One thing I get asked for a lot, as a result of this blog, is advice on student cooking. Fortunately it has been quite a long time since I had to endure the pitfalls of a student kitchen (people leaving the freezer open overnight, using my pans and leaving them full of rancid oil for days, teatowels covered in unthinkable stains…), but university definitely provided my formative years in terms of becoming a cook and food writer. Learning to cook properly as a student is a rite of passage, in my opinion, one that may be a little challenging but is infinitely rewarding and joyful. Better still, it’s a great social skill to have up your sleeve; few things impress your student peers more than a home-cooked feast. You’ll also save money, eat more healthily and gain a new creative hobby into the bargain. So this month I’m working in partnership with Steamer Trading Cookshop, one of my favourite small independent retailers, to offer some advice on essential kit for your first student kitchen (and no, it doesn’t include novelty shot glasses or cocktail shakers…but it should obviously include a huge bowl of avocados and some key cookbooks - see above...)
The products suggested below can all be purchased at Steamer Trading stores or from their website, and will get your Masterchef dreams off to a flying start. Consider clubbing together with your housemates to purchase this useful set – the glorious feasts you’ll whip up as a result are totally worth the investment.
A good knife. I can’t stress how important this one is. You don’t realise how much you rely on a good knife until you end up in someone else’s kitchen with something that will barely made an indentation in a ripe tomato and is, quite frankly, dangerous. Sharp knives are more precise, less likely to slip and cut your fingers, and make everyday kitchen prep a pleasure rather than a chore. The Zyliss three-piece knife set is colourful, durable and has the main knife sizes you’ll need: a big one for meat and large vegetables (this is a heavy, Santoku-style knife and the shape is infinitely useful), a smaller serrated knife for bread and cakes, and a little paring knife for chopping and slicing smaller items.
A chopping board. Obviously, this is essential. Chopping anything on plates or glass worktops makes for blunt knives, a horrible noise and endangered fingers.
Not essential, but if you’re the kind of person who needs to be reminded to stay hydrated, or who has a penchant for sugary processed drinks, consider an Infruition water bottle. This clever and beautiful bottle has a reservoir in the centre in which you can place your favourite fruits, vegetables and herbs to give a flavoursome, thirst-quenching bottle of water that you can take with you to lectures, to the gym, to the shops. I’ve found it’s also very good for making homemade iced tea, which you can store in the fridge. My favourite flavour combination is lemon, ginger and fresh mint, but try everything from fresh berries to pineapple. It looks beautiful too.
Basic crockery. No need to splash out on anything fancy, unless you’re the kind of student who needs props for your food blog (ahem). If this is the case, seek out unusual pieces at markets and charity shops for very little money. Otherwise, a couple of different plate sizes and bowls are all you need to begin with – at least until you’ve perfected your kitchen skills and begin hosting dinner parties! The Maxwell & Williams range is simple, stylish and good value. Start off with a couple of plates – the 23cm and 27.5cm plates are good sizes – a few mugs and some pasta bowls (which can double up as bowls for stir-fries, salads etc.).
Mixing bowls. Essential for so many things: baking, salads, sauces, storing items in the fridge… There is no need to spend a lot of money on mixing bowls, but Pyrex versions tend to be more durable than plastic. A set of three bowls in varying sizes should be sufficient to begin with.
A couple of good frying pans. To begin with, I’d go for a large frying pan with steep sides, as this is versatile and good for cooking almost anything, from a single fried egg to a slap-up dinner for four. I’d also suggest investing in a decent wok, which can be used in myriad ways but importantly for quick, healthy stir-fries when you’re starving and don’t want to spend ages cooking. Don’t just limit it to Asian dishes, though: woks are also great for making pasta sauces, curries and hearty bean or grain dishes – basically anything where you need to fry a few things together in a pan. This Kitchen Craft wok is non-stick, big enough for a hearty stir-fry, and great value.
