You can do a passable job with poor tools, but as it becomes possible to buy better kit, choose wisely. It is cheaper in the long run to buy a good knife, saucepan, etc. to start with that will last a lifetime than to economise on tools that never worked right to start with, were difficult to use, and had to be replaced in a year or two anyway. Tools can be bought from Harrods, from the pound shop, online or at the car boot. The key to getting the right stuff is to know what you are looking for.

Cooks’ knife

The first tool, and the most used, is a cook’s knife. You can spend anywhere from £2 to £150, the difference in price being in the quality of the steel, production values and kudos. Quality steel will keep it’s edge longer, but all cooks knives will need sharpening from time to time.

You want a knife with a 6 to 8″ (150 – 200mm) blade, and a riveted handle, or one that is one piece with the blade. The knife should not flex when you try to bend it, or it will annoyingly choose it’s own path when cutting harder things. It should feel good to hold.

Your knife needs to have a convex blade, so that you can rock it up and down through the food while applying pressure near the tip with the fingers of the other hand, in that manner that you see chefs on the tele doing at blinding speed. We go slower than that, but it’s the same principle, and that’s how to reduce herbs to dust. As you get more practice, you get faster.

There are two other basic knife techniques. With the bridge, you hold the food between your thumb and fingers, and cut down through the gap between them. Good for hard foods, like parsnips, squash, potatoes, chunking hard cheese…

In slicing fine the knife blade uses the knuckles and nails of the hand that is holding the food as a guide, and the hold shifts along the item as you slice on. Tuck your fingertips in.

The main thing with sharp knives is not to have any bit of you under the sharp edge. Decent knives need to be treated with respect. I remember yeas ago grabbing some cutlery out of the washing-up water, and coming up all red and bloody because I’d squeezed the sharp edge of my new knife. Since then, I store them separate from the general run of knives and forks, and they don’t go in the cutlery drainer either.

Paring knife

A smaller version of the cooks’ knife, with a blade around 3″ (75mm) long, for use where the larger one would be unwieldy.


There’s no point having a good knife if you can’t keep it sharp. There are all sorts of patent sharpeners on the market, and if you buy one that you can keep stable on the worktop as you draw the blade through it, it will do a good job.

The classic tool for this job, however, is the steel – it looks like a long knife, except the ‘blade’ is a round file. The key to using a steel is to know the angle of the edge of your knife, and applying the steel to the blade at that same constant angle, drawing it firmly across the side of the blade from base to tip, first one side, then the other, and repeat. A steel must be made of good-quality steel. There are some aluminium ones on the market, cheap as chips, and about as much use.

The patent sharpener gives you no choice of angle, which can be a good thing, and has, usually, two sets of grinding wheels to sharpen both sides at once. Both methods require a steady hand.

Bread knife

This is the one you don’t sharpen. Get one that is reasonably stiff, and has scalloped serrations. Think of the bread knife as a small saw – it’s useful for cutting cardboard boxes too, but that won’t help its edge. Nothing else will cut even slices of fresh bread. Don’t try to sharpen it.


As an old-fashioned sort, I prefer wooden boards. Teak will last a lifetime, but beech will work too. If you cut onto glass or melamine, you will quickly blunt your knife. Worktops are the worst surface to chop on, they will get damaged, and there’s no way to fit them in the sink.

These days, people use plastic. I had my mother’s old teak board, and a plastic one, on the boat before we moved on board. Returning to the boat after a month or so, I discovered the plastic one with black mould in all the little grooves, next to the sweet-looking teak one. That put me off plastic, but hey, each to their own.

I’v got three boards right now, one dedicated to raw meat and fish, one for veg etc, and one which is never used for garlic or onions. I bought that after I got fed up with garlic flavoured fruit salad.

Thicker is better, an inch/25mm or more, as they are less likely to warp and split. About 12″ x 18″ (300 x 400mm) is a good size. Small boards are annoying, when the bits of food fall off them. Big ones are hard to keep clean.


