You can get soup from pot to bowl without a ladle, but it's amazing how much easier the task is with one in hand. That's the case with most gadgets.
Having the right tools can make cooking more efficient and enjoyable. Here are some of the most helpful tools for cooking, including substitutions where possible.
Colander: Use this perforated bowl-shape utensil to rinse food or to drain liquids from solid food. When solids are very fine, use a sieve.
Corkscrew: Many models are available, so choose the type you're comfortable using.
Cutting boards: Stock up on two that are easy to tell apart, and reserve one solely for raw meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish, and the other for ready-to-eat foods.
Egg separator: Use to separate egg yolks from whites. It is not safe to separate eggs by passing the yolk from shell to shell.
Food mill: If you don't have one, force food through a strainer set over a bowl or pan.
Fork, long-handled: Use when carving or moving large pieces of food, such as roasts.
Funnel: Helps avoid spills when pouring ingredients from one container to another.
Grater: This tool generally has a metal surface punched with sharp-edged holes or slits that are used to break foods into smaller pieces. Graters come in many shapes and sizes. Tools with larger holes are sometimes called shredders, while those with the largest holes are sometimes called slicers. The size of the holes or slits determines what task the grater is best suited for. Smaller holes or slits will break food into finer pieces. Box graters have different-sized holes or slits on each side.
Kitchen shears: Use for snipping everything from fresh herbs to kitchen string.
Knives: See knives story.
Ladle: In a pinch, substitute a heatproof cup.
Measuring cups and measuring spoons: See Measuring Ingredients.
Mixing bowls: For most cooks, a set of four mixing bowls in the following sizes will suffice: small (1 quart), medium (1 1/2 quarts), large (2 1/2 quarts), and very large (4 quarts).
Pastry blender: For cutting fat (such as shortening) into flour to make pastries, biscuits, etc. If you don't have one, cut in the fat using two knives in a crisscross motion.
Pastry brush: Often used for brushing glazes over baked goods; also useful for greasing pans.
Pepper grinder: Because pepper is more flavorful when ground fresh, you should keep one of these on hand to grind whole peppercorns as needed.
Rolling pin: If you don't have one, try using a clean, heavy bottle with smooth sides.
Rotary beater: If you have an electric mixer or hand-held blender, you may not need one.
Rubber scrapers: Also known as rubber spatulas, these utensils are used for scraping batter from a bowl and for folding ingredients together.
Sieves: Stock up on one large and one small, and use these circular wire-mesh utensils to separate small particles from large ones. Also called strainers.
Sifter: If you don't have one, pour flour or powdered sugar into a sieve set over a bowl, then stir it to force the grains through the holes.
Skewers: These thin, pointed sticks are made of metal or wood and are used to hold pieces of meat, fruit, and vegetables in place. To use wooden skewers for grilling or broiling, be sure to first soak them in water for at least 30 minutes to prevent them from burning.
Slotted spoon, long-handled: Useful for removing solids from liquid mixtures.
Spatulas: These flat utensils can be made of metal, rubber, plastic, and wood. A turner-type spatula is used for flipping foods; a narrow, flexible, metal spatula works well for spreading. For rubber or plastic spatulas, see Rubber scrapers, above. When using a spatula for cooking on the range top, make sure the one you use is heatproof.
Spoon, long-handled: Handy to stir large volumes.
Thermometers: See thermometers story.
Timer: Digital timers can help you time cooking steps to the second.
Tongs (metal): Great for lifting and turning foods.
Vegetable brush: Useful for scrubbing fruits and vegetables when skins will not be removed.
Vegetable peeler: Essential for peeling vegetables; in a pinch, peel skins with a paring knife.
Wire cooling rack: Allows air to circulate around baked goods to cool them quickly and keep them from getting soggy.
Wire whisks: These come in handy for beating ingredients such as eggs. They can also help you smooth out lumpy sauces. In a pinch, substitute a rotary beater.
Wooden spoons (assorted sizes): Sturdy tools for stirring thick dough and batter. Also useful for stirring mixtures while they heat, as wooden handles stay cool longer than metal handles.
Although not essential for everyday cooking, these time-saving tools make nice additions to any kitchen.