Whether you’re a seasoned kitchen veteran or just starting out in a brand new apartment, we could all use a little help getting organized. And with so many new kitchen gadgets out there, it’s sometimes hard to tell what kitchen items are absolute must haves and which you can stand to go without.
So which of the many cooking items out there are kitchen essentials, aka absolute kitchen necessities, which are helpful cooking tools, and which are just superfluous kitchen gadgets? This ultimate kitchen essentials list is designed to cover kitchen utensils and equipment, and serve as a reference guide to the kitchen novice, the kitchen gadget expert, and everyone in between.
Before we begin, a word of acknowledgement and clarification. Because cooking is such a personal experience, everyone’s kitchen essentials list is going to look a little different. This is one of the things that makes cooking so beautiful. It’s also why this kitchen essentials list takes a moment with each item so that you can decide for yourself if the kitchen tool in question has a place in your kitchen or not.
Here is the ultimate kitchen essentials checklist, alphabetized.
1. Bacon Grease Container
A good bacon grease container may not be essential, but if you have the space it will definitely up your kitchen game. As you probably already know, bacon fat is often used to impart foods with delicious flavor, and for that reason, people have been saving bacon drippings for years.
And until recently, bacon drippings were usually stored in soup cans or yogurt containers (which again, if you don’t have the space, are perfectly fine options). That said, there are some great bacon grease containers out there that will both strain and store your bacon fat, readying that flavor-packed goodness for a new life.
If you want to learn more about bacon grease containers, you might want to check out the 6 Best Bacon Grease Containers. Or, you can just take my word for it that this Briink Collective – Ceramic Bacon Grease Container is the way to go.
2. Baking Sheet
A good baking sheet might just be one of the most versatile items in your kitchen. Far from being a single use item, baking sheets definitely aren’t just for cookies anymore. In fact, chefs have long looked to baking sheets for roasting vegetables, toasting nuts, and even making pizzas.
No need to break the bank on this one. A solid but simple rimmed aluminum baking sheet, like this one, is all you need.
3. Bamboo Steamer
Another example of an item that may seem niche, but is in fact quite versatile, is a good bamboo steamer. Hear me out on this one.
Even if you’ve never used a steamer in your life, you’ll probably find these bamboo steamers exceptionally easy to use. They’re obviously perfect for steaming foods like dumplings, buns and vegetables. But they’re also great for reheating foods, like rice, which is fantastic if you’re trying to avoid the microwave, like me.
Again, for more information on bamboo steamers you can check out the 7 Best Bamboo Steamers and 5 Tips for How to Use Them. Or, you can go straight to the best bamboo steamer on the market by clicking below.
Every kitchen should have a good blender, or at the very least, a food processor (see below for an explanation of what makes a blender different from a food processor). You’ll need a blender for everything from soups to desserts, from hummus to margaritas.
That said, blenders are some of the most variable items out there, ranging in price from just about $20 for a small, single use smoothie blender, to just over $500 for a Vitamix Professional Series 750 (the holy grail of blenders).
When deciding which blender to get, consider how often you’ll need it, what you’ll use it for (crushing ice, blending chickpeas?), and how much space you have for storage. I’ve found the perfect combination of power and space saving efficiency in the Nutribullet, and don’t think I’ll ever go back.
5. Bread Knife
Bread knives make up one third of the essential knife triumvirate that I think every kitchen needs – a good chef’s knife, a small utility knife, and a bread knife. But what’s that you say? You don’t really buy unsliced bread?
The serrations on a bread knife aren’t just for crusty loaves. A bread knife is also excellent for cutting tomatoes, cakes and even certain kinds of citrus.
6. Broiler Pan
A broiler pan is actually a set of two nested trays. The top tray has slots that let fats and liquids drain to the lower chamber.
Food is placed on the top tray, and the two tier design prevents roasts from cooking in their own juices. This is critical to keeping foods crispy!
While I wouldn’t consider a broiler pan to be absolutely essential to a starter kitchen – you can use a baking tray as a substitute, in a pinch – it’s certainly a helpful item to have. And luckily, there’s even a convenient drawer in most ovens where the broiler pan lives.
For more info, check out the ultimate guide to broiler pans.
7. Can Opener
Not too much territory to cover here. If you ever plan to cook, you need a proper can opener. That’s it, you just need one.
Here’s a cheapie that’ll do the job.
Here’s a high end model that’s ergonomic, easy to use, and moderately embarrassing. And, it’ll do the job.
