The key is collecting a handful of multipurpose tools that can be used in a wide array of food preparations. This means staying away from very specific gadgets such as potato ricers and garlic presses. Instead, stick with the basics. Here’s blogger (and Culinary Institute of America student) Sam Zucker’s list of the basic building blocks of a fully equipped kitchen:
A solidly made saute pan is a kitchen essential. Choose something that feels heavy for its size and has a stainless steel cooking surface. Avoid solid aluminum pans; the metal can react to acidic foods and does not conduct heat evenly. Also, buy an all-metal pan (no plastic or rubber handles) so it can be used in the oven, and make sure it has a heavy bottom so you won’t scorch your food. A decent starter pan can be found for about $45.
Any chef will tell you a good, sharp knife is the most important tool for an aspiring cook. Avoid gimmicks and go for a solidly made 8-inch chef’s knife. For a good-quality knife that is easy to maintain but won’t break the bank, get a “stamped” knife, one where the blade is machine-stamped and has either a wood or plastic handle. The weight of these knives is less balanced than a “full-tang” knife, but the blade quality is comparable. If you do your research, you should be able to find a good-quality version online for about $30. On the same order, add a paring knife, a second essential knife, for around $10 more.