Based on everyone’s Instagram feeds, it seems like you’ve all been spending a lot more time in the kitchen lately. Folks have been baking bread, whipping their coffee and even attempting to make their own pasta. In the process, you’ve probably found your kitchen woefully under-equipped, prompting you to kit out your kitchen with all sorts of utensils and appliances. But just because something claims to make life a little easier, doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for your kitchen. You want to get the most for your money — and make the most of your limited counter space. In this guide, we’ve outlined the kitchen gadgets that are worth your cash as well as those you can safely skip.
You’re not going to be swapping out your oven any time soon, but you’ve probably been giving your current appliances a bit of side-eye, especially when you look at Instagram posts featuring delectable bread, fluffy rice and perfectly shaped waffles. A bread maker, rice cooker and waffle iron probably sound useful, but we wouldn’t be too hasty about picking one up unless you know you’ll be needing it on at least a weekly basis. There are plenty of better appliances and ones that offer many more features, justifying their placement on your crowded kitchen counter.
One of those is an Instant Pot. Half the staff at Engadget has one, and it’s easy to understand why: This multicooker combines the functions of a pressure cooker and slow cooker to make it supereasy and superfast to prepare meat, vegetables, stews and soups. You can even make a cheesecake in them. Over the years the brand has added features to make the Instant Pot even more useful, like sous vide and even an air fryer. Newbies will do well with the Instant Pot Duo 7-in-1, which serves up the basics (like a rice cooker) at a sub-$100 price. It’s the most popular model, thanks to constant sales that see a price drop of $20 or more.
Air fryers seem to be the hot thing with home cooks this year; an acquaintance of mine described it as a way to “microwave things that can’t be microwaved.” If that’s something you’ve been considering, Instant Pot sells an $80 air fryer lid that can be popped onto most of its 6-quart models, which might save you a bit of cash and will definitely save you some counter space.
If you don’t need all of the Instant Pot versatility and just want something for stews and meat, a slow cooker will fit the bill nicely. (I especially enjoy using mine for chili.) You can pick up plenty of actual Crock Pot brand slow cookers for under $50, with the 6-quart model going for $34 on Amazon.
When it comes to preparing food it isn’t just about what knives to use — you can employ a bit of tech here, though nothing WiFi connected. We’re talking just your basic appliances like stand mixers and food processors. You can actually make do without those for most dishes, but one gadget you’ll probably find yourself wanting is a blender. It’s great for making milkshakes, breakfast smoothies, soups and purees and even alcoholic drinks for if and when you ever start entertaining guests again. You don’t have to get something Total Blender level that can grind up an iPhone; something with at least seven speeds like Oster’s Reverse Crush Counterforms will do the job nicely and will only take up a modest amount of counter space. You can even buy a model with a food processor attachment like the Oster Pro 1200.
Another countertop appliance that doesn’t get enough love is the toaster oven. Plenty of people have toasters and use them regularly — I certainly love a nice piece of buttered toast in the morning — but a better choice might be a toaster oven. They’re great for reheating food; yes, you can do that with a microwave, but it’s always going to be a bit soggy.
Instead, a toaster oven will leave things like day-old pizza nice and crisp. It’s great to have on hot days when you don’t want to turn your main oven on, or when you’re heating up something small and don’t want to wait for a full-size range to warm up. The Panasonic Flash Express is still the gold standard in toaster ovens, as it’s nice and roomy, heats up evenly and has plenty of options for handling foods that aren’t just a basic slice of toast (though it handles that very well).
You can buy all the fanciest appliances in the world, but it’s unlikely that they’ll make as big an impact on your cooking as a few well-chosen tools. Everyone buys a knife set, but there are a few tech tools you can pick up that will make you wonder how you ever lived without them.
The first is a digital thermometer. It doesn’t need to be WiFi- or Bluetooth-connected; just a plain thermometer with a precise digital readout. It might be more expensive than an analog dial, but it’s also easier to read and a lot faster, especially when you’re crouched down in front of an oven trying to gauge how close your turkey is to being done. I’m partial to the ThermoPop, thanks to its cute design and rotating display that can be read at any angle.
However, if you’re working with a grill instead of an oven, you’d be better served with a thermometer made specifically for outdoor cooking. The Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub is a solid piece of kit that was reviewed well a few months back by our own grillmaster Billy Steele. Yes, it’s connected, but in situations where you might be actively entertaining guests you might appreciate the ability to step away from the grill for a little while to mingle.
The other place where it’s worth investing in a digital model is scales. The art of baking is all about precision, and measuring cups are not precise at all. How much they hold really depends on the shape of the ingredients put inside them; one cup of white sugar isn’t going to weigh the same as a cup of brown sugar.
