Cooking your own meals is hands-down the fastest, easiest way to eat healthier and get your take-out budget under control. If you're thinking, "There's nothing fast or easy about cooking," allow us to blow your mind. You don't need expensive, fancy tools or to be obsessed with the Food Network to turn out tasty, inexpensive meals. You just need the right set of multitasking tools—gear that can help you easily add flavor and sharpen your cooking skills. And, because there are only about eight billion cooking gadgets and overpriced food gizmos out there, we've done the dirty work of finding the best, least-expensive kitchen tools for you.
A sturdy, razor-sharp chef's knife is probably the single most important tool in any kitchen, and this high-carbon steel knife is a utilitarian workhorse. It doesn't have the pedigree (or price tag) of fancier German or Japanese knives, but it's the weapon of choice in most restaurant kitchens.
Available at amazon.com, $12.99.
It doesn't hog precious kitchen counter space, it's easy to use, and it's a breeze to clean. The sharp, spinning blade can handle most whirring, chopping, or whipping you'd do with a whisk or chef's knife, making small prep jobs about 1,000 times easier and faster.
Here's the short list of things you can make with a hand blender (a.k.a. immersion blender): fresh basil pesto, marinades, salad dressings, pureed soups, smoothies, mayonnaise, tomato sauce, whipped cream, scrambled eggs, and batters (pancake, crepe, and waffle). Almost anything you'd hit with a whisk or put in a full-size blender is fair game. Be sure to keep the head of the blender fully immersed when using it or you risk splattering ingredients... everywhere.
To clean, immerse the business end of the blender in warm, soapy water; pulse it a few times; and rinse and dry.
Available at amazon.com, $15.75.
How hard is it to just squeeze a lemon or lime with your bare hands? Not very. But hand squeezing also isn't very efficient, leaving tablespoons of juice behind. And if you need to squeeze more than five of 'em—for fresh lemonade, ceviche marinade, your about-to-be-famous homemade margarita, or cocktail simple syrup—it's a tiresome job. This style of hand juicer is the most effective for getting every last drop of juice out. The trick? Place the fruit cut-side down, with the skin-side facing the dome of the squeezer. This flips the citrus inside out and extracts all of the juice. Roll the citrus against your countertop before cutting and juicing; rolling bursts the tiny citrus segments and makes the fruit easier to juice.
Available at amazon.com, $8.99.
Grating dried or fresh spices releases the essential oils (a.k.a. the flavor) in many ingredients, which makes this zester your secret weapon for adding quick hits of powerhouse taste to a dish. This unassuming tool, also known as a rasp, has super-fine, thin blades that can pummel whole, dried spices like cinnamon stick and nutmeg to a powder; deftly shave the thin, fragrant outer skin of citrus; and mince a toe of garlic or knob of peeled ginger in seconds flat. You can also use the zester to top pastas with a light, fluffy layer of Parmesan, or dust a dessert with tendrils of grated chocolate.
Tip: Point the underside of the zester up and drag the zester across the ingredient. Instead of showering your cutting board with a flurry of cheese or zest, it will collect in the underside of the tool.
Available at crateandbarrel.com, $14.95.
A sturdy, easy-to-hold vegetable peeler can do so much more than skin a bag of potatoes or carrots. Use it to create wide slivers of hard cheese (to top salads or pasta dishes) or curls of chocolate (over desserts or hot chocolate). Thin shavings of cold, hard butter will soften faster, and blend into flour more evenly when you're making biscuits or pie dough. Peelers can also cut strips of citrus peel for cocktail twists. Cutting down on carbs? Make thin, wide "noodles" out of cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, or squash with a peeler if you don’t have one of those zoodle makers.
Available at amazon.com, $8.95.
Cast iron gets raging hot and holds heat like nothing else, making it the perfect cookware for searing steaks, frying chicken, sizzling bacon, or getting a golden-brown crust on cornbread and pizzas. Raw, new cast iron requires a little bit of TLC to season it (which is what makes the surface nonstick and keeps it from rusting), but Lodge makes the job easier with a line of pre-seasoned cookware. To clean, use a dish brush (no soap!) and super hot water to scrub away stuck-on bits of food. Set the pan over low heat on your stove to dry it completely after washing, then rub a thin layer of vegetable oil over the surface with a paper towel to keep it seasoned.
Available at amazon.com, $10.59.
You don't have to be a coffee drinker to reap the benefits of this gadget. Think of it as a super-mini blender: It can grate, chop, or pulverize small batches of ingredients, like freshly toasted whole spices or herbs (think: whole peppercorns, chili peppers, broken cinnamon stick), to make your own rub or spice blend, bread crumbs, nuts, or seeds, including flax or sesame.
