1. Gratin dish
1. Plastic sieve
1. Palette knife
You don’t need a lot of utensils to cook well. You do need good, dependable utensils that do the job properly, hundreds of times over. The shops are full of temptations, but train your eye for quality by looking in the shops that supply professionals. If you haven’t much to spend, put most of it into a few top-quality pieces rather than sets of second-raters. You can survive with no more than a knife, a steel to keep it sharp, a chopping board, a saucepan and a frying pan, to start with. If they are top quality, they will still be serving you well when the second-raters would be long-since discarded.
There is no need to spend a lot on the small essentials. While designer lemon squeezers, measuring cups and spoons, colanders and so on may be attractive, the more basic supermarket or chain-store equivalents will do exactly the same job. Add to the basics as you are able.
Knives and Chopping Boards
Pots and Pans
Oven Dishes and Casseroles
Stirrers, Scrapers, Lifters and Turners
Other basic essentials
Not Essential but Useful
CHEF’S KNIFE large, heavy, expensive and worth every cent. It will have a forged blade (thick on the top side, tapering to a fine cutting edge) not a stamped-out one. Look for a tang (the metal that extends into the handle) that runs the entire length of the handle and is riveted in so that the constant impact of chopping won’t loosen it. Or, there are excellent knives available that have the blade and handle moulded from one piece of metal. A 25cm blade is a good size, but hold several sizes to decide on the one whose size and weight suits your hand.
All good kitchen knives used to be carbon steel, which can be sharpened to razor sharpness but will stain and rust if not well cared for. Some modern knives are stainless steel, which is easy to look after but hard to sharpen to a fine edge.
The best are made from a hybrid of these two materials, high-carbon stainless steel, which is very expensive but has the virtues of both carbon and stainless steel. Never wash these knives in a dishwasher; the detergent will damage and mark the metal.
PARING KNIFE a much smaller version of the chef’s knife that fits the hand for peeling and close work.
LARGE SERRATED KNIFE (BREADKNIFE), with a blade at least 20cm long. A serrated (scalloped) edge is better than saw-teeth for cutting delicate cakes and pastries without squashing them.
FRUIT AND VEGETABLE KNIFE a small, pointed knife with a stainless-steel blade and a serrated edge. A cheap, light, chain-store one will do. It will cut tomatoes and other soft fruits and vegetables more cleanly and effortlessly than a plain blade.
STEEL pick up the steel nearly every time you pick up a knife and just draw the edge, from heel to tip, down the front and then the back of the steel several times. Re-sharpen your knives as needed on a sharpening stone or electric wheel if you have the skill, or get them re-sharpened professionally once or twice a year.
CHOPPING BOARD perfectly flat, warp-resistant and large enough to hold the food that may fall from the knife and scatter. It may be nylon (or other man-made composition) or wood. Nylon can be scrubbed in hot water or even go into the dishwasher so that it is kept hygienically clean. Wood is kinder to your knives, ages better than nylon and, many cooks think, is more pleasant to use. If you choose wood, keep it hygienic and odour-free by wetting with cold water after use, then scrubbing with a handful of coarse salt, and rinsing quickly with hot water.
NEST OF 4 MEASURING CUPS chain-stores sell plastic measuring cups, which are fine.
SET OF 4 MEASURING SPOONS make sure the tablespoon is 20ml, not 15ml.
MEASURING JUGS 1 litre and 250ml sizes, marked strongly enough to show up clearly whether filled with pale or dark liquid.
SCALES the electronic kind that you can return to zero after you put a bowl on, but before you add the ingredients, is best. A portable one is more convenient than one that hangs on the wall.
BOWLS - LARGE, MEDIUM AND SMALL ceramic or heatproof glass, not plastic because it absorbs grease. The large or medium one should fit over one of your saucepans to make a double boiler. A few light, inexpensive stainless-steel bowls are a useful addition.
This is what every kitchen needs in the way of pots and pans:
• small, medium and large saucepans with lids
• frying pan with a lid
• wok with a lid.
Judge a saucepan or frying pan by its weight and the material from which it is made. Ovenproof handles and knobs make it much more useful.
WEIGHT good pans are heavy; only a thick, heavy base will hold and distribute heat evenly. The sides should also be thick so that the food is surrounded by steady heat.
MATERIALS good conductors distribute heat evenly and respond quickly when heat is turned up or down; poor conductors develop hot spots and respond slowly.
HANDLES screwed-on handles can work loose and need the screw tightening, and the thread may eventually be too worn for effective tightening. Riveted handles stay steady much longer. Welded-on handles never wobble, though a catastrophic drop onto a hard surface could snap the weld.
ALUMINIUM is a superb conductor of heat but must be thick. It cannot be used for some foods, such as fruit, tomatoes and spinach, because it reacts with them, causing “off” flavours and discolouration of both pan and food.
STAINLESS STEEL is non-reactive but is a poor conductor. Bases are usually aluminium- or copper-clad, or a “sandwich” of one of these to help conduction.
ENAMELLED CAST-IRON is heavy, sometimes excessively so for comfortable use. Iron conducts heat well but the baked-enamel coating slows it down. The enamel must be thick enough and hard enough to resist scratching and chipping. Many cooks swear by top-quality enamelled iron utensils; others say that the lining does, in time, scratch and stick and that the pans respond slowly to heat changes.
