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When many imagine their ideal kitchen setup, they probably picture owning a KitchenAid stand mixer or a high-end Dutch oven to whip up the ultimate culinary masterpiece. But besides a good chef's knife, a few smaller purchases might actually be better investments than those pricier, luxury items. For just a few bucks in some cases, these tools can change the experience of cooking and make the elaborate meal prep often involved in those recipes we're trying out in 2021 that much more doable. Not to mention, these tools could even help to impress picky in-laws at your family gatherings this holiday season, too. 

Here are six essential tools that can seriously elevate the quality and aesthetics of the food coming out of your kitchen. We update this list periodically.

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Read more: Get a smart kitchen without buying new appliances

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The single best investment in my kitchen over the past four years has been a mandoline. Essentially, it's an adjustable slicer for fruits and veggies, and it makes preparing salads a breeze. All the intricate slicing you normally have to do for good salads is so much easier with a mandoline, and prepping veggies for pickling is just as easy. Not only does this make everything you slice look uniform and beautiful, it also gives you fantastic opportunities to punch up textures in your typical dishes. This particular model was unavailable at time of writing, but it's an example of what to look for.

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If you cook steak with any regularity, you probably already have a cast-iron skillet. But those skillets are just as helpful for making all kinds of meat, from chicken to octopus. One of my favorite recipes I've been honing over the years is an octopus-lime bagna cauda -- and well-seared baby octopus is one of the most important components. When it's too cold, or I'm too lazy, to use the grill, my cast-iron skillet is perfect for searing those tiny tentacles.

Read more: We tried two lighter cast-iron pans to see if they get the job done

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A good chef knife isn't cheap, but it's an investment that'll last you years. The problem is, many of us settle for mediocre knives because our old ones get dull and we don't want to shell out for a $150 knife every couple of years. The tool that helps you keep your knife performing as well as possible is a knife sharpener. You can pick up a sharpener that works well for as little as $6 on Amazon.

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One of the biggest roadblocks to preparing complex dishes is the prep. If you have to mince, dice or roughly chop a half dozen ingredients, having a spacious cutting board makes a world of difference. Yes, you can pick up small, plastic cutting boards for crazy cheap on clearance at T.J. Maxx, but it's a better investment to just spring the $20 for a board that's at least in the range of 18 by 14 inches. You'll immediately be grateful when you can keep three separate piles of herbs on it, plus chop carrots without the slices rolling onto the floor.

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If you really want to get into baking high-quality breads or desserts, a kitchen scale is a must-buy. You can get one for a little over 10 bucks on Amazon, and it will make your recipes so much more precise. As the saying goes, cooking is an art and baking is a science. Science depends on math, and good math starts with accurate measurements.

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Five degrees can separate a good steak from a perfect one, and unless you're a seasoned chef, cooking by eye isn't a reliable way to get those perfect results. Especially if you're experimenting with different meats, a meat thermometer will be one of the most-used tools in your drawers. Three years after buying my first one, I honestly don't know how I attempted to cook meat without it.

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Further elevate your kitchen with these gadgets: