The power of Instagram affects nearly every aspect of 21st-century life, and kitchenware is no exception. There’s an entire industry focused on cookware that photographs beautifully and that makes a strong impression on social media feeds ― think the millennial pink Always Pan, or the “perracotta” shade of Caraway Home pans dubbed “the internet’s favorite cookware.”
Some of these items prove effective for practical kitchen purposes. But in many cases, the functionality of these pieces seems secondary to aesthetics. Plus, this trendy, photogenic breed of cooking tools commands high prices, effectively shutting out many enterprising home cooks (and professionals) who aren’t willing or able to shell out big bucks for Pantone-hued Dutch ovens and pans.
For many chefs, however, utilitarian cookware is both a necessity and a joy, and they passionately stand behind the “ugly” pieces of kitchen equipment that don’t necessarily make for a great IG post, but which deliver on both performance and price. Read on for a list of seven “ugly” cookware items that professional chefs can’t do without.
Sometimes, the most indispensable tools in a chef’s arsenal are also the least complex. That’s certainly the case with this cheap and straightforward rubber scraper, which executive chef and owner Mark Tarbell of Tarbell’s in Phoenix considers an absolute must-have.
“I bought the tool for a camping trip and quickly realized its flexibility and functionality are unmatched,” Tarbell told us. “Many opt for expensive tools these days to maintain an elevated look for their kitchens, but sometimes it’s good to go back to good old-fashioned Tupperware.”
And if you’re truly determined to get some Instagram value out of your kitchenware purchases, this scraper comes in an array of bold colors (including aqua, which is Tarbell’s personal preference).
Get the Tupperware Paddle Scraper Spatula ($12)
24” x 18” Polyethylene Cutting Board ($14)
You’ll get absolutely no design-related bells and whistles from these cutting boards, but their simplicity is precisely what makes them so essential to chef Tommy Leung of Gafell Meal Delivery.
“These cutting boards are huge, and [their size] lets you chop, cut and prep a lot at once, which saves time,” Leung explained. “We also keep them in different colors: Green for veggies, red for red meat, yellow for chicken, blue for fish and white for cooked food. They don’t look very Instagram-friendly, but they are super practical. For a home cook, I’m sure they can last for more than five years.”
Get the 24” x 18” Polyethylene Cutting Board ($14)
Vigor 16 Qt. Heavy-Duty Stainless Steel Aluminum-Clad Stock Pot with Cover ($47)
Bulky, cumbersome and plain, stock pots aren’t often placed on stovetops as permanent decorative features (as their prettier cousins, ceramic Dutch ovens, frequently are). Even so, chef-instructor Melanie Underwood of the Institute of Culinary Education urges home cooks to add stock pots to their collections, especially the Vigor 16-quart model.
“It is well-balanced in weight ― not too heavy for lifting, but sturdy enough that it won’t burn foods easily,” Underwood said. “I love this pot because it is versatile and can be used for stocks, soups and cooking pastas and grains. It may seem like a large pot to own, but because it is so multi-functional, it is worth it. Plus, you can store other pots inside of it, it’s easy to find and it’s inexpensive.”
Get the Vigor 16 Qt. Heavy-Duty Stainless Steel Aluminum-Clad Stock Pot with Cover ($47)
Nordic Ware Aluminum Sheet Pans (2 for $25)
Aluminum sheet pans look like no-nonsense, frill-free kitchen staples because that’s exactly what they are (and that’s why professional chefs love them).
Certified master chef and sommelier Sean Andrade of AWG Private Chefs gives a special shout-out to Nordic Ware Aluminum Sheet Pans, explaining that “no matter what you do with them, they are always dirty and ugly, but you absolutely need them in any kitchen.” He added that “sheet pans are versatile not just for baking cookies, but also for high-temperature cooking, broiling, pizzas and so on. Sheet trays will get ugly over time with use, but I just cover them with a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, put my food on and cook. When they come out of the oven, I remove the food and ball up and recycle the foil and the pan is much easier to clean. They aren’t flashy, fancy or expensive, but they are the absolute workhorse of my kitchen.”
Get the Nordic Ware Aluminum Sheet Pans (2 for $25)
IMUSA Basic Caldero ($42)
When it comes to his top choice for “ugly” cookware, chef Cesar Zapata of Phuc Yea and Pho Mo in Miami hearkens back to his childhood by selecting the IMUSA Basic Caldero.
“Growing up in a Colombian household, this caldero was the MVP of family dinner,” Zapata said. “The IMUSA 11-quart caldero is not the best-looking piece of equipment, but for some odd reason, arroz con pollo tastes different when it’s made in one of these guys ― and by different I mean way better. This caldero has been a staple in our household for over 20 years, and through all of the cooking I’ve done, mine is definitely well seasoned. I’ve used plenty of fancy rondeaus in my career, but this one seems to work best when I’m cooking at home.”
Get the IMUSA Basic Caldero ($42)
New Star Food Service China Cap Strainer ($33)
From its less-than-politically-correct name to its unique shape, the “China cap” (also known as the “chinois”) can feel like an odd addition to your kitchen tool collection. But Washington-based chef and farmer Michellee Fox views this strainer as a valuable piece of equipment, in spite of its negative attributes.
“I believe the ugliest cookware in the kitchen is the China cap, not only because of its antiquated look, but also because of its name,” Fox explained. “However, I like it because it is the easiest, cleanest way to strain ingredients in the kitchen. Without it, kitchens would be messier and food loss would be greater. Its cousin, the common strainer, looks cuter in pictures but always makes a mess when sauces are poured through.”
Get the New Star Food Service China Cap Strainer ($33)
For ambitious home cooks eager to become amateur pizzaiolos, a high-quality pizza stone must become part of their equipment repertoire. However, New York pizza chef and blogger Stefano Velia of Pala Pizza warns that the very best pizza stones out there ― like his top pick, the Solido Pizza Stone ― aren’t built for aesthetics.
“Pizza stones are instrumental in making quality pizza in home ovens, and they tend to be very anti-Instagram because you are not supposed to clean them,” Velia told HuffPost. “After a few bakes, pizza stones can get a pretty nasty appearance, but they continue to work flawlessly for years. The difference between baking a homemade pizza on a stone versus on a sheet pan is night and day; this is due to the stone’s excellent ability to hold heat and its porosity, which allows moisture to escape the crust, resulting in a crispy exterior.”
Get the Solido Pizza Stone ($50)