Every bit as essential as knives, decent pans not only make your job easier but produce better results. Stainless steel is the best surface to cook on, as it doesn’t corrode or scratch easily, but it has bad conductivity so you’re best going for something with a bonded steel and alloy construction. The alloy is usually aluminium or copper; great conductors of heat but poor surfaces for cooking on. I’d avoid non-stick, as it doesn’t last well and can actually inhibit the process of cooking a good steak (see fry pan below). Look for pans with close-fitting lids and riveted rather than spot-welded handles. Stainless steel rivets are a must, as aluminium ones corrode sacrificially and go loose. Choose metal handles rather than plastic, so that you can bung the whole pan in the oven. Solid metal handles are best, as they’re cleverly constructed to dissipate the heat - used on the stove top, only the first inch or so will get hot. Hollow handles tend to conduct the heat right up to your hand, and once scorched, twice shy!
Whether you splash out on a complete new set or opt for one really great pan, the choice of manufacturer is personal. We cook with the US brand, All-Clad at the School, a professional-quality domestic range with a bonded construction of an aluminium core sandwiched between stainless steel. Unlike most pans, the core continues right up to the top of the sides, improving all over conductivity and making it faster for the pan to heat and cool.
Which pans do you really need?
Our 2 biggest sellers at the school are the 10” frying pan and the 3quart sauciers. 2 great starting points if you are looking to invest in some new cookware.
Our pans of choice are the 2qt and 3qt saucier. Similar to a regular saucepan, the secret is the curved edges of the base, which is a far more efficient shape for hot stirring and whisking. You’re able to get right into the corners to lift the food up to the surface, and with the heatproof spoonula it’s a match made in heaven.
The 10”/ 25cm frying pan is good for steaks, chicken breasts and fish fillets and is the one pan where it really is essential to have stainless steel. Non-stick prevents the food sugars from gathering and becoming sticky, and it’s this stickiness that gives steaks etc that essential, dark, caramelised crust.
A saucier and frying pan will get you off to a great start. Our next recommendation would be to add a sauté pan to your collection.
The high sides of the sauté pan make it more flexible than a standard frying pan, ideal for cooking with liquids such as tomato sauce. Great for sautés (of course!), risottos and smaller roasts. The large footprint of a sauté pan means it also does a great impression of a frying pan.
And if you’re serious about creating good food, a stock pot is an essential in the kitchen too.
Making large quantities of certain dishes and freezing the excess is a very efficient way to cook, so 6qt is the minimum size of stockpot I’d recommend for stocks and soups. One with a lid is also perfect for bulk-cooking casseroles, which can be started on the hob and finished in the oven.
Non stainless, but you’ll need these…
An essential for quick-cook Asian stir fries, buy a black iron, round-bottomed variety (for electric and ceramic hobs, you’ll have to resort to a flat-bottomed wok, but they don’t work quite as well). Season before first use.The sloping sides of the wok also make it useful for deep frying and you can even turn it upside down over a hob and use the searing hot curved surface for making naan bread.
A small, black iron 10cm frying pan ideal for making rostis, potato pancakes, fried eggs and erm… blinis.
A must have if you like chargrilled food. The best are heavy, solid and cast iron. Flimsy ridged pans aren’t worth a penny. If you like to chargrill, invest in a chasseur griddle – affordable but long lasting.
There are many, many products on the market that do lots of things, but not necessarily do them well. A belnder-come-juicer-come-soup-maker-come-smoothie-maker is never going to win the top score for blending in any competition. Think about what you really need and buy a decent one. There really is truth in the old adage “Buy cheap, buy twice”, get something you’ll be using in 20 years time.
We use these handy devices all the time on Ready Steady Cook. They’re good for pureeing, chopping and blending and are great for quick jobs or small quantities. We use the solid Kenwood Kmix at the school and it comes with a plethora of useful attachments too.
Essential for the serious cook. Magimix is the number one brand. Larger models come with large feeding tubes that can even handle whole potatoes. Slice, dice, process, mix and a new “Blendamix” attachment, for soup blending. A truly great labour-saving device. A good tip is to look for one with simple controls – you don’t need one that controls like your stereo. A few speed options and pulse suffice and when keeping things simple there’s less to go wrong.