If you want to minimise the amount of kit in your shared kitchen cupboards, consider investing in a 2-in-1 grill and sandwich maker (it’s not super-cheap, but split between housemates it’s a decent investment). Toasted sandwiches are something of a student staple, and don’t have to be confined to a slice of cheddar between two pieces of white bread – experiment with houmous and roasted vegetable flatbread wraps, blue cheese and apple chutney wholemeal toasties, ciabattas with mozzarella and prosciutto... Toasties are great for using up leftovers in the fridge and provide a hearty meal in minutes. You can even use this useful gadget to make frittatas, calzone and feta parcels, once you’ve sharpened up your cookery skills (there is a useful recipe leaflet in the box). This grill is also a very useful piece of kit to have, as it’s much easier to clean than a traditional griddle pan (simply remove the plates and put them in the dishwasher, or wash up by hand – easy thanks to the non-stick coating) and can be used for anything from marinated chicken breasts to sausages, thick halloumi slices to rashers of bacon for a Sunday morning treat. It’ll save on mess and washing up, and is a very easy way to get your sizzling protein fix. Just please, please don’t be the person who uses it for a fry-up and then waltzes off leaving someone else to clean up the congealed grease days later…
Buy a set of Tupperware storage boxes when you set up your kitchen – they are invaluable for storing food in the fridge, freezer and cupboards, and for packed lunches. By being able to keep leftovers or prep meals in advance and store them, you’ll cut down on waste and consequently on your shopping bill.
If you’d told me two years ago that a spiraliser would be an essential item of kitchen kit, I’d have laughed. However, in this day and age of ‘clean eating’ and various food intolerances, it can be a useful gadget to have in the kitchen, to prep the ubiquitous ‘courgetti’ (a low-carb, gluten-free and low-calorie alternative to pasta…apparently). The Gefu model is a good, lightweight and efficient version, with a pleasing hourglass shape. For the more inventive cook, it also makes easy work of finely shredding/julienning vegetables, which could then be turned into quick-pickled vegetables and served alongside Vietnamese or Japanese dishes, or just in salads. If you don’t have the space for a food processor, this is a decent alternative when it comes to finely shredding vegetables.
Obviously not an essential, but this Joie microwaveable popcorn maker is a mess-free way to make your favourite movie snack in minutes. With no need for oil or fuss, it cuts down on washing up and is also pretty fun to use. Great for making friends.
Once you’ve kitted out your kitchen, the fun can begin. Here are a few other pieces of advice for aspiring student cooks:
- Buy a couple of great, simple, reliable cookbooks. Don’t just restrict yourself to ‘student’ cookbooks. The food writers I’d recommend for novice cooks, whose recipes are simple and work every time, are Nigel Slater, Bill Granger, Delia Smith and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
- Wash up as you go and never, ever leave it ‘until later’. Be kind to your future self and your housemates. Don’t leave the kitchen in a state with piles of dirty dishes.
- Learn how to make a loaf of bread, a crumble, a good pasta sauce, a simple curry and a stir-fry, and you will never want to buy expensive ready meals or takeaways again.
- Grow a couple of pots of herbs on your windowsill, and you’ll have no need to fork out for those plastic packets on a regular basis. Herbs really transform cooking, and growing your own means they’re basically free. Start with basil, mint and thyme, all of which grow very happily on a sunny windowsill.
- Utilise your freezer. Make double batches of meals and freeze for later, for an instant ‘ready meal’. Freeze leftover bread to use as breadcrumbs. Frozen berries and vegetables are good value and useful to have on standby. Cakes can be frozen and warmed through as an instant pudding later.
- You will have the odd culinary disaster. This happens to everyone. Don’t feel like you’re a failure because your cake is burnt, your pasta is overcooked or your cheesecake hasn’t set. Try and salvage it if you can, or consider it a useful lesson learned. Cooking should ultimately be fun, sociable and creative, and it’s a vital life skill. Enjoy it!
This post was written in partnership with Steamer Trading, who kindly sent me the items mentioned in their 'student bundle'. All views are my own.