Thursday, 14 June 2012

Equipping your kitchen without blowing the budget

I'm always amazed, when I have to cook in a rented cottage or at someone else's house, how poorly equipped their kitchens are. It's nothing to do with lack of ice cream makers, deep fat fryers, professional ovens or tandooris - often, they have loads of luxuries, but the basics are missing.

First of all, get a good knife AND a knife sharpener. (You don't need a butcher's steel - Kitchen Devils does a nice little knife sharpener which works, and is safer for butterfingers. If you want to use a steel, there's a great Gordon Ramsay video on Youtube.) A good knife won't stay sharp unless you sharpen it - four or five strokes every time you use it, rather than waiting for it to get blunt.

Over time I've found the best knife is not a thin pointy one, but a larger (6 or 7 inch) fat-bladed knife with dents or holes in the sides which help stop vegetable slices sticking. Now, such a knife might cost £20-30, but you can use it for nearly everything, and it will last. Don't go for knife sets - they're not such good quality and you'll probably end up only using one or two of the knives.

Secondly, get a good chopping board that is heavy, and so won't move around on the worktop when you are chopping. (This comes from experience.)

Now for saucepans. This is where a set can cost in nicely. I use a set of stainless pans I bought from Jarrolds in Norwich - not non-stick, which doesn't last well and which you don't need for such tasks as sauteing or boiling. Find a good department store, and if (like Jarrolds) it has excellent salespeople, ask them about the pros and cons of different pans. Make a note of the ones that suit you. Then - and this is the money saving tip - WAIT FOR THE SALE. Often, you'll see particular ranges discounted down to half price.

I'd also recommend getting metal handles, not plastic. They are more robust.

To this I'd add a small and cheap non-stick pan if I wanted to do a lot of frying, for instance for breakfast bacon.

Knife, chopping board, saucepans. All of these I would get new. For some other items I've had great luck at car boots - vintage lemon squeezers in white earthenware or glass, salad bowls, butter dishes, pyrex mixing bowls and ovenware, garlic presses. But I have never seen good saucepans (other than lovely copper saucepans, which are for decoration, not use) or good knives.

Baking trays and tins, wooden spoons, and so on, I get from Poundstretcher or other cheap places. (I also have some lovely olive and orange wood utensils I bought on holiday in Turkey and Morocco, for very little - it's always worth keeping an eye open for such purchases if you're a keen cook and on your travels, though obviously it's not worth flying to Morocco just to get a few spatulas and spoons!)

Other bits and pieces which are luxuries, not vital (with one exception, for me; the spice grinder);
  • Blender or food processor. Decide what you're going to use it for, then get whatever is appropriate. You may find you only have the need for one type of equipment. I use a blender a lot to make smoothies, soups, and hummus; I hardly ever use a food processor for chopping or mixing. But then, I'm cooking for one or two people most of the time; if you have a larger family, you may find a food processor is worth the investment. Look in local charity shops which handle electronic equipment (and test it first - which is why I tend not to buy electricals at car boots); you may get a bargain.
  • Breadmaker. Useless piece of equipment. I used to have one. Now I make bread the hard way, but I have much more fun doing it, and it's much, much better bread. If you want to make your own bread, spend the money on a good mixer instead.
  • Deep fat fryer. I really recommend you stay away from these. I love tempura - I get better results from a wok than I do from a deep fat fryer. They also waste huge amounts of oil, which gets progressively nastier and then has to be thrown out. If you eat chips every night.... I would suggest life would be healthier as well as cheaper without the deep fat fryer.
  • Electric kettle. Definitely worth their while as an efficient way to heat hot water, and won't break the bank. Buy the cheapest - after all, what extra functionality are you looking for? 
  • Spice grinder. I have two of these, one for coffee and one for spices. If you do a lot of spicy cooking or make your own curry mixes, a spice grinder is a vital part of your kitchen. Yes, you can also use a pestle and a mortar...
What should you be spending? Well, I'd say you can get everything you really need to cook and still have change out of £100. That doesn't include your crockery and table cutlery, but it will give you a working kitchen and the ability to cook pretty much anything you like. And it will all be good quality stuff - though it probably won't have a chef's name on the side, or be in pretty lime green or fuchsia pink.