As predictable as a Thanksgiving turkey, kitchen products come along promising to make it easier to get dinner on the table. The hand-held mixer is indispensable for soups and the rice cooker, for some reason, makes the preparation of perfect rice seem less intimidating. The KitchenAid Stand Mixer—God, please let me inherit, win, or receive one someday—makes you feel like you could bake like Barefoot Contessa.
However, most gizmos lose their luster: the electric carving knife, the pizza stone, and—within a few years, I predict—the Panini press. But some essentials remain essential just the way they are. They don’t need to be reinvented or rethought. They don’t need a fresh look or a new marketing angle. They make it easier to turn raw materials into yummy food and that’s all that matters.
“They are tried and true, work very well, and after all these years can’t seem to be improved upon,” says Mary Moore, founder and CEO of The Cook’s Warehouse, a trio of Atlanta cookware stores that are places of worship among foodies. “Customers go for electrics for larger tasks, but these items either can’t or haven’t been electrified because that is what people are used to. And, they just work.”
1. Cast iron skillet
Great cooks put their cast iron skillets in their wills. They get better with age. No two are exactly alike. They’re versatile. And you really can’t make cornbread without one.
Those of us who toiled in the restaurant business prefer a simple wine key. There are other options, such as the butterfly opener, but they can be fiddly and hog precious drawer space.
3. Measuring cups and spoons
The best ones have the quantity engraved, not painted on. The paint will chip and fade over time. Multiple sets are good to have, because the one you use the most, such as the half-cup, will always be in the dishwasher. Measuring cups and spoons haven’t gone high tech, but the new ones made from silicon take up less storage space, Moore says.
4. Pizza cutter
Parents of toddlers rank this at the top. It’s indispensable for cutting anything from sandwiches to waffles into toddler-size bites. It’s safer to have around than a knife. Even if you don’t have kids, a pizza cutter is great for whipping up stylish appetizers.
5. Olive pitter
This is one of Moore’s surprise favorites. The best olives tend to come with pits and just a few sliced olives can add zing to pasta, rice, or salad. This gizmo keeps your good olives from lingering in the fridge. Also useful for pitting cherries.
The most versatile colander has small holes to accommodate the smallest pasta, like orzo. Colanders are helpful for washing produce and draining the oil from a heavy take-out Chinese dish. An attractive, stainless steel colander can serve as a fruit basket when otherwise not in use.
7. Wooden spoons
You can’t have too many. “They’re like a favorite, comfy sweater,” Moore says, adding that some techniques require a wooden spoon. For example, when making custard sauce, a wooden spoon is better than a whisk to avoid bubbles.
Speaking of whisks, there’s something satisfying about turning heavy cream into billowy whipped cream or creating an emulsified balsamic vinaigrette.
9. Cutting boards
Concerns about food safety and proper cleaning make headlines, but cooking enthusiasts develop strong bonds with their durable cutting boards. Some are stylish enough to double as serving platters for fruit and cheese. Small cutting boards are handy for quick tasks like cutting up limes for cocktails.
You can’t make a grilled cheese without one. Or flip pancakes. Or make burgers. In short, some of the best comfort foods exist largely because of the humble spatula. There’s another winner of a low-tech tool often referred to as a spatula: the plate scraper. If you want to get that last bit of peanut butter or preserves out of the jar, the scraper is your friend.
It’s hard to cut this list off at ten. As honorable mentions, here are some of Moore’s favorites. Among simple tools, she loves the strawberry huller, the butter curler, the apple peeler, the sifter, and the sandwich spreader. Among clever tools: the Amazing EZ Roll Garlic Peeler and the green bean frencher. And for fun, the chocolate and ice chipper, described in a catalog as a “wicked-looking instrument.”
Though avid cooks have most of these items, they’re still safe bets for gifts, because you can generally use more than one. And for someone who doesn’t cook much, but swears she’s going to cut back on dining out, these are good places to start for getting a working kitchen off and running.