The Best Tools For The Job

The Plain Kitchen Best utensils

Cooking and being in the kitchen is such a subjective and emotive thing; so many people (me included) love being in the space, and can think of nothing better than time spent in the kitchen. So many people, however, also fear the place a little- people who aren’t naturally predisposed to cooking can find the whole thing a little daunting. In writing the blog over the last year, I’ve had many enquiries, texts and emails about my methods, my ingredients, where to source certain things, and of course, many queries about what tools I couldn’t live without- that’s been the most common comment- “What would you say is your best tool? What do you use every day? What couldn’t you live without?”

Well, I can’t pinpoint exactly which is my absolute favourite (although, if you have read any of my recipes, you will probably say it’s my Microplane). I decided to write a few posts about what I consider to be my most useful tools and items in the kitchen. Today’s post is about the top ten little tools, the ones I really use every day, or at least every second day or week. I’ve not dickied up the images, I’ve not bought new tools just for the photo opportunity- these tools you see before you have been used, some have food still attached to them I think, some of them (at least in the case of the peeler and the wooden fork-spoon) I have had for at least 16 years. Bearing in mind that we have only been living in England for 19 years, and arrived as poverty-stricken newlyweds with only our backpacks and sleeping bags, I think that’s pretty good going.

The next equipment installment will be next week, where I focus on larger implements such as pots and the like. I think the one common theme you will find running through these lists is that each tool is not used for only ONE thing. They double, triple, quadruple up their function, and are therefore extremely good value for money.

I haven’t provided links to buy the tools, but where appropriate, I have included a brand name where I think it is of utmost importance. We are all ok with googling things, so I have left it up to you to see where the best deals can be found.

I have also resisted the urge to work backwards, ie, leaving the best till last. I have started with my best and favourite Number One, and worked down to Ten. Each tool I adore, and have been known to pack all ten in my suitcase on holiday (ok- a fib- not the Pestle and Mortar!). Enjoy- and please, please let me know of any tools that are your best and favourite.

Number One

The Microplane

I use this every day, without a shred of a lie. I use it for garlic- mostly, but of course for lemon and other zests, and for parmesan cheese, when I want a fine, translucent, instantly disappearing sort of finish to my parmesan. I use it (probably weekly) for ginger- peel a knob of ginger, and there you go- you are left with the most wonderful ginger paste after microplaning it. I wish that I had never wasted money on silly garlic crushers and presses- I wish that I had known more in my youth (but then again, isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing). I did make the mistake, however, of purchasing a plastic framed Microplane, instead of the metal and rubber one you see before you- and it didn’t do as well as this one. The Perspex/plastic cracked after too much use and washing, so it really wasn’t the best buy. I would love to have a few more Microplanes in my collection- their range has grown since I first purchased the tool, and they all look pretty impressive. My favourite thing about the Microplane is that it stays unutterably sharp throughout its life, and it doesn’t retain smells- I shave garlic cloves, only to rinse it under hot soapy water, dry it, and then zest a lemon for a cake- and there is no hint of the flavour that preceded the lemon. Invaluable. Buy one now.

Number Two

Hand Held Blender

I’ve had a few of these in my time- as have most of us, I reckon. I know they are called stick-blenders too, but, like so many culinary phrases (pulled pork, and brunch, just to name two) I just don’t like the sound of it. So I opt for the rather more convoluted “Hand-held Blender”). I’m fussy with words and their sounds, and I am known to physically shudder at certain words when they are either written or uttered. I do not think I am alone in this. Don’t get me started on moist, or writhing, either.