High speed blenders do quite a different job than processors. They need some liquid to work and are the only thing that can make proper emulsions. Also a must for smoothies, soups and sauces. We love the retro styling of the Kenwood Kmix, which also has a good sturdy glass jug and a good, h4 motor.
The versatile workhorse in any kitchen, KitchenAid or Kenwood are best. Kenwood chef is the best investment if you know you’re going to use it, but they also have lower cost mixers in the Kmix range too.
OK, it depends on your definition of essential. If you love a good coffee quickly, this is the baby for you. Quick, easy to use and a perfect crema on your coffee every time. Nick has one at home, in his office and you will always find one back stage at our Good Food Show offers. Our General Manager Nadine continues to ponder purchasing the N’espresso carrycase, allowing you to take it on holiday with you. Yes, this is a warning, it’s difficult to go back once you start. The Magimix M100 auto is our favourite and an aeroccino makes an excellent addition.
General knife information
For any cook, knives are their most personal and valuable tool. Go for good quality, as although cheap knives save you a bob or two in the short term, they tend to be unbalanced, bendy and blunt quickly. A blunt knife means you use more force and this increases the risk of you cutting yourself.
Once you’ve got good knives, treat them with respect. Keep them in a knife block or on a magnetic knife rack not in a cutlery drawer - nothing blunts a knife faster – or some brands sell sheaths to protect knives if the drawer is ithe only option. Not common knowledge but avoid letting anyone else use your knife; everyone’s cutting technique is different and this actually alters the feel of the knife. Lastly, we know you don’t want to hear it but do try to avoid the dishwasher. Knives are OK in a quick 4 minute cycle commercial kitchen but long domestic cycles will erode your blade over time.
Some chefs own dozens of knives, but for most cooks, you only need four.
If you only own one great knife, make it a…
Used properly, a cook’s knife becomes like an extension of your arm, and it’s the one knife I would be lost without. Its deep, heavy blade is ideally suited to a whole range of chopping tasks, while the curved, rocking profile allows it to chop without ever losing contact with the board, ensuring smooth and rapid cutting. I’d recommend starting with a 20cm blade, although those with smaller hands might prefer something a bit shorter. Quality makes a real difference and you’re looking for balance and a comfortable grip. I prefer stainless steel, as carbon steel stains and loses its edge quickly. The blade and handle should be made from a single piece of steel with a riveted or bonded handle. I like the German manufacturer Wusthof for the shape and feel of their blades. I’m not a big fan of Japanese-style knives as I find them bendy and uncomfortable with an overly-sharp heel.
Its three best friends are...
Most people automatically use a vegetable knife for preparing food, but it doesn’t have the versatility of a chef’s knife. At 10cm, it’s good for specific jobs like peeling shallots and fine dicing. It’s also useful for fiddly jobs with meat and fish, and of course, testing to see if your spuds are cooked!
The beauty of the boning knife is that the long, flexible blade is perfect for following the contour of bones while you’re filleting fish or boning a chicken. Normal blade length is between 15 and 20cm.
At the school, we’re all fans of the Wusthof super slicer, with its super-sharp 25cm blade. It’s perfect for cutting thin slices of smoked salmon or tackling cabbage and loaves of bread. It also excels at carving the Sunday roast.
If you have a knife, you need a steel. Get into the habit of using it every time you cook - it doesn’t sharpen your knife, but will hold back the blunting process. When your knife does eventually lose its edge, it will need to take a trip to the knife grinder or more likely, your friendly neighbourhood butcher. There are two types of steel on the market: the traditional cylindrical metal steel, and the flat diamond steel. I’ve long been a supporter of the traditional style, but have recently, and reluctantly, been converted to the silky charms of the diamond steel. Sharpen your own knife as others will do it at a different angle, which blunts the blade.
Others we couldn’t do without...
This is a deceptively sharp little critter, so don’t be fooled by its innocent looks and diminutive size. Razor sharp serrations allow it to glide through tough tomato skins without squeezing out the juice and it’s also good for segmenting citrus fruit. A top value tool when treated with respect, but watch those fingers!
The key to a good vegetable peeler is a blade constructed from the same steel as your knife. Cheap tin blades tend to rust and go blunt so you end up bruising the veg rather than cutting it. Some people like flip peelers, but for speed and accuracy, I find the traditional fixed blade hard to beat. Good makes are Wusthof and Gustav Emil Ern.
Get a heavy pair so that you can use them to snip through fish fins and fine chicken bones. If they’re sharp, they’ll be just as effective for more delicate jobs like snipping herbs and chopping bacon. Don’t use your kitchen scissors to cut card or paper as they’ll go blunt.
What about the other shapes and sizes?
If you find you do a task repeatedly and you’re basic knife set doesn’t quite do things perfectly, only then should you invest in the more niche blades. Here we’re talking cleavers, carvers, salmon slicers et al.
Never go into a kitchen shop without a list. It’s like going food shopping when you’re hungry; you’ll end up with loads of things you don’t need. Avoid gadgets that’ll just end up at the back of the cupboard along with the foot spa and the popcorn maker. Instead, invest your money in the essential items that will help you to cook better.
OK, What shouldn’t my kitchen be without?
There’s been a lot written in recent years condemning wooden chopping boards as harbourers of dangerous and deadly bacteria. But the simple fact is that there’s no conclusive evidence to prove that plastic is better than wood, or vice versa. I’d personally use wood, the heavier the better, and bonded end-grain will resist warping. Hard woods like oak or beech are best. It’s kinder on the knife, resists tainting and is even vaunted as having anti-bacterial properties. I also keep a red plastic board for raw meat and poultry. I have an aversion to the new wave of glass and ceramic boards which feel weird to chop on and blunt knives. Whatever you choose, scrub by hand at the end of use with an anti-bacterial cleaner, and dry thoroughly at room temperature. My personal favourite is a great board from Wusthof which has little feet to stop the board skidding around, as well as allowing air to circulate underneath. If you can’t get one of these, use a non-slip mat under the board. A damp tea towel works as well but can cause the board to warp, as the bottom gets damp while the top remains dry.
Cook School board scraper
A simple device but our single most popular item in the shop, this flexible piece of stainless steel is a revelation. Take the mountain to Mohamed by using it to lift chopped onion, garlic, chilli, ginger, herbs etc. and transport them to the pan without dropping little pieces all over the floor. Also great for cleaning boards and lifting and turning delicate pieces of food.
Heatproof silicon spatula
A perfect match for the saucier, the silicon spatula is heatproof to around 300°C, versatile, and has rendered the wooden spoon obsolete in one clean sweep. Shaped to get into all the corners of the pan or dish, it can be used for stirring, lifting and scraping and is great for shaping mashed potato portions.
In the age of food processors and mixers, whisking by hand may seem archaic, but with a 40cm balloon whisk and 8 litre stainless steel bowl, I can make a better job of whisking egg whites than any machine and get it done in the same time. It’s all to do with feel and control. You’ll also need a smaller whisk, about 25cm, for whisking sauces and smaller quantities. Matfer’s a good make as the handles don’t fill up with water when washed and the wires don’t bend or ping out over time.
Wusthof Cranked Turner
The best fish slice ever – the flexible blade allows even tightly stuck fillets to be eased out of the pan in one piece. It’s also indispensable at BBQs. Just watch the plastic handle: if you leave it in the pan it’ll melt and you’ll be left with annoying ridges.
Quick-read digital thermometers, which give a true temperature almost instantly, take the guess work out of how well cooked your food is. Not only essential for timing joints of meat, they’re good for steaks, fish, custard, and checking re-heated leftovers so they won’t put you in hospital.
A good quality, heavy-weight baking sheet is less likely to warp under extreme heat. I tend to use aluminium sheets with turned up edges, or flat steel ones. A useful addition is a non-stick silicon mat that fits the baking sheet, such as Silpat or Lift Off.
