In most aspects of home life, you have a good idea of what you need to get a job done. Bathroom cleaning requires something scrubby (I like baking soda) and a cleaning spray or solution, plus a rag or sponge. Gardening takes a pair of gloves, a spade, a rake, shovel, watering can and maybe a specialty tool or two. But when it comes to cooking, you enter a world of innumerable gadgets and appliances (some of them quite expensive), along with a deluge of advice about what you “really” need.
Chefs are especially fond of making lists of must-have kitchen tools — which I can’t begrudge too much. As a writer, I love to make lists of my favorite books and have plenty of opinions about them. But as a non-chef, I don’t find those lists of gadgets to be useful. And plenty of them are downright absurd.
To find out what you need in the kitchen takes a little time and experimentation. We all have a couple of toys we swear by, but that doesn’t mean those things are useful to others. If I’m going somewhere where I’ll be preparing food, I take my Garject garlic press and lemon squeezer, because I find those two flavors are important to almost every dish I make. But these same tools might gather dust in someone else’s kitchen.
Don’t assume you’re going to use an appliance just because it’s on a list of “things you need,” even if a friend or chef loves it. Instead, I’d suggest a list of questions to get at the heart of the question: What will you really use in the kitchen?
Do you like whipping up soups and smoothies, or making your own nut milks or milkshakes?
If yes, investing in a blender makes sense. Blenders vary tremendously in quality. (I’ve found good-quality vintage versions from the ’60s work best for my purposes.) If you don’t do any of the tasks above, you probably won’t use a blender much. In fact, it’s one of the machines many people buy but never use.
Do you bake?
If yes, you’ll probably find investing in a KitchenAid stand mixer (or other brand) worth the cost and counter space. Ditto muffin tins, cookie cutters, parchment paper (or a silicone baking mat like the Silpat), et cetera. But if you don’t bake, and prefer to buy bread, cookies, cakes and pies at the supermarket, save your space and your wallet and skip the baking gear.
How do you like to reheat food?
Either a microwave or a toaster oven can be useful, but you don’t need both of them. I don’t like how microwaves change the texture of many foods. Toaster ovens aren’t much slower than a microwave for reheating, they take less space, and can be used to crisp things. They also obviously toast, so you don’t need a separate toaster. To me, it’s a no-brainer to choose a toaster oven over a microwave for those reasons, but some people swear by microwaves.
Do you drink tea?
If so, an electric kettle will save you time and keep your stovetop clear. But if you don’t need hot water several times a day, this isn’t a worthwhile purchase.
Do you like soup, stew and chili?
If yes, a slow cooker is a time-saving appliance that will pay for itself in the money you’ll save when you make delicious food from inexpensive ingredients. However, if you’re like me, and you only like fresh foods, or prefer salads and sandwiches, a slow cooker will sit on the shelf. I love the idea of a slow cooker, but it’s rare that I crave the type of foods they provide.
Do you like making spreads, dips and hummus? Or if you bake, do you make pie crusts or biscuits?
If so, you’ll definitely want a food processor. But if you usually buy these things pre-made, a food processor is one of those “must-have” items that will end up on a shelf, pulled out maybe once a year. I don’t think I’ve used my Cuisinart for close to two years now — what a waste! But plenty of home chefs swear by a good-quality food processor.
There are not that many items that you really do need, and they’re pretty obvious: A good set of 2-3 pots, a couple sizes of pans, measuring cups and spoons, some kind of large bowl for mixing, and some spatulas, big spoons, a whisk, and some good knives. A cheese grater (which you can use to grate plenty of other things), a baking sheet and a loaf pan, and those couple things you use for your own favorite ingredients will round out the list.
By starting with the basics and asking yourself what you will really use based on what you like to eat, you’ll save serious cash and keep the clutter off your kitchen countertops.