NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The difference between a cooking hero and a cooking zero often comes down to who has the sharpest knife, the finest coffee maker or the most accurate measuring cup.
"Having spent more than five years testing kitchen equipment, I can tell you that it definitely helps to have the right tools," says Lisa McManus, senior editor for equipment testing at the PBS show America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated magazine. "For instance, there are some skillets that heat food evenly, while others seem to try really hard to burn your meal."
However, McManus says picking good kitchen tools involves more than just looking for the highest price tag."It's not always just a case of paying more to get the best tools," she says. "There are a lot of kitchen gadgets out there that are just 'eye candy' -- things that look great, but don't really work." Here's a look at some of McManus' favorite cooking tools in various price ranges: $25 or less One of best, least-expensive kitchen tools you can get is a $10 KitchenArt Pro Adjust-A-Cup, McManus says. Sort of a cross between a measuring cup and a syringe, the Adjust-A-Cup lets you measure out peanut butter, honey or other sticky ingredients, then push them out of the device and into a bowl or baking pan. "Once and for all, it solves the problem of measuring sticky, soft ingredients precisely and easily -- no muss, no fuss," the expert says. $25-$50 McManus recommends two products in this price range: the Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox 8-inch Chef's Knife (about $30) and the Lodge Logic 12-inch Cast Iron Skillet (around $32). "Those are pretty much the two things I'd want if I were stranded on a desert island because they work well and are practically indestructible," she says. McManus says the chef's knife is "inexpensive but really high quality," while the skillet "is a great pan for frying, baking, searing steaks or even putting in the oven." $50-$100 The Tramontina 6.5-quart Enamel Cast Iron Dutch Oven gets the nod at this price point, retailing for around $50. A large cast-iron pot with an enamel finish, the Tramontina is perfect for deep frying, baking bread or cooking soups and stews, McManus says. "It's a kitchen workhorse at an unbelievable price," she says. $100-$500 Plunk down around $300 and you can buy what McManus considers perhaps the world's best coffee maker: the handmade Technivorm Moccamaster. The Dutch-built Moccamaster features special copper coils that heat water to a 195-205 degree range in six minutes -- the perfect time and temperature needed to extract maximum flavor from ground coffee. By contrast, most other coffee makers McManus has tested take around 24 minutes to hit the correct temperature range, then only stay there for about one minute. "If the water is too hot or too cold when it hits the coffee, you get all of these bad compounds that affect taste," McManus says. "The Moccamaster is one of the only coffee makers that applies the correct science to making coffee." One more tip: Get the Moccamaster KBT741 model, whose stainless-steel coffee pot preserves coffee's flavor longer than the KBG741 model's glass container does. $500 and up At this top-of-the-line price point, McManus recommends the $500 Vitamix 5200 blender. "(The Vitamix) is the ultimate dream-worthy blender," she says. "You just say that name to anyone who's a chef and they'll say, 'Ooh, that's a nice blender.' It's very expensive, but very powerful."