Otherwise known as “Wow, buying this shit gets really expensive. Like, really fast”. I warn you in advance that this is going to hurt your credit cards. But then so do just the books, as you may have gathered from one of my earlier pieces.
More even than a heavy Bolivian Army Marching Powder habit, it’s very easy to let your desire for “just one more knife” or “I really think I could use that somewhere”, new device, lead you down that hard, unlit, rocky road to bankruptcy, homelessness, desertion of and by family, life lived for a few short weeks out on the cold, mean streets and ultimately, a despairing death, by your own sorry hand, in the nearest fast-running river where your body gets found, weeks later, bloated, eyes gone, seagull pecked, stinking, rotting flesh, washed up on a beach.
OK, I’ve not yet reached that point. Yet. So, before I do — and find I can’t afford to pay for the server to host this blog anymore and it all disappears into the digital void — let me show you some of the items that I (and others far better qualified than I) consider essential as well as a few that fall into — “gateway drug” warning here — the “nice to have” (or even better, “fun shit to play around with”) categories.
First, knives. There’s no way around this. They’re a sine qua non of the kitchen. You will need a knife or two. If you can keep it down to that sort of number, then you’re golden. You may be able to. I wouldn’t count on it. Even if you’re not butchering your own animals, there’s a lot of cutting involved in preparing parts of the pig, ready to cook and then eat.
That said, you don’t have to spend a sum close that of the GDP of a small African country to get suitable blades. A boning knife, a chefs knife and a general purpose one and that’s about it. And you could stop there with these three.
Now, I know that you’re all fine, upstanding young things, so porn is a subject you’ll be fully au fait with. So, be aware that there is a metric fuck ton of knife porn out there.
Ranging from these beautiful Japanese knives to be found in London at the (you’d never have guessed) Japanese Knife Company with e.g. this “Santoku” (which translates as ‘three benefits’ – slicing, dicing and mincing), coming in at a very reasonable £300 or so
to these black-smithed delights by Jim Wester:
(with only a 12 degree bevel, similar to the Japanese style) which are a delight to loo at, are unique to each buyer and are a steal at $300 or less to others ranging in price from no more than around £10 all the way up to multi-thousand pound orgies of steel & wood such as this one
made in Japan by the Yoshihiro knife masters of Sakai and costing around $5,000, there is (as the sales cliche would have it) indeed, “something for everyone”.
Having said all that, a cleaver — as featured in the sign at the top of the page — falls under the “fun shit” heading so why not buy one of them as well? With a suitable chopping block or board, there’s no reason to take large chunks out of your work-surface unless you’re particularly cack-handed and if you need to cut through bone (maybe you’re breaking down a larger section of an animal), they’re quick and suited to the task.
And to keep all of them in tip-top condition? Well, that’s another learning curve. I suggest you take a look at this 20-minute video entitled “From Dull to Sharp: A Video Guide to Sharpen Your Knives” via the excellent KnifePlanet site. I’d also suggest that you practice on one of the less expensive knives until you’re more confident that you’re not going to make a total pig’s ear (see what I did there?) of the work involved.
Once you’ve agreed that you can do this yourself, rather than getting your local blacksmith involved, here’s a good whetstone — one that doesn’t slide away from you when you start working on getting that blade just so.
Along with the whetstone, you’ll probably need a honing steel, or a butcher’s steel.
They’re ideal for regular, per-use maintenance. They’re also a bit of a misnomer in that they don’t actually hone (or sharpen as some have been led to think) the knife but rather they’re there to bring the blade back into alignment, straightening out a curved edge, so they cut cleanly every time. This “straightening” allows the knife to cut much more easily, so the idea that it’s really been sharpened is easy to understand. The day I had a pig butchery course, the master butcher there, Adrian, was continually “wiping” his knives up and down the steel, only once or twice each time, but after almost every cut, keeping that edge true and ensuring the least effort was needed to bear down through meat, fat, tendon & sinew.
It’s a skill, a muscle memory that I still don’t yet have but one well worth cultivating if only to cut down on the amount of sweating you need to do when undertaking some serious butchery. Adrian came from an industrial slaughterhouse background, so energy saving hacks are a natural thing to come up with when you have so many carcasses heading rapidly towards you on the overheard, chain conveyer, that need to be turned rapidly and efficiently into their component parts.
OK, there’s a few other tools & items that I’ll throw in and that honestly won’t break the bank. Well. A couple of them might but…
Unless you’re very sure about the accuracy of your oven — and to be honest most normal domestic ones are more than a little flakey after a couple of years use, day in, day out — get a meat thermometer. In fact, get one anyway. Even if you are. Sure that is.
You can get one of the older style ones, such as this on the left, punted by Heston Blumenthal — I guess his pension plan needs as much help as it can get after his divorce — or a better choice, more accurate, easier to use and that registers almost instantaneously, is one of these canonical ETI thermapens. You’ll find you need it when cooking anything hot, when barbecuing (again, anything where the temperature control is critical — more on this when we look at the use of barbecues in smoking & curing) and, if you get into it, even when cooking sous vide, so at around only £40, it’ll save you from some possibly quite expensive mistakes. I have both of these items but I can’t recall the last time I used the Heston device, so save your money & just buy the thermapen.
