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12 best kitchen tools under $20 I can't live without and how to use them

These must-have tools are cheap, versatile and easy to store, use and clean.

This story is part of Gift Guide, our year-round collection of the best gift ideas.

I spend a lot of time in my kitchen, and although I love the usual workhorses of my cutting board, countertop appliances and really sturdy knives, sometimes it's the little things that make all the difference when it comes to cooking, eating and cleaning up after meals. These odds and ends have become such a defining part of enjoying my cooking life, it isn't unusual that I use them -- or think about how much I appreciate them -- every day. 

After pushing them on my family and friends in the form of gifts and unsolicited opinions, I thought I'd share my cheap, easy-to-clean favorites with you. They're all products I actually own and use in real life and that are simple to incorporate into your cooking routine. Most of all, they're versatile tools you can use daily, which means they're not just inexpensive, but also high-value. Here are the tools I never want to be without, and how I use them. (P.S. I recently updated this story with new favorites and checked for pricing and availability. Note that both can change and do sometimes change.) 

Screenshot by CNET

I've searched high and low for a spoon rest I don't hate -- and I may have finally found it. This space-saving Yamazaki Home stand keeps cooking spoons, ladles, tongs and pot lids from clattering to the counter and spraying my cooking surface with goopy sauces and splats. It's stylish enough to blend into most kitchen environments (it also comes in white/grey and there's a similar style that's all-white with a bamboo rest bar). Importantly, the bottom catch tray pops out, so all pieces are easy to clean.

Note that lighter colors may have you more nervously eyeing stains, especially if you cook with lots of red, oily sauces or yellow seasonings like turmeric. When in doubt, the black color will be more forgiving.

Xujia via Amazon

The wide, saucer-shaped bowl, long handle and pleasant weight make these beautiful spoons perfect for almost everything -- eating soup, curries, rice dishes, spooning yogurt out of the tub, spooning anything out of any tub, really. In my family, these Korean stew and rice spoons are now the dominant, and most asked-fo spoon of choice -- to the point they've been nicknamed "life-changing spoons."

You can buy long-handled spoons online or in many Asian markets. My personal preference is to get a set with round handles, not the thin kind with the flat ends. Prices vary, but they're not expensive either way -- say $16 for a pack of 5 good quality spoons, or even $15 for a pack of 8.

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I'm a huge fan of countertop risers, and have these shelf organizers from multiple brands in my kitchen, bathroom, shelving and right next to me here on my desk. Not only do they double your storage and organizational space by creating a second tier, these risers also enhance the environment as an accent piece that happens to be functional. For example, use them to elevate a paper towel holder or smart display while storing spices or other tools below. Or perhaps create a hot drinks center like I did, with sugar and tea canisters on the top deck and flavored syrups below.

This particular brand comes in three color options, and assembles in 5 minutes or less.

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I've owned my fair share of kitchen sink caddies. They're fine. I like how they corral the sponges and soap, but too often the decorative trays pool water, soap, and grime, while the more utility-focused are either bleh-looking, overwrought, or come equipped with suction cups (always come unstuck, collects mold) and deep grated bottoms (hard to clean, traps gunk). I finally found this Nieifi caddy, which neatly holds my sponge, cleaning wand, pot scraper (see below), dish soap, and hand soap. It looks nice and understated, and you can easily pick the whole thing up to tip out water from the collection tray below. You can also pop that into the dishwasher, or soap off when it needs a refresh. So far, so good.

Amazon

I'm sure I could live without a pair of kitchen shears like this one from Henckels (also known for making reliable knives), but I don't particularly want to. A dedicated pair of shears makes opening food bags, cutting meat and fish and trimming green beans dead-easy. Storing them with your knives or utensils keeps them accessible where you need them and eliminates cross-contamination with your other scissors. Sturdy shears can butterfly poultry and this model unhinges for dishwashing -- it's dishwasher safe if in need of thorough sanitizing, but it usually cleans easily with soapy hot water and a sponge. This particular model costs under $20 on sale.

Tovolo

Bench scrapers, also known as pastry or dough scrapers or cutters, are typically used to pry dough off a work surface, though I use mine multiple times a day for either scraping or lifting items from my cutting board to a pan or bowl. I used to use the side of whichever knife I had in my hand, but this useful kitchen tool shovels more diced onions at a time and is safer anyway. 

I've also used straight-sided bench scrapers, but the offset design is much easier for sliding under a pile of chopped food. It's equally adept at its intended purpose of working with bread and pastry dough. This Tovolo bench scraper is the one I use and costs around $12.

Lifver Home via Amazon

Small bowls are hardly interesting or new and I have plenty of them, especially fluted and ribbed ramekins. But these wonderful dip bowls have made cooking and serving food more of a delight. I just love them. They're useful enough for daily prep and pretty enough to serve on. 

You can mound a surprising amount of food in the hollow, like lemon zest, olive oil, wasabi or even grated cheese like fresh parmesan. They cost $18 for a set of eight 3-ounce bowls.

Here's how I use them:

  • Spoon rest
  • Used tea bag holder
  • Salt piggy
  • Egg holder
  • Prep bowl for ingredients like garlic, shallots, ginger
  • Prep bowl for blending spices (the mix flows into the pan really easily, without getting stuck in creases)
  • Garnish server
  • Server for individual desserts, like squares of chocolate, a brownie or a tiny scoop of ice cream
  • Sugar caddy for after-dinner coffee or tea
  • Ring valet (especially when taking off to work with slimy or sticky food)
Prep Solutions via Amazon

My dad endearingly referred to these as "rubber fingers." This set of two -- one with a pointy end (pictured) and one that looks more like a paddle -- are awesome for scraping, scooping and pushing down all types of food. Think the last little bit of something gooey like peanut butter from the jar, or getting every little bit of beaten egg out of a small bowl. I still use full-size spatulas for large work bowls, pots and pans, but these nonstick minis work better than spoons or my finger and fit really well into drawer dividers. They're machine washable, too.

Lodge via Amazon

I had never heard of a pan or pot scraper until my colleague Rich Brown sang its praises. I have an elaborate and finely-tuned method for steaming and scraping off stuck-on crud from pots, pans and bakeware, but I started getting a lot of time back once I began using this indispensable tool.

This kitchen gadget fits into your palm and easily scrapes away gunk with its flat and curved edges, which can also better reach into corners. Still expect a little sponge work, but mostly to wipe away loosened and leftover stuff. I was amazed with how my Lodge pot scraper obliterates the scum that builds up in a ring around the pan, say the leftovers of reduced marinara. 

It cuts through residue faster and more efficiently than a hard plastic spatula and it won't gunk up the scrubby side of a sponge with cheese, egg or starchy buildup. I recommend keeping it visible on your sink, near your sponges and dish soap. I initially put it into a drawer and forgot about it, but now it's top of mind. 

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

My friend bought a fancy new dishwasher with built-in wine holders and gave me three purple silicone tubes that help keep your wine glasses safe in the machine. "Here, you like wine," she said. "You should use these."

She was right. They may look derpy, but this perfect gift probably saved my wine glasses more than once. You fit one grippy end around your overturned stemware (as pictured) and slide the other end, a hollow tube, over a peg on the bottom rack of your dishwasher. A wire that runs two-thirds the length of the attachment supplies structure. 

If a glass feels extra wobbly in the center of the bottom rack, I've been known to clip on two of these silicone holders for extra stability, one on either side. I used to hand-wash my wine glasses and still managed to break one here or there. Not anymore. It costs about $11 for a set of eight. I've run them in the dishwasher on a weekly basis for almost two years.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Great for elegantly draining pasta, reaching for items on the top shelf, juicing lemons and even cleaning window blinds. A pair of 9-inch or 12-inch silicone-tipped tongs costs about $16 and has become a trusty kitchen companion that does far more for a chef than just flip browning veggies and meat. Here are seven clever uses for kitchen tongs.

Endurance via Amazon

I love a small saucepan for so many reasons, including frying perfectly round eggs one at a time and reducing broth and sauces. Melting butter and making modest quantities of caramel or hot milk and cream are also great in an itty-bitty pan, especially if you're trying to keep a small amount of liquid from evaporating too quickly.

I bought a "cup measuring pan" that's a lot like this one, with a long handle, and I like it, though it's not as thick as some of my other kitchen pots. I'd also happily consider a butter melting pot for butter, sauces, warming milk and boiling single eggs, but I currently use a tiny milk frothing jug for that, intended for espresso. Whichever pan you get should cost between $15 and $25, tops. Mine was about $15. 

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