Have you ever started from scratch in a new kitchen? Perhaps you were leaving for college, or disentangling one household from another. Maybe you were outfitting a second home, or helping a young friend or family member set up with their own kitchen for the very first time.
Is it possible to equip a kitchen for robust daily cooking on a relatively small budget? We say yes. If you are starting from scratch, without a spatula to your name, here's your checklist of essential equipment — and all for under $300.
A Checklist of Kitchen Essentials for $300
Wait, you may say — $300 sounds like a lot of money! To most of us, $300 is not pocket change. It could represent half of your monthly rent, or the cost of your textbooks for a semester. It's about the same price as a new iPhone, or another tech bauble like a tablet.
But keep in mind you can easily spend nearly that much for a single set of cookware or knives (heck, for a single pan or knife), and we're not just outfitting you with a set of pans, but with everything you need to take an empty kitchen from useless to delicious.
The Goal of This List
Our goal was a list of essential equipment for daily cooking, aimed towards the beginner cook.
- We prioritized the things you need for habitual daily cooking.
- We looked for smart buys, focusing on commercial kitchen tools.
- We looked for quality materials and avoided plastic.
- We looked for tools that are pleasurable to use. Extremely cheap cookware is often false economy, since it's harder and less fun to cook with, and produces discouraging results.
What's Not on the List
We designed this for a new cook who's just learning the basics, and we think it would help someone just starting out to cook a wide range of dishes. But as cooks gain experience, they form opinions about the tools that work best for them. So of course, if there's something not on this list that you couldn't live without, customize away!
A few things we didn't include:
- Tableware: Dishes, glassware, silverware, serving dishes, and serving utensils.
- Small appliances: Blender, toaster, food processor, mixer, and kettle.
- Storage: Jars and storage containers.
More Ways to Save Money
Could you buy this list of 20 essentials for less money? Most likely. But we didn't want this to be a gimmick, full of dollar-store finds and really cheap cookware sets. Having said that, you can probably find items here for cheaper locally. Places to try:
- Thrift stores
- Discount stores, like TJ Maxx and Ross
- Garage sales
- Church rummage sales
Essential Cookware & Tools for a First Kitchen
Pots & Pans
We only included four pans on our list, and this may be controversial. Where's the cast iron skillet? Where's the bargain set of pots and nonstick frying pans (with utensils thrown in)? We skipped all of those for just two pots and two pans.
Sauté Pan with a Lid
A deep sauté pan is the most multipurpose pan. It does everything a more shallow frying pan can do, but it's also deep enough for soups and sauces. It's wide enough to cook pancakes or burgers. You can fry an egg and make a piece of toast. It's deep enough to braise meat, steam vegetables, and simmer beans. It's worth spending a modest amount on a solid, well-made pan, and this Cuisinart pick is by all accounts a bargain.
- Our pick: Cuisinart Chef's Classic Stainless 3-1/2-Quart Sauté Pan with Helper Handle & Cover, $49.99 at Amazon
Use a Dutch oven as your big pot, and you gain a lot of extras. A Dutch oven can do many things, both on the stove and in the oven. You can boil pasta and cook rice, brown meat, and steam or boil vegetables. But it also can go in the oven and be used for gratins, lasagna, casseroles, and more. You could save a little money by buying a stainless steel pot instead, but this IKEA piece is still a great buy.
- Our pick: SENIOR Casserole with Lid (5 Quarts), $49.99 at IKEA
The best sheet pans are made for commercial kitchens and won't warp even after long use. (Note: The pan linked below fits in standard ovens; if you have a smaller oven, double-check the proportions and if necessary buy a quarter sheet pan instead.)
- Our pick: Focus Foodservice Commercial Bakeware Aluminum Half Sheet Pan, $10 at Amazon
9x13" Baking Pan
If you want to make a casserole or a birthday cake, you need a 9x13" baking pan — maybe the most called-for pan size of all time. This one is good value and comes with a cover for storing leftovers.
- Our pick: Wilton Recipe Right 13 x 9 Oblong Pan with Cover, $11 at Amazon
Pots & Pans Total: $121
Knives — the most important tool in the cook's arsenal! We stuck to the basics, here. No grater, zester, or peeler — that's what the paring knife is for. (And remember: Vegetable skins are good for you!)
We've talked about this knife many times in the past. Made for commercial kitchens and very comfortable to use. A terrific value.
- Our pick: Victorinox Swiss Classic 8" Chef's Knife, $30 at Amazon
Look for these sharp-as-razor knives at Asian groceries too.
- Our pick: Kiwi 4" Paring Knife, $3 at The Wok Shop
Knives Total: $33
Between your bowl and the colander to drain pasta and the measuring cups — there are a lot of little things that affect your day-to-day cooking. It's important to look for quality even in these little tools because you use them so frequently.
I use my big metal mixing bowls at least twice a day: to toss a lunch salad, to make biscuit dough, to whip up a cake, to marinate meat. Absolutely essential.
- Our pick: ExcelSteel 8-Quart Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl, $10 at Amazon
For washing vegetables and greens, and draining pasta.
- Our pick: Stainless Steel Colander (11-inch), $7 at Amazon
We still stand by wood as our cutting board material of choice, and this heavy, grooved board from IKEA is well-wearing and long-lasting if cared for.
- Our pick: APTITLIG Bamboo Butcher Block, $15 at IKEA
Measuring Cups & Spoons
Here's a great find: stainless steel measuring cups and spoons together in one economical package.
- Our pick: Amco Stainless Cups & Spoons, $18 at Amazon
Liquid Measuring Cup
You can't cook without one of these! It's also good for watering plants and heating milk or water in the microwave.
- Our pick: Pyrex Prepware 2-Cup Measuring Cup, $5 at Macy's
Prep Tools Total: $55
Utensils are like extensions of the cook's hands, and we have just a few essentials.
If I could only have one utensil, it would be tongs. You can do almost anything with them — even stir soup, in a pinch! And my best tongs are the cheapest. Go to a restaurant supply store and don't spend more than $6.
- Our pick: 12-inch Serving Tongs, $6 at Amazon
Wood spoons are a matter of preference, but I've found that I reach for angled spoons like this one most frequently, as it gets into all angles of the pan.
- Our pick: OXO Good Grips Wooden Corner Spoon, $6 at Amazon
Some might quibble about the whisk. Yes, you can live without it, but if you want whipped cream or fluffy pancakes or even just really good scrambled eggs, a whisk is the best. I have this one and love it.
- Our pick: OXO Good Grips 11-Inch Balloon Whisk, $10 at Amazon
Here's a small splurge on our list: the best spatula of all time. The GIR spatula is more expensive than our second pick (a $2 commercial Rubbermaid scraper) but it's so well-made. And since it's silicone it won't melt, so you can use it in hot pans and for flipping meat in the oven.
- Our pick: GIR Ultimate Spatula, $16 at Amazon
Every kitchen needs one.
- Our pick: EZ-DUZ-IT Deluxe Can Opener, $9 at Amazon
Here's a pick we included specifically because this is a list for first-time kitchen folks. Experienced cooks might not bother to take the temperature of a chicken breast or pork chop, knowing from long experience how to tell when meat is done. But a newer cook may find the peace of mind (and properly done meat) worth the tiny investment.
- Our pick: Taylor Classic Instant Read Pocket Thermometer, $7 at Amazon
Utensils Total: $54
Last but not least, kitchen linens make up an important part of the daily kitchen experience. Leave the pretty tea towels for other shopping trips; these two picks are designed to work hard.
Not just for drying dishes (although they should be able to do that well). Towels are used for covering bread dough, sweeping flour off a countertop, and as makeshift trivets and hot pads. I have these towels and they're durable, absorbent, and large.
- Our pick: Ribbed Kitchen Towels (Set of 2), $14 at Sur La Table
Another pick that's especially important for the new cook. Battle-hardened cooks might be more cavalier about their fingertips and pull sheets pans out of the oven with the tip of their towel. But new cooks (and clumsy cooks, like me!) should be more careful. These potholders are good value and highly rated by Cook's Illustrated.
- Our pick: Ritz Royale Potholders (Set of 2), $12 at Amazon
Kitchen Linens Total: $26
Grand Total: $289
All right, your turn! What would you add (or subtract)? How did you stock your first kitchen?
Quick List for Shopping
All prices were accurate at the time of publication.
- Sauté Pan: Cuisinart Chef's Classic Stainless 3-1/2-Quart Sauté Pan with Helper Handle & Cover
- Dutch Oven: SENIOR Casserole with Lid (5 Quarts)
- Sheet Pan: Focus Foodservice Commercial Bakeware Aluminum Half Sheet Pan
- Casserole Pan: Wilton Recipe Right 13 x 9 Oblong Pan with Cover
- Chef's Knife: Victorinox Swiss Classic 8" Chef's Knife
- Paring Knife: Kiwi 4" Paring Knife
- Mixing Bowl: ExcelSteel 8-Quart Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl
- Colander: Stainless Steel Colander (11-inch)
- Cutting Board: APTITLIG Bamboo Butcher Block
- Measuring Cups & Spoons: Amco Stainless Cups & Spoons
- Liquid Measuring Cup: Pyrex Prepware 2-Cup Measuring Cup
- Tongs: 12-inch Serving Tongs
- Wood Spoon: OXO Good Grips Wooden Corner Spoon
- Whisk: OXO Good Grips 11-Inch Balloon Whisk
- Spatula: GIR Ultimate Spatula
- Can Opener: EZ-DUZ-IT Deluxe Can Opener
- Thermometer: Taylor Classic Instant Read Pocket Thermometer
- Towels: Ribbed Kitchen Towels (Set of 2)
- Potholders: Ritz Royale Potholders (Set of 2)