Available at amazon.com, $14.99.
For cocktail aficionados, it's a simple matter of physics: A handful of regular ice cubes in a highball (translation: tall) glass will leave more surface area exposed than a single giant ice cube in the same glass. The more surface area exposed, the faster the ice melts, the more diluted your favorite cocktail gets. In simpler terms: These jumbo cubes won't water down your perfect old fashioned or spicy margarita.
Available at crateandbarrel.com, $7.95.
Spices contain essential oils and volatile compounds that begin to degrade as soon as they're exposed to air. This is why the pre-ground black pepper sitting in your spice cabinet for an eternity tastes like dust compared to the punchy bite of freshly ground whole peppercorns. With an adjustable grinder, you can bust up whole peppercorns on the spot to get the most robust flavor, and you can select the size of the grind to suit the flavor of the dish. A small, powdery grind packs a lot of flavor that will linger in a dish; a chunkier, cracked pepper consistency will add a bit of crunch but a shorter punch.
Available at amazon.com, $13.98.
Single-purpose gadgets (see next section) tend to be a waste of money, time, and space in your kitchen, but this tool makes quick work of prepping thick, leafy greens and heavy-stemmed herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano. The mantra says it all: Strip kale like a boss.
Available at chefn.com, $7.99.
Although there's a case to be made for honing your knife skills and chopping by hand, this compact 1 1/2 cup chopper makes quick work of tear-inducing onions and other vegetables you might use in a small batch of soup, whole nuts, or rotisserie chicken (to make a salad). You can also use it to emulsify small batches of salad dressing or marinade.
Available at target.com, $14.99.
If you don't want the sharp, pungent aroma of garlic on your hands for days after a meal, this gizmo shucks the thin, papery outer layer of garlic toes in a few twists. Some people think this is a waste of money, but we think it’s revolutionary.
Available at chefn.com, $11.99.
A silicone riff on the classic metal steamer basket, this extra-wide steamer flexes to fit snugly in large or small pots; extended handles make plucking it out of hot water easier and safer too. Steaming is a fast and easy way to cook vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower (veggies retain more nutrients during the steaming process too). And it can even be used to steam small filets of fish or shellfish, such as clams or mussels.
Available at chefn.com, $12.99.
Worth the Splurge
As much as we love budget-friendly gadgets, there are just some kitchen tools you really shouldn’t skimp on because they make your time in the kitchen much more enjoyable and help you whip up your favorite recipes—sometimes with just the lift of a finger. These multipurpose items are worth that extra cheddar.
Silicone baking mats prevent cookies and other baked goods from sticking to sheet pans and over-browning, and they’re reusable—so you can say buh-bye to oily baking sprays, nonstick coated bakeware, and lining your cookie sheets with foil or parchment paper.
Available at surlatable.com, $19.95.
From soups to smoothies to sauces, this pulverizing powerhouse crushes, emulsifies, and blends fresh or frozen fruits, veggies, and nuts like a full-size blender. It's one of those kitchen tools you'll use on the regular.
Available at nutribullet.com, $79.99.
Think of this toaster as a miniature oven—one you can use to bake, broil, or toast small or single-serving dishes like chicken pot pie, cheese toast, frozen pizzas, cookie dough, and more. This puppy cooks up to 40 times faster than conventional toaster ovens. This means less time in the kitchen and more time chillaxing.
Available at amazon.com, $129.99.
Really, Don't Even Bother
Single-use gadgets are mostly a waste of money and take up precious kitchen real estate. Most of these are known to tempt you in the check-out aisle because they are small and cute and might initially sound like genius ideas. But the reality is you'll barely ever use them and likely own something that works just as well.
10-Blade Herb Shears
These specialty, multi-blade scissors are supposed to make snipping and chopping fresh herbs like basil and chives easier. We get that it might take less time, but literally maybe only 30 seconds. Seriously, a plain pair of scissors or a good chef’s knife will do the exact same thing. Just remember to give your scissors a rinse if the last time you used them was to open that cardboard box filled with new clothes.
A good paring knife can make quick work of any fruit or vegetable, and it’s super easy to clean—unlike these single-use cutting devices that make the simplest task… ridiculous. (Go ahead and read all of the reviews of a banana slicer on Amazon.com. You’re welcome.) Other specific slicers include avocado, mushroom, egg, and carrot, and they are just plain silly. Come on, you're not that lazy.
You know what saves a cut piece of fruit from turning brown? Eating it. Or covering it with a layer of plastic wrap and storing it in the refrigerator. Or using the Tupperware containers you already have on hand. No awkward tools required.