Everyone has a different approach to cooking. My approach often sits in that sweet spot between convenience and flavor—I want tasty food fast, and I don’t want to work very hard to make it.
It can be tough to find that balance, but over the years I think I’ve discovered what works for me. I know which tools I like to keep on hand to make cooking easy and clean-up quick. I’ve pinned down the ingredients that give me a huge and interesting flavor payoff for a small effort (and a long shelf life).
The best part? Almost all of my kitchen must-haves are under $20. And trust me, they’re some of the best things I’ve ever bought. Check out my top seven:
1. Pot with straining lid
I eat a lot of pasta. Like, a lot. I tend to make it when I’m tired and want a hot, filling meal with minimal effort, which is why it’s always frustrating to have to use a pasta strainer. It’s just another item I’ll have to clean afterwards!
A pot with a straining lid eliminates that extra step, and I seriously couldn’t adore mine more. Boil your pasta or steam your greens, and when it comes time to strain out the extra liquid, you can just make sure the pot lid is secure and pour any extra liquid into the sink.
Call me lazy, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t care. I hate doing dishes, and this pot means one less thing to wash.
2. Chipotles in adobo
I don’t like to talk about the time before I discovered chipotles in adobo. Those were dark days. Now, I keep a can (or several) on hand at all times.
A can of chipotles in adobo is a can of flavor. It contains smoked and dried jalapeno peppers, which have been rehydrated and canned in adobo sauce. The sauce itself is smoky-sweet and vinegary, with a kick of garlic and varying degrees of heat, depending on the brand. My favorite versions have mild spice and ruddy, complex flavor.
I like to add the adobo sauce to soups and chilis, to beans, rice, stir-fries, salsas, marinades. I like to stir it into ketchup or mayonnaise for that smoky chipotle taste. I’ll often chop or grind the peppers in a food processor and add a small amount along with the sauce to give a dish some spice.
Ultimately, this stuff gives you a complexity of flavor that’s hard to achieve any other way—and all you have to do is open up a can. A must-have for anyone who likes Mexican food.
3. Thermopop instant read thermometer
Okay, so this thermometer is the only item on this list that costs more than $20, but I promise it’s worth it. My instant-read thermometer is seriously one of the best things I’ve ever bought for my kitchen. I’ll admit that at first I was as enticed by the adorable lollipop shape and bright color options as I was by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s glowing review, but after a year or two of ownership, I’m a total convert.
So long, dry, overcooked chicken! Farewell, nervously eyeballing pork for any unappetizing pinkness! Begone, overly rare or underdone steak! My Thermopop means I don’t have to guess whether things are done cooking. I just press a single button on the Thermopo, stick it into whatever I’m making, and watch the temperature climb for a few seconds. If it’s hot enough, I know my food is ready. If it’s not, I check again in a few minutes.
Ultimately, this instant-read thermometer has meant a decrease in stress and an increase in food quality for me—and it’s made me brave about cooking new types of meat because I know I’ll be able to tell when they’re done. 10/10, would buy again.
4. Pomegranate molasses
If you want to experiment with a completely new flavor, get yourself some pomegranate molasses. It’s essentially a sweet, tangy syrup made of ultra-concentrated pomegranate juice and traditionally used in Middle Eastern cooking. I bought a bottle when I was cooking fesenjan, a delcious Persian dish of chicken stewed with walnuts and pomegranate, but later found myself adding the stuff to all kinds of food.
Did you make pancakes? Pour some pomegranate molasses on top! Ice cream? Same deal. Use it to glaze pork chops, or add it to sauces and stews for a hint of rich sweetness. Mix it with vinegar to make a fruity salad dressing, or drizzle it over your morning oatmeal. You won’t be sorry.
5. Microplane grater
Last year, I moved into an apartment where two roommates had already outfitted the kitchen. I spent a few months trying to make do with a regular cheese grater before I gave in and picked up a classic Microplane grater.
Friends, trust me—a cheese grater has its uses, but it’s no substitute for a Microplane grater. Microplane graters are ideal for finely grating hard cheeses, like parmesan, but they’re also perfect for grating fresh ginger or garlic, or zesting citrus. I use mine all the time.
A regular cheese grater simply can't keep up.
6. Garlic parsley mix
I’ll admit—I didn’t have high hopes for the granulated garlic-and-parsley mix I found sitting in my shared spice cabinet. As a garlic lover, I’ve always felt that garlic powder and garlic salt lack the depth of flavor you’ll get from fresh or jarred garlic. I can’t explain why, but the garlic parsley mix is just a million times better than garlic powder. Trust.
It’s a spice cabinet staple in my household. We sprinkle it liberally over roasted veggies, cheesy pasta, or anything tomato-based. The garlic flavor comes through with more strength and brightness than it has any right to, and the mellow parsley comes through faintly in the background. A crowd-pleaser.
7. Pan scraper
I hate doing dishes, but I love to cook, and unfortunately dirty dishes are an unavoidable byproduct of making food.
The worst thing to wash is a pan covered in stubborn bits of burned-on food. Soak that sucker, use a scrubby sponge, but sometimes it’s just not enough. Some people use steel wool, but it often scratches your cookware. So my cleaning tool of choice for stubborn food grime? A pan scraper.
What you’re paying for is essentially just a curved piece of plastic, but it’s perfect for reaching dirty corners of a square baking pan, or for painlessly extricating egg residue from a skillet. It’s best to buy ‘em in multipacks, so when one gets worn or dirty, you can just toss it and grab a new one.