If you’re fairly new to cooking or just moving into your own place, figuring out how to stock your kitchen can be an overwhelming prospect. There are hundreds of gadgets, prices on basics like knives can range from a few dollars to hundreds, and there are more types of pots and pans than you thought until you went to pick something out. Do you buy a set? Do you really need a stew pot? Copper core? What sizes of fry pans will outfit a basic kitchen?
Perhaps you have limited storage, so you need versatile tools. How few knives can you get away with? How many cutting boards?
Here we’ll go through the basic kitchen toolset. These things will get you through most recipes successfully. I’ll give recommendations on what to buy for various price points. (I do not receive any incentives or compensation from any brand I’ll recommend. These are just ones I like from years of cooking.) The good news is that you don’t have to spend as much money as you think for decent tools, and you don’t need as much as you think you do.
I’m going to assume the basic kitchen doesn’t do too much baking; that is, you don’t bake your own breads regularly, you’re not making fancy layer cakes, and you’re not into pastry- or candy-making. I will also assume you don’t do you own canning, dehydrating, meat processing, or preserving (pickling, fermenting, etc.). I consider these kitchen tools intermediate or perhaps advanced, so we’ll leave them out for this article.
General Brand Comments
My personal favorite brand overall is the Calphalon contemporary line. A cursory internet search is showing that Calphalon only sells this line in a full set these days, rather than allowing you to purchase them individually as I have in the past. However, this set is a pretty good bargain, even if the set contains some specialty knives you may find you don’t use as often.
If you’re looking to spend a bit more, I have used the Shun brand of knives before. They are quite pricey, and very sharp. They look fantastic, but they do require more maintenance than Calphalon. I prefer heavier handled knives, so I dock points for these. I find them too light for my taste, especially in the chef’s knives.
I really dislike Wüstof knives. They’re everywhere, and they don’t hold an edge well at all. They’re too light and too cheap.
Chicago Cutlery is pretty good. I’ve only used those a little bit, but I like that the Insignia line is all stainless steel. They have a good weight.
I loathe Henkel’s knives for the same reasons as Wüstof.
Avoid any knives associated with a famous chef’s line. They’re usually cheap garbage packaged with some Food Network famous face on it.
As a general rule, I avoid serrated knives. All of mine are straight edge, except a specialty bread knife I have.
The Chef’s Knife
The most versatile knife is your chef’s knife. You will probably get a different opinion from each person you ask on what makes the best chef’s knife, because everyone has different preferences. The chef’s knife is meant primarily for chopping, mincing, and dicing foods, and you’re actually using the heel of the blade more than the tip. See this video for a demonstration the proper use of a chef’s knife.
I personally own a 6″ and 8″, but you can get by with just an 8″.
These are for peeling and slicing smaller things. These are workhorses, so you want more than one. I like at least a 3.5″ and 4.5″, and if you plan to do a lot of vegetable prep, you may want one of each length.
This is a 6″ straight knife shaped somewhat similar to a paring knife. I use this one for bigger slicing, particularly meat. I’ve carved large turkeys, beef roasts, chickens, lamb, and all manner of meat with it. It’s a general go-to knife for medium to large slicing jobs. A good one will even slice bread well.
Wood cutting boards are ideal, but they require some maintenance. Buy some mineral oil to condition them after washing and use. The wood is your choice–bamboo and acacia are popular and generally inexpensive. You will want several of these in varying sizes. Three is the absolute minimum: one small (about 10″ x 8″), one medium (probably 12″x 10″ or similar), and one large (16″ x 12″ or bigger). If you prepare a lot of meat, you will also want a carving board or butcher’s block.
I have no strong feelings about most brands of cutting board, and you can even find a local woodworker who makes them if you want something special. I own a Boos butcher block and absolutely love it.
Pots and Pans
General Brand Comments
Here’s another area where you can get by with less than you think. Some things are worth splurging on, and some aren’t. I personally have been on the same fairly cheap Kitchenaid set of pots since I started college [redacted] years ago and I consider myself an advanced cook who uses her equipment heavily. In contrast, I did splurge on my fry pans (a bit), since cheap fry pans can ruin food.
Generally, you can choose all stainless steel, stainless steel with an aluminum core, stainless steel with a copper core, or all copper. All-copper pots and pans will cost you a ton of money and require a ton of maintenance. It is true that they offer a superior heat conduction, but I personally don’t think the price is worth it. As far as the core goes, you’re unlikely to notice a huge difference as a casual home cook between the remaining three options if you buy a decent mid-grade set. Let your budget do the talking here.
Regarding cast iron: I recommend having a set of cast iron pans in addition to the metal ones. but the basic cook can get by without them.