For the most accurate measurements a digital scale like the Escali Primo is best, which takes the shape of the measuring spoon and the dimensions of the ingredients entirely out of the equation. So when it says two cups of flour, you’ll know that you’re actually looking at 4.25 ounces, or 120 grams. OXO also offers a solid scale worth looking at if the Escali is out of stock.
Smart displays and speakers
The quest to make your kitchen more connected continues, with companies churning out smart ovens, refrigerators and WiFi-enabled everything under the sun. I recommend you stay away from most of these, especially big-ticket items — there’s no guarantee the company will continue to support the software, making your expensive smart appliance very dumb in a handful of years.
The one connected item that you should have, however, is one not explicitly designed for the kitchen: a tablet. You can take advantage of its larger screen to look up recipes, play instructional cooking videos and set timers. Any tablet can perform these functions, but if you’re particularly paranoid about using your $1,000 iPad Pro with sticky, dough-covered fingers, a cheap all-purpose slate like Amazon’s $50 Fire 7 Tablet will do the job.
If you’re willing to splurge a bit more and plan to use the tablet elsewhere around the house, the new $90 Fire HD 8 offers a larger screen with better resolution. iOS users who want to stay in the Apple ecosystem would do fine with the base iPad — it still has a lovely 10.2-inch Retina display, and an 8MP rear camera so you can take pictures of your completed dishes.
Even if you’re happy with your existing tablet, you still might find the audio quality lacking when you’ve got the water running in the kitchen. In that case, picking up a cheap smart speaker is a good idea. Both Amazon and Google offer their lowest-end devices for around $40; you should buy the one that fits best into your existing setup. It’s great for listening to music, but it’s also super helpful to be able to set up a kitchen timer you can hear in another room, or use it to tell someone on the other side of the house that dinner’s ready.
The past few years have seen companies combine the tablets and smart speakers into one compact form, the smart display. It’s still a fairly small category but the current selection won’t find you wanting; Amazon’s and Google’s devices all got fairly positive reviews here at Engadget. You should stick with the middle sizes: the Amazon Echo Show 8 and the 7-inch Google Nest Hub. Those will give you enough screen real estate to read through recipes and see what’s going on in videos even when you’re not standing super close, while not taking up too much counter space and also not costing more than $100. The 10-inch Echo Show and Nest Hub Max are both really nice, but at $230 neither is exactly cheap.
You don’t know what you need unless you know what you’re going to cook, and for that you’re going to need recipes. Which you might have already, with different sites sharing their best quarantine dishes and companies even sharing beloved site-specific dishes like DoubleTree’s chocolate chip cookies and Disneyland’s Dole Whip.
You’ll need a way to organize all those newfound culinary treasures, and the best way to do that is with an app. For recipes taken from websites, your best bet is Paprika. The in-app browser lets you search for specific recipes or paste in a URL you already have, and then imports the text and images. Besides giving you a handy list of all your recipes, Paprika also allows you to create shopping lists, inventory your pantry, track what you’ve made and what you want to make.
The biggest issue with Paprika is that there’s no cross-buy between platforms; you’ll have to purchase each OS version separately. This can run up to $40 if you jump between iOS, Android, Mac and Windows a lot. But the bright sides are that your recipes will sync across them all, you’ll only have to pay for each app once, unlike other services which only offer subscriptions.
That works great with recipes that are already digital. But if you still have a burgeoning folder full of dishes torn from magazines and faded cards handed down by your grandmother, you’ll want some way to store the images of those recipes and not just the text on them. The best way I’ve found to do that is Evernote Basic; I’ve scanned in various clippings I’ve saved over the years and addended them with text and pictures of my own. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it’s good enough.
For $8 a month you can upgrade to unlimited syncs and 10GB of monthly uploads. It’s worth paying for one month to get your account set up and tricked out, but unless you’re making changes constantly to your recipe collection you won’t need more than that and should cancel the Premium subscription.
But what if you don’t have recipes at all? It’s a pretty big world of cooking out there, so we understand it can be intimidating. If you’re just starting out, or just want a good source of guaranteed solid recipes, your best bet is the NYT Cooking app. In addition to an extensive database of over 19,000 tested recipes, this service from The New York Times also offers great design, instructional videos and an in-app recipe box to store your favorites. It’s $40 per year, but then again, it’s still cheaper than buying a stack of celebrity cookbooks.
You can also give Epicurious a look but keep in mind that there’s no Android app right now, and the iOS version can feel neglected at times. But the website is worth it for its extensive library of 35,000 recipes, including dishes from Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines.