The old cliches of student cooking may no longer hold true, but there’s still room for improvement. Some well-chosen, cheap and durable kitchen equipment can put inexpensive, delicious dishes within easy reach
G2 student food special: celebrity chefs’ best recipes
Student cookbook: delicious dishes on a minuscule budgeWe’ve grown somewhat accustomed to the annual evisceration of student diets. Each autumn the parochial eating practices of our Bright Young Things are investigated, cliched pot noodle and pizza gags are rolled out, and a fresh batch of student cookbooks is published.
Last week a survey revealed the top 20 student dishes, a list which raises no eyebrows but at least shows that the elbow-nudged quips of tank-topped fathers – “waf waf, our Benjamin can’t boil a bloody egg” etc – are mostly exaggerated. The leaders were, predictably, the likes of spaghetti Bolognese, jacket potatoes, and stir-fries. Not dishes of total ineptitude but nevertheless an indication that, despite some fine efforts on the part of many cookery writers, Britain’s students aren’t revelling in the supposed boom in foodism.
It’s not tough to figure out why this is the case. There are manifold restrictions facing the student cook – a grotesquely mucky shared kitchen, a budget tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm (though one which somehow allows for getting monumentally hosed at least three nights a week) grocery theft, and a general apathy towards cooking.
Perhaps the biggest impediment, at least for those who don’t fall into the “couldn’t care less” category, is a lack of kit. When you’re packed off to uni with a toaster and a kettle, your options are limited. As student cooking expert Fiona Beckett points out, “lots of kitchens, especially in hall, are badly equipped, and it’s a real pain not to have an oven”. Blogger Butcher, Baker concurs: “when I lived in halls the biggest problem was our facilities – all we had was 2 electric hobs between 20 or more students”.
Indeed, “crappy equipment” is the common denominator across the board. Electric cookers – useless things – provoke the most ire, their inability to get hot or cool down with any efficiency is already well documented on this blog.
So what to do? Budget constraints lend themselves to slow-cooking and cheap cuts of meat, but if you’re in a hall with 50 others jostling for hob space, you’re going to find yourself severely wedgied if attempting a three-hour braise. And unless you plan on having a crack at “ghetto sous vide” the kettle offers few alternatives beyond noodles and sachets. Beckett suggests trying to get hold of a remoska cooker, either on eBayor Freecycl e . They’re not cheap, but if they mean you can cook thriftily for a year and avoid such loan-gobblingly expensive alternatives as a Domino’s, you’ll get your money back sooner or later.
In a flat with a bunch of mates, things should be easier. With any luck you have an oven, at least, and fewer people to fight with over the cooking. That said, unless you’re all on the same page it can lead to complications. Some friends of mine tried to take it in turns to cook, only to find that this option was less palatable than it at first seemed. Jamie, the only decent cook in that particular house, recalls his flatmate Alex’s first attempt at cooking Bolognese. It involved him “unceremoniously tipping 500g of mince into a cold pan followed by a squeeze of tomato puree followed by a period of ludicrously expectant silence.” Another friend once attempted to make hot chocolate in a kettle. When informed that he should warm the milk in the microwave he enthusiastically tipped it into a stainless steel saucepan and proceeded to blow up the kitchen. If this is the level of cooking you have at your fingertips then whether you have a blender or not is the least of your worries.
Nevertheless, having a few appropriate bits of kit can provide the competent but hamstrung cook with the ability to produce something beyond pasta. At the most basic end of the spectrum are things like decent saucepans and knives. The equipment you use the most needs to work properly, otherwise all cooking becomes a tedious chore. Beyond that, well – a food processor is a worthwhile, if pinching investment, having the capacity to chop, blend, puree, and make pastry. A large, stock-pot sized saucepan is vital for feeding big numbers. MasterChef finalist Alex Rushmer, who graduated in 2005, recommends a good frying pan: “not a non-stick one – which in a shared house leads to Teflon pasta sauce – but something hard-wearing. There are few things that can’t be cooked in a frying pan. Get one with a lid and an ovenproof handle as well and it can double as a stewing pot – great for making cheap cuts of meat delicious.”
We’re not, for the most part, talking expensive gadgets here. Assiduous eBaying can find bits like food processors and cast-iron frying pans at a fraction of their brand-new price. If you are after new gear, you can do much worse than to band together and buy where the trade buys from websites like or take advantage of some of the special offers around on the high street.
If you choose wisely your purchases should last you a long, long time. Above any other obstacle, a misfiring kitchen is what will make your life the hardest. Get the right kit together and student cooking will be easier, healthier, and cheaper. Chicks dig it, too.
How did you eat when you were a student? What bit of kit couldn’t you live without?