There’s a dizzying array of kitchen paraphernalia out there, so much that it’s difficult to determine what’s a necessity, what’s a whim, and what’s an utterly useless flight of fancy. And unless you have loads of storage and cash, it pays to know the difference. Here, then, are the items we think, based on our collective years of cooking experience, that you can’t live without, as well as some insider tips on what’s worth spending on and where you can afford to skimp.
SAUCEPANS For our money, three saucepans are enough to meet most of your cooking needs.
While purchasing kitchen equipment is often a piecemeal affair, a nested set of saucepans makes sense on many levels. They store easily and you’ll find you have exactly the sizes you’ll need – a 1.5-litre capacity, ideal for making sauces, a 2-litre capacity, and the largest, at about 2.8 litres, for cooking pasta for just a couple of people.
Heavy-based saucepans facilitate both fast cooking and long, slow cooking. Choose a material that pleases you aesthetically, but keep in mind the practicalities. We love the look of copper pans, but working to keep them shiny is a less tempting prospect. Stainless steel is durable and easy to clean, and has the added appeal of enduring classic good looks. Cuisinart and Esteele pans fit the bill here. Most stainless steel saucepans have an aluminium layer sandwiched between layers of steel to aid heat conduction, and better quality saucepans include this layer not only on the base, but also up the sides. This is worth looking out for, but it will cost you.
If you have an induction cooktop, this will determine the material you go for – induction cooking requires pans made from a magnetisable metal such as cast iron or steel in order to function, so check your pans’ suitability if you’re buying for use on an induction stovetop.
Straight-sided saucepans are suitable for most tasks. Select one that feels good in your hands. It should feel substantial, but not too heavy for you to handle safely when it’s full. Check the handles too – they should be firmly affixed with sturdy rivets or screws.
Lids, although sometimes annoying to store, are indispensable. Tightly fitting lids are a must, accelerating boiling and sealing in moisture where necessary. Glass lids are surprisingly handy – you can see what’s going on in the pan without releasing any of that precious steam.
Saucepans can be expensive, but when you consider that they’ll be in your possession for many years (hopefully for life), it’s worth investing every cent you can spare for the cause.
FRYING PAN We love a great non-stick frying pan. Perfect for omelettes, blini or crêpes, it’s a joy to use and a doddle to clean. And while a non-stick pan will sear a piece of fish or meat beautifully (we like Scanpan and Cuisinart), a heavy-duty cast-iron frying pan really comes into its own on that front. If it’s a case of one or the other, the non-stick version happily ticks all the boxes. The only non-negotiable is the handle – it must be oven-proof. The dimensions you choose depend on how many people you usually cook for, but for our money a 26cm-diameter pan will do the trick on most occasions.
CASSEROLE We have a deep and abiding love for cast-iron casseroles here at GT headquarters. Be they Le Creuset, Chasseur or Staub, they’re an indispensable part of our cooking arsenal. They retain heat well and distribute it evenly, making them the go-to for leisurely braising. They’re heavy duty enough to go from stovetop to oven, yet beautiful enough to go from kitchen to table. With new colours and finishes released almost every season, it’s tempting to buy a rainbow assortment, but that would be plain frivolous – one is ample. A 26cm-diameter round version fits the bill on most occasions, although if the budget stretches, there’s something very pleasing about the oval versions. The only drawback is their not-inconsiderable heft – they weigh a ton, but we’re willing to let that slide. And although they’re never inexpensive, they’re worth their weight in gold.
STOCKPOT The name’s a dead give-away: you’ll need one of these guys if making stock is your thing. It also comes in handy for cooking pasta for large gatherings, for knocking up a mammoth batch of soup or for poaching a chook. Unless you’re catering for an army, a stockpot of 10-12 litres capacity should be ample. And it needn’t be commensurately large in price – catering and restaurant suppliers and Asian supermarkets with a good kitchenware section sell reasonably priced stockpots, and there’s really no need to spend big.
ROASTING PANS It might sound bleedingly obvious, but do measure the internal dimensions of your oven before you buy a roasting pan – you don’t want to be trying to jam it into the oven laden with vegies and a joint of meat only to find the damn thing won’t fit. Two roasting pans are a sensible investment – one large enough to hold the aforesaid joint of meat, one slightly smaller to roast anything else.There’s no real need to spend a fortune on them – they take a lot of wear and tear, and of all the pieces of equipment we’ve mentioned, these are the ones you’re likely to have to replace reasonably regularly. Catering and restaurant suppliers have a good range of reasonably priced utilitarian models.
PHOTOGRAPHY ANDREW FINLAYSON
This article is from the November 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.