The high-end kitchen stores and the glossy mags will tell you that All-Clad is the best declaration of true love. And it might just be. But many of us can't afford much more than an All-Clad refrigerator magnet. I was looking around my kitchen today and realizing just how many of my essential tools ― the ones I use over and over again, for both cooking and baking ― cost less than $20. These are tools that I feel almost as attached to as I do my favorite knife, arranged by average cost. You can find many of them at Target or restaurant-supply stores as well as online.
Next week, look for SFoodie editor John Birdsall's list of his own cheap essentials.1. A flat-bottomed wooden spoon.
I bet you're picturing your boyfriend/niece/best friend unwrapping this with a look of resignation and disgust, but a solid, flat-bottomed wooden spoon is one of the most treasured tools in my kitchen. The last time I moved, I had to live without it for a couple of months, and it paralyzed me ― I couldn't sear meats and then use this to help deglaze the pan, I couldn't caramelize onions without them burning, I couldn't make risottos and judge when it was time to add more stock. An Oxo model costs $5.99.
Love doesn't usually come this cheap.
2. A meat thermometer.
Every beginning cook knows that the way to look serious is to clip one of these to the front of your chef's jacket: It's like a pocket calculator for meat geeks. I don't use mine much for cooking meat anymore, because I only worry about poisoning friends instead of strangers, but I'm always finding reasons to pull it out of the drawer. You can pick up relatively expensive, instant-read digital thermometers
from Crate & Barrel for $20 (okay, that'd be on my wish list), but one of the basic $6 models will serve a cook well. Pick it up at Econo Restaurant Supply or Amazon
.3. A bench scraper.
can't think about baking ― or, more precisely, cleaning up afterward ― without my
bench scraper. It's great for picking up and dividing the loosest of
doughs, and then I use it to rid the counters of crumbs and dried muck, which makes it a snap to scrub them down. Amazon sells this basic model
for $6.97, and Williams-Sonoma sells a more attractive stainless-steel model
for $8. Don't pay more.4. A fish spatula.
year, in lieu of a Christmas bonus, one of my chefs gave all his cooks a fish
spatula. At the time, I was so poor that I grumbled at the present, but 12 years later, I still love this thing. It shimmies under the thinnest of fillets, allowing me to flip them without ripping the flesh and ruining the browned crust, and I use it for cookies and roast potatoes as much as I do fish. There are a fair number of models out there ― just get one that has a
flexible blade with a relatively sharp edge. This one
's $12:95.5. A crappy coffee grinder.
I keep one of these, reserved for spices, in the cupboard and pull it out often enough. I buy spices in bulk, and mostly whole ― not just because they're a quarter of the cost of store-bought ground spices but because the flavor of the spice is much more vivid when you grind it just before using it. I picked up the current model for $5 at Goodwill, but if it makes you uncomfortable to give someone a used appliance, there's a cheap one on Amazon for $15
And for a splurge:
If you're shopping for a devoted cook, think about getting him or her a digital kitchen scale that measures in ounces and grams. I think I spent $30 for a model that looks like this, and I use it all the time ― both when I'm cooking from European/Asian cookbooks and from cookbooks for more complicated breads and cakes, which measure most of their ingredients by weight. The model pictured
costs $25 on Amazon.