Back to basics. This particular blender has lasted me the longest- and it was from John Lewis. Fingers crossed it lasts me another 8 years… what I would say is please, please do not buy melamine/plastic ones- they crack, stain and are not worth it. Go stainless steel all the way. I use mine probably every day of the week: I blitz smoothies with it, pestos, milkshakes, salsa, seeds, herbs, dips, soups, sauces- the list is pretty infinite. I never submerge the half of the blender that has whizzed up the sauce in water- I only rinse the blades under running water- that front part of the implement is the only thing that is rinsed- and I think this has prolonged the life of my blender. I always do this- I never submerge any implement that I know is going to be plugged or inserted into another electronic device in water- partly because I shy away from electricity and water (I know it’s not actually ON, but in my mind the link is still there) but also that I think it’s not necessary- I am a “clean as you go” cook- on an everyday basis- I wash and stack as I have used something, as it is generally me who washes up (I use my dishwasher for large things and plates)- so it makes sense to clean and rinse as I go, if possible. You will never regret this purchase. I promise.

Number Three

Wooden Fork-Spoon

Now, this is my own little weird amalgamation. I had, years ago (about 16 years, I’d say) some wooden salad servers, and one night while cooking I needed a fork to break up the mince for a ragu, and I was using a non-stick frying pan- I couldn’t use metal- so I reached for the closest thing in the drawer which was the wooden fork part of the salad server duo. It was perfect- utterly perfect- and it remained my sauce stirring companion from that day onwards. You can see just how knackered it is- I like how I have worn it down on one particular tine, I love how it is stained with the thousands of sauces and stews it has been a part of, and I love how it isn’t a proper thing- it was a make-do and mend sort of thing, and it has proved itself a hundred times over. It also, as I am using it, reminds me of Patti, my godmother. I have mentioned before that two of my strongest influences growing up after mum died were my godmother Patti, and my aunt Soozi- both homemakers, cooks, creatives and all round good-eggs. Beautiful women, strong women, and women who are with me (even though oceans are between us) every day of my life. Patti makes “Patti Mince”- you know those meals that make you feel safe, comforted and loved? Those ones that transport you back to the smells and sights of your most secure childhood places? That’s what Patti Mince does, and she has a similar spoon, which as I write, I can see before me. My spoon-fork is part of my life, and I hope will be a part of my future, too, no matter how knackered it gets.

Of course, you can buy wooden forks from anywhere- try to spend a little more on them, otherwise they are liable to split, and of course, oil them well before use to discourage breaking and splitting. I have to say, I am rather pathetically attached to mine, and when I use it for a sauce or stew, I think it imparts something inexplicable and precious to the meal. I can hear you laughing at me already.

Number Four

The Silicon Spatula

I have a lovely little family of these- they remind me of a squished flat skinny little Barbarpapa family- the wibbly wobbly silicon in their pastel colours, all at angles with each other in my utensil jars and holders. You do need a fair few of these- in differing sizes, it must be said. However, if you are to buy just one, please buy a mid-sized one such as this- it will do you very well indeed. Also, please do not buy a plastic handled and plastic blade type one- one where the entire thing is made of rubber or plastic, and I’ll tell you why. Most often, through lots of use, the plastic blade part at the top becomes disengaged from the handle, and of course, not only is this a bit unhygienic as all sorts of detritus gets caught between the handle and the blade when you try to put it back together, it is quite the most infuriating thing when you are scraping your perfect mounds of pavlova-snow onto a baking tray, only for the blade part to rip itself away from the handle and lose itself in the mounds of sugary egg white. I lose all sense of humour when this happens. It’s not worth it- pay a little extra (as is, generally, the case) and your spatulas will last you for years and years.

What do I use mine for? Everything. I hate waste, so I scrape off every last bit of egg mayo, pesto, sauce, stew, jam, cake mixture- anything- and the variety of sizes help with this. The little ones go round the curves of a mortar perfectly, the larger ones do their best in the bowl of a Kitchenaid. Go for it, and get the whole Barbarpapa family of coloured spatulas.