BARE CAST-IRON is heavy, sometimes excessively so, and browns well but can impart a metallic taste to food. It must be well seasoned before use (see page 13) and will probably need re-seasoning quite often.
SHEET STEEL is familiar in cheap, thin woks – which are the exception to the heavy-is-best rule, because stir-frying calls for brief, high heat and the food is kept moving to cook by contact. They must be seasoned well before use (see page 13). These woks become more seasoned and non-stick with each use, but can rust if not washed promptly and dried properly. More expensive woks, often heavier with non-stick linings and sometimes electric, seldom perform as well as these inexpensive classics.
TITANIUM browns well, is an excellent conductor and is non-stick by virtue of its basic composition rather than a coating, so it is not damaged by metal tools and is non-stick for life. Look for saucepans and frying pans that have ovenproof handles and knobs.
GRATIN DISH shallow and open for food to be browned on top. More useful if flameproof as well as ovenproof.
CASSEROLE should be heavy, with a well-fitting lid. More useful if flameproof as well as ovenproof. This is where enamelled cast-iron is perfect.
ROASTING PAN heavy cast steel or other metal resists buckling better than thin sheet metal. Should have its own rack to hold the roast, or accommodate one of your cake racks. A lid is sometimes useful but not essential.
TWO WOODEN SPOONS, one with a hole so that sauces won’t collect to a thick lump in the bowl or pan as you stir. Since wood absorbs flavours and fat, it’s a good idea to keep one spoon for savoury recipes and one for sweet recipes.
LARGE METAL SPOON for serving and folding.
LARGE SLOTTED SPOON for draining food as you lift it.
TWO RUBBER SPATULAS, large and small for scraping bowls.
WIRE BALLOON WHISK in a size suitable for your hand and one of your bowls. A tiny one is a useful extra for making salad dressings.
HAND-TURNED ROTARY BEATER unless you have a hand-held electric mixer.
TWO EGG/FISH SLICES metal or reliably heatproof composition. Cheap flexible ones perform better than rigid ones.
TWO SIEVES, one nylon for fruit, one metal for sifting flour, icing sugar etc.
COLANDER or large, strong sieve.
GRATER microplane graters, razor-sharp and non-clogging, are expensive but worth the investment. Medium-coarse is the most useful. Otherwise, a square or round stainless-steel conventional grater.
LEMON-SQUEEZER made mostly from plastic or glass.
ROLLING PIN plain, heavy, cylindrical; made mostly from wood or glass.
HEAT-SPREADING MAT to go on a gas stove burner to spread heat evenly over the base of the pan, making heat distribution more controllable.
KITCHEN SCISSORS are extremely useful for all sorts of odd jobs.
TONGS indispensible for turning and moving food.
LADLE for serving food; also good for measuring servings.
FINE METAL SKEWERS sold in various lengths and also in sets as poultry pins. For testing doneness of cakes, meat or vegetables, securing loin chops curled up for cooking, as well as for closing the opening in a chicken or turkey.
PASTRY BRUSH buy small paint brushes from hardware shops; they’re cheap and effective.
EXTRAS FOR BAKING cake pans, cake racks, muffin pans, patty pans, oven trays, scone and other cutters.
GRILL PAN usually made from cast iron; great for meat – the excess fat drains away during cooking.
STOVETOP CHAR-GRILL usually square or rectangular to sit over one or two gas burners.
OMELETTE/CREPE PAN buy these only if you love to cook omelettes and crepes.
SALAD SPINNER for washing and drying salad leaves, herbs and shredded cabbage.
MANDOLINE OR V SLICER cheap ones are efficient though less versatile than the expensive mandoline.
CARVING KNIFE, HAM KNIFE long and flexible for negotiating the curves of a roast or ham.
ROTARY GRATER OR MOULI for cheese or nuts.
CHEESE PLANE for uniform, thin slices.
MEAT THERMOMETER makes cooking joints and roasts foolproof.
OVEN THERMOMETER to keep a check on your oven’s thermostat.
CANDY THERMOMETER indispensible if you enjoy making confectionery.
POTATO MASHER makes short work of mashing cooked potatoes.
PALETTE KNIFE small, thin, flexible, for loosening cakes from pans, and desserts from moulds. Look in art-supplies shops.
TIMER useful if your oven does not have an in-built timer.
CORKSCREW let price be your guide to quality; cheap ones can break easily.
INSULATED ICE CONTAINER for chilling wine or champagne.
LONG-HANDLED SPOON/STIRRER for cocktails and mixed drinks.
BAR MEASURE if you’re serious about making cocktails.
BAR STRAINER (HAWTHORN STRAINER) a must for straining cocktails.
MUDDLER for crushing fruit and sugar together. A pestle can be used instead.
COCKTAIL SHAKER they work, and make you look like a professional.
JUG for measuring.
COCKTAIL PICKS to hold garnishes.
SMALL CUTTING BOARD AND KNIFE for slicing and chopping garnishes for glasses.
Fancy features and attachments don’t count as much as strength. A powerful motor won’t struggle to perform and will serve you for many years – there are plenty of 40-year-old food processors and mixers still going strong. Consider the extra features and try to be realistic about how much you would really use them. Look critically at both machine and attachments with an eye to flimsy versus well-made parts, and make your choice with a bias towards solid power.