8. Cast Iron Skillet
When it comes to cast iron, there are a few directions you could go. First, you can forgo a cast iron skillet entirely…that is allowed, actually. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you, and that’s ok.
That said, cast iron can just do things that other cookware can’t. It’s fantastic for stove-top to oven recipes, baking, and unmatched for getting a good sear on your proteins. Cast iron can get super hot, and holds heat like no other.
If you do decide to add a cast iron skillet to your kitchen, you have one major decision to make: vintage or not? There are significant advantages to vintage cast iron, but it’s somewhat harder to find and surprisingly, perhaps even more expensive than something new.
Newer cast iron can be very high in quality, like if you go with Le Cresuet or Staub, but there’s also no need to go super high end. A simple, yet solid, skillet from Lodge is always a smart investment.
9. Cheese Grater
A cheese grater is another one of those essential kitchen tools that you can’t do without. There’s really no way to shred cheese without one.
I hate single use items in the kitchen, and luckily, a cheese grater can do more than grate cheese. Cheese graters can also be used to shred potatoes for latkes, and if you have a fine enough grater, it can be used to zest citrus and grate ginger.
10. Chef’s Knife
A decent chef’s knife is without a doubt top five in terms of kitchen essentials. Chef’s knives can do pretty much everything. They are the workhorses of any kitchen. I use my chef’s knife every single day, and I can’t imagine life in the kitchen without it.
In part because they’re so ubiquitous and necessary, chef’s knives also range dramatically in price and quality. There are loads of chef’s knives on the market for under $20, but as you might guess, most of these knives are pretty terrible. They snap, can’t hold an edge, and dull quickly.
If there is one kitchen necessity worth investing in more than any other, it’s a halfway decent chef’s knife. I’m not talking about shelling out – you don’t need to get a $300 Shun – but you’ll probably want to spend somewhere between $60 and $100.
For some assistance in picking the right chef’s knife for you, check out the Best Chef’s Knives Under $100.
A cleaver knife is a useful tool to have if you’re butchering a chicken or cutting through relatively soft bone. And like a lot of other items in your kitchen, a cleaver is pretty versatile.
I actually find myself using a cleaver on hard vegetables and sweet potatoes more than I do meat. They’re built to have some heft to them, so that when you swing down with the blade there’s no question you’ll be getting through that bone. But most cleavers also hold an edge quite well.
I have an old Regent Sherwood Japanese cleaver that I once found in a friend’s basement. It’s fantastic!
12. Compost Bin
Compost bins may not be essential, but wouldn’t the world be a better place if we considered them as such? When I say compost bin, I’m not talking about a huge outdoor composter. Rather, I’m referring to countertop compost bins for leftover salad and food scraps.
Your kitchen may not be empty without a compost bin, but you’ll improve your karma by starting to throw your food scraps in one.
13. Cutting Board
If you plan on chopping, slicing or dicing anything, you’ll obviously need a cutting board. There’s no good way around this.
Cutting boards are most often made from wood or plastic, though I prefer the former. Bamboo cutting boards are pretty decent as well. The only thing that I strongly advise against is a glass or ceramic cutting board.
Glass cutting boards – besides being pretty difficult to use (they slide around) – will absolutely destroy your knives. Sliding your knife across a ceramic surface, or worse, chopping down on glass, will blunt the blade and may even cause it to chip. You actually need a cutting board to have a little give, just ever so much, and glass and ceramic provide none of that.
14. Fish Spatula
Fish spatulas are long, flexible tools with a very fine edge that’s used to get under and manipulate – you guessed it – fish. The thin, typically angled edge and flexibility is great for delicate items, and especially for unsticking fish skin from the pan.
Of course, fish spatulas can be used for things other than fish. But remember, these things are delicate. Meaning, you won’t be using a fish spatula to flip quarter pounders on the barbeque.
There are plenty of inexpensive fish spatulas on the market, but the problem is they don’t really have the flexibility that you need. They bend, but don’t spring back into place. If you want a good fish spatula that will perform as it should, I’d recommend this razor thin Wüsthof.
15. Food Processor
Alright, if you have a blender (see above) you may not need a food processor. And vice versa, if you have a food processor, you may not need a blender. But keep in mind that these appliances actually do different things.
While a blender is all about yielding smooth, uniform liquids and solutions, food processors are more versatile. They can be used to chop and dice, and yes, they’ll blend as well. Food processors typically have slower settings than blenders, and may even come with multiple attachments.
