I get this question quite often: "What tools should I have in my kitchen?" The short answer is how ever many you need. The longer answer gets more complicated...
There are many gimmicky items out there that target the Home Cook -- machines that chop garlic for you, food processor type thing that you throw in all your ingredients for guacamole and with a couple of button pushes gives you guacamole, deep fryer boxes you plug into the wall. The list is endless. And frankly intimidating and confusing to the Home Cook. The truth is you don't need any of that bullshit, but rather should spend your time and money in honing in your skills in the kitchen. Much like school, you can't pay to have someone else do you work for you, or study for the test for you; you're gonna have to buckle down, figure it out, and in other words, do it yourself.
That said, you still need a few basic tools to help you along on your cooking journey. After about 10 years of cooking now (omg!) I've figured out what works and what doesn't, what you should invest your $300 in and what you shouldn't, and what's best to avoid all together. There are tools out there like the food processor that will do a number of tasks for you, so invest in a good one rather than four or five shittier items that won't do the job half as good as the processor. Similarly, a good quality sharp chef's knife will peel, chop, mince, spread, and otherwise perform any function in your kitchen. You're better off learning to use it properly rather than investing in 3 items that claim to cut up your garlic. For example, you can invest in an item that chops your garlic for you. Great. But what if you need it minced? That machine can't mince it for you -- it can only chop it -- so you have to invest in a mincer. Ok, but what if the recipe calls for the garlic to be smashed? Now your fucked. The chef's knife can perform all of those functions including turning that clove of garlic into a paste right on your cutting board. See what I mean about investing in high quality, multi-tasking tools? Forget the stupid gimmicky shit.
Here's a list I've compiled for some basic kitchen tools. Of course, this is not applicable to every single person in the world. If you do pasta on a regular basis for example, perhaps a classic hand-cranked pasta maker would be on your list. If you do a lot of Asian cuisine, a wok would be. So this list is for basic continental American cuisine. Use it and add to it to suite your cooking style.
1. A Basic Set of Knives
|[top: Santoku chef's knife; second: pairing knife; third: serrated tomato/cheese knife; bottom: boning knife]|
|[left: standard whisk perfect for making omelets; middle: stirring whisk for cake batters; right: small whisk perfect for making vinaigrettes]|
|[left: grater by Microplane; right: zester by Microplane]|
|[left: candy/deep fry thermometer; right: oven-proof meat thermometer]|
The other thermometer is a meat thermometer and invaluable if you like to make roasts. The one I have is oven-proof so I can stick it into the thing I'm roasting before it goes into the oven, and then just read it while it's cooking instead of piercing it constantly. It's great to have for roasted chicken, turkey, beef, prime rib, and pork if you like those items. It will guarantee you will get the perfectly cooked meat, never underdone or overdone.
11. Strainers aka "Wire Baskets"
|[top: large wire-mesh strainer; bottom: fine strainer]|
13. Citrus Squeezer
And then the heavens parted and God said: "let them have a food processor!"
I love my food processor. It's one of those truly must-have tools in the kitchen. They are expensive but worth the investment. You can chop and shred things in large amounts in literally 3 seconds. If you like making cole slaw from scratch, this is your machine -- shred those carrots, cabbage, onions, and even broccoli in seconds. You can emulsify large quantities of dressing -- pour all your ingredients in the bowl, mix to combine, then drizzle in your olive oil from the feeder tube. If you like making pureed dips like smoked salmon spread, hummus, babaganouj, eggplant caponata, cheese dip, etc. -- this will do it all for you in one bowl, in seconds.
And you can even make pastry dough in here! Oh yes, I said it. Place your flour, butter, salt, etc. in, pulse, then add the ice water through the feeder and you've got a ball of dough with all the hard work done for you.
I'm not one for gimicky shit but this is a wonderful tool that truly can do so many things for you. They are expensive, so I'd advise to save and splurge. It will last you for years and years if cleaned and maintained properly. Choose a size that's big enough for the kind of things you make. I like making pastry dough and gougeres in mine, and sometimes even puree soup in it so I have the super large one myself.
And last, but certainly not least....
16. The Standing Mixer