Don't be lured by big knife sets, even if they seem to be a great value. You really only need a few pieces of cutlery for the majority of tasks. The most essential kitchen knives are:
- Chef's knife or Santoku knife: Choose the size that's most comfortable for you (between 6 and 8 inches is the most popular). A Chef's or Santoku knife (which is basically a Japanese-style chef's knife) can be used for chopping vegetables, cutting up or slicing raw or cooked meat, mincing garlic and herbs, among other tasks.
- Paring knife: With a blade of 2 to 4 inches, the paring knife is good for smaller mincing and slicing tasks, such as cutting up a small amount of herbs or a clove of garlic or slicing cheese, or for hand-peeling fruit.
- Serrated knife: Pick a straight, longish blade (8 to 10 inches) and use this knife for slicing meats, bread and soft fruits and vegetables like tomatoes or melons.
- Kitchen shears: A pair of scissors dedicated to the kitchen is a must. Choose a pair of shears specifically designed for the kitchen; it comes apart for easy cleaning and often has added features like a nut cracker or a bottle opener. You can use kitchen shears for snipping herbs, cutting open food packages, snipping string, trimming fat from meat and chicken, even cutting pizza into slices.
As with cutlery, it's better to buy a few basic pieces of cookware and build from there as you determine what else you need. Choose the best-quality cookware you can afford so that it'll perform beautifully and will last a long time. The most versatile choice is uncoated (not nonstick) stainless steel cookware that is oven-safe. That way you can use it both to cook on the stove but also in place of, say, a roasting pan or a casserole dish for oven recipes.
- Nonstick Skillet: Essential for making egg dishes and stir-frying. Try to find an oven-safe version so that you can use it for frittatas or tarte tatins. A 10-inch diameter is a versatile size for households of 2 to 4 people. A good alternative to a nonstick skillet is a seasoned cast iron skillet.
- 2- or 3-quart saucepan with lid: Use this for heating soup, cooking vegetables and grains and making sauces or custards.
- Large pot or Dutch oven with lid: A size of 7 to 9 quarts is just right for boiling pasta or potatoes, making soup, stews and stocks, and braising meats.
Choose one large cutting board for all your chopping needs; a good rule is for the board to be at least 3 inches wider than your longest knife. Wood or bamboo is the least damaging to knives, but plastic can go in the dishwasher. Another good option is the Epicurean line of cutting boards, which are sturdy, lightweight and dishwasher safe.
Rubber SpatulaA rubber or silcone spatula is important for scraping the sides of mixing bowls, stirring mixtures in a bowl or a pan, or scraping foods out of jars, if the spatula is narrow enough. Make sure yours is heatproof in case you want to use it in a pan.
Metal Offset SpatulaThis tool can be used for flipping over foods in a pan or spreading frosting on a cake. It is also good for lifting cookies off a baking sheet, for removing pieces of a casserole from a pan, or for loosening the sides of a cake from the pan.
LadleEssential for scooping liquids, whether it's portioning pancake batter onto the griddle, serving up soup or stew, or spooning stock into risotto. The most useful ladle are ones whose bowls measure a specific amount, such as 4 ounces (half a cup), because then you can also use the ladle to roughly measure ingredients or portions. If you can't find this type of ladle in a kitchenware store, look for one in a restaurant supply store.
Locking metal tongs are handy for an extension of your hand when you need a little more reach or you need to lift up hot items: turning foods on the stove or grill, taking hot foods out of a pan, holding a roast in place as you slice it. You can even use them to reach a box on a high shelf. The locking feature is handy to keep them compactly closed in the drawer or utensil crock.
Used for mixing thin batters, beating eggs, emulsifying vinaigrettes, stirring sauces or custards. It is also handy for stirring dry ingredients together for a baked good – because it can break up big chunks and aerate the dry mixture, it is a quick (though not as thorough) substitute for sifting. Metal balloon whisks are the most classic, although silicone coated versions are nice if you think you'll be making sauces or custards in a nonstick pan.