I also know that in these circles, nonstick cookware is considered the devil’s work, or something like that. But realistically, for a basic or beginner cook, these things can really help you avoid kitchen mishaps as you learn to cook. I don’t see a problem starting out with perhaps a nonstick fry pan and using it to help you develop your skills. Vollrath is a fantastic brand, and you can get a good fry pan for about $40 here.
KitchenAid is a great basic brand; I still use mine. Calphalon is decent, but avoid their nonstick lines. If you’re interested in spending some money, All-Clad really is top of the line. I have a single 12″ fry pan of theirs, and it is worth the money. I think you can get by with cheaper pots and splurge on one or two good fry pans from All-Clad to call it good. I use the d5 line and love it; you don’t need to go fancier than that.
You can get by with only two saucepans if you like– a 4 qt. and a 2 qt. I recommend making sure you have well-fitting lids. Glass lids are nice but not necessary; my set has glass lids.
Aim for three of these: a 12″, 10″ and 8″. Here you can choose if you want to go with traditional or nonstick. I recommend the 12″ be traditional, and save the nonstick options for the smaller sizes (like perhaps scrambling eggs).
This is going to be one of your favorite kitchen tools. It’s good for soups, stocks, braising, and many more things. I definitely recommend this be enameled cast-iron. Le Cruset is the “fancy brand”, but a cheap option is absolutely fine. I snagged an off-brand set of two of these for $70 at Costco once. If you only buy one, get at least a 6 qt.
I recommend two rimmed and two rimless, in dimensions 18″x 13″. I have no brand preference.
Small Miscellaneous Tools
I have no real brand preferences for any of these; I generally buy OXO brand and they work out fine.
Have a couple sizes of these. All metal is good. I actually like buying mine here.
Wood or metal are good choices here if you’re avoiding plastic, but nylon can be ok as well. Aim for at least one ladle (metal), two standard cooking spoons, and two slotted spoons.
Here I do own both metal and plastic ones, though the plastic ones need replacing often. I’m still trying to decide what my ideal set looks like. You don’t want to use metal on nonstick cookware. Look for a head about 3″ wide and 5″ long, and get two. Also get at least two silicone or rubber flexible spatulas.
Other random items
- two whisks (metal)
- vegetable peeler
- microplane grater
- can opener
- fine-mesh strainer set (metal)
- colander (metal)
- oven mitt
- rolling pin (wood is fine for basics)
- dry measuring cup set
- liquid measuring cup set (1,2, and 4 cup)
- measuring spoon set
- instant read thermometer
In general, I’m assuming you won’t do much heavy baking, so I’ll leave off the cake pans. A 13″ x 9″ glass baking pan is a good all-purpose baking dish for most of your needs. Grab a muffin tin if you like (no brand preference) and perhaps a wire cooling rack or two. If you think you want to try some pies or quick breads, get pie plates (glass) or loaf pans (ceramic), but you can get by without those.
Here’s where the gadgets come in. You need almost none of the things marketed to you. Here are my basics:
Besides whipping up some protein shakes, you’d be surprised how versatile a blender can be. This is one area I strongly recommend splurging on a Vitamix. It is expensive, but absolutely worth it. I’ve burned through so many cheaper blenders, and the replacement costs will add up to far more than the lifetime of one Vitamix.
Look for a big one here, even if you don’t see the need (at least 12 cups.) I wish I could have a strong recommendation here, but unfortunately unless you’re willing to shell out hundreds (or thousands) for restaurant-grade processors, most of the brands out there are interchangeable and pretty cheap. I don’t really even like the Hamilton Beach one I have that much, but I can’t find anything I like better (at a price point I can swallow).
The Instant Pot is pretty handy, and it functions as a slow-cooker as well. I use mine fairly frequently for broths, rice, beans, etc. I think you can get by without it if your budget doesn’t allow for one (or you don’t have the storage space), but it’s a “nice to have”.
You don’t need a stand mixer unless you plan to do a bunch of baking.
The Air Fryer is a joke; it’s not “frying” anything. It’s a glorified convection oven. Avoid.
Countertop ovens/toasters are the user’s choice. If you don’t have an oven in your home, get one. If you do have an oven, you don’t really need one.
You really don’t need many tools to get started. If you’re new to cooking, don’t let the blogs and kitchen aisles in the store overwhelm you. The best chefs in the world don’t use half of those silly gadgets.
The brands I recommend are only recommended from my personal experience. As you cook more, you may switch brands and disagree with me. That’s fine; the best tools are the ones you use best. It’s also perfectly acceptable to buy these things in stages, or adjust this list to fit your personal cooking style. If you live alone, you may not need the 12″ fry pan, for example. The important thing is to get out there and start cooking. With practice, anyone can do it.