People often ask me "What is one kitchen tool you can't live without?" While there are a few specialty tools that really make the difference between the professional and the home kitchens, most tools aren't anything nifty or high tech. Specialty stores like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma would have you think otherwise; how else are they going to sell that Christmas Tree shaped spatula or motorized bread knife?
The truth is: most of the tools you need are already in your kitchen, you just need to re-purpose them.
Don't have a super sharp chef's knife for slicing tomatoes? Don't have a mandolin either? Use a serrated knife. The teeth will grab the tomato skin while you slice, keeping the tomato from squirting away from you under a dull knife.
Tired of cupcakes, muffins or cookies that turn out all different shapes and sizes? (I've run into this problem when children feel slighted because of a much smaller cookie or cupcake.) Use an ice cream scoop for even amounts of dough. With cupcakes, the ice cream scoop transfers the batter to the liners with much less spillage than a spoon.
For large parties, use an ice cream scoop to portion guacamole, mashed potatoes, and potato or pasta salad. (Just be sure you wash it after those chocolate chip cookies!)
Don't have a melon baller to scoop perfect spheres of fruit or to clean out cucumber seeds? Use a tablespoon measure.
No rolling pin in your kitchen for pizza dough or pie crust? Wash off the side of a wine bottle.
Is the salesman at Williams-Sonoma urging you to buy elbow-high oven mitts made of space age silicone for a cheeky $150? Tell him to buzz off; those gloves only make your hands sweat. Instead, keep a folded kitchen towel hanging on your apron string or just sitting on the counter by your workspace. You're not Homer Simpson in a nuclear reactor; you're a cook!
So don't sweat the equipment, really. Make like MacGyver and get creative with whatever you've got. Nine times out of ten, professional chefs are doing the same thing.