It's pretty easy to cook great food with a limited budget for kitchen equipment. Yeah, it's great to have top-of-the-line everything, but most of us just can't afford it. Sometimes, though, it's really worthwhile to spring for something special. Here are a few of my favorite items in the kitchen: ones that are "worth the dough."
Yeah, I groaned too.
First, the flashiest item - knives. Sure, the good ones can be pretty costly, but you really only need a couple of top quality knives. When it comes to cutlery, here's what you really need: A Chef's knife, a paring knife, and a decent honing steel.
My best and absolute favorite knives are the ones pictured above, which came as a gift from my dad (thanks dad!). They're Wusthof knives, a top quality German brand with a nice range of cutlery lines from budget-esque to absurdly expensive. The blades are the same among the lines, though - the big difference is in handle materials and styling.
If Wusthof is out of range, though, take a look at Victorinox's Fibrox-handled kitchen set. The chef's knife can be found under $30 and outperforms just about anything else up to twice its price.
Now if you have good knives, you'll want a trustworthy cutting board. No need for special technology here - I just like plain old wood. Avoid cheap plastics and especially avoid glass and ceramic boards, which can do awful things to the blades of knives. Bamboo is a great material and tends to be both cheap and lightweight. In any case, spending $15-20 on a good cutting board will help keep your knives sharp for a long time.
If you want to have one great pan, it probably ought to be a skillet. And if you want to have a great skillet, I think it ought to be cast iron. Cast iron is infamous for being difficult to deal with, but the horror stories are vastly overrated. Sure, you need to pay attention to it, and not just throw it into the dishwasher like a Teflon-coated pan, but the benefits in cooking quality are immense.
Cast iron far, far surpasses the ability of thinner, non-stick pans to hold heat. When these things get hot, they stay hot. And they can stand much higher temperatures, so they move from the stove to the oven without difficulty. Well taken care of, a cast iron skillet is just as non-stick as pans marketed as "Non-Stick," but the cooking experience is night and day. Best of all, a cast iron skillet can last generation after generation and can be had new for around $20.
If you get yourself a good cast iron (or stainless) skillet, you're freed from the tyranny of non-metallic kitchen tools. When you deal with Teflon, it's important not to use metal kitchen tools that scratch the non-stick coating off the pan. With Teflon off the table, it's worth getting your hands on some metal implements. I use this spatula and slotted spoon for 90% of my cooking, and never have to worry about them bending, melting, or any other such nonsense. Both were under $10.
I've lost count of how many crappy can openers I've thrown out after owning for just a few months. Cheap ones are just plain awful. Can openers only marginally more expensive are marvelous, though. My girlfriend Kristin introduced me to the wonders of this OXO-brand opener, which works smoothly every single time. Better yet, though, it uses vastly superior can opener technology to remove lids in such a way there are absolutely no sharp edges. It's practically magical. It's also only about $10.
This last kitchen gadget is probably the least helpful in actual cooking, but I think it's the most stylish. This is a hand-made mechanical pepper mill, custom built by a local woodworker. I found him selling a few of these Steampunk-esque beauties at the Black Swamp Art Festival this past summer and couldn't say no. It cost about $40, but I do love it so. If you're not using freshly-ground pepper in your cooking, you really ought to be. And why do it from a disposable plastic "pepper-mill" when you can do it in style?
All in all, you should never be afraid to spend a few bucks to really improve your kitchen quality-of-life. Sure, you could make perfectly good meals using cheap made-in-China stamped knives and open cans with a pocket knife, but there's something to be said for streamlining the process. Oftentimes, a really superior implement is just the tiniest bit more expensive. If you're looking for a way to spruce up your own kitchen or a gift to give to a cook, any of the items I've mentioned can really be great to have on-hand.