16. Garlic Press
Anthrony Bourdain has a famous quote about garlic presses that I’ve decided to refrain from including here. Let’s just say it isn’t a favorable review of this kitchen gadget cherished by many. Truth is, garlic presses don’t yield the same quality result as a freshly, hand-minced clove. But they’re convenient, oh so convenient.
If your knife skills aren’t quite up to the task to produce a finely minced, near purée, a garlic press is the next best thing. Don’t have a ton of grip strength? Try this rocking garlic press instead.
I use my reversible griddle all the time, and not just for pancakes. In fact, I’ve gone weeks at a time just leaving the griddle on the stovetop. Once you get used to cooking on one, they’re actually incredibly convenient, in addition to being fun.
A griddle may not be necessary, but it’s a fun piece to own if you have the space.
One tip though: If you get a griddle, you might as well make it reversible, like the one I linked to above. The flat side is great for things like pancakes, and the textured side is fantastic for getting those classic char lines on a steak or piece of chicken.
18. Hand Towels
Hand towels are essential to keeping your work station clean. You’ve probably noticed that chefs keep a towel or two attached to their waist at all times, which they use to both wipe their hands and clean their counter and/or cutting board.
Keeping your station clean and tidy makes for a more pleasant cooking experience, not to mention, better food. But if you’re constantly wiping your station, those towels will get soiled rather quickly.
If you’re an everyday chef, it’s essential to keep about a dozen hand towels in your pantry, ready to be swapped in. And even if you cook less frequently, you’ll probably still need about six. No need to get super fancy here, this large pack of Classic Kitchen Towels, which happen to be 100% cotton, will do the trick.
Pretty self explanatory with this one – if you have soup and would like to serve it without dripping liquid absolutely everywhere, you’ll need a ladle. Like some other items on this list, a ladle is essential, but it’s not exactly an item that you need to break the bank on.
20. Lemon Juicer
You can squeeze lemons and limes by hand, but you’ll never get a juice yield like you will from a lemon juicer, and you’ll probably end up getting seeds in your juice. Oh, and your hands will be covered in citrus.
A lemon juicer may not be essential, but it’s certainly nice to have. I cook with a lot of citrus (and use lemon as garnish) and use mine almost every day.
21. Measuring Cups
Measuring cups are essential if you want to do any kind of baking whatsoever. People say that cooking is an art, and baking is a science. That couldn’t be more true.
There are those of us who never measure in the kitchen, and things always turn out just fine (thinking of my mother-in-law here, who I think just feels quantities in her bones). I’m certainly not like this in the kitchen, and depend on measuring cups and spoons quite regularly.
My advice? Get a nice set of stainless steel measuring cups. They’re nicer than plastic and will last forever.
22. Meat Tenderizer
Meat tenderizers are more or less single use items, and I won’t even try to argue that they’re not. Cards on the table here, a meat tenderizer is not essential to every kitchen. They’re just not. But if you cook a lot of meat and want to step your game up without too much effort, invest in a good meat tenderizer.
The term “meat tenderizer” actually refers to two different tools, and at this point it’s used interchangeably. That is to say, meat tenderizers can either look like little mallets (these are designed to flatten meat and chicken, to make a nice piccata, for example), or as perforators, which pierce the meat so that the protein can breath and absorb flavor.
I break down more differences and serve up my recommendations here, in the 7 Best Meat Tenderizers.
23. Meat Thermometer
Let’s put the meat thermometer in the same category of pseudo-essential kitchen tools in which we placed the meat tenderizer, above. Meat thermometers aren’t required kitchen gadgets, but they certainly can help in upping your cooking game.
Nobody wants to cut into a nice piece of steak or chicken to check if it’s cooked before serving, ruining presentation and worse, losing precious juices. Unless you can judge doneness perfectly by sight or feel alone, you’ll need a meat thermometer.
This meat thermometer from ThermoPro is easy to use, accurate, and under $15.
A microplane is basically a fine grater, the other difference being that it’s typically held in the air during use, rather than being rested on a cutting board. So as you might have guessed by now, a microplane isn’t absolutely essential to the kitchen, so long as you have a normal grater, of course.
But there are a few benefits to having a microplane. First, they’re far more versatile than large cheese graters, meaning you can move around with it, and zest over different surfaces. Second, they just work a bit better for zesting than a normal cheese grater, since that is after all what they’re designed to do.
25. Mixing Bowls
Mixing bowls are absolutely essential to the kitchen and so very versatile. They can be used to mix pretty much anything, from cake batter to salads. They can be used for proofing bread doughs, and are also great for marinating proteins.
Mixing bowls also come in all sizes, and usually in a set of three or more. I’d strongly recommend getting a set of at least three, with lids. And while they come in ceramic, it’s probably a good idea to go for something a bit lighter.
Ceramic is nice, but it’s also delicate. As more of a prep tool, you’ll want mixing bowls that you can move around quickly, and that won’t break when you knock them into things. This simple set of stainless steel mixing bowls (with lids) is perfect.
26. Mixing Spoons
Mixing spoons are another kitchen essential, though perhaps slightly less versatile as compared to the omnipresent mixing bowl above. But really, everything that I said about mixing bowls above applies also to mixing spoons, with one exception – material. Get wooden mixing spoons!
They come in all sizes, usually in sets, and it’s probably a good idea to go light and easy over heavy – do they even make ceramic spoons? Wood is a great option here. It’s a light material, it’s strong, and it won’t scratch cooking surfaces.
This set of wooden mixing spoons is inexpensive and does the trick.
27. Omelette Pan
You might at first turn your nose up at this suggestion, but hear me out. An omelette pan isn’t just for omelettes. In fact, an omelette pan is really just a normal, small non-stick skillet.
I tend to think of my omelette pans in the same way that I think about a good chef’s knife, as an adaptable, multifaceted tool that should be built tough, because I’ll probably be using it every day.
The wide, flat bottoms and non-stick surfaces of most omelette pans make them incredibly versatile. From cooking eggs to sauteing vegetables to searing proteins, these pans are the workhorses of the stove top.
There are tons of omelette pans on the market. Check out the best ones, here.
28. Pot Holders
Pot holders are helpful, but not entirely critical to your kitchen essentials list. While you’ll probably need something handy to prevent burns, you can also always use a kitchen towel.
That said, pot holders are slightly more convenient, and come in a variety of materials, from elegant cotton to utilitarian silicone gloves.
29. Rolling Pin
This one is funny, because a rolling pin is probably the one item on this list of kitchen essentials that has a well known substitute – the infamous wine bottle! Many of us have probably used a wine bottle at some point or another in lieu of a rolling pin. And hey, it did the job, but it probably wasn’t great.
Wine bottles slip and break, and to be honest it’s not always pleasant to serve wine out of a buttery and/or flour coated bottle. Time to get a rolling pin. I’ve come to really appreciate these simple, French style rolling pins. They’re elegant and also store nicely.
30. Sauté Pan
Having a good sauté pan is critical to a well rounded kitchen. These large, high walled pans are fantastic for searing proteins, and even better for reducing sauces and broths. And many of these pans can easily go from stovetop to oven, making them – like omelette pans – total work horses of the kitchen.
Whether you regularly cook with a sauté pan or are just curious, there is something here for you. Here are the five best sauté pans on the market.
31. Serrated Knife
Serrated knives are my secret weapons in the kitchen. And that’s because serrated knives are ideal for slicing through delicate foods with tough exteriors, items like bread, tomatoes and even some types of citrus. Without a doubt, at least one serrated knife is a must have in any well stocked kitchen.
I’m a big fan of Mercer Cutlery for affordable knives. This serrated knife from Mercer is made from high carbon steel, and has a full, triple riveted tang. Mercer Cutlery is basically the highest quality that you can get at such a low price point.
32. Sharpening Stone
If you aren’t willing to shell out every six months to have your knives professionally sharpened, a decent sharpening stone is critical to your kitchen toolkit. Sharpening stones are essential tools that can be used to return sharp edges to old knives, and moreover, they’re indispensable to maintaining a high level of performance that keeps your knives ready for action.
Sharpening stones range in application and price, but there are plenty of options for all of your sharpening and honing needs. You can always invest in an electric sharpener, and this is certainly an easy alternative, or (if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves), you can select from the best sharpening stones on the market.
33. Silicone Cooking Utensils
In order to cook, you need cooking utensils. Obvious, right? Spatulas, spoons, slotted spoons – these are all essential kitchen tools for nearly any meal you might imagine yourself preparing.
That said, if you want to prepare that meal without damaging your brand new, and not to mention expensive, non-stick pans, you’ll need a special sub-genre of kitchen tool: the silicone cooking utensil. These soft cooking utensils are a great solution to non-stick cookware, and are also pretty versatile. That is to say, you may actually find yourself using them on more than just non-stick cookware.
