Cheap pans, hand-me-down dishes, generic cutlery that always seems to leave indentations in your skin. I know them well. I spent years using starter cookware like everyone else. But once I could finally begin investing in quality kitchen gear, the most amazing thing happened. I became a better cook. Some of that has to do with experience, but a large portion hinges on the cookware itself.
Every chef, cooking show and cookbook will tell you that while you don't need to have the fanciest air fryer on the market to make damn good food, quality counts. High-performance materials can cook food more evenly, getting that crispy sear you love; smooth out unwanted lumps in batters and sauces; and generally last longer and keep annoying maintenance issues at bay.
While I continue to gush about these incredibly useful kitchen tools under $25 that I don't want to cook without, there are also some favorite cooking items that I'm convinced are worth a few more bucks (not like, $500). I'm talking about trusty, practical cooking tools I use weekly and often daily in my tiny galley kitchen. I'm confident that if any of these items strike your fancy, they'll soon become your kitchen favorites, too.
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Lodge and Le Creuset are terrific, tried-and-tested Dutch ovens that cook a variety of food evenly. But I couldn't be happier with this tall-sided 5-quart Staub Cocotte, which comes in an array of colors for pretty much any style. With a cast iron core, it isn't light, but it is uniformly excellent. In fact, it's my go-to cooking vessel for most things, and it goes from stove to oven to table to fridge flawlessly. My brother got a smaller model that he uses for proofing and baking bread, which goes to show the versatility of this pot.
I had an inexpensive pair of electric beaters that always gave me trouble -- ditching it for this Breville Handy Mix Scraper was one of the best decisions I made, especially during this season of abundant baking. This mixer seriously does it all: It comes with whisks, creamer inserts and dough hooks! It has a built-in light so you can see what's in the bowl! There's a stopwatch feature so you can see how long you've been mixing and a pause button that keeps track of your speed settings and time while you take a break to scrape down the bowl! The cord base can rotate to get out of your way! And it has a convenient storage situation where you can keep all the beater wands!
If you don't use an electric kettle yet, drop everything and get yourself one. This indispensable kitchen savior rapidly heats water for tea, coffee and hot chocolate, and it gives you a head start on boiling vats of water for pasta, blanching or anything else you need. I've owned and gifted a lot of electric kettles, and most work about the same way. This Zwilling Enfingy Electric Kettle has a sleeker, more sophisticated look and variable temperature controls. I also like that it's got a cool-touch exterior that won't burn you when you pick it up.
There's no viewing window for water height and you have to feel comfortable with capacitive controls that you press and hold, but these aren't deal-breakers for me by any means.
I may have spoiled myself buying the Google Nest Hub smart speaker display for my kitchen. I have it set up on a riser shelf on my counter, next to a phone stand where I can also keep my phone away from the worst of tea splatters and flying onions. I use the Nest Hub for everyday things like checking the weather as I'm making my morning cuppa and playing music (with song lyrics!) while I cook. I use the two hands-free timers multiple times a day, and look up recipes on the screen (you can follow these step-by-step).
There's also an extra function where you can program the Nest Hub to forgo the "OK, Google" or "Hey, Google" wake word when you look at it and start listening to you with just a glance (Google calls this Look and Talk). That's ultra convenient for saving some time and breath every time you want to ask for unit conversion measures, adding to or canceling a timer and skipping to the next track.
Read our Google Nest Hub (2nd gen) review.
I've owned an immersion blender for years, but recently upgraded myself to the Braun MultiQuick 7 for its robust design, powerful motor and fun extras, like a mini food processor attachment (like, for making quick work of onions and herbs) and a balloon whisk attachment for quickly whipping or whisking without having to go full-bore with the electric beaters.
I use this tool constantly, to process soups right in the pan, make salsa in the included beaker, whip cream into soft peaks and make quick work of pulverizing onion without hefting the food processor to the counter. It's also wonderfully easy to clean and dry, and small and light enough to pull out from the pantry any time I need it. I can't recommend it enough.
