In the long run, it's not the fancy stand mixer or the limited-edition chef's knife that will make a difference. These tools will.

By Margaret Eby
Updated February 20, 2020
Amazon

Like everyone else who lives in late capitalism, I have the impulse to buy things to fix my problems. Sometimes this works—I thank Past Me for buying a dozen light bulbs whenever my lamp won’t switch on and I don’t have to run to the bodega, or sit in darkness. But when it comes to fancier purchases, buying something new doesn’t always have the same payoff. Splurging on a fancy vacuum won’t make my house magically neater, and simply owning a next-gen sewing machine won’t do anything until I actually teach myself how to sew. 

Related: 20 Essential Kitchen Accessories Under $20

In cooking, this kind of magical thinking abounds, and even though I know that nothing but practice and patience will make me a better baker, I’m still always browsing through cake pans and bread cloches as if they had talismanic powers. Having a copper pot is nice, but it didn’t do that much better than my regular stainless steel number. In fact, I realized most of the tools that have actually helped me become a better cook are simple tools that you can pick up cheaply at restaurant-supply stores or online. Here are a few $10 or under items that, just like those light bulbs, really do make your life easier and more pleasant—even if they won’t actually make dinner for you. 

Bench Scraper

Amazon

A bench scraper doesn’t look like much: just a thin rectangle of stainless steel with a plastic or wood handle. But if you work with dough, a bench scraper is a lifesaver for sectioning bread dough or, say, moving a pie crust from the counter to the top of a pie. It’s also very useful for transferring chopped-up ingredients from cutting board to stove—just angle the bench scraper against your work surface, sweep your food onto it with your hand, and maintain contact as you carry your minced garlic or chopped nuts over to your pan. I like this one with the built-in ruler because it makes it easier to judge dough thickness and width. 

Norpro Grip-EZ Scraper/Chopper, $6 at amazon.com

Instant-Read Thermometer

Amazon

If you’re great at cooking steaks, you might be able to gauge the doneness of the beef just through touch. I haven’t achieved that level of intuition yet, so I use a meat thermometer. You can invest in a very fancy, high-end one if you cook a lot of meat, or if you often do the kind of cooking that requires really precise temperatures, like candy-making. But if you just need something to gauge whether your roast chicken is done, this $10 instant-read thermometer got me through culinary school with no complaints on my end. 

ThermoPro TP01A Instant Read Meat Thermometer, $10 at amazon.com

Cut-Resistant Gloves

Amazon

This might not technically be a tool, but it enables you to use more tools, and so I think it counts. There’s not much I’m afraid of in the kitchen, but one thing I’m always nervous about is shucking oysters. Years ago, I got a pretty serious cut on my thumb when I wasn’t paying enough attention to the process. Ever since, if I’m feeling shy around a sharp tool, I’ll put on a cut-resistant glove. It helped me conquer my fear of the mandoline, of oyster shucking, and of various other techniques best done with a sharp knife that could endanger my fingers. A pair will run you about $9, and your thumb will thank you.

Dowellife Cut Resistant Gloves at amazon.com

Cake Tester

Amazon

If you look closely in the chef's pockets the next time you hang out in a restaurant with an open kitchen, odds are that you’ll spot a cake tester somewhere. That’s because this tiny tool is wildly useful, and not just for cake. The thinness of the metal skewer means that you can check the rough doneness of meat without poking it full of holes. Just put the skewer into the thickest part of the meat, and then hold it to the skin just under your lip. It will feel cold if the temperature is below 98.6 degrees, and if it’s hot enough that you immediately spring away from it, then it’s going to be well above that. You can order them online at 4 for $7, or pick them up even cheaper than that at a restaurant supply store. 

4 Pieces Cake Tester, $7 at amazon.com

Spider Strainer

Amazon

You may think that if you have a slotted spoon and a colander, that you don’t need a spider strainer. And maybe you’re right—I don't know your life—but I sure was wrong when I thought that. A spider strainer is most useful for when you’re frying hush puppies and want to scoop it out of the hot oil, but it’s also incredibly great for grabbing pasta out of a pot of starchy water without losing any of that useful pasta water, and scooping of all kinds, really. They come in various sizes, but I’ve found that a 5- or 6-inch spider strainer provides the most usefulness without being difficult to maneuver.

5" Round Brass Spider Strainer, $9 at amazon.com

Tiny Bain Marie Pot

Amazon

Bains marie pots are tall, cylindrical stainless steel containers that are mostly used in professional kitchens. But I found that having a relatively small one—mine is just two quarts—is great in my tiny kitchen. Rather than a messy spoon rest, I fill the bain marie partway with water and put tools and utensils in there when I’m not working with them but still need them for the dish. (You don’t necessarily need the water, even, it just makes it heavier and therefore more stable.) It’s also great for putting in a pot of simmering water to keep a sauce or melted chocolate warm. 

