Culinary scientists, authors, and hosts of “America's Test Kitchen,” Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison, share their kitchen must-haves.
Bridget Lancaster's Picks:
If I only knew then what I know now...I would have bought more core kitchen equipment, and fewer single-use gadgets (like a tubular pasta maker).
1. An 8-inch chef's knife. A great quality knife that is comfortable to hold and takes a sharp blade will make kitchen work fast and easy. A great knife doesn't need to be expensive, either. Our favorite is the Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef's Knife, which retails for around $45.
2. A knife sharpener. Whether you buy a manual sharpener or invest in an electric model, you need to keep your knives sharpened for them to cut through food cleanly. One to consider: Chef's Choice Diamond Sharpener Model #316 ($79.99).
3. A high-quality cutting board. You don't want to dull your knives quickly on a hard surface like granite or marble. Polypropylene (plastic) or wooden boards like Proteak Edge Grain ($94.95) are much kinder to your knife blade. In terms of quick cleanup and convenience, you can't beat a plastic cutting board like OXO Good Grips ($24.95), which is lightweight and can go into the dishwasher.
4. It's a good idea to save your money and make coffee at home, and it's hard to beat the flavor of coffee made in a French press. I prefer a thermal French press like the Bodum 8-Cup Double Wall Columbia Coffee Maker($69.99), as it will keep the coffee hot for up to an hour.
5. A digital scale is useful for home bakers. They don't take up a lot of space, and they ensure accurate measuring for recipes. The OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale with Pull-Out Display ($49.95) has a wide platform so that you can weigh out things in larger mixing bowls.
6. We can't cook without an instant-read thermometer, and it doesn't have to be expensive. The Thermoworks Thermopop is spot-on accurate and only costs $29.
Julia Collin Davison's Picks:
1. An enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. This pot is crucial! You can use it to boil pasta, make a soup or stew, braise pieces of chicken, deep-fry ANYTHING, roast chickens or other large cuts of meat, steam/blanch vegetables, make rice…I could go on for days. If you want to invest in the only Dutch oven you'll ever need for the rest of your life, be ready to throw down over $350 on a Le Creuset. We use Le Creuset's 7 1/4-Quart Round French (Dutch) Oven in the Test Kitchen. If you're not ready to invest, however, don't worry; a Lodge 6-Quart Enameled Cast-Iron Dutch Oven will cost you less than $80.
2. A 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Seasoning your own cast-iron skillet from an early age is like building a 401K — the more you do it now, the better off you'll be down the road. Not only can skillets be used for a million different things, but they are also nearly impossible to ruin. They are, in fact, the original metal cooking pan that dates back to China in the 6th century BCE. And given that a good one will cost you less than $40, you don't have to overthink this purchase. Just do it. (We use Lodge Cast-Iron Skillets in the Test Kitchen.)
3. One huge stainless-steel prep bowl. OK — a huge prep bowl can be hard to store if your kitchen is tiny (I store mine on top of my refrigerator) but having one will change your life. And as one of my young colleagues said, “Making a salad in a big bowl is just clutch.” Buy a metal bowl because it will never chip or break, and make sure it is at least 12 quarts. We recommend Vollrath Economy Mixing Bowls, about $20 for the 13-quart size.
4. A killer blender. Buy it once and buy it right. There are loads of cheap options on the market, but they're all just a waste of money. Besides needing a blender for cocktails and smoothies (I mean, do you need more reasons?) they're perfect for soups, sauces, crushing ice, and even making breadcrumbs from a single slice of bread. If you're willing to spend some serious dough on it, go for the ultimate Vitamix 5200 Series Blender (at roughly $450). For a less expensive but still awesome option, go for the Breville Hemisphere Control Blender (about $200).
5. A salad spinner. This is one of those essential gadgets that you don't realize you need until it's too late. Not only is it for salad greens, but it's also ideal for berries, grapes, kale, leeks, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, herbs, and more. Cooking Tip: Prep the vegetables first, then wash them. (We use OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner, $29.95, in the Test Kitchen.)
6. Tongs. Tongs are not only useful, but they also make you look cool. You'll use them for flipping food over in the skillet, stirring pots, grabbing things off the top shelf, and pulling hot pans out of the oven. Also, learning how to open a beer bottle with tongs is pure ninja. (We use OXO Good Grips 12-Inch Locking Tongs, $14.99, in the Test Kitchen.)
Find more (much more) info on equipment, ingredients, shopping, and recipes in What Good Cooks Know: 20 Years of Test Kitchen Expertise in One Essential Handbook, by the Editors at America's Test Kitchen (America's Test Kitchen, distributed by Penguin Random House Publisher Services).