My collection of saucepans is older than me – 32, since you’re asking – and boy do they look it. All are misshapen, one is on the verge of quite literally flying off the handle, and two are irrevocably stained.
Most of the time, I’m secretly proud of this: of my own resistance to the thrill of the new; of the pans’ stubborn indestructibility; of their having passed from my parents' first kitchen, to mine. Then I open Instagram, and within two flicks of my thumb their inadequacies are exposed.
We are in the copper age of kitchenware; in a hand-forged, silicon storm of casseroles and carving knives, spiralizers and mandolins. Head to Lakeland (or Joseph and Joseph, if you’ve more money to burn) and you can find a dedicated device for every culinary endeavour, from an egg-yolk separator to an avocado tool.
Some of these are obviously gimmicky: you don’t need me to tell you a knife will cut an apple just as effectively, if not more so, than an apple slicer, or that the cheapest strawberry hullers are your fingers.
But with Instagram and the glossy pages of food magazines and supplements gleaming with copper pans and Japanese knives and mixers which would set you back more than your laptop, it can be hard to know what are investments, and which are likely to leave you with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
So I asked the professionals: chefs and writers who have cooked all their lives, to sort the wheat from the chaff and the woks from the cheese-slicers.
First to go were cheap knives, on account of their short life span and the dangers they pose because you can’t sharpen them. The experts are unanimous that cheap, supermarket knives are a false – and fraught – economy. “It’s not snobbery – they are genuinely rubbish,” says Sabrina Gidda, executive chef at Allbright. “They’re not well designed. You can’t sharpen them – and you are more likely to hurt yourself with a blunt knife.”
“You get what you pay for with knives,” agrees Adam Handling, of The Frog in Covent Garden and Adam Handling Chelsea, “but you don’t have to spend hundreds of pounds. Mine are £2000 – but that’s because this is my trade.”
Handling recommends Victorianox – a recommendation seconded by Gidda, and thirded by Olia Hercules, former Ottolenghi chef and author of the recently released Ukranian cookbook, Summer Kitchens. Though Hercules loves her Japanese knives, “the Victorianox are absolutely fine: they stay sharp for a while, and you can easily sharpen them – and the classic set only costs around £80.”
Next to go into Room – or, rather, kitchen – 101 are the egg poachers: “those ones that leave you with an egg like a hockey puck. You just need a slotted spoon!” exclaims Gidda. In fact, anything like that – the avocado slicers, the egg separators, the apple corers, the weird tubular garlic peelers – are “a rip off” says Handling.
“They clog up your cupboards, they aren’t necessary, and worse – they are almost always made out of plastic. They’re destined for landfill. We need to be reducing our plastic consumption long term, and if we stop buying them, they’ll stop making them.”
As food writer and trained chef Ed Smith points out, when storage space is as limited as it is in flats and small houses, “it’s best to have items that can do more than one thing.” For my part, I need to store most of my kitchenware on shelves – which means they’re on display 100 per cent of the time. Function comes first, but form follows close behind it.
“If function can be married with beautiful then all the better: it doesn’t matter if it’s on display, you’ll enjoy using it more, and you can serve up in as well as cook with it,” says Smith, who loves Crane’s sets of stainless steel pans on account of their inherent quality, and the fact “they are properly oven-to-table dishes. They are expensive, but they’re doing two jobs. The 'design' nature of them is still linked to the use, rather than being obviously trendy.”
I look again at my primeval pans. Sure, they’re not oven-to-Instagram material – but when it boils down to it, they’re surely as effective at cooking as any other? Not so, says Smith. “You get a much more even heat distribution with Crane, so you don’t get heat spots where the food burns quicker than it cooks.”
When I ask Charmin Ponnuthurai, Crane’s creator, why that is, she explains that “an aluminium core is sandwiched between layers of premium quality 18/10 stainless steel… the multi-layering continues not only through the base but throughout the whole pan body, ensuring excellent heat conduction from base to rim.” So, though a £8 pan from Sainsbury’s will do the job, a £115 pan from Crane will do it better, and more beautifully.
“I don’t think function and beauty are necessarily mutually exclusive,” Smith continues. “If something is well designed, then it looks good simply as a result of it being designed to do its job.”
The go-to example of this is, of course, Le Creuset, whose cast-iron casserole dishes are an iconic investment purchase (and a staple of wedding gift lists). “I remember reading somewhere that when you buy a Le Creuset, you buy it for life – so I saved up for it when I was 18,” Gidda recalls.
She still has it and describes it as her “everything pot.” “Tagine, biriyani, every kind of curry, all the beautiful Italian ragu dishes I made when I was working at Bernadi's, pot roasts, beef bourguignon. You name it and I’ve cooked it in there,” she laughs.
Friends with the Roux family since being a finalist for their eponymous scholarship in 2014 and 2015, Gidda and Albert Roux swap a Le Creuset-for-Le Creuset every time they dine together. Yet the other thing that comes with an investment purchase is better customer service.
“They are quick at replacing parts,” says Hercules, who has two Le Creuset’s and loves them. “I bake bread in it too, so I use it pretty much every day.”
As for the copper bottoms winking out from every food-lover's Instagram feed? “Pointless,” says Handling bluntly. “I mean they look beautiful,” says Hercules. “but I remember having to clean them at Leith’s [cookery school]. We had to make a special solution. It was really quite a lengthy process.”
Far better to put your money in cast iron or – if you want less heavy and more British – the spun iron of Netherton Foundry, whose pans are the favourite of Smith, and Telegraph food columnist Diana Henry.
“Diana describes them as ‘solid, stark and beautiful’, which we think sums them up perfectly,” says Sue Currie, Netherton's business development manager. Proof of the pudding lies on the front of her latest book, Oven To Table, which features a chicken dish cooked in its 12in Prospector pan.
One of those will set you back £58 – but then when you think about the number of non-stick pans you can get through in a year, it makes sense: “I can chew through those like nobody’s business,” laughs Gidda.
Looking after spun-iron pans well will make them last longer – “don’t use a scourer, don’t put it in a dishwasher, just run it under a tap and wipe it with kitchen towel. Any germs will be killed off when you heat it anyway,” says Handling – but if you use your Netherton Foundry/equivalent pan frequently enough (and season it), it will act as a non-stick anyway.
“A cast iron skillet/frying pan that can be re-seasoned is an essential for home cooking,” says Chris Leach, chef and co-founder of Manteca in London. “Mine is a Vogue, which is reasonably priced and will last a lifetime if looked after carefully.”
Besides, there are – believe it or not – items you can scrimp on. Hercules bought a handwhisk from Tesco “and it lasted me 10 years.” Smith believes a Rex Peeler – about £3 depending on where you buy it – trumps anything more high-tech, whilst Leach claims the most used items in his kitchen are “a set of six mixing bowls that all stack inside each other of varying sizes. They take up the space of one large bowl – and they are cheap to pick up online.”
Sometimes cheaper is, in fact, better. Everyone I speak to agrees marble pestle and mortars are the white elephant of the kitchen: a granite or stone pestle and mortar is not just less expensive than a marble one, it is more effective.
“The pestle and mortar I bought from a Thai shop in Camden is one of the oldest things I have, and it is so good. I also use it as a weight when fermenting, and for bashing nails into the floorboards!” Hercules laughs. “Granite and stone have rough edges, so you are sanding the contents. Marble has no grit at all, so it will take you twice as long,” Handling agrees.
And sometimes sentimentality trumps all. I will, one day, treat myself to a Netherton skillet and a Crane pan, but for now – well, I’m sticking with my parents’ old pans, and with Gidda: “there is joy in opening your cupboards to find it full of memories. We can fall in love with our kit, and that enhances the experience of cooking.”