You don't have to spend a lot to be a good cook. Nor do you have to have state of the art everything to enjoy your time in the kitchen. Rather you need the right tools, they don't always have to be the best to get the job done.
From your trusty frying pan to those little utensils you didn't know you needed, I share my list of the must-have items every home cook should have on hand.
Good knives + knife sharpening kit
I have a delightful father-in-law who is very fond of knives. His love affair started when he got himself a stone knife sharpening kit. He discovered the joy of using really sharp knives when cooking and soon found himself sharing the love, offering to sharpen the knives of anyone who was willing (and not terrified).
When I first moved out of home many moons ago my mum bought me a really good knife set, the ones in the wooden knife block that were oh so popular then. Those knives are still going strong, largely due to regular sharpening efforts by the aforementioned F-I-L.
What I am trying to say is that good knives are essential, but keeping them sharp is just as important. If you are a DIY kind of person you can invest in a stone sharpening kit like the Edge Pro, but if going back to the grindstone doesn't appeal, you could try one of the slide sharpeners I remember from the 80s. The word on the foodie street is they actually do a pretty good job.
This is a controversial one. I don't use a thermometer at all, I am the sort of person who can look at a piece of meat and tell if it is cooked, but for someone who finds that hard, like my husband, the thermometer is a game-changer.
We have a charcoal barbecue and last weekend, with the help of his trusty meat thermometer my husband managed to outcook me for the first time ever. He made the most incredible, perfectly cooked and lightly smoked beef eye fillet I have ever tasted. You could have cut the meat with a spoon it was so tender.
He told me that without the thermometer he always thinks the meat isn't done and ends up drying it out. Meat thermometers range from small hand-held ones (from around $15) that you poke into the meat from time to time to see how it is going, to space-age ones with sensors that alert you when your temperature has been reached ($50 - $100). Husband swears by the fancy one, of course.
For many years I resisted getting a stand mixer as it seemed like an extravagance, but now that I have one, I realise it is not an indulgence at all, it is a necessity.
There are so many things that are easier to make with a stand mixer – bread, pizza dough, cakes, buttercream, whipped cream – plus while it is doing its thing you can be working on something else. It is not just that it frees you up from tasks that are usually arduous, like creaming the butter and sugar for a cake, it also opens up new worlds, inspiring you to try your hand at things that might seem a little bit fancy like meringue or souffle.
It also means that I can supervise the kids more easily when they decide to "help". Not to mention the fact that my mixer has seen me take my buttercream game to otherworldly levels, something I know I couldn't have done without her. It is also worth noting that you don't need to fanciest or most expensive mixer, my middle of the road Kenwood Chef (retails for $699 but I got mine on sale for $399) does me just fine.
This is another one that I resisted for a long time. I had this little plastic analog set of scales that I had bought for next to nothing more than a decade ago and for so long I convinced myself it was all I needed. When I started dabbling in making sourdough bread, however, the need for digital scales became clear. I bit the bullet and now I can't imagine being without them.
The convenience of being able to pop any old bowl, pot or vessel on top, set it to zero and start measuring, is so easy. In addition the use of a scale makes for much more accurate measurements, which is particularly important in baking.
Unless you are a serious bread baker or thinking of going pro you don't need to spend a fortune on a scale. I have a Kmart cheapie (around $15) that has withstood much use over the past few years without a flicker of digital doubt.
Measuring cups and spoons
Whilst I just espoused the wonders of the digital scale there are many recipes that use cup measurements which is why you should have a set of good measuring cups. In addition, you need some measuring spoons to cover the basics such as half a teaspoon, teaspoon and tablespoon.
I only get exact when I am baking, which is when I use mine but if you follow a recipe more diligently than I do they will be even more useful. A set won't set you back much, you can pick up cheap ones from any department store. I like the ones that come colour coded by size, like the Cuisena one pictured which sell for between $23 - $31. When it comes to the spoons, keep it simple, your local supermarket has some for just $3.
If you are a confident and enthusiastic cook then a good fry pan would mean a sturdy, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Maintaining cast iron takes work though, and cooking with one is a little tricky as meat will stick if you haven't preheated the pan enough. For more error free searing you could instead invest in a non-stick frypan.
After trying many top-of-the-line ones I find that they don't last any longer than a cheaper one (but it could be just me). I recommend investing less than $50 on a non-stick if you can (my current one was on sale for $35 and it's great) and just replacing it every year or when it starts to stick. If you look after your cast iron, however, it should last you a lifetime, just don't leave it sitting around wet and always store it with a little wipe of oil for protection.
Pyrex baking dish
A glass baking dish is a must and it doesn't get any better than Pyrex. They are not pricey, usually under $40, and they will last you very well. Use it for lasagna, tray bakes and desserts like crumble and clafoutis.
I find the big advantage of Pyrex is its ability to go from cold to hot without cracking, so I can prepare something ahead of time, refrigerate it and then just pop it in the oven when it is go time. Being clear glass, it is also really easy to see when that lasagna is piping hot and bubbling at the bottom, ready to eat.
