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Kitchen space is precious — we don’t blame you for being selective about the tools that earn a spot in your cabinets. Truthfully, though, some standard utensils belong in every kitchen, even if you think you’ll never use them.
These are the underdogs of the cooking world. Read this now, thank us later.
Why you think you don’t need it: You have a box grater, you can get zest using a peeler, ground nutmeg is just the same as fresh nutmeg, for some reason you love the sticky feeling of minced garlic on your fingertips, and you can buy preshredded cheese.
Why you actually do: When you need a finer shred or zest, it’s not a box grater you want, it’s a Microplane. With a Microplane, you can quickly turn garlic cloves into paste, zest citrus with ease, shred cheese like you’re tableside at a fancy restaurant, grate fresh ginger, and so much more. Sure, you’ve probably gotten along fine without it so far, but once it’s in your kitchen, you’ll reach for it over and over.
There’s nothing wrong with buying preshredded or preground goods, but a Microplane opens up a world of possibilities. Suddenly you can be someone who uses only fresh grated Parm or quickly whips together a zesty ginger-lime marinade without having to switch tools.
When we tell you freshly grated nutmeg is so much better than preground, don’t take our word for it. Just ask Alton Brown, who never leaves home without a whole nutmeg and a grater!
Why you think you don’t need it: Your colander works fine.
Why you actually do: Colanders have big holes in them, perfect for straining water out of pasta. But what if you need to strain chicken stock, sift flour, make a silky-smooth hot sauce, or dust some scones with powdered sugar? We recommend having a few different sizes of these around because they’re also great for removing the watery excess from raw eggs before poaching them to make sure your water doesn’t get all cloudy and gross.
Perfectly smooth, lump-free buttercream isn’t possible without sifting your powdered sugar or cocoa powder first. No one uses those old squeeze-handle sifters anymore. Why would they when a few quick taps on the side of a wire mesh strainer can do the same thing more quickly?
Why you think you don’t need it: Cups are fine! Math sucks. What is an ounce or gram, anyway?
Why you actually do: Measuring by weight is far more accurate than measuring by volume. One cup of flour can weigh 150 grams if it’s packed tightly or 100 grams if the flour is aerated and leveled off. A cup of flour is usually around 120 grams. That kind of fluctuation can make a big difference! If you’ve ever followed a recipe using cup measurements exactly and still had it turn out kinda funny, well, that’s probably why.
Kitchen scales can feel intimidating. If you’ve ever tried dividing 1 3/4 cups into thirds, you know it’s soooo much easier to divide 210 grams by 3. Plus, you don’t need to use a ton of measuring cups. Just plop an empty mixing bowl on the scale, deduct the weight of the bowl, and then start adding ingredients.
If you’re not a baker, the kitchen scale also comes in handy when a recipe calls for 1 pound of pork shoulder but your grocery store only sells it in 8-pound packages.
Why you think you don’t need it: Your oven has a temperature dial, duh.
Why you actually do: You would be shocked — shocked, we tell you! — to know how many ovens are improperly calibrated. If you’ve had a string of underbaked cakes or burnt roasts, your oven’s temperature gauge could be the problem. Your oven might alert you 15 minutes before it actually gets to temperature, or it might just always be off by about 10, 15, or even 20 degrees. That can make a big difference!
Get yourself an oven thermometer for about five bucks and hang it on your oven rack. That way you’ll always know the oven’s true temperature and can even calibrate your oven for a more permanent solution to the problem.
Why you think you don’t need it: You have a slotted spoon.
Why you actually do: Slotted spoons are nice, but when it comes to getting something out of a pot of hot water or oil, a wire spider can’t be beat. Slotted spoons don’t have the surface area necessary to fully support fried chicken or bagels.
When it comes to blanching and shocking vegetables, the wide, shallow shape of a wire spider will get as many veggies out of the pot in one scoop as possible, meaning they’re far less likely to overcook before you can get them into an ice bath.
The thin wires and larger holes also mean you’ll get less splashing and far less retained water or oil in every scoop than you would with a slotted spoon.
Why you think you don’t need it: You have a knife. You don’t bake bread.
Why you actually do: A metal bench scraper with a nice sharp edge is the single fastest way to scrape off any hard and crusty dried ~anything~ that’s stuck to your countertops. The sturdy blade makes it so easy to clean off your cutting boards and scoop up crumbs to toss in one quick motion. I use mine so often it’s basically become a third hand in the kitchen.
