Keeping that in mind, I went through my kitchen and made a list of what I think are essentials—and why. Your list may differ, because everyone cooks differently—and what’s the point of having a garlic press if you can’t stand garlic? See my other article on Kitchen Equipment Basics for information on knives, pots, and pans.
Cookbook: A good basic cookbook is a necessity. The new edition of The Joy of Cooking has just been released, and I like it a lot. It’s clear, concise, and doesn’t assume you know anything. It’s hardback and heavy, but worth it. If for some reason you just don’t like this book, look for a general cookbook with a variety of recipes, and clear instructions that don’t call for all sorts of exotic ingredients you won’t use again for ages. A good cookbook will also have all the ingredients on one page, with the entire recipe presented on one page or on facing pages. If you don’t have to flip pages while cooking, it’s a lot easier to follow the recipe.
Two high-quality plastic cutting boards: One for meat and one for veggies. Colored plastic allows you to color code each board’s use. Use one color only for cutting meats, and another only for fruits and veggies, to avoid cross-contamination. Plastic boards can also be run through the dishwasher, as an alternative to washing them with hot soap and water.
Kitchen timer: This is a real essential, since timing is everything. A model that incorporates two separate timers is very useful. I often have two dishes with different cooking times going simultaneously. If you have a microwave, you’ll definitely use one of the timers for whatever you’re cooking in it.
Strainer/colander: If you have a microwave steamer basket that’s large enough, you can use that just as easily.
Garlic press: You only need this if you like garlic. Get a nice heavy one.
Manual citrus juicer with reservoir: You can use a spoon to juice a lemon or orange, but it won’t trap the pips or the pulp. I like models with a reservoir, which makes it easier to judge how much juice you have. Plastic models are fine, and they’re easy to find. Target has one with a plastic top and glass reservoir for under $3.
Can opener: Call me old fashioned, but I hate electric can openers. I think they’re unsanitary and not worth the money.
Vegetable peeler: Good for slicing off curls of Parmesan cheese or chocolate from a block, as well as peeling veggies.
Wooden spoons: Get at least two: one that’s long, and one that’s shorter. If your local hardware store has a home section, take a look there. I’ve found long, sturdy spoons for less than $3 each. I’ve tried the plastic variety, and I don’t care for them. They just sound and feel wrong to me.
Small whisk: Good for beating eggs, dissolving powder into water, and removing lumps from sauces!
Spatulas: Get a metal one for flipping food, and a smaller silicon version for scraping ingredients out of bowls. Silicon is good because it’s heat resistant, usually to about 400 degrees.
Tongs: If you have the space, get one small pair, and one longer (expandable is good) pair. I have a seven-inch pair of tongs that I use all the time, for cooking and serving.
Microplane grater: I love these, and they now come in a variety of perforation sizes, so you have a choice of how fine or coarse you want to grate. They’re super sharp and widely available.
Glass bowls: A set of three is optimum. Pyrex makes a good set.
Small Pyrex ramekins: I pre-measure ingredients for recipes before I begin combining them. It keeps the ingredients organized, and ensures that I don’t forget anything once I’ve started cooking. Ramekins also make great little dessert dishes.
Measuring spoons/measuring cups: Good Chef makes a set of four nesting cups, some with measuring spoons incorporated into the handles, that can help conserve space, if you don’t have too much of it. Available in supermarkets. If you’re feeling spendy, there are also sets of collapsible silicon cups that come in great colors, for about $20.
Pyrex two-cup measuring cup: Lots of measuring capacity, good for measuring liquids. It also makes a good spoon and spatula holder, once you’ve finished measuring ingredients and have begun cooking.
Paper towel holder: I’ve been known to spill things, occasionally, and I hate wet edges on my unused paper towels.
Large slotted spoon and large regular spoon: Available in supermarkets.
Splatter guard: Makes cleaning up a lot easier, if you’re cooking anything that splatters, like bacon. Available in supermarkets.