Large Pyrex glass measuring jugs with handles are also great to have on hand for steaming rice in the microwave, melting chocolate, the list goes on.
Microplane/small handheld grater
Most chefs and passionate foodies will swear by their microplane. It grates really finely so you can use it for everything from citrus zest to nutmeg. The cheapest you will find one is around the $35 mark, with most being at least $50 or more.
I have had a simple handheld grater (like the one pictured, which retails for around $26) for years and it is so easy to grab and add a little lemon zest here, a little pecorino there. For soft cheeses you are better off with a box grater, but I find I use my little hand held friend almost daily. You can pick up a basic flat version for under $10, but I prefer the curved one I have.
I held out on getting a spiraliser. It seemed like yet another thing that would be cluttering up my kitchen, but when I got one from my boys for Mother's Day, I took it for a spin (spin, get it?). There have been studies done that show we are more willing to eat something if it looks appealing and I found myself using my spiraliser a lot, because it made my vegetables look really pretty.
The main things I chop with mine are carrots and courgettes. The spiraliser gives me the much talked about zoodles, but I also often just use the small blade, which gives me fine little curls that I can then pop into sauces for an extra veg. Another great thing about it is you can pick one up really cheap, there is no need to go top end here. The Kmart spiraliser (above) looks great and retails for just $14. If you want to spend a little more I have this one and it does good work:
The spiraliser is also fun to use, which is another bonus. The kids fight over who gets to help when I am using it, which gives me hope that they will later eat that same veg with as much passion and commitment. A mum can hope, can't she?
Far beyond pesto and hummus, I manage to work wonders with my food processor. I will often chargrill capsicum and then blend for addition to pasta sauces, I do the same with carrots as they provide a natural sweetness and thickness.
I also use my food processor to finely chop some vegetables such as mushrooms and onions that will usually be greeted with disdain by certain members of my house. Even if you are not catering to fussy kids a food processor will help you be more creative with flavours and textures.
I make my pizza sauce by throwing all of my ingredients in the processor, blending, then putting it all into a pot on the stove and simmering till thickened – divine. I have the Kenwood model pictured, it retails for $299 but is often on special for less than half that. To get a decent food processor you want to spend around $150.
This seems like a weird one to include but I firmly believe that whilst we all have a kettle at home and use it for our cups of tea, we should be utilising it more in the kitchen. If you have ever watched Jamie Oliver cook, he uses his kettle constantly.
Anything you need to boil or heat is going to happen so much faster if you use your kettle, plus it enables you to control temperature better. I use my kettle when preparing to poach an egg and when I am cooking rice via the absorption method. Starting with boiling water means you are not waiting around for your stove to cool back down to a simmer, plus the kettle boils almost twice as quickly as your stove.
So, whatever kind of kettle you have, from a trusty classic to a modern whisper-quiet wonder, try giving it a little more love next time you are cooking. I have included a picture of the Smeg (RRP $259) kettle I have always wanted because they look so cool, but I am happy with my basic no-name that I picked up for about $40 – for now.
A blender is great, but if you have a food processor (as I recommend above) you don't need a standing blender, but a stick blender is a great idea. The advantages of the stick blender over its larger counterpart is how little room it takes up and how quick and easy it is to just grab and use.
When you are done you just pop in the dishwasher. It also means you can blend foods in the same pot that you cooked them, especially soup (make sure you let it cool a little first) and it makes speedy work of anything that needs emulsifying, such as mayonnaise.
Many a smoothie has also been whipped up with our stick blender, a task that would seem much more daunting if I had to lug a big blender out of the cupboard every time. You can get everything from bargain-basement blenders to high-end ones that promise the world, somewhere in the middle is good enough for me.
I have waxed lyrical on many occasions - in both life and in print - about my love for the slow cooker. I have had mine for as long as I can remember and I think I have only had one fail in it in all that time (a vegetarian curry that was left alone for too long).
The slow cooker will up your cooking game so much as it is incredibly forgiving and will bring out the best in cheap cuts of meat like pork shoulder or chuck steak. One of its other virtues is that, unlike the oven, you can safely leave it on while you are out.
Slow cookers are also the perfect vessel for making soup during winter, also stock and, even more essentially, mulled wine. They are not the cheapest appliance and they take up a bit of room in the cupboard, but if you are anything like me it will be a love affair to last a lifetime.
I have this one on the list just in case there is someone out there who doesn't have one. I use mine constantly. I rinse cans of chickpeas and beans in it, drain veg, strain stock and refine sauces. Lumpy gravy? That is easily fixed with a mesh strainer.
Mine has a few stray wires poking out after years of constant use, but I am still hanging onto it. The best thing you can do with your mesh strainer is to extract flavour. I often put carrots, onions and other random veg under meat that I am roasting.
Then, while my meat rests I push it through my strainer, along with any juices until I have a tasty broth that I then finesse and reduce. A mesh strainer is magic and is up there with my number 1 kitchen and they retail for as little as $5.