If you just moved into your first place with a kitchen, or finally decided that you want to learn how to cook for yourself, equipping yourself with the right tools for the job can seem like a daunting task.  Here is a list of the top 10 essential kitchen tools every home kitchen should not be without.

1)      8 " Chef’s Knife.  The number one mistake new homeowners make when shopping for their kitchen is to be suckered into thinking that they need to buy one of those 15 piece knife sets, complete with fancy knife block to elegantly hold each piece atop the counter.  Do not  think that you are someday going to need all those different knives – and that you might as well buy them all now for half the price you would pay for each piece individually.  The truth is that 95% of all cutting tasks can be done with one good chef’s knife, and the reason stores so prominently advertise and display knife block sets is that they know that if they were to suggest starting with one or two individual knifes, most customers would find no reason to later come back and add to their collection.  And if you are going to spend less overall, why not pay a little more for quality.  With a properly honed and sharpened chef’s knife you should be able to dice an onion without shedding a tear.  Make sure you have a cutting board (I like wood, but you should also get a plastic one if you plan on cutting raw poultry), and consider getting a magnetic strip to keep you knife on the wall, saving counter space and keeping your knife safe and readily available.  With proper care and a little love, a good chef’s knife will be your best friend in the kitchen for years to come.

2)      10 " Cast-Iron Skillet.  If you only buy one pan you can’t do much better than cast-iron.  Not only is cast-iron ridiculously cheap, but with just a minimal amount of care it will last your entire lifetime (and your children’s lifetime).  The density and heaviness (perhaps the only turn-off) of cast-iron ensures your skillet will heat evenly and retain heat longer – a feature some people pay hundreds of dollars for in über heat-conducting copper cookware (which, by the way, requires more upkeep than cast-iron).  The versatility of cast-iron is another reason it should be considered a home-kitchen essential: not only can you sear a steak, but in the same naturally non-stick skillet you can fry a perfect sunny side up egg.  You want that egg over easy? Just set it on top of the steak and move the whole skillet from the stove-top to directly under your oven’s broiler for a minute - the skillet can handle stove-top, oven, or even camp fire cooking.  Unlike delicate Teflon coated non-stick pans, cast-iron will also stand up to metal utensils, so feel free to go at your steak and eggs with knife and fork directly from the skillet.  Make sure to season your cast-iron two to three times a year.

3)      Sturdy Wooden Spoon.  When it comes down to actually handling the food you are cooking, the wooden spoon is the work-horse equivalent to the Chef’s Knife in the field of food preparation.  Wood can be applied to any cooking surface, is relatively cheap, and just plain has more character than other options out there.  With its versatility you can stir soups, mix stews, turn, flip, sauté, and taste your food.  There is nothing wrong with buying your wooden spoon in a set – consider getting one with a spatula, a slotted metal spoon, and perhaps a ladle – but in any case your wooden spoon should be sturdy enough that the average person wouldn’t be able to break it in half with two hands.

4)      Large Stock-Pot W/ Lid.  While the above three tools are your desert island essentials, on their own they would make for a rather sparse and limited home kitchen.  The next cooking vessel you’re going to want is a large stock-pot, preferably one that comes with a tight fitting lid.  For most jobs a large pot will work just as well as a smaller one (albeit, with a bit more clean up), so consider how much space you have and how many people you will typically be cooking for when you choose how big a pot to buy.  It’s better to have extra space than to start making a recipe only to find out that not everything will fit into your cooking vessel.  A large stock-pot (with lid), along with the cast-iron skillet you already picked up, is enough to get you through 99% of everyday home cooked meals.  The versatility of a stock-pot will make up for all the area’s your skillet just isn’t designed to handle: make soups, stews, sauces, boil water, cook pasta or rice, heat up some oil and you’ve got yourself a deep fryer (for this I would recommend getting a candy thermometer to regulate temperature, a spider to retrieve your food, and a splatter guard to ensure safety and minimal clean-up). 

5)      Measuring Cups and Spoons.  If you plan on following any recipes, chances are you will be measuring food items in teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups.  I would really recommend spending a few dollars extra and getting some high-quality stainless steel.  Every plastic set I’ve ever bought has broken, cracked, or melted (for a couple of years I had very little counter space adjacent to my stove…).  Cheaper metal sets tend to bend or warp, and what is the point of a warped measuring spoon if it cannot accurately measure?  Look for a set that comes with a metal ring to keep each cup or spoon together with the set.  Also try to find cups and spoons that can rest upright without having to be held – that way you can measure out your ingredients before you start cooking and leave them in the cups or spoons until they are ready to be used.

6)      Large Mixing Bowl.  You should either buy a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl – avoid plastic.  Once again, heavy-duty stainless steel is the best bet if you are only going to buy one.  Not only does stainless steel have virtually no chance of breaking, but it also conducts heat well (place it in the freezer for 20 minutes prior to making home-made whipped cream).  Look for a sturdy bowl with a rounded bottom that can rest on top of your stock-pot and you’ve got yourself a double boiler in which you can melt chocolate or make light and fluffy scrambled eggs (avoid bowls with non-slip silicone bottoms if you plan on using it over any heat).

7)      Whisk.  These days, whisks come in all shapes and sizes, but what you really want is just a standard, medium-large balloon whisk.  Whisks are more prone to being bent out of shape than any other item on this list, so above all in this case, make sure you buy one sturdy enough to hold its form.  Along with whipped cream and scrambled eggs, a good whisk is indispensable if you plan on doing any baking (along with measuring cups/spoons and a large mixing bowl).

8)      Box Grater.  While your chef’s knife can slice, chop, dice, Chiffonade, and julienne, what it cannot do is shred and grate.  Look for a four sided (i.e. sturdy) box grater with large holes on one side, small to medium holes on another, and tiny holes on the third.  The first two can be used to shred or grate cheese (make long strokes for a shred and a quick, back and forth motion for a grate), or to shred vegetable like potatoes (hash browns anyone?), while the tiny holes can be used to either grate harder cheeses like parmesan, spices like fresh nutmeg, or to zest citrus (if you find yourself using this last side often then you should consider picking up a micro-plane).  Additionally, some box graters come with a single, wide hole on the fourth side which can be used to make uniform slices—kind of like a non-adjustable mandolin (don’t sacrifice quality for this last feature).

9)      Metal Tongs.  Do not underestimate the value of a decent pair of tongs.  You should think of them as a 10-12" inch extension of your own arm, and one that is impervious to heat… enough said.

10)   Salad Spinner.  If you eat salads or vegetables often a salad spinner is a must have.  In fact, basically anything that needs to be washed and/or dried can be put in a salad spinner.  Look for one with separate bowl, basket, and lid, that way the basket can be taken out and used as a colander (or if you want to soak an item you can do it directly in the salad spinner, subsequently lifting the basket directly out), and the bowl (with lid) can be used for serving or storage.

Well, that’s it for the top 10 most essential kitchen tools.  There is a lot on the list, but a lot more you will most likely find essential as well.  For more ideas, here are my top 5 runners-up:

1)      Bread Knife

2)      Swiss Peeler

3)      Paring Knife

4)      Meat Thermometer

5)      Stainless Steel Sheet Pans