Ideally, a frying pan and three saucepans. 2 litres to 5 litres (4 to 8 pints) in volume. An enormous pan (2 gallons (9 litres) or more) is good if you are brewing, preserving, or feeding the five thousand. If every pan has a lid, that will extend their usefulness. If everything including the handles can stand able to stand the heat of the oven it will save on washing up and ovenware.

Heavy based stainless steel is a good low maintenance every-day option. Cast iron makes a good griddle, skillet or casserole, if you keep it well seasoned, in this manner: heat the pan up, empty, till really hot, then rub with oil on a paper towel, allow to cool: and repeat 3 times to start with, once in a while thereafter, and after soaking and scouring. Enamel works, if of a reasonable quality. Cheap enamel chips easily. Quality enamel is expensive. Both of these options are heavy.

Aluminium was a popular material for cooking pans, being cheap, light, and a good conductor of heat. Then they found that aluminium salts that leached from the pan particularly when used to cook acid foods, tomatoes, fruits and such, were implicated in Senile Dementia, and since then it has understandably lost popularity. I wonder what the health implications of degrading non-stick coatings might turn out to be.

Personally, I don’t use aluminium or non-stick in my kitchen.

Copper pans and kettles were common in years gone by, and polished up they look lovely, hanging from a rack. But because verdigris – the green ‘rust’ of copper – is poisonous, they were always tinned inside. This coating wore out with use, and I’m glad I’m not a poor Victorian housewife, having to find the money to send the pans for re-tinning at the platers, or risk poisoning the family.


for mixing, containing and serving. A big one, a middle-sized one and a small one. Think Goldilocks, and always have one that’s just right. Or use your saucepan…


A big one for sifting, separating and draining, a small one for tea and to catch lemon pips. Stainless steel is best. As a young wife, my mother put her new plastic colander into the oven to keep the rice warm. She had a university degree, worked in political and economic planning, and rice with plastic sauce.

Measuring jug – I like the glass kind, that hold ½ a litre / 1 pint

Measuring spoons – I still haven’t got my set!

Scales – If you are getting serious about your cooking

Hand Blender – a simple one with a motor of over 250 watts will be used more than any other electrical gadget, and can cost as little as £10. They don’t take much space, either.  The top of the range ones have whisks and choppers.

Rotary whisk – If you haven’t got an electric one, then one of these may be retro, but it does the job. Two four-bladed interlinked beaters, run by gears which are turned by a dog-leg handle.  Look for good solid engineering.

Pepper grinder – with a ceramic grinding mechanism, which will last much longer. A few pounds will buy a black topped glass one from a certain Swedish furniture store, if you can stand the journey, and the long walk round. A good place for lots of other kitchen essentials, just such a mission to shop in.

  • Wooden Spoon – for stirring up sweet stuff.
  • Wooden Spatula – stirry stick for savouries. One of the most used minor tools
  • Rubber spatula – if you can find a flexible one, it will increase yields and ease washing up
  • Balloon whisk – mixing and whipping
  • Metal fish slice – a flexible blade is good
  • Rock and Roll potato peeler – sturdy handle, fine articulated blade – slung either way
  • Pastry brush – for gently anointing. A new paintbrush is just as good. Wash it first
  • Rolling pin – a cylinder, no handles, 30 – 45 cm (12 – 15″)of wood, glass or resin. Bear in mind your work space.
  • Ladle – for transferring liquids. Or use a mug ;
  • Slotted spoon – for fishing out solids, leaving the liquid behind
  • Potato masher – made of metal, an oval horizontal working part with wiggly holes is my preferred pattern
  • Tin opener – a good one will last longer.
  • Small funnel – to get the oil back in the bottle… oven chips just aren’t the same
  • Scissors – opening packets, trimming herbs
  • Box grater – stainless steel, sturdy and stable. Check the slicing side – can you flex it? If so don’t buy it
  • Baking sheet – cookies!
  • Cake tin – loose base, 20 – 26 cm (8 – 10″)
  • Bun tin – for fairy cakes, muffins, Yorkshire pud and tiny pies
  • Ceramic or stainless oven dishes – for baked and roast dishes and for serving.