Stainless steel bowls are best for whisking egg whites and cream (see p000). They also chill more effectively for working with dairy products, and have the added advantage of being durable and stylish. Pyrex bowls are great for general kitchen use, and are actually better for melting chocolate as metal bowls tend to get too hot.
Get tongs with a locking mechanism to keep them closed in the drawer, and look for makes with non-stick, silicon tops. They’re great for turning meat and fish in the pan.
The most versatile size of ladle is a 50ml, which is useful for pressing (chefs call it ‘passing’) soups and sauces through a sieve or chinois to achieve silky smooth results. It’s also the perfect size for making crepes (in a 25cm pan), and is great for portion control. The bigger 200ml is perfect for serving soups.
While you’re learning, you need to stop guessing and get into the measuring habit. Stainless steel spoons mean a long life and get ones that are joined together so you don’t lose the ¼ teaspoon
Apron and oven cloth
Go together like steak and chips. The apron not only keeps you clean, but gives you somewhere to hang your oven cloth.
Start yourself off with a non-stick loose-bottomed tart ring (23cm) and a springform cake tin (20cm).
I still use a box grater for certain jobs like grating apples, but I’ve mainly switched to the US-made premium range of hand graters. The two main makes are Cuisipro and Microplane and they come in three sizes: coarse, for shaving shallots and garlic, medium for parmesan and ginger and fine for zesting. To be truly covered, you need all three, but if you’re picking just one, go for the medium.
Nothing is more annoying than getting yourself tangled in cling film. Benedetti make a great dispenser so you just pull, cut and release. Simple.
Buy electric, and keep a spare battery. They’re a must for accurate measuring.
Your senses are best for judging when food is cooked to perfection. But in a frantic household, a digital timer can be an essential for reminding you what’s cooking.
Other useful things when getting a little more cheffy...
Spider draining spoon
An improvement on the old-fashioned slotted spoon, the spider is particularly useful for deep frying and blanching.
These are great for creating a professional finish to your dishes. Use them to build towers of crushed potatoes or stacks of smoked salmon and salsa. Great for creating filo baskets and also useful for desserts and little cakes.
A silicon brush is best as the heat proof ‘hairs’ don’t melt and fall out all over the food. Use for baking and basting, but they’re also great for getting sticky BBQ sauces onto ribs and wings
The mouli is a hand-turned food mill with different sizes of sieving plates. It’s great for uber-smooth mash (see p000) and passing soups when you want to leave a little bit of texture. If you’re weaning a baby onto solids, they’re pretty much indispensable.
Necessary for drying washed salad leaves without damage, but also useful for spinach, leeks, cabbage and other leafy veg. I prefer the pull-cord Zyliss model for its speed and durability.
Use to dust crème brulees with icing sugar before glazing with a blow torch, or for turning desserts into winter wonderlands. But to chefs everywhere, please stop dusting the edges of plates, it’s really not clever.
Squeezy sauce bottles
Great for drizzling, just slosh in the sauce and bring out the Jackson Pollock in you! Good for flavoured oils, custard, caramel etc, but give them a quick sniff before using as spicy smells tend to linger
Ice Cream Scoop
Zyliss produce a good, hefty scoop that makes light work of even the toughest ice cream. Traditional spoons need to be dipped in hot water, but this one’s Teflon coated, so the ice cream just won’t stick
You probably have one, but just in case you’ve been doing things the hard way. A slotted spoon with teeth that’s perfect for slippery spaghetti, also good for salads.
Live and breathe cooking?
A must if you’re making your own pasta, but learn how to make the dough properly (see p000).
There are two main types on the market: stainless steel like the Bron, and plastic like the Japanese Benriner. The plastic ones are brilliant for fine slicing, but I find them unstable and quite dangerous. I much prefer the sturdier and slightly safer stainless steel, but whatever you choose, use a guard and watch those fingers!
For brulee and roasting skins off peppers and tomatoes. Also useful for releasing mousse rings when used to make neat cream desserts.
The lump destroyer! Create incredibly silky smooth results by passing soups and sauces through the ultra-fine metal sieve using a 50ml ladle. Also perfect for purifying stocks.