Winco Bain Maries, 2-Quart, $9 at amazon.com

Portable, Cheap Knife Sharpener

Amazon

I hone my knives more often than I sharpen them, but, particularly when I’m traveling to a kitchen with an unknown knife situation, I always have this tiny knife sharpener in my bag just in case. At $6, it’s a cheap but useful insurance policy that you won’t have to work with dangerously dull knives. 

KitchenIQ Edge Grip 2-Stage Knife Sharpener, $6 at amazon.com

Mini Liquid Measuring Cup

Amazon

The most accurate way to measure something is still a kitchen scale, but if a recipe I’m using doesn’t include measurements by weight, or if I’m just looking to make sure the proportions of a certain liquid are right, I use this clever tiny measuring cup. It’s basically a large shot glass with markings to let you see how much you’re pouring, and it’s a great way to measure out tablespoons and teaspoons without having to break out an assortment of the spoons themselves. 

Anchor Hocking 5 Ounce Measuring Glass, $7 at amazon.com

Fish Spatula

Amazon

Even if you don’t cook fish, having a fish spatula is an essential kitchen tool. (And if you don’t cook fish because you find it intimidating, then here’s a good place to start.) That’s because the thin, flexible blade is helpful for moving all kinds of delicate dishes, from pancakes to cookies to omelets. Plus, the one I have costs under $7

Winco Fish Spatula, $6 at amazon.com

Pinch Bowls

Amazon

The simplest way to improve your cooking is to put your salt in a bowl, rather than letting it hang out in a carton or grinder. Being able to pick it up with your fingers from a bowl gives you a better sense of how much salt you need to season a dish than any other method I’ve found. Any bowl will do, but having a set of smaller pinch bowls around is useful for pre-portioning any number of ingredients. These glass ones will run you under $9 for four.

Greenbrier Mini Prep Bowls, $9 at amazon.com

Oven Thermometer

Amazon

Maybe you have a beautiful oven that is always correct when it shows you the temperature setting or maybe, like me, your oven is just OK. If you, like me, have an old oven, get inconsistent results when baking, or even if you just want to make sure that your oven is actually 450 degrees when the dial says so, an oven thermometer is an easy insurance policy. Just make sure to place it at least midway into the oven on the middle rack so you can get an accurate temperature.

Oven Thermometer, $9 at amazon.com

Pastry Brushes

Amazon

Sometimes I get very stubborn about not buying some tiny tool that I know would help, just because the thought of introducing another thing to my overpacked gadget drawer is overwhelming. I held out on getting a pastry brush for too long, but now I know the error of my ways. Skip the silicone ones—I’ve always found them to be useless—and go for one or two bristle brushes. These shouldn’t run you more than a few dollars each at a restaurant supply store, or you can pick up a set on Amazon for under $10. Use them to paint on egg wash, melted butter, or glaze, or just to sweep excess flour off of the surface of dough you’re working with or your cutting board.  Turns out a tiny broom sure comes in handy sometimes. 

Set of 2 Pastry Brushes, $9 at amazon.com

An Offset Spatula

Amazon

If you’ve ever frosted a cake, you know that the process can be an ordeal. Icing sticks to everything, including the handle of your knife, and that can end up making your frosting look craggy rather than smooth. A small offset spatula helps tremendously with the work of spreading, whether that’s icing on cake or guacamole on a sandwich. The one I have goes for $4

Ateco Offest Spatula, $4 at amazon.com

Pre-Cut Parchment Circles

Amazon

Lining a round cake pan with parchment paper is a pain. Halting your batter-making momentum in order to trace a circle on a piece of parchment always seemed like a stumbling block to me so I often winged it by buttering and flouring the pan instead. Sometimes that strategy works, but often the result is a cake that sticks to the pan as I silently curse myself for not just taking the time to line the cake pan already. You know what solved that? Pre-cut parchment circles. You can buy a hundred of them for $7 on Amazon, and save yourself future cake headaches. 

Parchment Paper Rounds, Set of 100, $7 at amazon.com

Zester

Amazon

Being able to use the skin of a citrus fruit and the juice is a magical thing, and it often boosts the flavor of, say, a key lime pie that much more. I use my zester—which you can pick up for $9—to grate nutmeg, cheese, and chocolate, too. 

Raniaco Zester Stainless Steel Grater, $9 at amazon.com

Advertisement