Want to save time and effort while cooking? Hoping to avoid cluttering up your kitchen with too many gadgets that aren't worth the trouble? Start with these 5 must-have food prep tools, which reduce prep time and make a real difference in the quality of your cooking.

Salad spinner

You don't need a huge salad spinner; now salad spinners come in mini sizes, which store easily with the rest of your bowls. A spinner is invaluable for quickly drying fresh lettuce and herbs so your salads and pestos don't get watered down. They're also useful for expelling excess water from washed vegetables such as sliced leeks, pea pods, and celery.

Microplane grater/zester

If you've been grating citrus (and your knuckles) with a box grater, you'll wonder how you got along without a Microplane. This inexpensive, flat tool comes in several grades, coarse to extra fine, which are perfect for grating, shredding, and zesting all kinds of foods in a flash, including citrus, hard cheeses, and hard spices. Because Microplanes are so sharp (use the protective sheath when storing), you'll be able to do in seconds jobs that used to take several minutes.

Two good knives

Yes, all you really need are two, and it's better to splurge on two truly high-quality knives -- a large, 12-inch chef's knife and small, 6-inch paring knife -- than a huge set of cheap knives. Good knives speed up prep time and are much safer than dull knives because you don't have to push hard (risking slipping) or exert a lot of effort for them to do their job. A long, serrated knife is also useful for cutting bread.

Strainer

You can make do with one large, good strainer for draining everything from pasta to beans, but if possible, stock your kitchen with one larger, coarser strainer and one small, fine-mesh strainer, useful for grains like quinoa and rice. Two doesn't take up any more room than one, and they're much easier to use than draining a full pot with a slightly-askew lid.

Mini food processor

I guarantee, once you use a food processor, you'll never go back. Available for $50 (or less), a 4-cup food processor doubles as a blender and can do so much more: grind nuts and breadcrumbs, grate vegetables and fruits, puree soups, create perfect pesto, pulverize whole spices, and on and on. Super simple to use and clean; the minimal parts are all dishwasher safe (except the base).

... and a few more

In addition to the five above useful kitchen tools, these inexpensive items are also worth having. They'll revolutionize the way you cook -- and greatly increase your enjoyment of the process. * Hand juicer (plastic or glass) for fresh lemon, lime, and orange juice in seconds. * Kitchen scale, invaluable if you love to bake and want consistent results. * Metal tongs for grabbing or turning hot things. * A large wooden cutting board for fruits, vegetables, and breads. * A medium-size plastic cutting board for meats (dishwasher safe).