I get asked a lot about cooking tools and while I could do anything I really needed with just five tools—my truly minimalist kitchen would have a chef’s knife, cutting board, large sauté pan, flat-edged wood spoon and a large Pyrex bowl—I’ve got lots of tools I like and a box of tools I never use down in the basement. In a world where all kinds of companies pitch all kinds of products, I’d like to talk about the actual tools I use and love.
First things first: Knives. You don’t need a big block of knives. You need a big knife and a little knife. Invest in good quality knives. I use Wusthof, have been for 20 years. I think they’re the best. (Here they are at Amazon.) Find a good sharpening service near you, get them sharpened twice a year; buy and learn how to use a steel, to maintain that edge. Nothing is more common in the American home kitchen than a dull knife, and nothing, nothing, makes cooking harder than a dull knife. (You spouses of cooks. Remember this: nothing says "I love you" like a really sharp knife.)
A Boos cutting board. Again, quality. These are thick heavy boards. This is the one I use and recommend, Amazon price at OpenSky. Another way home cooks make it hard on themselves is by not giving themselves enough space to work in. Buy the big one if you have room.
You need four good pans, and one large pot. I use and love All-Clad pans—they are, hands down, the best brand available. You should have a small sauté pan and a large sauté pan, a small sauce pan and a larger sauce pan, and a pot for cooking large quantities of water in (pasta, green beans, stock, etc.) Once you have these, then you can broaden out as your needs and wallet allow. (For instance, I do not need this pan, but it is my absolute favorite because of its sloping sides, and I love owning it.)
Cast iron pans are highly recommended. These are outstanding if you maintain them properly (and maintaining them properly basically means never washing them with soap). They’re inexpensive, heavy, will keep a virtual non-stick surface, and can take a serious beating (or even give one!). I recommend you find old ones in flea markets or on ebay and refurbish. I haven't loved the modern "pre-seasoned" versions (though they're probably fine).
I highly recommend cast iron enamel Dutch ovens—enameled cast iron is an excellent cooking material; it's heavy, heats evenly and stays hot. Its surface allows browning but is virtually non-stick. It can be used on top of or in the oven. And they’re attractive. There is no better brand out there than Le Creuset. Absolutely one of my most favorite cooking tools—this is the one I use, @amazon.
Non-stick pans: Buy one very good one and treat it like royalty. (I recommend this one by All-Clad.) There are few cooking tools more useless than a cheap non-stick pan. Even the best should be limited to special uses. When you do need a non-stick pan, for delicate fish for instance, you want a good one that has been well maintained. The problem with even the best non-stick pans is that they make it difficult to develop a fond on your food or in your pan, that very tasty browning of proteins. You want most food you sauté to stick long enough to develop flavor.
Appliances: I could not live without my KitchenAid standing mixer. This is the most useful tool in my kitchen, the true workhorse. Be sure to get one with at least a 5 quart bowl. I also use this KitchenAid food processor, but not nearly as often as my mixer.
Other tools I love that some may see as gadgets are a Benriner mandoline and an immersion blender. There are all kinds of plastic mandolins out there, almost all of them worthless in my opinion. The Benriner mandoline is the industry standard among cooks. This is the one I recommend. For 21 bucks, you can't beat it.
My most frequently used small appliance is a handblender. This is the one I use because someone gave it to me. It works great. So do the ones from KitchenAid and Cuisinart. I use it for sauces, soups and mixing vinaigrettes. I keep it at the ready at all times.
Here’s one that people don’t give a lot of thought to: their pepper mill. I believe most pepper mills grind too too coarsely. If I want it coarse, I’ll crush and chop it myself, but for everyday freshly ground pepper, the best make is Peugeot. Can’t be beat. Here's one at Amazon, and at OpenSky.
A digital instant read thermometer is a must. I normally would have gone this way, with a basic Taylor digital from amazon, and this one for deep fry and candy from OpenSky, but I was perusing thermometers offered at OpenSky and saw this one, an instant read that can be used for deep frying and candy. This is definitely the way to go! Please do not buy, and if you have one, throw away, those silly “Meat Thermometers,” unless you’re nostalgic for the 60s.
I also use a RediCheck remote cable thermometer, which my cousin gave me, but it’s the cable part and the alarm that beeps at a designated temp is what’s really important. Here’s the RediCheck at Amazon, but a cable thermometer, remote or not, is the point.
I love my zester, this is another must. For many chefs, this was a game changer. Instant last moment dynamic flavor, thanks to this thing.
There are of course countless tools and gadgets, crowding the walls and the shelves of kitchen supply stores, and I could go on—you should have good baking sheets, a couple of good ladles, preferably that measure, a scale of course, a fine mesh strainer (a comprehensive essay of on what I recommend can be found in my book The Elements of Cooking)—but the above tools are the ones I’m most passionate about.
What's the single tool you're most passionate about?