I was taught to cook by Italians. In a clapped-out 1970s kitchen, with little more than a couple of battered saucepans, a colander and a small cutting knife, they’d turn tinned tomatoes, “value” spaghetti, a bag of onions, some mushrooms and a block of cheese into delicious, aromatic meals. It was a lesson in food and frugality that I’ve never forgotten. The ingredients and the cook matter. Equipment, less so.
But equipment we must have, and when space, money and cooking rings are all at a premium, the issue of what you need and what you can do without becomes paramount. The best value in cooking equipment is to be had in restaurant supply shops. There’s usually one in every major urban area, supplying every pub, cafe and restaurant from the greasy spoon up to the Michelin star star. Failing that, there are professional restaurant supply sites online. Once you’ve found your best outlet, the following remarks should assist you in choosing what, and what not, to buy.
1. An eight-inch, plastic-handle stainless alloy chef’s knife – top class knives are top class knives, but this will be so good and last so long that you probably won’t care. A proper professional’s tool.
2. An instant-read thermometer – used properly, an instant-read meat thermometer can take your steak to a new level.
3. Three stainless steel bowls – a nesting set is what you’re after, for everything from using as a waste collector as you cook to mixing dough.
4. A sturdy pair of tongs – if possible, get the ones with silicon gloves over the ends, as these protect your non-stick surfaces.
5. A sturdy sheet pan – as large as will fit in your oven, with high sides. A roasting dish can stand in for baking trays, so long as it’s kept clean between uses.
6. A plastic cutting board – the arguments over hygiene between plastic and wooden cutting boards go on. The restaurant supply place will be able to sell you colour-coded plastic boards so you’ll know which board to use for uncooked meat and which for salad vegetables.
7. A paring knife – the cheapest ones can be surprisingly good and long-lasting these days, so go for one that feels most comfortable in your hand.
8. A can opener – for the sake of your hands, go upmarket with can openers: the basic models break easily, leave jagged edges and cut into your skin. However, avoid the ones that take off the whole of the top of the can, leaving it a cylinder with a cutting edge. Some openers have magnets to lift off the lid once it’s removed, which can be an advantage.
9. A vegetable peeler – the Good Grips vegetable peeler is far and away the best model and there is every reason to spend the extra.
10. A colander – Nigella Lawson’s range – take a break from the restaurant supply store! has one with a handle, which is superbly shaped to allow for returning drained potatoes into the hot pan for pre-mash drying out.
11. A sieve – really, you want a colander and a sieve, but if you have to choose, go for the sieve because it can cope with small grains like rice and barley.
12. A small, a medium and a large cast-aluminum saucepan – go for weight above all, although you may find iron pans go a little too far in that direction. If you can’t afford three pans, get a good small one and pair it with a cheap steel wok from an asian supermarket.
13. A medium nonstick cast aluminum pan – if you can find them, Bourgeat are good, and last for years.
14. A large steep-sided, heavier duty steel pan – look for something capable of boiling a chicken, because at that size, it’ll also be capable of making you excellent stock.
15. A slotted spoon – an essential. If you’ve a patient disposition, one of these can stand in for a colander.
16. A heat-resistant silicon spatula – the modern wooden spoon. Lasts forever, and means you can get absolutely all of the sauce out of the jar without rinsing it and diluting the sauce.
17. A bread knife – a decent serrated bread knife is also surprisingly good at carving meat.
18. A potato masher – get one of the coiled wire variety, or a potato ricer.
19. An electric steamer – truly great for fish and vegetables; less so for rice. But one of those space-filling devices that you can imagine yourself doing 90% of your cooking with, and if it suits you, then a good one (Tefal) is highly recommended.
20. A food processor – if you are an enthusiastic cook, you do have to set your heart on a good one, but in terms of a basic kitchen set-up, learn the correct use of knives first.
21. A handheld blender – a decent French one costs less than £30 and transforms your ability to make really excellent soup.
22. A salad spinner – something you might ordinarily overlook, but really does help dry salad vegetables after washing and makes quite a difference to efficient preparation.
23. A microplane grater – a set of these is just so much better than a box grater, so if you can, do.
24. A coffee and spice grinder – once above the basic levels of cooking, you’ll want both. Coffee made from freshly roasted beans is an entirely different drink from the one you get from packed grounds, and when it comes to spices, the same grinder can save you hours of work and heartbreak.
25. A bread machine. You can probably do without one of these, and with the advent of “no-knead” breadmaking methods, you can already make the real thing – and fill your living space with that delicious smell – with no practice whatsoever.
26. A microwave oven. There is a basic good-taste issue with microwaves. But if you also possess a freezer, a microwave can make sense of the idea of bulk pre-cooking recipes such as Nigella Lawson’s vegetable curry in vegetable sauce.
27. A wok. If you only intend to use a wok for classic asian stir-frying, then an electric wok might be the most sensible way to go. But a classic thin steel wok can double up – it’s good as a large boiling pan as well as for frying. If you are running off a two-ring Baby Belling in the classic Garreteer style, this and a large milk pan may be all you need to put together a wide range of dishes.
28. A stockpot. Even a relatively large chicken carcass can be turned into stock in an ordinary large saucepan, so until you are ready to move up in the stock world, a specialist stockpot is unnecessary. But on the other hand, a good stockpot is a thing of beauty, a sign of true cooking commitment, and all in all a boost to morale, so don’t rule one out on purely practical grounds.
29. A pressure cooker. A pressure cooker can double up as a large saucepan, but used as itself, it can save you significant electricity costs, make stews without the need for an oven, and will prepare your dried pulses much faster than conventional methods. Pressure cookers have been in British kitchens for the best part of a century now, and yours, and your use of it, stand as part of a proud line and tradition.
30 A rice cooker. If you can afford a decent one, such as a Zojiroshi, buy it with Roger Ebert’s book on the rice cooker and you’ll be able to live on this one piece of equipment alone.