A lot of recipes insist on quite accurate weighing. So, whilst the older analogue scales are OK at a pinch (see? I did it again), if that’s all you have, some digital scales take all of the pain and uncertainty out of weighing and allow you quickly to flip between grammes, ounces and millilitres at the touch of a button. And being able to “zero” the dial each time allows you to add numerous ingredients, wet & dry, to the same bowl, one after the other, getting each of them quickly right, rather than trying to calculate in your head what needs adding or subtracting.
Then for the nerds amongst us (or just those with more money than brains?) there’s the iGrill available from the Apple Store with the almost obligatory app for the iPhone or the similarly sourced iDevices Kitchen thermometer. Neither of them are necessary to getting the job done. Of course. But fun? Yup.
Finally, if you’re thinking of getting into the afore-mentioned curing and smoking then you should probably consider buying some of the following as well.
They’re not mandatory but then they’re not hugely expensive either and make things quicker and in some circumstances, appreciably safer (when we come to talk about curing salts or Prague Powders, you’ll see why this is a concern). But also simply following the recipes carefully makes sure you don’t die from eating the fruits of your labours (or killing friends and relatives), so they don’t have to be added to your Amazon Wish List…
I’m sure you’ve all got an old, probably slightly rusty hacksaw at the bottom of the tool-box or stashed in the garden shed. Resist the urge to use this. I mean you can, nothing stopping you and it’d work OK and a bit of rust never killed anyone, but a separate butcher’s saw costs little and can be easily cleaned & sterilised (again for those hygiene reasons cited above).
By the way, I mean buy one of these little beauties (the saw, not the man)
rather than one of these bad-boys unfortunately. That is unless you’ve got a much larger kitchen than me…
When you start making your own salami or fermented sausage, a pH measure gives you an accurate reading on the acidity level which is crucial to getting a good product at the end. You can use pH strips but they’re not as accurate and the probe on this makes the job quick & easy:
For use in your drying/curing area — which could just be a small shed or a box or an undisturbed but ventilated room — a thermo-hygrometer gives you reliable readings on the relative humidity (the relationship between the water-content of the moisture in the air and the ambient temperature). There’s more on why this is important in my review of Steve Lamb’s book elsewhere on this site.
To keep your newly created parcels of joy protected from the ravages of the outside world and to help in storing them and also as part of the sous vide cooking, a vacuum packer is hugely useful. Again, not an expensive outlay but one that will repay the small investment over and over in time & waste saved.
Buy some trays, boxes & brine bins. Nothing fancy. Cheap, plastic, available from almost anywhere but easy to keep clean and sterilise and they ensure there’s no spillage, especially when storing things in a domestic environment where you don’t have access to the walk-in stores and fridges open to the commercial chef.
A drying box — where the thermo-hygrometer comes into play — but there’s no need to spend the $1400 necessary to buy one of these (purely for poseurs or those too stupid to realise they’re being conned). Instead, make your own.
There’s a good guide to this in both Tim Hayward’s “Food DIY” and Steve Lamb’s “Curing & Smoking” talked about in the “How many food books does one person need? I mean really?” post. Suffice to say, that a little bit of carpentry skill goes a long way on this. Hell, even I considered doing it this way. That tells you all you need to know about how easy this actually is…
The last three items I’ll cover really do fall into the “nice to have” or “fun shit to play around with” categories.
Firstly, a butcher’s block. The upright ones you may have seen in your local butcher’s cost a fucking king’s ransom and weigh more than a small Panzer tank. But if you can get one and have space for it and don’t sustain a hernia getting it into the house and then treat it well, it will last your lifetime and that of the lucky person to whom it’s bequeathed. Even one of the smaller, less divorce provoking, work-surface models make cutting and prepping food a little bit more fun and organised. For those reasons alone, consider shelling out…
Of course you can use an old BBQ, or a tin box or a small brick-built contraption or even, at a pinch, an oven to smoke and grill and cure your meat and other foods. But a Weber grill is controllable, easily managed, easily cleaned, stores in a corner and works superbly well. You can even just use it to just cook stuff.
And then there’s the Big Green Egg. This is an item that I drool over. Dream of. That I desire. That I crave with an almost crack-habit like need daily. It’s a thing of deep beauty but more than that — it’s just so bloody good at doing its job. As witnessed by the huge panoply of chefs that choose to use one in their kitchen, often putting it front and centre of the show.
Think Daniel Clifford, Midsummer House, Cambridge with 2 Michelin Stars, Tom Adams of Pitt Cue, Sat Bains at his eponymous Nottingham place (and I love his website design!), Simon Rogan at l’enclume and L’ortolan’s Alan Murchison, all of whom were bitten by the EGG bug and haven’t stopped using it since. Boy, do I want to get my hands on one of these babies.
Well, that’s it for the moment. Having spent, at least in my head, a huge amount of cash (£3,745 for this one), I think I now need to go and lie down and dream of green eggs…
And “one last thing”? Here’s a rather fine shot by an old friend, Simon Le Gros Bisson (@sbisson) called “The Pig Tells The Truth”, taken at The Yardbird restaurant in Vegas recently, picturing one of those very tools that I mentioned above.