Whilst I’m a huge advocate of the streamlined kitchen – the wobbling shelves of pots, pans, appliances, dishes and tools that I accumulated whilst writing my first cookbook drove me demented after a few months, when I was in constant danger of being brained by a falling pan or jug – I’ve come to realise that there are some bits of extra cooking equipment that really are worth valuable kitchen space if you want to both save time and get the best results. These pro tools are a secret that all home cooks should know to make their cooking lives easier.
NON-STICK RESUABLE BAKING MATS
Bake Off addicts will have seen the contestants using heatproof non-stick baking mats in every episode. Whilst they conduct heat admirably, because they are usually made from food grade silicone they also repel anything that’s put on them: you’ll never again have to peel baking parchment off meringues, grease a baking tray – or chisel biscuits off one. They’re a healthy option, as pans don’t need to be greased or buttered, they wash like a dream, and each mat lasts for thousands of bakes. But they aren’t just for perfect non-stick baking: they are taint-free, so can be used underneath meat, (they’re particularly good for cooking sausages which can stick like glue to metal) for roasting fruit or vegetables (no more caramelised tomatoes burnt onto trays), and sugar or chocolate work if you have a yen to get technical in the kitchen. Which to buy? There are plenty of imitators out there, but the Silpat Silicone Baking Mat is the original and the best. The added bonus is that food cooked on a Silpat mat will always cook and brown evenly because the additional fibreglass mesh provides consistent heat distribution.
You can also pick up flexible silicone sheets of varying thicknesses, and Teflon-treated non-stick liners, for a few quid at a pound shop, or on Amazon. The Teflon ones look like treated paper and are invaluable for tray bakes like brownies as they can be used up the sides of the baking pan to give a lovely smooth bakery-style edge, and for lining grill pans to save on the washing up, and the silicone ones are great as a replacement for baking parchment on baking sheets. (They give a lovely crisp, smooth, browned bottom to my chocolate chip cookies.)
Off set spatula
Although I've been icing cakes and cupcakes for some thirty years, I only found out about these from YouTube videos a few years ago. If you usually use a butter knife or even a teaspoon for icing, you will find that they are a ninja tool for making icing look pro even if you are resolutely amateur, giving a really smooth and clean effect to everything from cupcake frosting to the buttercream filling inside a bog-standard Victoria sponge. Best of all they aren’t expensive: I use this Wilton 13” one, which costs just £3.45, for large cakes, and this little Tala one (£4.15) for cupcakes
Extra Long Food Tweezers
You can find a pair of these in every food stylist and Instagrammer's prop kit for finnicking about with flower petals and individual grains of rice, but I find them invaluable for picking out burnt bits from sauces, fishing out herbs from stocks after they’ve infused, grabbing bits of eggshell (am I the only person who continuously screws up cracking eggs?), and tweezing out fish bones.
Silicone pastry brush
Anyone who’s a fan of the super quick puff pastry tart (roll out ready made pastry, add topping, bung in oven) will know that they look and taste much nicer with beaten egg brushed over the edges. I’ve always used traditional wooden pastry brushes, but getting them clean is a nightmare and the bristles stay clumpy forever. Silicone ones can go in the washing machine, are cheap as chips, and are super hygienic and best of all, they cost £1+ (mine is from Poundland).
I don’t bake bread at home so I never thought I needed a dough scraper (one piece of equipment too many), but then I did a knife skills course where the instructor showed us how a metal one can be used not just for chopping pastry and lifting bits of dough from my work bench, but for moving ingredients around the kitchen. Basically anything that's been chopped and needs to be lifted off a flat surface (chopped herbs, chocolate, nuts) can be neatly scooped up with one, avoiding having to keep lifting up your chopping board, and spilling things. They are also brilliant for scraping down your kitchen workbench when you clean up. It really is one of those properly brilliant how did I live without this things? And, best of all, they cost from £2.
Anti-Fatigue Floor Mats
If you spend more than an hour at a time in the kitchen then these padded floor mats can be a complete lifesaver for avoiding tired and aching legs. They can be used in front of the sink for washing-up sessions (they’re waterproof and non-slip), and I have mine in front of the prep area in the kitchen, which is where I seem to stand for the majority of the time. Both my mother (an ace cook) and my pregnant best friend (erm, not an ace cook), swear by them. I love GelPro mats: as the name says, they are filled with gel and are truly bouncy. They’re a proper investment - £100+ in the UK but, if you have room in the your suitcase when travelling, they’re worth buying for half the price in the US at stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond.)
There are less expensive options: extra-thick padded memory foam mats are also good.