There are plenty of great, inexpensive silicone cooking utensils, right here.
34. Stock Pot
A good stock pot is another must have kitchen item, and one that you really can’t do without. Ideal for soups and, well, stocks, you’ll need a large enough pot to contain a pretty good deal of liquid.
Stock pots come in all sizes, though I wouldn’t go much smaller than an 8 quart if I were you. Anything under 8 quarts kind of defeats the purpose. That said, stock pots can also be huge, with some as large as 40 quarts!
A strainer is one of those basic kitchen needs that you probably won’t think about until you absolutely need it. There really isn’t a great way to strain pasta without a strainer. We’ve probably all tried using the lid to hold pasta back while pouring out hot water, and you know as well as I do that it almost never ends well.
There are a few options for strainers, both with respect to design and material. You can do stainless steel or plastic (which I’d advise against) and choose from colander style strainers that sit in the sink and clip on strainers that attach to the pot itself. Go nuts!
I started cooking with silicone tipped tongs a few years ago and absolutely love them – I may never go back. Tongs are versatile and allow for a level of control I never realized was possible.
Plenty of people cook with chopsticks – and you can understand why – but I don’t personally have the skills to pull that off, not just yet. In place of chopsticks, tongs are a decent substitute. They can be used to stir your food, and more importantly, manipulate it and pick it up.
I use tongs to cook salmon and couldn’t imagine using anything else. Try it!
Alright, you might not need Tupperware brand food containers, but every kitchen needs some sort of food container for leftovers, marinating and general food storage. No need to go into detail here, but a few suggestions nonetheless:
First, I’d recommend buying glass whenever you can. It’s safer, doesn’t absorb food odors, and is better for the environment.
Second, in the event that you can’t go glass – or it’s too heavy for on the go – make sure your food container locks nicely. In this latter case, I’d actually recommend simply saving those circular soup containers from takeout restaurants. Chefs swear by them and they’re essentially free.
38. Utility Knife
A utility knife is easily on my list of kitchen essentials. It’s one of three knives mentioned above that are critical to any cooking tools list – a chef’s knife, a utility knife, and a bread knife.
Utility knives are versatile, and because they’re smaller than chef’s knives they are ideally suited for smaller, preparatory jobs. For example, want to prepare yourself some strawberries or devein shrimp? I suppose you could use a chef’s knife, but you’ll drive yourself crazy. Turn instead to the practical option, the utility knife.
Again, I love Mercer for this kind of thing. The Mercer Culinary Renaissance 5-Inch Forged Utility knife below is perfect for a starter kitchen.
A whisk may not be essential for scrambling eggs (no problem to use a fork here), but if you want to whip up cream or some egg whites, you’ll absolutely need a whisk. The main decision when purchasing a whisk is whether to buy a traditional, stainless steel whisk, or go with a silicone covered whisk.
I personally stay away from the silicone whisks. I think these only make sense if you’re whisking directly in a non-stick pan, which I can’t imagine ever needing to do. My suggestion – stick with stainless steel.
Finally, a wok. Don’t often cook stir fry, you say? Doesn’t matter. A wok is still a liberating piece of kitchen cookware, allowing you to create delicious dishes that just aren’t possible to prepare with regular pans.
Traditionally, woks are constructed from carbon steel (all the rage these days) and typically come with curved bottoms. That design isn’t the best for electric and induction stoves, so thankfully, there are also plenty of flat-bottomed woks on the market that are on par with – if not superior to – more traditional designs.
If you’re interested, or simply curious, you can check out my wok recommendations here.
As I compiled this list, I tried to keep in mind how personal cooking really is. A kitchen essentials checklist will always be subjective to a certain degree, because that which we consider to be “essential” will always be relative. What might be essential to one home cook may look like a superfluous kitchen gadget to another.
Those “must-have kitchen items” are always going to depend on what you like to cook in your kitchen at home. That said, there are still a few cooking tools that I can’t imagine any kitchen going without. A chef’s knife is one. A cutting board and a decent omelette pan are others.
My final piece of advice as you build your kitchen would be the following. As you read through this list, please consider your style of cooking, or what you imagine it to be some day. Try not to succumb to pressure to buy something you don’t think you’ll use, but at the same time, I do encourage you to be adventurous.
Kitchen necessities look different for everyone, and at the end of the day only you can determine what is truly essential to your kitchen toolkit.