temperature; you can use it in the place of a casserole dish; you can even bake bread in there!) and a non-stick frying pan, for easy clean up (I hate scraping off the stuck egg bits).

For "Store Leftovers in an Airtight Container" (& For Your Onions)

You need a holding place for those leftovers before they reach their final destination. You can repurpose plastic takeout containers, of course, but I feel more excited about eating yesterday's dal when it's packed away in shiny, sleek containers. Since they don't pick up smells or stains, I can store my onion halves and turmeric-spiked curry dregs freely.

You'll also need some sort of vessel for holding the products and produce that don't get refrigerated: potatoes, onions, lemons, garlic, fresh bread—all the ingredients that seasoned home cooks just seem to have on hand all the time. You can arrange them on your counter in some sort of neat-ish assemblage, but a metal basket will free up your brain and kitchen (especially if take advantage of vertical space with a hanging basket).

For Dessert

Not everyone bakes, but for those who do, a scale is critical. If you won't listen to me, listen to Alice Medrich. She claims it will change your life.

You'll also need a rolling pin (this is coming from the person who used olive oil bottles, wine bottles, and water bottles to roll out pie crust for a very long time—no more, I say!); baking pans (I find the rectangular and square ones more useful because you can use them for bar cookies, casseroles, baked pastas... and adjusting your cake recipe to fit a rectangular pan is easy); and measuring implements (spoons, cups, and liquid-appropriate).

And don't forget these!

Splurge on oven mitts. I spent the first year in my apartment dreading every time I had to open the oven because our plastic (yes, plastic) oven mitts were so terrible. Learn from my mistakes. Owning quality oven mitts has made me less scared to cook.

Unless you want undercooked/overcooked/not attractive food, you'll also need an oven thermometer (here's an earnest plea to buy one, and an argument for why it's your most important tool).

Get yourself a pepper grinder to make even your laziest meals feel somewhat special and, of course, go to the bookstore and get a copy of Genius Recipes.

Flour sack towels are ultra-absorbent—great for cleaning up messes and drying lots of dishes—and a colander comes in handy for the always-reliable, ever-faithful pasta (and for washing vegetables, when you choose to eat them).

For the "Expansion Pack"

These are other things that are either a) pretty necessary but expensive (i.e. appliances), or b) nice to have but not absolutely essential:

- Food processor
- Stand mixer
- Blender or immersion blender
- Salad spinner
- Mortar and pestle or small coffee or spice grinder
- A piece of vintage copper cookware.... Hey, I can dream, can't I?

What's missing here? And do you want to buy it for me?

This article originally ran in 2016, but we brought it back to help us refresh our cooking arsenal.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Amanda
  • AntoniaJames
  • Smaug
  • Alexandra G
    Alexandra G
  • Sarah Jampel
    Sarah Jampel
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Amanda April 4, 2017
Microplane grater! After a decent chef knife, the 1-inch across grater is my favorite kitchen toy. Garlic, ginger...I use it several times per week.
AntoniaJames April 3, 2017
To the "try cooking two days of meals without" category, may I respectfully suggest: a zester of one kind or another, and a large hole grater. I bought a grater a few years ago from Ikea for under $2.00 that you put over an oval plastic box that comes with a storage lid. (It also comes with a smaller hole grater.) I cannot imagine cooking without that or a zester. You could, arguably, use the small hole grater instead of the zester, but the small hole attachment on my Ikea one really would not do nearly as good a job as a pull zester (which I adore), or a rasp-style zester (like the Microplane brand). ;o)
Smaug April 3, 2017
The word "need" is greatly overused among us, but I will go ahead and say I need a cookie sheet. The saucepan and nonstick skillet can be pretty well replaced with one of those Americanized nonstick woks. I have wooden spoons, but haven't used them for years- the silicone spatulas do everything better.
Alexandra G. December 13, 2015
Love your list! I'd like to add a vegetable peeler which, for whatever reason, took me forever to get.
Sarah J. December 13, 2015
Ah, yes!!! They cost about $1.99, but for some reason I could not motivate myself to get one for the longest time. Same with a can opener!