Stocking your kitchen with the right tools and equipment – and knowing how to use them – makes cooking both easier and more enjoyable, and also expands your repertoire to a wider range of foods. But how do you distinguish true must-haves from shiny objects that’ll just end up gathering dust? Follow our guide to the kitchen essentials for novice cooks.
Pots and pans
This round, long-handled pot comes in a range of sizes, typically between 1 and 4 litres. The ideal pan for making sauce, it’s also perfect for poaching or hard-boiling eggs, cooking rice and other grains, boiling liquids, or reheating leftover soups or stews. Saucepans are available in numerous materials, most commonly stainless steel, aluminum, ceramic and copper.
How to shop: Invest in a better-quality heavy-bottomed saucepan, which will help prevent burning while facilitating even cooking. For most budgets, stainless steel is a good place to start. Consider a saucepan with an insulated or coated handle to protect your hands. It’s nice to have a range of sizes, but if you can only afford one, pick a larger model that fits 3 to 4 litres – it's more versatile than smaller pans.
The skillet, or frying pan, is usually round in shape with shallow, slanted sides to allow steam to escape during cooking and enable tossing when sautéing. Skillets come in various sizes and materials. Any type will work for sautéing vegetables or frying meats and fish. Non-stick pans are best for cooking pancakes, stir-fries and eggs. Turn to your oven-safe skillet for recipes that start on the stovetop and finish in the oven, such as cornbread and frittatas.
How to shop: Possible materials include stainless steel, aluminum, non-stick, ceramic, copper and cast iron. It’s a good idea to purchase both an oven-safe skillet, such as cast iron, and a non-stick coated pan, preferably heavy-bottomed aluminum. A well-seasoned, well-cared-for cast-iron pan will last a lifetime. Aluminum provides even cooking, while the heavy base ensures your pan won’t warp from high frying temperatures.
Large pot, stockpot or pasta pot
These large, deep pots have a capacity of 6 to 20 litres. They are ideal for preparing large-volume recipes such as chicken stock and tomato sauce. They’re also used for cooking pasta, preparing big-batch soups and browning meat for braised stews (the high sides catch splatters).
How to shop: A good stockpot should be sturdy, with secured handles for safe transporting and pouring water in or out, and have a tight-fitting lid for quickly bringing water to a boil. Stainless steel pots are excellent at conducting heat, especially when it comes to large-quantity cooking. If you only have the space and budget for one large pot, opt for a model that holds at least 8 litres.
A roasting pan is a large, deep, rectangular aluminum, cast-iron or glass pan used mainly for roasting meat. It allows browning on the outside of a roast while maintaining juiciness throughout. The higher temperatures associated with roasting require this pan to be hefty, measuring approximately 16 x 13 in. (41 x 33 cm).
How to shop: Look for a pan that comes with a rack insert. Meat sits on top of this rack, allowing air to circulate during cooking; this also prevents meat from stewing in its juices. Make life easier and choose a non-stick metal pan. Although non-stick is a bit more expensive than glass, it will be much easier to keep clean and is more likely to come with a rack.
Rimmed baking sheet
These large, rectangular metal trays (also referred to as cookie sheets) are a baker’s staple. They’re essential for baking cookies and scones, and for savoury recipes such as pizza and biscuits. (When baking, line sheets with parchment paper for easier transfer of foods and cleanup.) A baking sheet can also be used for roasting vegetables. You’ll get extra-golden, crispy results if you preheat the sheet before making sweet potato oven fries, roasted cauliflower or other vegetables.
How to shop: Baking sheets are relatively inexpensive, so pick up a couple. Choose one that is large and heavy, with a dull, rather than shiny, surface. This type of sheet is better at even baking and is less likely to promote burning. Also purchase a thin baking sheet in a darker colour. These absorb more heat and are best for cooking vegetables, especially root vegetables.
Tools and accessories
If you want to open cans, you need a can opener. Bonus: Many double as a bottle opener and even a corkscrew, too.
How to shop: While cheap can openers are available, it’s worth spending a few extra dollars on a model that is comfortable to hold and squeeze. If possible, select one with a rubber handle for added comfort. Electric can openers are useful for people with limited strength in their hands, but they’re excessive for most of us: they take up valuable kitchen real estate and don’t save much time.
