I'm not a kitchen "gadget freak". I shun gimmicky single-purpose kitchen gadgets like cupcake irons, garlic presses, melon ballers, grapefruit knives, milk frothers, the much-pilloried Slap Chop™, and anything that sits in a "junk" cupboard and only comes out once a year. That being said, there are a number of genuinely useful, versatile tools that I get a lot of mileage out of but rarely see other people using. These things are all inexpensive and most serve multiple purposes. Take a look and let me know what you think.
10: Parfait spoons. In addition to being mandatory for eating a parfait or other tall food without getting it all over your hands, these are the perfect tool to stir things (like a pot of natural peanut butter) thoroughly, from the bottom. They're also an admirable stand-in for a flessenlikker in countries where one is hard to come by (which is to say, most of the world). I find them preferable to butter knives for spreadables like jam and tzatziki -- they do a better job of scooping, and you can spread using the back of the spoon.
9: Piping bag. Piping is Pure Fun in and of itself, so that's reason enough to have one of these in the kitchen. Required for putting artful heaps of frosting on cupcakes, but you can also use it to fill those same cupcakes, or to pipe whipped cream onto the coffee drink you're having with them. Best of all, you can do all kinds of crazy stuff with semisolid foods, the most common example being Pommes Duchesse, where you shape mashed potatoes by piping them into swirls. Or, you know, little snowmen, just because you can.
8: Shot glass. Though made for measuring spirits, shot glasses are just as useful with other recipe ingredients. One fluid ounce is equal to two tablespoons, so a standard 'legal' shot glass, with lines etched at 1 oz, 1¼ oz, and 1½ oz, measures out 2, 2½, and 3 tbsp. It's the perfect "bridge" between your measuring spoons (which usually go up to 1 tbsp) and your measuring cups (which often start at ¼ cup / 4 tbsp).
7: Mason jars. Not just for canning! While plastic containers are great for stuffing most leftovers into, they don't deal with tomato sauce or hot things very well. Mason jars handle both of these with no such problems. They're great for steeping things in the fridge (iced tea, iced coffee) or making fresh pickles. They stand in for a cocktail shaker, with the added benefit that since the lid screws on, it'll never come off while you're shaking. Finally, they're also cheap and (imho) funky glassware -- how else can you get a dozen new drinking glasses for ten bucks? =)
6: Steel. Steel your knives. Seriously, a good steeling before each use -- two or three passes on each side -- makes makes a world of difference when it comes to keeping your knives' edges in shape. Want to cut through tomatoes instead of crushing them? Want to slice carrots instead of hacking through as one would with an axe? Steel your knives. =)
5: Spatula/Scraper. You'll call this different things depending on region, but the functions remain the same. Getting the last little bits of something out of a container, spreading batter or frosting, folding things into a mixture -- it's indispensable for all of these. It's also a flat-out replacement for a mixing spoon: not only does it have a larger cross-section than most spoons, you don't have to change tools when it comes time to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
The commonplace ones with handles made of flexy plastic hardly let you apply any force to the task at hand. Pick up ones with solid, rigid handles and you'll see much better service out of them.
4: Meat thermometer. Don't guess when you can measure. Sure, when you need 40℃ water for yeast, you can get pretty close with ⅗ cold tap water and ⅖ boiling water, but why muck around with that when you can just stick a thermometer in the water and read the temperature off? Even as a vegetarian, I still get a lot of use out of my "meat" thermometers -- they're great for dialling in the temperature of hot drinks or baby formula. And as a former carnivore, trust me when I say that you'll get far better results for most meat dishes if you check the temp with a thermometer instead of using the "grill it till it's charred" approach to food safety. Pork, in particular, is an entirely different creature when cooked just to the point of doneness; it bears almost no resemblance to the dry, stringy hunks of pork jerky that people commonly turn out.
If you're going to cook meat, at least make sure the animal didn't die in vain. Use a meat thermometer. =)
3: Whisk. You can beat something all day with a spoon to accomplish what you can do in a few seconds with a whisk. Pancake batter, scrambling eggs, mixing sauces...it's superior for many things you stir, and definitely anything you want to beat the lumps out of. A handheld mixer works for this too, but by the time you drag it out of the cupboard, plug the beaters in, plug the mixer in, and start it up, you may already be done the job with the whisk. =)
2: Tongs. For the love of ghod, don't relegate these to salad duty; they're your hands for almost everything hot in the kitchen. Use them for turning things on the BBQ, broiler or stovetop, grabbing things out of boiling water or the deep fryer, and pulling pizza out of the oven. With a bit of practice, you'll soon be using them to handle pot lids and snatch shallow bakeware from the oven as well.
A good solid pair (like these) is a must. The cheap ones feel like they're made out of aluminum foil, and will buckle the first time you try to use them for anything substantial.
1: Bench knife. The indispensable baking tool. Used for cutting chunks of dough for into rolls, scoring loaves, lifting dough that's become stuck to the counter while you're kneading it, and most importantly, flour cleanup! Ever try to scrub dough or flour off of the counter? Yeah, the wetter it gets, the stickier it gets; you could be there all night with a dishcloth. Different story with a bench knife -- scrape scrape, quick pass with the cloth, and you're done! Get a dishwasher-safe one and you don't even have to bother with trying to scrub the last bit of dough off the bench knife.