Quality should win out over quantity every time. But if you don't have a ton of money to spend, and if you would rather save on items that don't need the fancier version of itself, you're in luck. You don't need to spend money on the most expensive items to ensure a good product, and sometimes the most basic and least expensive things will do the job just as well.
Here is a breakdown of where it is worth it to spend the cash and where it is okay to save when it comes to the basic kitchen essentials (recommendations included!).
- Skillet: A frying pan will be your main workhorse, so do the research and make the investment! It would be nice to have both a nonstick and stainless steel pan, but if you had to choose one, I would go with a stainless steel. Non-stick pans are good for things like eggs and pancakes, but I find that the stainless steel pans are better for sauces, searing meat and vegetables, and pretty much everything else. The cream of the crop here is the pan from All-Clad ($150).
- Cutting board: Make sure that your cutting board is a sturdy one that you will want to reach for again and again. After years of buying cheap plastic cutting boards, I am coming to the conclusion that a high quality wooden cutting board is worth the splurge. Wooden boards last a long time- longer than the plastic ones - if you take care of them. I always thought wooden boards would retain more bacteria since it is porous, but a study was done where they found that while bacteria does enter the wooden boards, once they get in, they are unable to reproduce and die off. Plastic, on the other hand, allows bacteria to sit on the surface. In addition, a wooden board is much kinder to your knife. Try the Proteak Rectangular Cutting Board ($75).
- Food processor: A food processor is one of those gadgets that you could get by without, but then you do get one and wonder why you didn't get one sooner. (Check out this article from the Kitchn for ways to use a food processor if you're not sure.) The Cuisinart 14-Cup Food Processor ($180) isn't cheap but it isn't the most expensive one out there, either. It's an investment that will make your cooking life a little easier and make you more adventurous in the kitchen.
- Chef's knife: A really great knife and some basic cutting tips could be the thing that takes you from being a cooking novice to chopping vegetables with ease. The Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch Chef's Knife ($36) is heralded by chefs and home cooks alike of being a fantastic knife at a reasonable price.
- Cast iron pan: I love my cast iron and I am just beginning to discover how versatile and helpful it can be. (For more cast iron love, check out this 35 Ways to Love Your Cast Iron article.) Luckily, for all its uses, the cast iron pan does not have to be expensive... just make sure to take good care of it! Lodge Cast Iron Pre-Seasoned Skillet ($25).
- Mixing/prep bowls: Have a few of these bowls on hand in different sizes for mixing and prepping. You can find stainless steel bowls ranging from 1.5 QT to 7.5 QT in the price range of $8-$12.
- Baking sheet: Look for a non-stick, non-dark, rimmed baking sheet, and you will see these at a reasonable price everywhere. You can use the pan for roasting vegetables and cooking meat, as well as baking cookies and even an occasional sheet cake. I usually line mine with foil first in order to preserve it and make the cleanup easier. The Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Commercial Baker's Half Sheet is really popular ($13).
- Pot: A pot that does the varied work of sautéing onions, cooking rice, making soups, sauces and creams, and boiling eggs and pasta should be one that will be sturdy, easy to handle and will last you a long time. The Cuisinart MultiClad Unlimited 4-Quart Saucepan ($70) isn't cheap, but it is on the lower end of many of pricey pots and does just as well (if not better!)
- Measuring spoons and cups: Go simple with your measuring utensils. For a measuring spoon, look for ones with a long handle (to reach into jars) that are also detachable. Go with a large 2-Cup measuring cup for liquids and flat-bottomed cups for dry ingredients. I like the Pyrex Prepware 2-Cup Measuring Cup ($13), the Squish Measuring Spoons ($5.50), and Oxo Good Grips ($9). These stainless steel spoons ($10) a little more expensive than the plastic, but the rectangular bottoms are a nice feature.
- Wooden spoons: I love my wooden spoons and reach for them all the time - to sauté meat and vegetables, to stir soup, to scramble eggs, to transfer food to a plate, to place over a pot of pasta in boiling water to prevent it from overflowing....and pretty much any wooden spoon will do. You can get a set of three for $6.
- Spatula: A spatula is perfect for flipping eggs, pancakes, hamburger patties, or any other kind of patty. We often do salmon patties, tuna patties, and zucchini patties at our house (my two-year old daughter loves helping me make them), and a spatula is what allows us to flip even the most misshapen of patties without breaking them. OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Turner ($10).
- Colander: Nothing else will do the job of straining water from your pasta, so pick one of these up. A colander is also useful for rinsing fruit and vegetables. Focus Stainless Steel 5-Quart Colander ($9).
- Instant read thermometer: If you are cooking a lot of meat, passionate about your meat, or paranoid about your meat, a digital thermometer will become invaluable. A few degrees can be the difference between a tender and tough steak, and the best way to confirm that roast chicken is done is with that thermometer. CDN DTQ450X ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer ($16).
- Vegetable peeler: A vegetable peeler is extremely handy especially if you frequently cook from scratch. The OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler ($9) will not disappoint.
- Kitchen shears: Some may balk at the need for kitchen scissors, but mine have become essential because I use it to cut almost all of my meat! I have found that it is the easiest way to cut up protein into small pieces. If you aren't already, try it! The Messermeister 8-Inch Take-Apart Kitchen Scissors ($14) have a bunch of other features too.