There are several styles of peelers: regular, which is straight and stationary; swivel; and the Y-shaped Swiss peeler. All shave a single layer from foods so you can peel vegetables such as carrots and potatoes, create cocktail garnishes like lemon twists and cucumber ribbons, or make chocolate curls or shavings for dessert decoration. A swivel or Swiss peeler is designed to more easily follow the contours of fruit and vegetables.
How to shop: Peelers are inexpensive, so you could easily purchase both a standard and a Y-shaped Swiss. Choose one with a good grip and a sturdy, wide blade. Some come with an eyer, a small loop or scooped tip situated beside the blade, which removes potato eyes.
These are must-haves for cutting fruit, vegetables and meats while protecting your counter. Wooden boards are easiest on your knife blades, while plastic ones are dishwasher safe. Note: Wooden and plastic boards can develop grooves from knife cutting, so be sure to very thoroughly wash them.
How to shop: It’s ideal to have a few cutting boards in your cupboard. Buy several and designate one for cutting meat and another for vegetables. A pretty wooden cutting board does double duty as a serving tray for cheese.
Measuring spoons and cups
Metal, plastic or ceramic spoons are often sold in stackable sets, usually ranging in sizes from 1/4 tsp (1 mL) to 1 tbsp (15 mL). Some sets include extra measures such as 1/8 tsp (0.5 mL) and 1/2 tbsp (7.5 mL), but these aren’t necessities. Measuring spoons are made for both wet and dry ingredients.
Measuring cups, also in metal, plastic or ceramic, are used for larger ingredient quantities. They’re sold in stackable sets, usually including four sizes: 1/4 cup (60 mL), 1/3 cup (75 mL), 1/2 cup (125 mL) and 1 cup (250 mL). These are generally used for measuring dry ingredients such as flour and sugar.
A standard wet measure is a glass or plastic jug with a spout. These are available in various sizes, generally measuring from 1 cup (250 mL) up to 4 cups (1 L). They have measurement markings on the sides so you can pour in your liquids to the desired quantity.
How to shop: Stainless steel measuring spoons are your best choice because they are durable and wash up nicely. Also pick up a metal stackable set of dry measuring cups and a glass measuring cup for liquids. Markings on the glass will stand the test of time longer than those on plastic versions.
Graters come in a variety of different designs – circular, flat and box. The box style is your most versatile option: it boasts a handle at the top of three or four perforated sides, each for grating, shredding or zesting (and sometimes slicing) with coarse or fine results. It’s primarily used for grating cheese, vegetables and hard fruits, as well as zesting citrus peels.
How to shop: Graters come in metal and plastic. Choose stainless steel: it’s very effective at grating and won’t rust. Opt for a model that boasts a thick handle for a comfortable grip, plus a non-slip bottom grip. An attachable container for storage is handy, too.
A good set of few mixing bowls is essential. They come in a variety of colours and materials, including plastic, metal and glass. Mixing bowls can be used for anything from making batter and dough to tossing and serving salad, whisking vinaigrette or marinating meat.
How to shop: The key is to have a few mixing bowls in different sizes for preparing a variety of recipes. Look for a nesting set to save cupboard space. Bowls with a rubber or silicone coating on the bottom are helpful, as they stay secure on countertops while you stir, mix or whisk.
The colander (also referred to as a strainer) is mainly used for washing and rinsing greens and fruit or draining cooked ingredients such as pasta. These perforated metal or plastic bowls come in all shapes, sizes and colours, with small or large holes. Some have extendable arms so the colander can be fastened to the edges of the sink for hands-free draining.
How to shop: Choose a colander big enough to hold a batch of cooked pasta. That ensures you have the right size for its biggest job. Make sure it has feet, so liquid will drain easily even if it’s sitting on the bottom of the sink. Collapsible colanders are useful if you’re short on cupboard space.
Oven mitts or pot holders
These protective gloves or holders are essential for safely moving hot trays, pans and pots around the kitchen. Traditionally made from quilted layers of cloth, they’re now also available in partial or full silicone, neoprene or even leather. Don’t let cloth oven mitts get wet – that causes heat to transfer more quickly, meaning you might get burned.
How to shop: Look for thick mitts that are machine washable. Cloth mitts with a silicone lining are easy to use and provide excellent insulation from heat.
