A dull dollar-store knife just won't cut it anymore.
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I am embarrassed to admit the amount of time that I spend wandering around Williams-Sonoma, dreaming of what my kitchen might look like one day. I ogle at sleek whisks, cookie cutters, marinades, and flavored salts; but it’s the big-ticket items that take up the most mental real estate: copper skillets, multi-functional toaster ovens, bullet-shaped coffee machines.

I have spent the past few years telling myself that someday, I will actually own all the kitchen gadgets I dreamed of—I’d add them to my wedding registry and really start up cooking again in my 30s. But I love to cook. Once I owned quality equipment, I could really cook, and not just dream of all the projects I could take on if I had the right tools. So recently, I’ve changed my approach. Why wait until my 30s to wholly dedicate myself to developing my kitchen skills? If a mandolin or a fancy knife would significantly expand the amount of dishes I can cook in my tiny apartment kitchen, why not invest in them now and have them for a lifetime?

But investing in solid kitchen equipment can be costly. Will I really get enough use out of this Nespresso machine to warrant the price tag? (According to my mother, yes. According to me, no.) With the help of Southern Living’s Food Editor, I’ve narrowed down my list to three essential tools will last you a long time, and are worth investing in. These particular appliances that are absolute kitchen essentials—they’ll form a solid backbone for all of your cooking experiments, and you can expand your collection from here, acquiring specialized kitchen gadgets and all the cute tea towels you can dream of.

Depending on your cooking style, your list of essentials may look a bit different. Maybe an Instant Pot or an Air Fryer is the key to your heart. Maybe you can’t live without your Crock Pot; perhaps you’re like Alton Brown and rely on your bench scraper. No matter your choice of key kitchen gadgets, investing in quality equipment will transform your cooking routine. Here are my top picks to start working towards that dream kitchen.

Chef’s Knife

At any culinary school or program, one of the first (and most important) things you’ll learn is knife cuts. A clean, uniform cut—whether it’s a julienne, dice, or brunoise—is the trademark of a competent cook. Not only are uniform knife cuts more visually cohesive, but they ensure that your food cooks evenly.

You’d be surprised what a difference a solid chef’s knife makes in your ability to execute clean, uniform knife cuts. A chef’s knife is something you use almost every day. From dicing vegetables to chopping herbs to smashing cloves of garlic, this tool is a go-to for a wide array of kitchen tasks. This everyday tool is certainly worth investing in—a dull, dollar-store chef’s knife just won’t cut it. When it comes to chef’s knives, there are myriad brands and styles, but the crème de la crème is Henckels. It’s made in Spain and forged from German stainless steel; it’s durable, easy to handle, and dishwasher-safe. With a full crop of five-star reviews and a reasonable price tag (on Amazon, an 8-inch Henckels chef’s knife goes for $54.99), a Henckels chef knife is a great tool to buy for yourself or gift to the budding chef in your life.

Shop It: amazon.com, $54.99

Cast Iron Skillet

The cast iron skillet is such a staple, it’s even coined its own category of meals—skillet suppers. There’s a whole wealth of knowledge on how to care for your cast-iron skillet, from how to season it to the best tools to clean it, and there are just as many reasons to love this humble pan. But perhaps what we love most about the cast iron skillet is its versatility. This skillet makes weeknight dinner a breeze—just toss all the ingredients into a skillet and let it roast—but it’s also fitted to make show-stopping dinner party mains (like Cast-Iron Pork Cacciatore), or even special, rustic desserts (all your guests will swoon over this Easy Skillet Apple Pie). You can use your cast iron skillet on the stovetop, in the oven, or even on the grill. And it only gets better with age.

When it comes to cast iron, Lodge is the gold standard. It comes pre-seasoned, it’s not obscenely expensive (on Amazon, a 12-inch skillet goes for just $25.99), and it’s high-quality and reliable. With 17,224 ratings on Amazon, this skillet still clocks in at an average of 4.5 stars.

Lodge has been manufacturing cast iron goods for more than 100 years right here in the South,” Southern Living Food Editor Lisa Cericola writes. “This family-owned company, based in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, holds itself to an extremely high standard of craftsmanship.”

According to Cericola, a 12-inch skillet is the perfect starter size—it’s game for just about anything, from cooking pancakes to whole-roasting a chicken. Her top cast iron tip? Get a skillet that comes with a cover. “It’s something that most people don’t think about, but having a cover multiplies the amount of things you can cook with your cast iron skillet,” Cericola advises.

Shop It: amazon.com, $25.99

Stand Mixer

From its invention 100 years ago, the stand mixer has revolutionized home cooking, and KitchenAid’s pioneering stand mixer has stood the test of time, still ranking at the top of its class. Owning my very own KitchenAid stand mixer has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember; the mixer—with its sleek silhouette, its shined steel bowl—represents the pinnacle of baking success. To have my own KitchenAid meant to invest in myself, to commit to developing my skills and becoming a better baker.

Since I got my KitchenAid stand mixer, I’ve been baking every weekend. My kitchen has turned into a cookie decorating workshop, cookie sheets and piping bags lined up along the counter. The limited-edition Queen of Hearts mixer celebrates KitchenAid’s 100th anniversary and comes with three mixing attachments: a whisk, a paddle, and a dough hook. I use the whisk for my royal icing and the paddle for my sugar cookie dough, and I’m excited to try my hand at making homemade bread and put the dough hook to use. Plus, the savory possibilities are endless with KitchenAid’s selection of universal attachments, from spiralizers to pasta rollers.

A KitchenAid stand mixer is certainly an investment (a stand mixer usually costs over $200), but its history alone proves it to be a premium product. If the mixer’s 100-year legacy of excellence isn’t enough to convince you it’s doing something right, peruse the appliance’s overwhelming number of five-star reviews.

Shop It: amazon.com, $279.00

You will never grow or learn to master new skills unless you’re willing to commit to the practice. I firmly believe that every cook or baker needs these quality tools, and it’s worth investing in these lifelong appliances sooner rather than later. If you have a dream, make it happen.