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Top Essential Kitchen Equipment

Published May 2007

How we tested

Think you need a fancy mixer, top-of-the-line cookware, and expensive knives to cook at home? Think again. Our grandmothers did plenty of cooking in kitchens stocked with just a few essential items.

America’s Test Kitchen has put together a list of the Top Kitchen Essentials. And because we have tested thousands of knives, pots, pans, and gadgets over the years, we’ve found plenty of bargain models that offer superior performance at a reasonable price.

Here are the basic items you need in any kitchen. Best of all, you can buy all of them for less than $200. Perfect for a recent grad or new cook, or a seasoned cook looking for a fresh start.

1. CHEF’S KNIFE

Why You Need It: The most useful knife in any cook’s arsenal. A must for chopping and slicing vegetables, mincing garlic and herbs, and cutting meat.

What to Look For: A gently curved blade facilitates rocking motion necessary to mince or chop foods. Molded plastic handles are easier to keep clean and more comfortable. Avoid handles with ergonomic bumps or pebbled finishes—many of our testers found these innovations uncomfortable.

2. PARING KNIFE

Why You Need It: When you need more dexterity and precision than a chef’s knife can provide—such as when you're peeling and coring apples, coring tomatoes, deveining shrimp, or removing patches of fat from a roast.

What to Look For: The blade should be flexible enough to allow for easy maneuvering in tight spots (such as tomato cores) or for handling curves (when peeling apples).

3. CUTTING BOARD

Why You Need It: You can’t cut on your countertop!

What to Look For:We like plastic, because you can throw the dirty board in the dishwasher, which makes it easy to sanitize and remove odors, such as onion and garlic. You can pick up good boards almost anywhere; we really like the counter-gripping feet on a nonskid cutting board. Choose the largest board that will fit in your dishwasher—at least 11 by 14 inches.

4. LARGE SKILLET

Why You Need It: A must when cooking steaks, chops, and cutlets. Good for vegetables, too. The most important pan in your kitchen.

What to Look For: For maximum browning and maximum flavor, you want stainless steel with an aluminum core (known as a clad pan) or an aluminum disk—both improve heat distribution. Look for a pan with flared sides, which speed evaporation and keep food from steaming in its own juices. Should have a heavy bottom and a handle that can go under the broiler or in the oven.

5. SMALL CAST-IRON SKILLET

Why You Need It: For delicate jobs, like frying an egg or cooking fish, or small jobs, like searing a single steak.

What to Look For: You could buy a nonstick skillet and replace it every few years when the coating wears off, but a preseasoned cast-iron pan will last a lifetime. In the old days, you needed to season cast-iron pans yourself—a messy process that involves rubbing the pan with oil and heating and cooling it several times. Now many manufacturers are doing the seasoning for you.

6. SAUCEPAN

Why You Need It: It’s for more than just sauces and gravies. Use this pot to cook rice, boil vegetables, or make a small batch of soup.

What to Look For: We like easy-to-clean, nonreactive stainless steel and find that 3 to 4 quarts is the best size. Make sure to buy a pan with an aluminum core or disk (which improve heat distribution). Look for a pan with a long handle that allows you to lift the pot—even when it’s full.

7. LARGE SOUP/PASTA POT

Why You Need It: How else are you going to boil a pound of pasta, cook corn on the cob, or make a big batch of chili?

What to Look For: Stainless steel is easy to clean, and as long as the pot comes with aluminum core, it will distribute heat evenly. Make sure the handles tilt upward, so they sit well in your hands when you pour out the contents. And buy a pot with a lid—many soup pots are sold without one.

8. SHEET PAN

Why You Need It: This one pan can be used to roast potatoes or a whole chicken or bake a batch of cookies or biscuits.

What to Look For: A bigger pan (preferably one 18 by 13 inches in diameter and at least 1-inch deep) is more versatile. Avoid nonstick surfaces—they cause cookies to overbrown and can't be used with roasting racks. A heavy-gauge, light-colored aluminum pan is your best bet.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*