A sieve is a large domed metal strainer made of mesh, with a long plastic or metal handle. This tool is used for sifting ingredients such as cocoa and flour, straining juices or infused liquids such as tea, and dusting icing sugar decoratively on top of desserts. A sieve’s fine perforated holes can be hard to clean, especially if left unwashed for a while. For easy cleanup, be sure to wash and rinse immediately after using.
How to shop: Choose a stainless steel sieve that has wide bowl rest around the rim. Stainless steel will be more durable and won’t rust. Miniature sieves or strainers that fit in a mug are also useful to have on hand.
The wooden spoon is the most versatile kitchen utensil. You might use it to mix up a batch of cookie dough, toss and turn a stir-fry or leisurely stir your simmering tomato sauce. Soaking a wooden spoon for too long can cause it to crack, so wash and dry shortly after use.
How to shop: Pick up a few wooden spoons in varying sizes and lengths. Choose at least one with a flat edge for more effective pot or pan scraping.
Knives are crucial for basic kitchen prep. If you have the luxury, buy a full set of knives, complete with knife block for storage. If you’re just starting out, a good chef’s knife and a paring knife will get you through most kitchen duties. The larger, heavier chef’s knife has a wide blade that allows you to chop without rapping your knuckles on the cutting board, slicing in an efficient rocking motion. The paring knife is multi-purpose, so it will endure a lot of kitchen wear and tear. A serrated version makes cutting soft fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes easy.
How to shop: Choose a chef’s knife based on the size of your hand (opt for one between 8 and 10 inches long), and look for a well-balanced version with a comfortable grip. In better-quality chef's knives, the metal of the blade extends through the handle, as opposed to them being two distinct pieces. When it comes to paring knives, there is no need to spend a lot of money: choose one that has a thin, sharp blade for easy slicing.
The word spatula can refer to two different but similar cooking utensils, both of which are nice to have on hand.
The first is a firm, long-handled “flipper” made of plastic, metal or silicone. It’s used for turning and serving foods such as pancakes and omelettes.
The other type you will need is the rubber, silicone or plastic spatula commonly used in baking. These come in various sizes and are usually soft so that they can scrape a bowl clean. They’re excellent for mixing, scraping, folding and spreading.
How to shop: For flipper-style spatulas, plastic is an affordable choice and works well. Avoid metal if you want to use it with non-stick pans. Heat-resistant silicone or heavy-duty rubber baking spatulas are the most durable for use with hot pans, such as scraping the last bit of soup out of a pot. Buy a few so there’s always one ready to use, and for the easiest cleanup, choose dishwasher-safe spatulas.
There are two types of tongs: scissor style and spring loaded. Each is made for grasping, turning, rotating and picking up food.
How to shop: Avoid tongs with “claw” ends, as they can easily pierce the food you’re preparing. Instead, opt for spring-loaded locking tongs, which can be locked closed so they take up less space in drawers. If you barbecue, you also need a pair of long heat-resistant tongs.
A group of looped wires fastened to a handle, a whisk is used for beating, stirring, mixing, aerating and emulsifying ingredients. Whisks come in a variety of sizes and shapes, often in metal but sometimes also in plastic or silicone. Balloon-shaped whisks usually have thin wires and are best for beating eggs. Longer, stiffer whisks are ideal for sauce, batter, vinaigrette and custard preparations. Miniature whisks come in handy for beating ingredients in smaller containers such as custard cups and mugs.
How to shop: For most cooks any whisk will do the job, but serious bakers might want to hunt for the perfect specimen. The more loops in a whisk, the better it will work. The wires should be somewhat flexible and different lengths so that there is space between them at the end, but they should still be firm and close enough so that the tool can double as a masher for avocados or potatoes, or breaking up clumps of brown sugar in a bowl. A lightweight whisk with a comfortable handle will be appreciated if you’re going to be using it for several minutes at a time.
This deep, long-handled spoon is designed for serving or transferring liquids such as soup, sauce or stew. Large cupped ladles are ideal for spooning soups and stews; choose one with a long handle. Smaller ones are perfect for serving sauce or gravy.
How to shop: Select a large ladle made of stainless steel, which is durable and easy to clean. Look for a ladle with a spout, as it will help prevent excess drips. Put your tablespoons to use for smaller serving jobs.