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Think you need a fancy mixer, top-of-the-line cookware, and expensive knives to cook at home? Think again. Our grandmothers did plenty of cooking in kitchens stocked with a few essential items, and not much else. Jack Bishop and the folks at America's Test Kitchen have put together a list of the top kitchen essentials. And because they have tested thousands of knives, pots, pans, and gadgets over the years, they've found plenty of bargain models that offer superior performance at a reasonable price.
Here are the basic items you need in any kitchen. Best of all, you can buy all of them for less than $150. Perfect for the college grad, the new cook, or the seasoned one looking for a fresh start. So make room in your drawers!
Why you need it: It's the most useful knife in any cook's arsenal. A must for chopping and slicing vegetables, mincing garlic and herbs, and cutting meat. What to look for: A gently curved blade facilitates the rocking motion necessary to mince or chop foods. Molded plastic handles are easier to keep clean and more comfortable. Avoid handles with ergonomic bumps or pebbled finishes.. many of our testers found these "innovations" uncomfortable. Best buy: Forschner Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef's Knife ($22.95 at cutleryandmore.com)
In kitchen tests, this knife bested brands that cost four times as much. Blade is nicely curved and sharp. Molded plastic handle is comfortable and remains secure, even when hands are wet or greasy. Overall, sturdy and well balanced.
Pairing knifeWhy you need it: When you need more dexterity and precision than a chef's knife can provide — such as when you're peeling and coring apples, coring tomatoes, deveining shrimp, or removing patches of fat from a roast. What to look for: The blade should be flexible for easy maneuvering in tight spots (such as tomato cores) or for handling curves (when peeling apples). Best buy: Forschner Victorinox Fibrox 3.25-Inch Paring Knife ($4.95 at cutleryandmore.com)
Our testers loved the great flexibility of this knife, which slid under silver skin on a roast easily and turned the curve of an apple nicely. Knife is very lightweight and blade is super-thin and razor-sharp.
Why you need it: A must when cooking steaks, chops, and cutlets. Good for vegetables, too. The most important pan in your kitchen. What to look for: For maximum browning (and maximum flavor), you want stainless steel with an aluminum core (known as a clad pan) or an aluminum disk — both improve heat distribution. Look for a pan with flared sides, which speed evaporation and keeps food from steaming in their own juices. Should have heavy bottom and handle that can under the broiler or in the oven. Best buy: Wolfgang Puck Bistro 12-Inch Open Omelet Pan, $29.90 at HSN.com
Excellent browning that rivals pans that cost $150. Handle does get a little hot (so be prepared to get out those potholders).
Small cast-iron skillet
Why you need it: For delicate jobs, like frying an egg or cooking fish, or small jobs, like searing a single steak. What to look for: You could buy a nonstick skillet and be prepared to replace it every few years as the coating wears off, but a pre-seasoned cast-iron pan does just as well and will last a lifetime. In the old days, you needed to season cast-iron pans yourself — a messy process that involves rubbing the pan with oil and heating and cooling it several times. Now, many manufacturers are doing the seasoning for you. Best buy: Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron 10 1/4-Inch Skillet ($9.49 at Amazon.com)
This heavy pan creates a great crust on steaks (or cornbread) and with a few uses it will become almost as good as nonstick, so you can scramble or fry eggs with ease. Wash with hot water (no soap or scrubbers), dry thoroughly, and rub with oil to keep rusting at bay.
Why you need it: It's for more than just sauces and gravies. Use this pot to cook rice, boil vegetables, or make a small batch of soup. What to look for: We like easy-to-clean, nonreactive stainless steel and find that 3 to 4 quarts is the best size. Make sure to buy a pan with an aluminum core or disk (which improves heat distribution). Look for a pan with a long handle that allows you to lift the pot — even when it's full. Best buy: Pinzon 3.5-Quart Stainless Steel Sauce Pan ($18.20 at Amazon.com)
With its sleek lines and nimble performance, testers likened this pan to a sports car. The comfortable squared handle and internal measurement markings were big hits. Even though this pan is relatively light, a thicker-than-usual bottom ensured even cooking.
Large soup/pasta pot
Why you need it: How else are you going to boil a pound of pasta, cook corn on the cob, or make a big batch of chili. What to look for: Stainless steel is easy to clean and as long as the pot comes with aluminum core it will distribute heat evenly. Make sure handles tilt upward so they sit well in your hand when you go to pour out the contents. And make sure to buy a pot with a lid — many soup pots are sold without one. Best buy: Cuisinart Chef's Classic Stainless 8-Quart Stock Pot ($29.95 at Amazon.com)
Nice pot with decent heft was easy to use and the thick bottom prevented food from scorching, even chili, in our kitchen tests.
This pan didn't warp or buckle during kitchen tests and is roomy enough to handle big job.
Cutting board Why you need it: You can't cut on your countertop! What to look for: We like plastic because you can throw the dirty board in the dishwasher. Easy to sanitize and remove odors, such as onion and garlic. Although you can pick up good boards almost anywhere, we really like the counter-gripping feet on a nonskid cutting board. Choose the largest board that will fit in your dishwasherBest buy: ArchiTEC Gripper Non-Slip Cutting Board ($14.95 at Cooking.com)
Equipped with dozens of counter-gripping rubber feet, this board stays anchored to the counter.
- Measuring cups (liquid and dry)
- Heatproof rubber spatula (better then wooden spoons)
- Instant-read thermometer (a must-have for anyone who cooks a lot of meat or chicken).