Many cook books contain lists of what you must or should have in your kitchen. I'm resisting that temptation. Instead, here are just the 10 Most Important Cooking Tools. You should have each of these tools on hand, and each should be of pretty darn good quality. If you can't have them all at first (for example, as with my nephew Peter who is restocking a kitchen after being in the Marines), then this should be an important checklist for you.
#1: Chef's Knife 8", or 7" for smaller hands.
The most important item in the kitchen is a good, sharp knife, and a chef's knife is the foundation of all good cooking. While accumulating a few super-high-end, heirloom-quality chef's knives is an enjoyable past time, it's also expensive. I just have two - and old favorite, and an inexpensive one that I can travel with. That knife is from the Victorinox company (same company as Swiss Army knives) and is a top end PERFORMER, with a low end price tag.
#2: Cutting Board....Plastic or wood cutting boards are both fine. Just avoid marble or glass which will dull your knives and cause them to slip. I like wooden board made from sustainable wood, which often are highly figured and thus uniquely attractive. Having a plastic cutting board to drop into the dishwasher is handy too, of course. A few different sizes are helpful, and it's important to separate raw products like chicken from raw vegetables and cooked foods to avoid bacterial contamination.
#3: Peeler....specifically, the Kyocera Perfect Peeler. This innovative peeler has a ceramic blade that's razor sharp. This makes peeling MUCH faster and easier. The head swivels, so it can be used cutting to the left or to the right, or straight on like a U-shaped peeler. It goes right in the dishwasher, so it's the Perfect Peeler, isn't it?
#4: 10" and 12" Non-stick Saute Pans....The jury is out on the health effects of non-stick surfaces, but to me everyone needs at least one non-stick fry/saute pan. Ever tried to make scrambled eggs in a non-non-stick pan? It takes A LOT of butter if want to try it. Calphalon provides a two-pan set which is a great value and has a lifetime warranty. If the non-stick surface fades away, Calpahon will replace the pan for you. (Just try not to think about WHERE the non-stick surface disappears to).
#5: 8 Quart Stock Pot....This pot is a workhorse for everything from boiling pasta to making gumbo and chili, and can double as an oversized sauce pan if you're feeding a crowd. Though the price tag for a good stock pot is high, it will last a lifetime.
#6 Largish sauce pan....3.5 or 4.5 Quart. I think every kitchen needs a 3.5 qt and a 4.5 quart saucepan - but if you have to pick just one to get started, go bigger. Later, add a 1.5 qt for small batches. The price tag on individual pans is no longer as attractive as it used to be, compared to buying a cookware set. Yet - you might need to just fill in a needed missing piece to complement what you already have. If you don't have a high quality sauce pan this size, you should consider one.
#7: Paring Knife....3.5" Blade. About 90% of cutting can be done with a chef's knife. But there are times you need a paring knife. Cutting eyes out of potatoes, coring strawberries, etc. Also, those of you with smaller hands might need a smaller knife from time to time.
#8: Strainer / Colander....Tough call - is it that important to have a good one? Well, I've replaced several cheap-o colanders and strainers over the years. Then I splurged on a stainless steel All-Clad colander. It will last a lifetime and a thing of beauty. It's shiny, it's heavy, it works. It looks brand new after 9 years. What more could you want?
#9: Microplane Grater.... One of the great innovations in the past decade or so, razor sharp edges on a microplane make grating cheese or vegetables a snap. Be careful of cuts while you're grating - this tool is very sharp. I like these graters in stainless steel, with a sturdy handle, and this version cleans up easily.
#10 Dutch Oven.....You could live for a while with just a stock pot and not a Dutch oven, or the other way around. But once you get hold of one of these you'll be quick to keep making stew, soup, braised meats, chili and gumbo. This hefty cast iron pot is covered with attractive enamel in almost any color you desire. The pot can go straight from stove top to oven. With few exceptions (driven by you and your cooking) a Dutch oven also cleans up easily.
Le Crueset calls their product a French Oven, because, well, they're a French company, and they're all....French about it. It's the same thing as s Dutch over though, and Le Crueset makes the best around.