A fully equipped kitchen shouldn't cost a fortune to stock. Actually, in our test kitchen, some of our favorite tools are also our cheapest. Here are 16 essential items from around the world that we've picked up over the years: inexpensive, multi-functional (no single-use gadgets allowed), and impeccably designed. Whether you're starting a brand new kitchen or your appliance cabinet is bursting at the seams, these tools deserve a place in your home.
Mortar and Pestle
One of the world's oldest cooking tools remains one of the most essential. There's no substitute for a mortar and pestle—a food processor or blender just won't give you the same effect. Those appliances chop up ingredients into tiny pieces, but a mortar lets you mash them into smithereens, breaking down more cell walls (without bruising delicate ingredients like herbs) to give you more flavorful curry pastes and better pesto. It also allows you to control your mash texture better, than a food processor set to puree, which ensures your guacamole has just the right amount of chunkiness.
Evak Storage Containers
Air plus dry goods equals bacteria and mold. The solution: Evak's glass storage tubes, with valve-controlled plunger lids that you can raise and lower to match the volume of whatever you're storing inside. After testing out all kinds of storage containers, we've found nothing gives you a more adaptable airtight seal no matter what dry goods you're storing. You can get cheaper items out there, but for fine ingredients prone to spoiling like whole grain flours, these are a must.
Restaurant-Style Food Containers
Evaks are fine for small amounts of ingredients, but for larger volumes, and especially storing cooked food, throw out all your Tupperware and get some Cambros. Cambros—actually a name brand the way Kleenex is to tissues—are a kind of container used in restaurants all over the world. Why? They're made out of nearly indestructible plastic, have strong (though not airtight) lids, are easy to stack, have handy volume markers, and are dirt cheap. Did we mention they're indestructible?
Heavy Chinese Cleaver
Some kitchen jobs require delicate cuts that only the finessed blade of a well made chef's knife can provide. Other times you have to hack through five pounds of chicken backs to make stock, or mash and mince a bunch of garlic at once. Enter the Chinese cleaver, a weighty but brilliantly effective knife that, for $20 or less, gives you a blade you don't mind messing up on heavy duty kitchen tasks. Stainless steel varieties are virtually bulletproof; carbon steel versions can be sharpened to a sharper edge but are occasionally prone to rusting if not dried thoroughly after use. But both can be your everyday knife—with a little practice you can use them to slice scallions finely and julienne ginger into razor-thin strips just like millions of Chinese cooks do every day.
A Proper Pair of Tongs
Next to a wooden spoon, a proper pair of tongs is one of the most crucial everyday cooking tools around. Tongs should be spring-loaded, lockable into a closed position, made of steel end to end (not silicone) so they can scrape up food and reach into tight corners, and be 12 inches long to give you fine control while keeping your fingers away from heat. These OXOs hit all those checkpoints perfectly.
Enamel-on-Aluminum Citrus Juicers
There are all kinds of citrus juicers and reamers you can buy, but our favorites are the enamel-on-aluminum varieties you often find in Mexico. Cut a lime or lemon in half, place a half cut-side-down into the bowl, and press the lever down with the concave top. The juicer flips the fruit inside out, extracting not just the maximum amount of juice with minimal work, but also the oils in the citrus skin for a more flavorful juice than you'd get with a reamer. The yellow juicers are designed for lemons but work for smaller limes, too; you can also get orange-colored versions that are made for—you guessed it—oranges.
Cast Iron Comal
We love cast iron for its brilliant heat retention and stovetop-to-oven capability, and if you're looking to grow your collection, pick up a comal. In Mexico, cooks use it to warm up and lightly char tortillas, but its essentially non-existent sides mean you can use it as an all-purpose griddle for anything where you need lots of clearance to slide in a thin spatula. It's perfect for quesadillas, grilled cheese, pancakes, chapatis, and even a full English breakfast.
French and Japanese cooks alike love the perfect slices you get with a mandoline, essential for ensuring your vegetables all cook through at the same time. Getting one isn't a cop-out—restaurant cooks love these little buddies too, particularly where presentation matters, such as thinly shaved radishes for a nice garnish on a salad. Inexpensive versions like this one take up little space and are perfectly safe to use, provided you treat the edge with as much respect as you would any of your knives.
This set of tins is a staple of the Indian kitchen, an ideal way to store groups of spices in easy-to-use kits. The idea: grind your best spices (more on that below) in small amounts and store them in the separate dishes, then combine spices you use together frequently—coriander and cardamom, say, or cinnamon and clove—in their own dishes in the same large tin. Now all of your favorite spices are safely segregated but grouped together for easy access.
As with the cleaver above, these knives follow the idea that you don't always want to use your best blades. Maybe you're packing knives for a picnic or potluck where you're worried about sticky-fingered friends. Or you're stocking your newly dormitoried college kid's pantry with some essentials. Or you just don't want to spend a lot on knives right now. With most cheap knives, you get what you pay for, but these Kiwi-brand blades from Thailand, ten bucks a pop (and that's for the big ones; paring knives are even cheaper), are pretty amazing. They can get razor sharp and stay that way for a while, then take well to resharpening. They're also feather-light, good for home cooks that find some of the fancier brands of knives too heavy for their hands.
This little gadget takes multi-tasking to heart. Formerly only available in Vietnam but now liberated to the internet, it can peel potatoes, julienne ginger, shred zucchini, slice cucumbers, and even make decorative zig-zag cuts for your very own batch of Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon. Oh, and it costs about a buck.
Whether you're cooking fish, vegetables, or eggs, there's no more versatile tool than a simple bamboo steamer. Unlike metal steamers, they won't singe food (though you still need to line them with parchment paper or cabbage leaves), and you can stack them as tall as you like. There's really no substitute for steaming, too, and once you have a steamer, a whole way of cooking opens itself up to you, with no additional equipment. Get steamers that fit over your widest pot to give yourself as much flexibility as possible.
This handy trainer is just the thing for rescuing noodles and pasta, dumplings, vegetables, fritters, and just about anything else from a pot of bubbling water or oil. It picks up more than a slotted spoon and drains faster, which means you have more control over when you rescue your food from its cooking medium.
Yes, it's just a coffee grinder, but get a second one purely for spices. Then toast whole spices and grind them in small amounts to cook right then and there. The flavor upgrade from pre-ground spices is like nothing else, and over time the thing pays for itself. Whole spices have a much longer shelf-life than ground—six months to two years longer—which means you can buy in bulk when you see a good deal and only grind what you need.
Flessenlikker (Bottle Spatula)
You know how there’s always that last bit at the bottom of the mayonnaise jar that’s just out of reach? Thanks to a handy tool called the flessenlikker, the Dutch don’t have that problem. Literally ‘bottle-licker,’ this elongated spatula oriented 90 degrees from its handle does exactly what it says: licks up every last smidgen of soft, creamy condiments from the inside of the bottle, such as yogurt, peanut butter, ketchup, or jam. Once you get one, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.