I’ve come a long way in the kitchen with regards to cookware and gadgets. When I started cooking I had a knife block that was about $30 total, hand-me-down all nonstick cookware, junky cutting boards, and about 300 nylon utensils (and yeah, I have retained way too many of those, too).
Below is a list of items that I, personally, deem to be essentials or extremely useful items. Of course everyone’s tastes and needs will differ, but here are mine. These items/brands are what I personally own and can vouch for, but of course you will want to shop around for what suits your needs most.
I use AllClad stainless steel (with the exception of one piece) and I absolute adore it. Of course, feel free to shop around for the brand that fits your needs and budget best. I have heard great things about Emerilware, which is made from AllClad manufacturers but is quite a bit more affordable.
You will want to cook almost everything in stainless pots and pans. While nonstick has come a long way in terms of its coating, there are very few things for which nonstick is actually a necessity (eggs, largely). When used properly (heated on its own, then heated with some oil or butter before adding the thing you are cooking), you shouldn’t have problems with sticking. Stainless steel provides even heat, a great sear, can go in the oven, deglazes beautifully, and can be washed in the dishwasher.
3-Quart Stainless-Steel Saute Pan with Lid: This is my most used pan, by far. It’s perfect for searing large pieces of meat (and making a pan sauce after), making one pot dishes, and even serves as my dipping station for my melomakarona. If you buy one stainless steel pan, make this it.
12″ Fry Pan/Skillet: This is definitely nice to have and I use mine quite a bit, specifically for searing/cooking smaller pieces of meat. Beyond 2-3 pieces, you will need to sear in batches. It doesn’t do anything the saute pan won’t do, but it’s nice to have if you don’t want to pull out the whole saute pan with lid, or you are cooking multiple items on the stovetop (as I often find myself doing). This is definitely used for a lot of side dishes (sauteed vegetables, beans, etc.).
3-Quart Covered Casserole: I use this a LOT. This is great for smaller batches of soups and stews, boiling just a few ounces of pasta, making rice or other grains, and boiling/mashing potatoes for 2 or 3 people.
Shallow Saucepan with Lid: I use this for pretty much all the grains (rice, bulgur, etc.) and it’s also good for its namesake, which is, to make sauces.
2 qt. covered sauce pan. Also great for making smaller batches of rice/grains and sauces. I use it a lot for making things like custards for ice cream, pastry cream, bechamel, etc.
12″ Covered Nonstick Fry Pan: Covered nonstick pan: This is great for one-dish meals (think chicken and rice or skillet meatballs and pasta) and of course you can use it without the lid for larger batches of eggs, fritters, etc.
12″ Cast Iron Skillet: Probably the best bang for your buck. This thing won’t cost you more than 30 bucks and it will last you a lifetime (and probably a few lifetimes after that). Good for anything from cornbread to searing steaks. The more you use it, the better it performs. Personally, I’m obsessed with mine and use it easily as often as my favorite stainless pan.
Goldtouch Bakeware: Hands down, the best bakeware. Worth the splurge (though it goes on sale multiple times per year).
Roaster or Lasagna Pan: Sure, this is great for lasagna, but it’s also my go-to roasting pan. It’s good for whole chickens or cut up ones, large amounts of vegetables or potatoes, and everything in between. Can be used on the stovetop, too, to make pan sauces and gravies post-roasting.
Stoneware Baking Dishes: For anything from casseroles to au gratin potatoes, pasta bakes to stuffed peppers.
Baking Stone or Bar Pan: This is great for making breads (or just reheating them), pizzas, scones, etc. You will never get your pizza so crispy and your bread so crusty with a regular ol’ pan, trust me.
Cookie Scoops (Various Sizes): These are great for cookies, obviously, but also nice for getting similarly sized meatballs, the same amount of frosting on each cupcake, etc.
I have all Wusthof knives and have been happy with them. But I do recommend testing knives out in person before you purchase them, to make sure they are comfortable in your hand. I cannot stress enough how much I recommend buying knives open stock. You really probably don’t need 6 steak knives that don’t match the rest of your flatware, or half the knives in a block. The last time I used the boning knife from that college knife block was when everything else was dirty and I was way too lazy to wash things. And what the point of two different sized serated knives is, I will never know.
Chef’s Knife or a Santoku: Chef’s knives and santokus do the same thing, which is basically everything. Whether you go with chef’s or santoku is a personal preference. I prefer chef’s. I actually recently bought a second chef’s knife, which has been great so I can keep one to chopping vegetables and the other raw meat, so I am not having to wash a knife in the midst of prepping.
Utility Knife: Though it’s not a paring knife, you can use it to pare. And you can also use it to make pockets in your chicken or even slice small pieces of cooked meat. It’s also good for slice and bake cookies.
Sharpening Steel: It is imperative to get your knives professionally sharpened, say, twice a year. But you can use a sharpening steel every time you use your knife to keep the edge sharp.
Come-Apart Kitchen Shears: From opening a package to trimming skin off chicken thighs, you are going to use these things all the time. You’ll want a pair that comes apart for easier cleaning.
Locking Tongs: The number one most used utensil in my kitchen. You actually may want to buy two or three!
Microplane Grater/Zester: This is one of those things I never thought to register for and now use so often. It’s perfect for grating cheese, nutmeg, fresh ginger, garlic, zesting citrus. It may seem like a unitasker when you first think about it, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth!
Wooden/Bamboo Spoons and Turners: These things are the best. Break up ground beef, use the turner to help you scrape up all the browned bits from meat when making a pan sauce, and just use for regular ol’ stirring.
Vegetable Peeler: I don’t care how awesome you are with that paring knife, don’t tell me you aren’t even quicker with a peeler! I have two because one is inevitably always dirty.
Garlic Press: I don’t use mine each time I need garlic, because most of the time I need chopped garlic, I already have my knife out chopping other things. But, this is good when you need a finer mince than you can (easily) get on a knife–I like it for things like tzatziki and meatballs.
Mesh Strainers (in a couple different sizes): Use them to drain pasta, rinse rice, push jam through them to make it seedless, sift flour and leavening agents together and strain your sauces. Another thing I use all.the.time.
Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls: These are nonreactive so in addition to being good for mixing (duh), they are also great for marinating. Stick one over some simmering water to act as a double boiler, too.
Salad Spinner: In addition to making washing/drying lettuce so much easier, it’s also great for herbs and other greens. As a bonus, you can store whatever you spin in there and I have found it lasts longer. We love having washed, chopped salad greens ready to pack in the morning for lunches.
KitchenAid Mixer: Even as a person who doesn’t bake often, I love my KA. And I love it even more during the holidays when I am doing a boatload of baking.
Food Processor (9+ Cups): I don’t know how I lived without this thing. I use it to make pesto all the time. It’s great for making salsas and I use it bi-monthly for making homemade granola bars. Before I had an immersion blender, it was my go to for pureeing soups.
Mini-Prep Processor: Perfect for chopping an onion when you don’t feel like using a knife (or parsley. Or garlic.), for small batches of pesto, and emulsifying dressings.
Stick/Immersion Blender: This is great for smoothies and pureeing soups and sauces. It’s so much easier than trying to transfer a hot pot of soup to a food processor!
Citrus Juicer: My life changed when I was able to stop juicing large amounts of citrus in one of those over-the-cup plastic things.