Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.
If you’re an ambitious cook living in a small space, take heart: You don’t need a ton of specialty equipment, or even a large workspace, to make great food. The trick to turning out delicious and diverse dishes from a small kitchen is to select cookware, appliances, and kitchen tools that perform double or even triple duty, and avoid one-off items you’ll rarely use (that means you, ravioli crimper) that hog space.
Case in point: the Dutch Oven. It’s really an analog Instant Pot, capable of performing a number of functions without the need to be plugged in. It can braise and stew of course, but it’s also great at deep frying, roasting, baking, proofing bread, and even for cooking food over a campfire.
It's just one of four multitasking superstars I champion here, along with a thermometer (no, really—it's critical). Admittedly, this is a highly subjective list—there are dozens of other pieces of equipment that can make life in the kitchen easier.
But these are the pieces I’ve found to be the most worthy of the real estate they occupy in my kitchen, from the tiny apartment kitchen of my culinary school days, to the larger, well-outfitted kitchen in my home today. For each, I’ve also highlighted the top-performing models from CR’s lab tests, so you can be sure to get the best.
Cost: $15 to $150
Most useful size: 12-inch
Why it’s essential: A good frying pan is the best cookware for about 70 percent of what you’ll make on the stovetop. In addition to searing and sautéing, you can make pan sauces, omelettes, and stir-fries with it. I’ve even used one to pound out chicken cutlets when I didn't have a meat mallet handy.
We test five types of frying pans at Consumer Reports, and all have their pluses and minuses (from copper, which is beautiful but tough to clean, to stainless steel, which is slower to heat). For my money, a 12-inch nonstick pan that’s oven safe to a high temperature is the way to go. The nonstick coating makes it easier to cook foods like eggs or pancakes, and you can cook for four people in one skillet. Choose a nonstick that’s oven safe (like the ones below), so you can use it to roast and even bake—the round shape makes it a natural fit for rustic pies or tarts.
But stainless steel and cast iron are also good choices—both offer the same versatility, just without the nonstick part. Carbon steel, which is heavier and darker than stainless, is also a good option; it’s stick-resistant, because it builds up a naturally slick cooking surface with use. Copper heats quickly, but is pricey—those in our ratings range from $200 to nearly $500 for a single pan.
Below are two great nonsticks from our tests. For more on frying pans, see CR's Cookware ratings and buying guide.
Cost: $45 to $345
Most useful size: 5- or 6-quart enameled cast iron
Why it’s essential: Pair a Dutch oven with your frying pan, and you’re covered for cooking basically any dish you can dream of. A Dutch oven holds large quantities of liquid for boiling, braising, and even deep frying, for pasta, stews, and fried chicken (just don’t fill it more than about one-third full with oil for deep frying).
Dutch ovens with an enamel coating ensure the metal of the pan won’t react with acidic foods like tomato sauce, or anything with wine or lemon juice, which can impart a metallic taste to these dishes. You can bake in a Dutch oven, too, usually up to 350 degrees, though some can go higher if the knob on the lid is metal.
In our lab tests assessing everything from how well Dutch ovens simmer sauces to baking bread, performance varies widely between models, and bears no relationship to price: Even though a model costing over $300 is our top pick, below, the runner-up costs a mere $60 and is nearly as good.
Here are two enameled Dutch ovens that score well in our tests. Check out CR's Cookware ratings and buying guide for more information.
Cost: $30 to $600
Most useful size: 10 cups or larger
Why it’s essential: A food processor is a countertop appliance that really pulls its weight in the kitchen. It can chop, slice, and shred, and some newer models like the Breville Sous Chef (see below) can even purée small quantities of liquids, like soups, which would otherwise require a blender. A 10-cup capacity is big enough for you to make salsa for a party or dough for two loaves of bread.
Look for a model that also includes a plastic blade for kneading dough (or at least make sure you can purchase the blade separately). It’s a must-have if you want to make things like bread or homemade pizza dough without working your fingers to the bone by hand-kneading. Trust me. You’ll also want blades for shredding and slicing.
The ratings for the models we test vary considerably, as do the attachments included. The top-scoring Breville below has every attachment you could want, including a dough blade, discs for shredding and slicing, and even an egg white beater, which lets you whip egg whites for cake or cookie recipes. The Cuisinart is a slightly smaller and more modestly priced alternative that includes a shredding blade and two slicing blades. For more on food processors, see CR's Food processor ratings and buying guide.
Convection Toaster Oven
Cost: $33 to $550
Most useful size: The largest size you can fit on your counter, with a broad temperature range
Why it’s essential: A great toaster oven can obviously toast, but it can bake, roast, broil, and reheat better—and often faster—than other appliances, partly because you don't have to preheat it. The inside is typically large enough to roast a whole chicken or bake a 12-inch pizza. And unlike a microwave, which tends to leave reheated foods soggy, a toaster oven crisps up foods like day-old pizza perfectly. Some even include an air-fry setting, which lets you skip having to buy a separate air fryer.
You can use the toaster oven in tandem with your main oven if you’re cooking for a crowd. I use mine almost daily for simple things like frozen pizza for my kids or to reheat leftovers. The one downside? Ironically, they take longer to make toast than a regular toaster—in our tests, some take as long as 6 minutes, while the best toasters can finish in as little as 2 minutes.
The top-rated Breville, below, has 12 settings, including air fry, and it's large enough to fit a 14-pound turkey. The Cuisinart doesn't have an air-fry setting, but it does have reheat and pizza settings, and it's faster than the Breville to toast—the Breville takes over 6 minutes for a full batch.
For more on toaster ovens, see CR's Toaster oven ratings and buying guide.
Cost: $7 to $80
Most useful variety: Digital with instant read
Why it’s essential: True, all a thermometer can do is take temperatures, but it’s the only tool that can do that. And it's an essential for any cook. Not only does it help protect you from foodborne illness by letting you see if, say, your chicken is cooked enough to be safe to eat, but it prevents you from overcooking foods.
For instance, pork roast or chicken breast must be cooked to a precise internal temperature to be safe, but it's a narrow range before they become as dry as bricks. A great instant-read thermometer will help you find the sweet spot every time. In fact, it’s so important that when I attended culinary school, our uniforms had a thermometer holder stitched into the sleeve of our chef’s coats!
You can count on the models below from our tests to give a temperature readout quickly and reliably. For more on thermometers, see CR's Thermometer ratings and buying guide.