Beyond that, you can use it to easily divide and shape even sticky bread doughs, and it’s great for scooping up all the peppers or onions or whatever it is you’ve just chopped and dropping them into a skillet or bowl without them falling all over the floor.
Why you think you don’t need it: You have regular spatulas, you have mini spatulas, you have butter knives.
Why you actually do: When you need to get cake batter into every corner of your cake pan, a mini offset spatula is the tool you’re looking for.
It’s blunter, thinner, and more flexible than a butter knife, so it’s perfect for frosting cakes and cupcakes but also ideal for spreading thick pancake batter in a hot skillet, flattening graham cracker crusts, and knocking any air bubbles out of jam jars or cheesecakes. When the mini-est of mini spatulas is too big to fit in a jar, the mini offset spatula is your friend.
The offset design makes it perfect for getting into all sorts of nooks and crannies without requiring you to contort your hand and wrist in uncomfortable positions. You can also use it for spreading pizza sauce, making chocolate shards, and lifting delicate cookies off a hot cookie sheet.
Why you think you don’t need it: You have hands. Or you can just use the bottled citrus juices.
Why you actually do: When you’re moving quickly in the kitchen, the last thing you want is to suddenly have your hands covered in acidic, sticky citrus juice.
They might seem clunky, but it’s such a relief when you don’t have to fish errant seeds out of batter—and your hands stay dry.
Sure, in most cases, you can use bottled juices. They’re a good option, especially if you have arthritis or the squeezing motion of a juicer doesn’t work for you. But we still think this tool comes in handy more often than not and is worthy of a place in your kitchen.
Why you think you don’t need it: You’ve got a big whisk. Besides, a fork is the same thing, right?
Why you actually do: Have you ever tried fitting a regular-size whisk into a narrow bowl or cup? It’s awkward, and it doesn’t let the whisk serve its intended purpose — getting air into things.
A whisk works best when given lots of room to move around so you can use big, vigorous movements to incorporate lots of air into whatever you’re whisking or force two opposing ingredients to emulsify (that’s science for “get along nicely”).
Sure, you could use a fork, but a whisk’s 8+ wire tines are far more effective than 4 inflexible prongs. Plus, you won’t have to transfer whatever you’re whisking into a bigger bowl just to let your big whisk do its job right. A tiny whisk can get the job done in a small bowl. Plus, it’s super cute — sometimes that matters!
Why you think you don’t need them: Isn’t one set enough?
Why you actually do: Truthfully, we recommend owning a long pair, a short pair, and at least one mini pair.
Here’s why you should at least start with two: It’s ideal to have one for handling raw meat and one for handling cooked (ready to serve) meat. If you use the same pair of tongs to cook a steak and then to serve it, you’ve cross-contaminated the cooked meat! Yuck!
Why you think you don’t need it: You can just make a little slice to check if your chicken is done. You always follow recipe instructions exactly.
Why you actually do: The only way to be 100 percent sure something — particularly meat — is cooked through is to take its temperature.
Insert a thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, and if it hits the correct temperature for doneness, you know it’s safe to eat. If you slice a piece of meat open to check, you’ve released some of the precious juices and will end up with a drier end product. An instant-read thermometer creates a tiny hole, preserving the juiciness while letting you know if the food is cooked to perfection.
For baked goods, if the thermometer registers between 190 and 210°F, you can be pretty sure the item is cooked through. For thicker, crustier breads, you’re safer in the 200 to 210°F range, but how would you know without a thermometer? The sharp point doubles as a cake tester — if it comes out with cake batter on it, keep baking. If it comes out clean, the cake is done!
Why you think you don’t need it: You’ve never had to sharpen your knives before…
Why you actually do: Did you know you’re far more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than with a sharp knife? This is a matter of safety, people! If you’ve never sharpened your knives before, stop reading this article. Stop doing whatever you were doing before you started reading this article. Go buy a knife sharpener.
Using a sharp knife to cut onions makes it far less likely that you’ll end up a weepy, teary mess by the time you’re ready to start cooking. Whether you pick up a full whetstone kit or just a $5 handheld countertop sharpener, a few quick swipes of the blade when your knife starts mashing more than slicing will save you time and help you keep all your fingers.
Trust me. Sharpen your favorite knife and cut an onion. Then try to tell me you don’t need to sharpen your knives.
Rebecca Eisenberg is a freelance food editor at Greatist. She’s the voice behind the food blog The Practical Kitchen and recently earned her Certificate in Pastry Arts from Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (Class of January 2021). She lives in Boston with her husband and two cats.