Number Five

Pestle and Mortar

Of course, this comes as no surprise. I am sure you will all have one of these, from little tiny ones, which quite frankly are useless, to giant, cumbersome yet beautiful ones capable of making a pesto to feed the five thousand. Mine, however, is a compromise. It’s mid-way. But the most important thing is that it is made from rough granite- and this is what you need for speed and excellent pounding and blending. I used to have small little thing- and it was no good. I was glad when it broke, as it forced me to buy another. I’m a bit funny like that- and I suppose it’s a hangover (in a good way) from my very frugal mother. I use something, and make the best of it, until I really, really need to replace it, or it breaks, or the dog chews it. As I have grown older, I have realised that perhaps I do not need to masochistically torture myself (literally and figuratively) by using inappropriate implements, and I do now invest a little more regularly in tools- but the frugality, I have to say, stays with me. I love this pestle and mortar- I use it to pound seeds, crack open pods, pound fresh and dried herbs, grind peppercorns, smush up fruit- so very many things. If you are wary of spending a lot on yours, don’t forget that outlets such as TK Maxx often have such items at a greatly reduced price- it’s worth a look.

Number Six

A good peeler

There are a plethora of these highly dangerous items for sale, and it can really, really be difficult to know just which is the best (and, ahem, safest). I go on about the safe bit because I have cut myself a thousand times with knives and peelers, but then again, I am not the most agile and co-ordinated of creatures, so perhaps it is just me. This is an OXO brand- and I think it far surpasses any I have tried. I have used stainless steel handled ones (heavy and cumbersome) I have used ones you slip on your finger (Well, seriously- is that not an accident waiting to happen?) And I have used exorbitantly priced, fashionable multicoloured numbers which do not swivel and therefore are not worth their salt. This little one is great- if it had a fault, it would be those little rubber gills you see on either side of the peeler- you can see where one side had been eroded, from where I use it so much. Washing the peeler and using it a great deal causes the rubber to perish. Perhaps they have changed the design recently- I don’t know. This peeler has been used almost every day for 16 years, and I love it. The blade swivels, so hugs the curves of a carrot well, the size of the blade means I can thinly slice courgette and the like, and it washes easily. It’s just perfect- although, because of the black colour, be careful of throwing the implement away with the vegetable peelings. It can become camouflaged. My little boy has used this peeler for years- it is safe for little hands too.

Number Seven

One good knife

I have a very strange opinion about knives. And, I have a confession to make. I use Kitchen Devil knives a lot in my prep- which are completely frowned upon by the cooking world, I know, but I adore them. I remember walking into a Kitchen shop that thought itself way above its station, asked if they stocked Kitchen Devils, and the gentleman closed his eyes at me, shook his head disparagingly, and said, “Oh, we DON’T do THOSE here. Perhaps you could try Robert Dyas?” To which I curtly thanked him, left the shop, and of course bought my Kitchen Devils elsewhere. And then told everyone how awful the shop was, and continued, for the next ten years, to buy all of my kitchenalia from other, far friendlier places. Be kind, and be lovely, and be polite- it doesn’t cost much. Woe betide those who can’t abide by this basic human principle, I say. The one pictured above isn’t a Devil- it’s an expensive, good knife, and again, their are so many excellent brands out there that it’s up to you really as to what’s best for you.

Most of my Kitchen Devils are serrated- and I will be writing about them in a second post, but this little number in the picture is a great non-serrated knife, which I use for everything- chopping veg, of course, but it’s the best for finely chopping herbs- which I do every day. I use it to slice rare steak, carve a chicken, debone a lamb, and fillet a fish (I am rubbish at that last one- but I try). It may not be the exact, precise tool for each job, but, in a daily cook’s kitchen, it does the trick. Buy well- please. Spend a huge amount on one good knife, and then, as I will explain in a later post, buy Devils.

