Once upon a time, when I was a very young person living in a reasonably priced, moderately sized apartment in the suburbs, I owned this thing called a “rolling pin.” It was wooden, cute, and kind of useless. I didn’t make a single pie of any nature in that apartment, because I was in college; I innocently cooked my salmon in the microwave and otherwise ate most of my meals at Panera. Needless to say, I didn’t think much about the rolling pin until I moved to New York, at which point it suddenly seemed like the most insane luxury item imaginable. Who has the space for that kind of thing? I left it behind when I moved; now I use a wine bottle.
Living in a big city while on a budget usually means dwelling in tight quarters, and with small apartments come minuscule kitchens. The good news is, this breeds resourcefulness. You learn how to use water glasses instead of measuring cups. Old T-shirts, you discover, are optimal oven mitts and dishrags. You become adept at making tongs out of two forks, and using cereal bowls or pots as mixing bowls. You only buy screw-top wine and pop-top bean cans, making space-wasting items like corkscrews and can openers obsolete. You use a pot with a lid instead of a colander, and in the process you get buff arms. While you’re doing things the hard way, you also become an inventive, adaptable, easygoing chef.
Nevertheless, even the most resourceful young cook needs a few implements to get started. Here, we’ve rounded up the five basic kitchen tools you really need, and how to use them for pretty much everything.
A chef’s knife is perhaps the number-one essential for anyone with even the most remote plans to use his or her kitchen. Knives come in all shapes and sizes, and for various specific functions, but a general-utility, broad-bladed one is the most versatile. You’ll use it for chopping vegetables, slicing and trimming meat, carving a ham, cutting (and serving!) a piece of cake, even halving a PB&J. It’s not the ideal paring knife — but it’s a lot easier to slice a bell pepper with a chef’s knife than it is to chop an onion with a paring knife. Plus, it works for crushing garlic, opening coconuts, and, if you are very careful, opening pickle jars. If you're going to invest in any item in your kitchen, let it be this. A good chef’s knife will last forever.
Cost: Expect to spend $70 or more.
Until I accidentally lit mine on fire and had to throw it away (long story!), my 5-quart round-sided pan was among the best and most useful kitchen tools I ever owned. You can use it to boil water for pasta (and tea, if you don’t have a kettle); to make sauces; to sauté meat and vegetables; to stir-fry; to simmer soups, chilis, and other one-pot meals; to braise things; you could even make rice in it. Employ this pan as a mixing bowl — or a salad bowl, if you're not hung up on appearances.
Get one that's oven safe, for baking and broiling purposes, and that has a lid, because you will notice there is no colander on this list. When you need to drain water without losing noodles, just lift the pot over the sink, crack the lid the tiniest bit, and slowly let the water dribble out.
Cost: Higher-end models can cost upwards of $300, but you can snag a decent one for $100 or so.
We’re forgoing our non-stick skillet for this one, because you can do so much more with a cast-iron version: bake a cake; bake a pie; bake cornbread; and broil, bake, or roast entrees and sides. This is all in addition to your mundane daily stovetop cooking, like sautéing, frying, and pan-searing (bacon, among other things). Due to the pan’s considerable weight, it’s great for crushing spices and nuts. (This same quality would make it an effective tool for felling a burglar.) So, while I love cleaning off scrambled-egg remnants with the ease only non-stick coating provides, versatility is king. And, baking is important. Sometimes in life you need to make a cake, otherwise you risk the people in your life doubting your love for them. (Cake is how love is expressed, right?)
Cutting boards seem kind of boring and single-purpose, but if you get the right kind, you’ll use it constantly. You should get one that’s lightweight and rectangular, 10 by 16 inches or so, and that you deem at least moderately presentable — because you will also be using it as a serving dish for cheese spreads and other hors d'oeuvres while entertaining. In terms of sheer practicality, the cutting board is my second-most-used kitchen tool, right behind the chef’s knife. I chop veggies on it, I dice meat on it, I flip cakes and Spanish omelets onto it (this is why it should be relatively lightweight), and sometimes I just straight up use it as a plate.
Cost: Spend a couple bucks on the cheap-o plastic version or or invest in an artisan piece that’ll last a long time.
It’s not the most glamorous tool out there, but a heat-proof Silicone spatula is essential to any kitchen arsenal — no matter how bare bones. Being an actual spatula is just one of many functions this thing serves. I also use mine to stir soups or stews as they simmer, to scramble eggs, to mix vegetables and meats as they sauté, to clean batter off the side of the mixing bowl, to eat the batter off the side of the mixing bowl, and to ice the cake that the batter from the mixing bowl has produced (probably clean the spatula first). One great thing about these spatulas is that sometimes they are two-headed — two implements in one! — and come in many different colors, textures, and sizes, which is fun, relatively speaking. Hey, when you only have five tools in your kitchen, you have to get your thrills somewhere.
Cost: Don't spend more than $15; the $5 ones are just as good at batter-delivery.