The right tools/equipment in the kitchen can really alleviate unneeded effort involved to create a tasty dish and can help you create a higher quality dish. If I had to pick my top three most-used items, they would be:
Cast Iron Skillet
Fresh garlic does so much for a savory dish. To me it is unsubstitute-able. Dried garlic powder and even pre-diced garlic in a jar tastes very different than fresh garlic. Peeling and chopping garlic is definitely a doable task, but what could be easier than adding a garlic clove (skin still on) to the press, and adding a little pressure to squeeze the pulp out? It takes 2 seconds from start to finish. My garlic press is a very old model from Pampered Chef, but they can be purchased lots of places.
I bought this zester last fall. I don't know how I survived without it before. Between grating Parmesan or Pecorino cheese and zesting lemons, limes, and oranges, (edit: I forgot about my favorite item to grate: ginger!) this tool is never clean by the time I need it next. I used other tools to accomplish similar results before, but none were as easy. Many others have raved about this tool, but until I tried it for myself, my skepticism was in tact. The Microplane brand is sold lots of places.
Not only is a seasoned cast iron skillet an excellent conductor of heat, able to go in the oven, virtually non-stick, heavy duty to last forever, but it actually makes your food taste better! I'm not exactly clear on how it all works, but I know it does.
Examples of this skillet's uses: stir-fries, any stove-top skillet cooking, as a griddle for pancakes, frittatas or other items that go from stove-top to oven, candies that need a heavy-bottomed pot, desserts, cornbread, eggs, stove-top pizzas, almost anything. Target sells a Lodge brand one for less than $20. Thanks to my mother-in-law for the recommendation.
I thought about this post for a while and was satisfied with my top three choices. Now that I'm putting the final touches on the post, I realized I left off something I've used for years. How could I leave my baking stone off of this list? I don't think I can. So I'll have to make this a Top Four list.
My large, round Pampered Chef baking stone is used almost every time I heat up the oven. Cookies and pizza top my stone most often, but also crispy potatoes, biscuits and rolls, roasted vegetables, and even meat and fish. The stone, like the cast iron skillet, has amazing, seasoning powers and doesn't require greasing. I never worry about burnt bottoms on a stone - it just doesn't happen. Cookies and biscuits turn beautiful golden brown all over. Recently I've learned how to properly make pizza (I'll share soon), and a stone is one of the keys.