Number Eight

Kitchen Scissors

Or, “Soozi Scissors”. Scissors are Soozi’s favourite kitchen utensil. And, now they are mine, too. You will never, ever, chop bacon again. As I mentioned with Patti, Soozi was my other mum growing up, and really, in Soozi’s books, if scissors could do it, why in God’s name would you use anything else? The funny thing is, and I suppose this is why Sooz loved scissors, is that she was a designer, and seamstress- the sewing, quilting, making, tapestry, embroidery, bloody everything that came, and still comes out of this woman’s home is unbelievable. She helped me make my Matric (Prom) dress and teenage fixations (mattress ticking fabric skinny jeans, anyone, with copper zips at the ankles? I thought not). She made my wedding dress. She made my baby’s quilts. She taught me, a million times, how to join the groin part of a shorts and trousers pattern together properly. Although, it must be said, I sewed them together wrong far too often, and she made me unpick them every time. Scissors are one of our lifelong tools in our family, and I think all of us have a myriad of Fiskars lying about the place. Woe betide anyone who used my mother’s (or Patti, or Soozi’s) scissors. “DO NOT use my sewing scissors!” was always the yell at my father, my brother, my cousins, anyone: those of you who are makers will know the sacrosanct nature of scissors. If you use them for the function they are not generally used for, you blunt them and ruin them, and you are in deep, deep trouble.

These scissors of mine in the kitchen are “cheapies”. They are not Fiskars or any other very good brand, and I will tell you why. I have a young son, who loves to make, do and help around the kitchen, and he uses the scissors for anything and everything. I have decided that, for the last 7 years and next few too, these are my kitchen scissors which I’m quite happy that he uses too. We sharpen them on our slipstone (more about that little number in another post) and they are perfect for slicing bacon, spatching a chicken, and, using tips facing downwards, chopping herbs in a bowl or tub. I use them to chop marshmallows and chocolate bars and to open Tetrapaks and parcels and silly food nets. If you haven’t ever prepped bacon using scissors- do it now. You will be amazed at the speed and excellence of the things.

Number Nine

Metal Whisk

Now we are starting to think about not really-everyday cooking, but, perhaps, weekly cooking and prep. I adore my whisk- I have another, bigger balloon silicone whisk, but truth be told, it is rather cumbersome, and I don’t think gives the clean whip this one does. Try to find one with a heavy stainless steel handle, so that you get a good grip on it. It must be all steel too- very important, and good for cleaning too. I use mine for white sauces (I make a lot of these), cream, dressings, egg whites (I use the Kitchenaid for most of these egg-white situations, but sometimes, I go back to a whisk). Pancake batters, omelette and frittata prep, a whisk is a failsafe tool for ensuring a lump free sauce- and a good custard too. I often whip cream in this way- and ask Andy to help me along the way, as it can be quite a tiresome and strenuous job whipping a large bowl of cream by hand, but, if the Kitchenaid is already in use- I often have to go this route. Andy overwhips the cream every single time I ask him for help- and I don’t blame him one jot, although I do laugh at him every time. He looks at me aghast and says “I don’t know what I did!” And of course, that’s the case with whisking: one extra whisk or turn of a strong hand, and its overwhipped. Of course, all is not lost- all you do is loosen the cream with milk or thin cream, and it’s perfect. But I do laugh at the overwhipping- it happens in the blink of an eye- be careful!

Number Ten

Tea Strainer

I again, may, just once, have mentioned it, but tea, along with good wine, is one of my favourite things to drink. And I like a blend. A blend of Assam and Earl Grey leaves. I like about 5 cups a day (mugs, to be perfectly honest, large, thin lipped, Tintin and Haddock themed mugs), and the only way to get this is with the use of a tea strainer. This one is (as you can see ) wonky and well worn, and is a little heavy one the handle, but it does the job. It rests on cups and makes wonderful teas, and doesn’t let any stray leaves through either. However, as I have mentioned before, a utensil is made all the more worthwhile if it has more than one use. I use this for sifting icing sugar, coffee granules, cocoa and the like over puds and cakes- and it works perfectly. There are, of course, tea bags in our house for those who prefer them, but most people will either endure or enjoy the mix of tea we offer them.

I would love, love to hear what your favourite items in the kitchen are. Please leave a comment, or email or text or phone. I hope this little list has been useful, or at least, has made you smile. Happy cooking in these Summer days, everyone.


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