I have lusted after Shun Premier knives for over a decade and finally bought two for my new kitchen: the 8-inch chef's knife and a 3.5-inch paring knife. Over Black Friday, I added a 7-inch Santoku blade to the mix. I adore the way the rounded handles balance, and the stunning, wavy pattern on the forged blade boasts an edge designed to hold sharpness far longer than average. That's good for me, because the sound of knife sharpening sets my every tooth, bone and neuron on fire.
Shun Premier knives come in gray and brown wood handle options. The Classic knives are cheaper and also very good (yes, I've tried them out, too). But my heart belongs to the Premier line for the way they feel in my hand, and the extra aesthetics on the blade (69 layers of Damascus steel, if you're wondering). I store them in a drawer with a blade guard case to protect the knife sharpness (and my fingers). Here are other recommended chef's knives as well.
Buying the Breville Smart Oven Pro Toaster Oven (BOV845BSS) was one of my best kitchen decisions. It toasts, it broils, it roasts. And since it has a convection oven function, you can totally skip the separate air fryer -- and cook more stuff at once. I love the countdown clock that takes the mystery out of when your food will be done, and I love that I can bake a single batch of cookies or toast walnuts faster than a standard oven, and without having to heat the whole thing first. Plus, the brushed stainless steel body looks pretty great on my countertop.
Zojirushi has an excellent reputation for countertop appliances that hit the high-water mark. I've been beyond happy with my Neuro Fuzzy rice cooker since I bought it earlier this year. My pantry is stuffed with six kinds of rice and at least four other grains I routinely cook up. The settings are easy to use and whether I wash the grains or not, whatever I'm making comes out evenly cooked. Plus, it plays a song when starting and ending a cycle, which is much nicer than a loud beep or buzz.
The Neuro Fuzzy in particular takes up more counter space than the most compact models, and rice can take an hour for a typical cycle of even cooking. But there are lots of settings, including a quick cook mode, and cleanup is easy. (Here are meals you can make in the rice cooker other than rice.)
Le Creuset dutch ovens are all the rage (I actually really love my Staub Cocotte), but one of the best gifts I ever received was this Le Creuset casserole dish that can go straight from oven to table (to fridge!) while cooking food evenly and looking awesome. I would buy this all over again, and gift it, too. It comes in a range of striking colors, and shockingly cleans easily -- with a little soak in soapy hot water and a dirt-cheap pan scraper. I'm the kind of person who excels at ruining dutch ovens with burned-on spots. After a couple years, this dish has remained spot-free, even after roasting dark, sticky stews (yum!).
A workhorse apron is worth its weight in gold. I'm thankful I finally stumbled on Hedley & Bennett, which makes a seemingly endless supply of thick, sturdy aprons I now can't fail to miss seeing seemingly any time I walk into a restaurant. If these aprons can handle the stresses of a professional kitchen, they can handle the flying sauces and batter in mine. I bought myself two styles, including a Cookie Monster print that never fails to make my inner child giggle. The apron's neck loop is adjustable, there are a lot of pockets, and so far the waist straps haven't gotten scrunched, twisted or mangled in the washer or dryer.
I'm not the kind of wine enthusiast who owns a different glass for every varietal -- not yet, anyway. Instead, I opt for one all-rounder that will work beautifully no matter which bottle I open, erring on the side of big, bold reds. I've been using these "Burgundy" glasses from Schott Zwiesel for years, and my Amazon search history told me I bought them five times, twice for myself and three times as a gift. Yes, I do drink white wine, rose and sparkling out of them (gasp!), and they all taste terrific. Better in my mind to drink from a glass with a too-big bowl than a cramped glass that stifles all that great wine nose.
For even more top kitchen picks, see these best kitchen gifts under $25 and CNET's roundup of best stainless steel frying pans. If you're looking for warm toes this season, here are the best socks that are worth the money. And finally, for you Target fans, 15 hilarious or useful impulse buys to get now.