A good knife, cutting board and a few pots and pans are all that's really necessary to whip up some fantastic plant-based meals. But cooking is as much an art form as it is a means of sustenance to me. The following tools (though not all essentials) help me to be more efficient and creative in the kitchen.
When I started to seriously consider cooking as a career in college, my dad bought me my Shun santoku knife, chef's knife, paring knife, and honing steel. I will treasure these for the rest of my life. I think one good chef's knife and paring knife (and perhaps a serrated knife for bread) are all that are really necessary for vegan cooking. You don't have to spend as much; I also worked with Victorinox knives at the cafe where I was a prep/line cook and liked them a lot. Just make sure to hone your knives between uses, and take them in for professional sharpening (or invest in a whetstone and sharpen at home) to keep them in tip-top shape – dull knives are a safety hazard! I also used to own ceramic knives which are nice, and don't require sharpening.
Nonstick cookware has been a lifesaver since I started cooking with less oil! People often ask me how I cook tofu without it sticking to the pan or falling apart, and my answer is: over high heat in a good nonstick pan. Currently I have T-fal pans that I bought 3 years ago and which have served me well, but I'm looking to replace them soon with a nontoxic alternative, perhaps with a ceramic or stone-derived coating. I also recently invested in a cast iron skillet and seasoned the living hell out of it! It's now effectively nonstick and has become my new favorite pan for sautéing and pan-frying. Another pro: cast iron is oven safe, so you can use it for casseroles or baked goods.
Wood or Bamboo Cutting Board
I've had the same bamboo cutting board for years. Bamboo is a sustainable material, less absorptive than wood, and not as hard on knives as plastic. Maple or walnut cutting boards are a little softer and therefore more gentle on knives, but they tend to cost more. I always make sure to stand my cutting board up to dry completely after cleaning it, and I oil it (with coconut oil) every once in awhile to keep it from splintering.
High Speed Blender
I am madly in love my Vitamix blender! Yes, it's an investment, but it's one that I think pays for itself if you're passionate about cooking. You can make velvety-smooth cashew cream, creamy homemade hummus and nut butters, and thick banana nice cream or fruit sorbets with minimal to no added liquid. Previously I owned a $150 Ninja which got the job done, but my nut purees would still be slightly gritty (even after soaking my nuts overnight) and my green smoothies would have tiny bits of unprocessed spinach. I've had no such issue with my beloved Vitamix. The only con: because the pitcher is quite wide, it's not ideal for smaller volumes of liquid. Vitamix does offer a smaller pitcher for sale, but typically I'll just use my immersion blender if I'm working with under 2 cups of liquid.
I received my trusty KitchenAid Professional Stand Mixer as a Christmas gift when I was in high school, and it still works like new almost a decade later! This is an amazing tool for anyone who loves baking. If you make homemade bread, pizza dough or pastries that require kneading, this will save you so much time and effort. I use it for larger batches of cookies or muffins (typically I'll just use a hand mixer for smaller batches of things) and also to whip aquafaba for whipped cream or meringue.
I love this thing! I was initially skeptical, since it takes up a good amount of counter space, but I have used my air fryer almost daily since I got it. If you're into oil-free cooking, this is a fantastic investment; it essentially works like a convection oven but in half the time, and doesn't require preheating. Some of my favorite things to make in this are oil-free fries, tofu (just cube, marinate and air-fry for 5 minutes), breaded veggies (like oil-free onion rings or eggplant parm) and tempeh buffalo wings. I also use it to heat up frozen foods that would get soggy in a microwave, like spring rolls, gyoza and samosas.
Baking Tray + Silicone Baking Mats
I'm picky about my baking trays! Super cheap varieties tend to tarnish easily and warp over time. I have commercial baker's half sheets by Nordic Ware which stay perfectly flat after repeated use. I always line my trays with a silicone baking mat. I've sung the praises of these things on countless occasions. They're nonstick, they help distribute heat more evenly so that the bottoms of your baked goods don't brown excessively, and they make cleanup a breeze – any burnt or caramelized bits that would have been a nightmare to scrub off a baking tray will dissolve off these mats effortlessly. I have several of these so I can prep and cook multiple batches of things in quick succession, but I'd recommend buying at least two (one for sweet and one for savory items), since they do tend to absorb flavors, and garlicky chocolate chip cookies are non-ideal (speaking from experience).
This handy gadget helps me squeeze every last bit of juice out of lemons and limes, and it catches the seeds! I use this tool daily (sometimes multiple times a day) to add lemon juice to my water, salads and other recipes.
Steaming is one of the best methods to cook vegetables and preserve their nutrients. These inserts are super cheap and adjust to the size of your pot. I also use this insert to steam my seitan and tempeh.
Are you a garlic fiend like me? If so, this handy tool will save you a ton of time and keep your hands from smelling like garlic hours after your meal. You don't even have to peel the garlic first if you're just pressing a few cloves. It presses garlic to an almost paste-like consistency which is especially ideal if you're using it raw (as in a salad dressing or guacamole).
A few different-sized cookie scoops are insanely handy for measuring out uniform portions, not only for cookies and muffins but also for veggie burgers, falafel, meatballs, etc. I also use them to transfer batter to muffin tins or to my griddle without dripping everywhere.
This peeler easily juliennes your zucchini, carrots, daikon and other firm vegetables for salads, raw noodle dishes or garnishes. It makes eating raw veggies fun and interesting. I also own a spiralizer, but I still use this tool often when I just want to spiralize one or two zucchini at a time.
I loved using my julienne peeler so much that I ended up investing in a spiralizer so I could quickly make huge spiralized salads and zoodle dishes (both of which are staples in my spring/summer meal plans). It works much faster and can also noodle-ize some vegetables that are too firm or awkwardly-shaped to use with the julienne peeler, such as bell peppers, apples, potatoes and yams, beets and even broccoli stalks! By no means is this a kitchen essential, but if you love to cook, this tool allows you to be creative with your vegetables and make some healthy, visually stunning raw and cooked dishes.