Pots, pans and wooden spoons remain important kitchen tools, but these days, using nifty devices helps us cook healthy at home with minimal time and effort. No matter how many hours I spend perfecting my cooking craft as a professional chef, there are those times when I get by with the help of some kitchen-gadget friends. Like when I’m trying to make pork shoulder for 24 people in a tiny kitchen. Or when I have to multitask and can’t keep my eyes on the stove. Or, when I want to spend a Sunday night relaxing and not cooking.
Here are my favorite gadgets. One (or more!) of them might be your best friend, too.
What it is: A pressure cooker, steamer, slow cooker, rice cooker (and cake baker!) in one. (Which means you can sauté elements of a recipe, then turn the device to pressure cook to finish off dinner.) Not to mention, pressure cooking means your meals are done, fast and with more precision than a slow cooker.
The Instant Pot is a year-round workhorse and a fantastic tool if you’re the type of cook who likes having lots of beans and rice around to create meals on a whim, you love to make unattended soups and stews or if you want to bake a cake or make a roast without lifting a finger.
What it’s good for: Sautéing, stewing, cooking rice, making sauces and soups. Basically, it’s a pressure cooker and slow cooker combined. If you’re looking for a single, convenient device to elevate and simplify your cooking, this is it.
What it is: A temperature-control device used for precisely cooking vacuum-sealed ingredients in a water bath.
While it looks like a science experiment, it’s not. Sous vide in French means “under vacuum” and at its most basic level is the process of sealing something (typically proteins or vegetables) in a vacuum-sealed container (often a plastic bag) then cooking it in a temperature-controlled water bath. Restaurants have used sous vide for some time to ensure precise cooking of meats in marinades, sauces and vegetables so the ingredients never come into contact with flame, metal, steam or smoke until finishing. The heating element in a sous vide warms the water to a specific temperature and holds it there without fluctuation, which means ingredients are never overcooked. Because the ingredient — say, meat — never goes over a certain temperature, the cooking process takes some time as the meat rises in temperature naturally. However, this long cooking time renders perfectly-done products — never overcooked, and never undercooked, which is something that can’t be said for other appliances on this list.
What it’s good for: Cooking meat, vegetables, sauces and soups precisely, without having to be over the stove (or even in the building). If you’re not attached to your grill, but are attached to a desk most of the time and want to cook amazing roasts at home, this is the device for you.
What it is: A brilliant little device that cooks absolutely perfect rice, farro, oats, you name it without you lifting a finger (or stirring and minding a pot).
The downside of the rice cooker against these other devices is it simply, and only, makes rice and other grains. That said, it is so much better at making rice and grains than other appliances, that this chef might say it would be worth it to have one just for that purpose. The rice cooker is smart and basically reports the rice is done when a sensor inside determines the water added for cooking has been absorbed.
The smarter (and spendier) devices have settings that allow you to cook many different types of grains with different absorption rates and ensure they still come out perfectly. Rice cookers come in all price points and all sizes; whether you’re looking to spend $20 or $200, feeding one person or a virtual army, there’s a cooker out there for you.
What it’s good for: Perfect rice — Every. Single. Time. If you’re a big grain eater, add this device to your counter.
What it is: Exactly what it sounds like — a device for cooking your meals and recipes slowly without much effort from you. (Or so it would seem.)
Slow cookers and Crock Pots are the stuff winter soup dreams are made of. Set the slow cooker on the counter, fill with food and in a few hours, it’s done. The new models are smarter than the ones our grannies used; with more bells, whistles and electronic intuition, your meals are less likely to be overcooked. But, if you truly toss your ingredients into the pot, hit the button and walk away, your meal comes out tasting like it was cooked by a machine instead of a person with any culinary wherewithal.
The only thing slow cookers do is cook slowly, which means you still need to brown your meat on the stove beforehand (unlike the Instant Pot where you can do this in the same pot). The benefit of these devices over others on this list is often price point; slow cookers are inexpensive, easy to operate and pretty much foolproof.
What it’s good for: Cooking meats, stews and sauces slowly like Granny used to, especially those not looking to spend much on a device to streamline cooking.
What it is: Pressure cookers are devices — sometimes electronic and sometimes simply vacuum sealed — that cook food in water or other liquid more quickly using high pressure. The old-school versions are heavy, sealed pots set on the stove, but the new ones are electric, faster to seal and quick to cook.
The Instant Pot is a good, spendy example of a pressure cooker, but there are many models that merely pressure cook without the bells and whistles. These are perfect for folks who may already have another electric cooking device and simply want the ease of cooking rice, beans or proteins with pressure but don’t want to spend much.
What it’s good for: Cooking beans, grains, soups and stews quickly. Pressure cookers without the bells and whistles are more budget-friendly than the gussied-up electric models.