The kitchen can be an intimidating place, especially for a novice. When you’re just mastering the intricacies of everyday meal preparation, the thought of learning how to use— or even making something that requires—a food mill or a citrus reamer can be overwhelming.

Sure, buying the latest gadgets may be tempting, but most professional chefs agree that kitchen essentials are fairly minimal. Anyone with a few must-haves can make do; specialty items are often forgotten and sit in drawers and cabinets collecting dust.

The one utensil any chef would recommend as vital is a good, sharp knife. Everyone has personal preferences for knives, but it’s imperative to have a go-to favorite that can get the job done.

“It’s really frustrating slicing a tomato when you can’t slice it and you have tomato pulp everywhere,” says Sadiya Ahmed, a home cook from Naperville, Illinois. Alexander Reyes, who is executive chef and owner of Sauté Culinary Academy in California, explains that his 8-inch chef’s knife is a tool he can use for just about anything. A high-quality implement doesn’t necessarily have to cost too much, either.

“I’ve had a knife in my kitchen that cost me $600, and I’ve got a knife in my kitchen that cost me $30,” Reyes expands. “I more than likely pick up the $30 knife. The $600 knife is a nice toy to have, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that great in my hand.”

He recommends one that’s heavy (if you make your fingers and hands do all the work, you’ll just end up with carpal tunnel), that’s balanced, and that has a blade that runs all the way through the handle. Most importantly, the steel has to be able to withstand being sharpened.

There are myriad tools to choose from when shopping, but Amanda Saab, a contestant on the current season of MasterChef, explains that she will base her research on the kinds of reviews professional chefs are giving an item. “I want to make sure people in the industry are using it and are saying good things about it,” she adds.

One standard 8- or 9-inch chef’s knife can also take the place of devices marketed for mincing, slicing, and chopping, such as the much-disparaged garlic press.

“The biggest waste of money in the world is a garlic press,” Reyes scoffs. He purchased one for the students at his academy because they were clamoring for it, but to him that just indicated that their chopping skills weren’t up to snuff. He has similar disdain for items like the Slap ChopTM.

“A lot of these tools…like a juicer or a garlic press, they’re kind of time wasters,” he adds. “If you become reliant and dependent on them, then all of a sudden you’re stuck if you don’t have them on hand.”

Of course, there will always be those appliances and items that professionals are excited to purchase but end up being used only once. “I have a melon baller,” Ahmed says. “I’ve used it a few times, but I’ve used it to ball anything but melons.”

Saab has similar stories of fruit-centric products: a cherry and olive pitter, and a strawberry huller, that get put aside in favor of a paring knife. Ahmed Baig, owner of Baigs Grill, a catering company based in Toronto, Canada, has invested in a dehydrator and vacuum sealer, which he has used, but not as much as he would have thought.

Conversely, Saab has become enamored with one specialized instrument: her flat grater. She uses this razor-edged apparatus, sometimes referred to as a rasp grater, to pull double-duty for her Mediterranean cuisine that often calls for minced garlic and lemon zest.

For his part, Baig relies on cast iron skillets and pans. “They’re best for conducting heat,” he explains. If he’s making a steak in a cast iron skillet, he can also take it from the stove and finish it off in the oven. “If you love to cook, you must have one.”

Ahmed agrees with the sentiment that pots and pans are where your money should go if you’re looking to invest in nicer pieces. When she first got married, she didn’t opt for quality, heavy-bottomed pans. “They fell apart in six months,” she laments.

But, even in the realm of pots and pans, quality beats out quantity. A skillet, a saucepan, a stock pot, and a sauté pan, in stainless steel or cast iron, are the crucial cookware, as long as they’re of substantial weight.

Other basics won’t require as much of a financial investment: a good cutting board that doesn’t move when chopping, a wire whisk, spoons for stirring (including a slotted spoon and a wooden spoon), tongs, and a spatula. Reyes prefers a fish spatula, which is slotted and made of metal, because it’s so versatile, but Ahmed has a heat-resistant one she favors.

Of course, everyone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen will always have recommendations that aren’t exactly crucial but become a personal necessity. Ahmed loves her coffee maker and salad spinner. Baig needs a thermometer to ensure the meat he works with is at the correct temperature. Because of his experience working in restaurants, Reyes is used to carrying terrycloth towels instead of oven mitts. “We go through dozens and dozens of bar towels every day,” he says. “People would steal them from each other.”

Besides products, cooks all have a list of indispensable ingredients that they will always reach for. It takes some experience to learn what your personal preferences are, but Saab recommends everyone have a fresh herb window garden of basil, thyme, mint, oregano, and rosemary, which is easy to maintain throughout the year. “Fresh herbs are amazing and can totally change the composition of a dish,” she expounds.

Chefs are also sticklers for particular salts, ranging from sea salt for recipes to finishing salts, such as fleur de sel, for a last sprinkle before serving a meal. Professionals also tend to have homemade chicken stock on hand, along with eggs, flour, and oils. Oils come in many varieties, too, but for basics, olive oil is good for most recipes, and vegetable oil works for deep frying. Saab prefers grape seed oil for very high temperatures.

“All cooks and chefs go through an identity in the kitchen, of developing their flavors,” Saab says. But, once you have the essentials down, including tools and ingredients, you’re free to explore your personal tastes and advance your culinary prowess.


Kitchen Must-Haves Wedding Shower Checklist

If you’re setting up your first kitchen, this handy guide will help you navigate the many available options and aid you in deciding what is absolutely necessary to own.



  • 8- or 9-inch Chef’s Knife with sharpener

Good to have

  • Paring Knife
  • Serrated Knife (for bread)
  • Steak Knives



  • Can Opener
  • Slotted Spoon
  • Wooden Spoon
  • Serving Spoons
  • Wire Whisk Spatula (Essential: heat-resistant and silicone; Handy: fish)
  • Tongs
  • Measuring Cups and Spoons
  • Liquid Measuring Cup

Good to Have

  • Strainer
  • Peeler
  • Kitchen Shears
  • Rolling Pin
  • Ladle



  • Stock Pot
  • Sauté Pan
  • Sauce Pan
  • Skillet

Good to have

  • Dutch Oven
  • Cast Iron Skillet


  • Hand Mixer (or Stand Mixer if you know you will use it)
  • Toaster
  • Blender
  • Coffee Maker (if you’re a big coffee drinker or have friends/family who expect coffee when they visit)
  • Tea Kettle (same reasons as above)


  • Baking Sheets
  • Colander
  • Cutting Board (nonporous and heavy)
  • Kitchen Towels/Oven Mitts
  • Mixing Bowls


  • Thermometer
  • Flat Grater
  • Mandoline
  • Salad Spinner
  • Food Processor
  • Potato Masher

Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations.