Things I recommend you buy and use, second edition
About eighteen months ago I wrote a post called “Stuff that I recommend you buy” that gave recommendations of consumer goods that I got a lot of value from compared to the price. I think of myself as a savvy shopper and do a lot of research before I buy almost anything that I’ll have to use more than once or twice, and I’m fortunate enough to have friends who are similar. Some of the products in the last entry are no longer the best in class, and I left out some important areas that I want to include now, so in this updated list I’ll include all the old entries from the last post where they’re still in effect and add new ones too. As with the last post I’ll use referral links but only where doing so does not leave the buyer worse off.
This is hands-down the best new product I’ve bought in any domain over the past eighteen months. I use mine at least once a week, often more than once, to make thick stews and sauces for pasta extremely quickly — in between a third and a fifth of the time it would take to get the same results in an oven or on a stovetop. The Instant Pot is extremely safe, unlike traditional pressure cookers which scare the shit out of me, and has an all-important saute function so you can fry meat, soften onions, etc before cooking and thicken liquids after cooking in a single pot. This model also makes yoghurt — other models do not and if you don’t care about that, those might be cheaper, but I love being able to turn a 2L carton of milk and a tiny pot of Yeo Valley yoghurt into a huge tub of greek yoghurt, with the help of a cheap cheesecloth.
My favourite recipe to make in it is this Serious Eats ragu bolognese, which ends up being very easy to make and gives me enough food for several meals, so I make it in advance and freeze some portions.
A digital weighing scales is totally essential for basically anyone who cooks — a scale is essential for following many recipes and a digital one allows you to zero out with a bowl of your choosing on top, so you can be much more precise much more easily than with a mechanical scales. It’s hard for me to imagine how you could follow recipes with any degree of accuracy at all without one of these. A must have.
Not much to say about this — it’s just the best flipper I’ve used for eggs and other things that need flipping. It’s big and silicone, so it won’t melt at high temperatures. (Never buy plasticky, non-silicone cooking equipment.)
The cheapest non-stick frying pan you can find — from £3
Non-stick coatings always break, and usually pretty quickly. Once you’ve had the misery of watching an expensive non-stick pan flake and degrade over time, you’ll understand that you should never splash out on anything with a non-stick coating and should instead think of them as disposable, like paper towels, getting uber-cheap ones. But you need them for eggs — it’s so much simpler to fry and scramble them on non-stick. You can buy them at IKEA for £3 each, and next time I go to one I intend on buying ten. (Disclaimer: If there’s some health problem with using non-stick pans that you’re concerned about, just don’t use them. I haven’t looked into that.)
Hario 4-cup Glass Teapot — £20
This isn’t an essential by any means, but it’s an aesthetically lovely and well-designed tea pot that I enjoy drinking loose leaf tea from. Unlike most loose leaf teapots I’ve used, the basket in this is very large, so there’s lots of room for the tea to move around once it’s absorbed a lot of the water, and it’s easy to remove once your tea has brewed enough. It’s very elegant and a pleasure to drink from.
Victorinox chef’s knife — £27 or Wusthof chef’s knife — £63
The Victorinox is unbeatable at the lower end of the price range, keeps its edge for a long time, and is sturdy enough for anything except cutting through bone. Unless you cook so much that you want to shell out for a knife twice the price, it’s pretty much the only kitchen knife you need. The handle is plasticky and cheap feeling, though.
Although I use and like my Victorinox, I cook so much and firmly believe that you only need one knife for 95% of what you do in the kitchen that I treated myself to something more expensive. My Wusthof chef’s knife is a joy to use and has a weight and strength that the Victorinox doesn’t, allowing it to cut through joints and some bones. It is double the price though, and I would only recommend it to someone who cooks frequently. It is wonderful though.
Lansky Knife Sharpening System — £36 for standard, £51 for deluxe
Sharpening knives is a huge pain in the ass. Most people use a honing rod, which isn’t even meant for sharpening knives (but because people don’t realise that they think there’s a technique they just haven’t been able to master). I tried using a whetstone for ages, because it’s the most ‘authentic’ method, but that’s tiring and takes ages. I suspect most people just live with blunt knives until they eventually give up and buy new ones, which sucks. Cooking with a blunt knife is a horrible experience, and dangerous — blunt knives, surprisingly, tend in my experience to lead to more cuts than sharp ones, because you have much less control over them and have to exert much more force to cut through things.
While not perfect, this ‘knife sharpening system’ is vastly superior to any other method I’ve tried. It has a clamp that you use to grip the knife and a set of sharpening hones that slot into the clamp at pre-set angles, which you just run over the blade of the knife in sequence to get it sharper and sharper. It’s pretty easy, although the grip could be better, and I’ve used it to bring all my knives back to being as sharp as they were when I first bought them. This is quite a nice thing to have to help out family and friends too, because you can loan it to them or sharpen their knives for them as a favour. I also have this mount, which makes it a little easier to use. A shout out to Twitter’s David Paxton, who pointed me on to these.
Making kimchi at home is very easy and quite satisfying. Because it is fermented, it contains lots of beneficial probiotics which may help with gut health. It is very tasty as a side dish to lots of meals, and it keeps for a very long time. The only really obscure ingredient is Korean red pepper flakes — don’t make the mistake I did once of using chilli flakes instead, which are far spicier.
Sistema Microwave Rice Steamer — £7.50
Making rice in a saucepan on the hob absolutely sucks, in my experience. You either do it the ‘correct’ way of not stirring it for ages and risk burning the bottom, or you use easy cook rice that’s kind of gross. This rice steamer works perfectly. Just throw 250g of dried rice (any kind seems to work, I like jasmine mostly — you can buy 5kg sacks very cheaply in any oriental supermarket) and about a pint of water and let it microwave for twelve minutes, then stand for another five. It comes out light and fluffy and you can actually leave it standing for a long time (at least half an hour) and it retains the heat, so it eliminates one major cooking headache. And since microwaves are very energy efficient, it’ll save you electricity too! Get the 2.6 litre version, the 4 litre version is too big for most microwaves.
This was by far the most popular recommendation in the original post.
Sack of Jasmine Rice — £5–7
The brand doesn’t matter, as far as I know, but having one of these on hand, 5kg or so, is such a useful thing to have around the house. With the above steamer you’ll always have a quick and easy side dish for most meals. You can increasingly buy these bags in mainstream supermarkets, but any oriental supermarket will have them if not.
Wooden lemon reamer — £3
If you don’t own one of these you have probably wasted hundreds, maybe thousands, of calories on squeezing lemons and limes over the course of your life. They are £3 each, you only ever need to buy one once in your life, and they get all the juice out easily. Especially good if you like the taste of cocktails but don’t like wasting money on them by going to cocktail bars — with one of these, you can make one of my famous Cuba Libres with ease!
A cast iron skillet — £12
Cast iron skillets are incredibly cheap and incredibly versatile. You can buy an ‘unseasoned’ one for £12. Seasoning isn’t difficult but requires some time — a cold winter Saturday, say — spent at home building up the coating by rubbing a thin layer of oil over it, baking it to polymerise the oil, letting it cool, and repeating a few times. The result is an almost indestructable pan that you can use for frying, roasting (I can fit a small chicken onto mine), etc, for the most part without any sticking. It’s not as good as a very expensive tri-ply pan, but I find myself using this for almost everything — except eggs, which do need a proper teflon non-stick pan in my experience.
Any instant-read food thermometer will do here, but this is one of those things that you don’t realise you need in the kitchen until you have one. It’s good for checking the temperature of roasted meat and oil if you’re deep frying at home without a proper deep fat frier. For the little baking I do, it’s useful to check if a sourdough is ready too.
Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop (£20), The Food Lab, by J. Kenji López-Alt (£32), and Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat (£30).
These are my desert island recipe books. Every Grain of Rice is recipes from around China (there’s very little of the sort of Cantonese food you’d get from a Chinese takeaway) and makes it astonishingly easy to make delicious and very exotic meals without going nuts buying lots of obscure ingredients that you’ll never use again. In fact, other than a wok, there are only about six basic things you need to buy to make half or more of the recipes in the book, all of which can be bought at a standard oriental supermarket. I particularly like the book’s emphasis on vegetable-heavy dishes, which makes the dishes generally inexpensive to make.
The Food Lab is based on the blog of the same name at SeriousEats, and I consider its recipes to be definitive. It’s “American food” in the broad sense, which includes stuff like lasagna and lots of salads as well as stuff like buffalo wings and hamburgers. No other recipe online approaches this book’s mac and cheese recipe, which is super easy and amazingly delicious, and almost every other recipe from the book I’ve tried has been a big success too.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is less a book of recipes (although it does include some) than an attempt to deconstruct cooking into its fundamentals to give you a more intuitive understanding of what makes a dish taste and feel the way it does, and how to improvise as you cook. I adore the recipes, which often take the form of basic templates that can be modified in simple ways to get a different cuisine’s flavour profile, and it’s been my most used recipe book of the past six months or so.
For London restaurant recommendations, Cheese and Biscuits by Chris Pople is by far the best guide. I also run a site with my friend Ben called Straight Up London, although we haven’t updated it much in the last year, but there is a very useful Google Map of restaurants we like.
Nespresso machine — £80
I use mine multiple times a day and, with Aldi or Lidl coffee pods (Aldi’s are better), it’s not too expensive to actually maintain — about 17p per cup of coffee. My alternative would be the Aeropress, but it’s slower and more work, and in the morning, when I just want a cup of coffee as soon as possible, every second counts. I’m sure if you’re a coffee person you are aghast at me recommending a Nespresso but usually I just want a cup of half-decent coffee without much effort or cost and this does the job nicely.
Potato ricer — £13
This device is for mashing potatoes and it works brilliantly. You simply boil them whole, put them into the masher, and squeeze, and you instantly get lighty, fluffy strands that make a perfectly smooth, creamy mash. You can even leave the skins on — it squeezes out the flesh only. It is by far the best and easiest way of making mashed potatoes. I assume it can also do other cooked vegetables but haven’t tried.
Travel and personal items
HOMMINI Sleep Mask — £15
If you ‘get off the beaten track’ when you travel, like me, you might find yourself in bedrooms with bad curtains that let a lot of light in. If you’re jetlagged at all, then it’s even worse. Most eyemasks, in my experience, are terrible — flimsy and letting in loads of light around the sides, and often putting an uncomfortable amount of pressure on your eyelids. This one is the only one I’ve ever used that actually works, thanks to two enormous eyepads that keep all light out from around each eye and keeping the area in front of your eyelids raised for comfort. This is a travel essential for me.
I spent three weeks travelling around China last year and was really glad I bought this rucksack, which came highly recommended from “one bag” travellers online. It distributes weight well across your back and doesn’t get too sweaty. I bought the M/L version (and I’m fairly short at 5' 8") but I don’t think the S/M is that different. I prefer backpacks to suitcases when I travel, and this is the right size for most journeys I could imagine making. The only real flaw is that it has quite a lot of cords, etc, that hang off it, which I wish you could tuck away more easily, but that’s a minor issue.
There is also a women’s version, the Fairview 40, which my girlfriend has and which she recommends. It’s the only backpack she has tried where the waist straps sit at the right part on her waist.
Packing Cubes (Slim) — £13
I invested in a set of these after reading people rave about them on travel forums. I was sceptical about them but they really are useful. They help you keep your clothes organised, particularly once you have dirty clothes you need to keep separate from the clean ones, and these ‘slim’ models fit very conveniently into the Osprey backpack. Brand is unimportant but I would recommend the slim design over the more boxy square options.
Primark sunglasses — £1.50-£2
Unless for some reason you want to waste money on a pair of designer shades and spend your life worrying about them, sunglasses are disposable. You put them down in the park or you accidentally sit on them on the bus, whatever. The point is that you don’t want to waste any more than is absolutely necessary for a pair of sunny-g’s, especially since they all look the same anyway. Primark is a winner here — you can get a pair for £1.50 and they usually have wayfarer-style pairs that will have your friends thinking you’ve spent a good ten or fifteen pounds more than you actually have.
Uniqlo Airism underwear (£9.90)
I used to recommend Ex Officio underwear but I’ve found that they get less comfortable over time. I’m now quite a fan of Uniqlo’s Airism line. They are comfortable and look good, though I suggest getting one size larger than you normally do.
I use this for two reasons: it lasts forever, and it doesn’t create a hardened build-up on my clothes like roll-ons do. I was very sceptical about using a crystal deodorant, but I am confident that it works at least as well as any normal deodorant and a number of people who know me personally (and so are probably decent judges of how well it works) have started using it themselves, also successfully as far as I can tell. Each stick lasts about three years of everyday use.
As many people get older they will find that their nose hairs start to get longer than they would like, occasionally poking out of a nostril for others to see. This is unpleasant-looking and inconsiderate of others (just as, for example, not wearing deodorant is). This Philips nose hair trimmer is a very easy to use and effective solution to this, and extremely cheap for the quality of the built — others I’ve seen for just a pound or two less feel badly made and much less nice to use. This also comes with attachments to trim your eyebrows, and can do ear hair as well, if those are things you need to do.
I often don’t even use a wallet anymore since my phone can pay with contactless, but when I do this Exentri one does a nice job. It’s slim and quite attractive — there’s nothing worse than a bulky wallet that’s filled with crap filling up your pocket.
J-pillow travel pillow — £16
I really hate flying overnight because I can never sleep. The J-pillow doesn’t really change that, but it’s the closest I can come to sleeping while sitting upright, and it’s astonishingly comfortable compared either to the crappy pillows they give you on those flights or the U-shaped pillows that most people use. The “J” is an extra arm that goes under your neck, so you can lean your head naturally to the side and forward with some support. The pillow is firm enough to support the weight of a large male head.
The previous version of this post discussed the downsides of melatonin use — the fact that nights following the ones where I’ve taken some, I have more difficulty sleeping than usual. It turns out that almost all melatonin is massively overdosed — the optimal dosage is about 0.3mg. This is a good post that discusses the benefits and science behind it. I’ve even found a decent UK supplier, which is iHerb, although the P&P is a little steep so you may want to order for friends at the same time.
Soft silicone earplugs — £4.60
I don’t often use earplugs because I’m deaf in my right ear, so I can usually drown out background sounds just by putting my left ear against the pillow. When I do need earplugs, though, the soft silicone ones are outstanding — they’re like a sticky plastic putty that moulds to the shape of your ear and totally plugs it up. Unlike most earplugs these do not fall out during the night either. The catch is that one pair is only really good for about a week, but they’re not so expensive that that’s a big issue. I get mine at Boots, but Amazon has some here if you prefer.
Services and utilities
I strongly prefer the ‘challenger banks’ to incumbents, and Monzo is the one I use (I’ve heard good things about Starling too, whereas Revolut seems to be run by scammers and seems to have had some terrible shaftings of customers lately). What I like about Monzo:
- The instant spending notifications that help me keep track of spending and alert me to any payments being made that I wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of.
- The payments functionality, which makes it extremely quick and easy to send money to friends who use Monzo and split bills.
- The Monzo.me feature which allows people who don’t use Monzo to make a card payment to me, instead of an awkward bank transfer.
- The card replacement speed — when I needed a new card they had one to me the next day, and I was able to immediately freeze my card through the app.
- The fact that customer service is done through text, rather than on the phone, which saves me a lot of time.
- The ability to set up ‘Pots’ of money that separate my money from my main account, allowing me to budget week-to-week by transferring my weekly spending money into my main account every Friday.
- The general fluidness of the app and ease of using it compared to other bank apps which are extremely unpleasant to use, in large part because of all the anti-fraud measures.
NB: I invested £50 in Monzo a few years ago because I liked it so much. It’s the only company I’ve ever invested in.
The weirdest thing to me is that so few people switch energy providers frequently. It’s extremely easy (you can do it all online in about five minutes and don’t need to have an old energy bill handy) and the savings are huge — £200 a year for most people easily. I guess energy is a pain in the ass for most people because you typically get a 12 month contract at a good rate, but if you forget to switch again after that contract expires you get moved on to an expensive Standard Variable Tariff.
Bulb is the energy provider I like because it only has one tariff for all customers, so you don’t have to think about it too much if you’ve moved to them, and for now at least they’re trying to attract lots of new customers so the rate is very low — for me it was the cheapest on the market excluding a company that had terrible reviews and seemed very dodgy. As with Monzo, it’s all done online and via text, which I prefer to having to speak to an actual human being on the phone.
If you want to save for the long term then investing makes sense. The best thing to do, I believe, is to find a passive investment fund that tracks the market as a whole — then you aren’t trying to beat the market (which is not possible to do consistently). You want to look for low fees — fees are a fixed percent of your capital, and can be quite a large fraction of your returns. The best platform I’ve found for this, which offers a (tax free) stocks and shares ISA, is Vanguard. I use their All-World fund but the Lifestrategy fund looks fine too.
Google Photos is astonishing — free backups of all your photos and videos (in a mildly compressed format, invisible to any normal person) and an insanely, scarily good image search function that lets you search a word like “steak” and get pretty much every photo of a steak (or meat that looks like steak) you’ve taken. It’s great especially for the face grouping function. Along with Google Maps this is the best service Google offers and I think everyone should use it.
I was wary of password managers for a long time but having come round to Lastpass I see the value. The main danger with passwords is that using a single one, or variants on a single one, means that every site you’ve signed up for can potentially expose your passwords for everything — if some crappy site you signed up for once has a data breach and your password is leaked, now everything is at risk. Lastpass gives you a random string of numbers and letters for each site and makes them easy to access via phone apps and browser plugins. Lastpass stores your passwords in a format that only you can decrypt, so the risks of a breach there are extremely small, far less than irresponsible sites that keep passwords in plain text format. This is quite a good list of other things you may wish to do to protect yourself (I do 2 factor authentication wherever I can).
I forewarn you that I’m severely deaf in one ear so my earbud recommendations may be insufficient for ‘audiophiles’, but I listen to music constantly and have tried at least twenty different kinds of earbud, and find these by far the best. The sound is decent, but the real selling points for me are the price (under £7), the comfort, and the fact that once they’re in your ears they stay there. Earbuds are semi-disposable, if you lose them as often as I do, so it’s very important that they’re cheap enough that you can buy a new pair without much annoyance when you lose them. What put me off The Wirecutter for good was their recommendation of a pair of Monoprice headphones that, however good they sounded, were extremely uncomfortable and constantly fell out of my ears. These don’t do that for me — but I should note that my friend finds them very uncomfortable, though he likes the sound, so buyer beware.
It’s a little uninspiring to recommend the Amazon best selling product in its category, I know, but this really is an amazing piece of kit. The sound is loud and handles bass well, the speaker feels very sturdy, but best of all the battery seems impossible to run down. I bought one in April this year after losing my old one, listen to it every day in the shower and many evenings in the kitchen, and I still haven’t had to recharge it yet. £30 well spent!
There’s a more expensive version of this that supposedly has better bass. I can’t vouch for it being worth the extra £10.
This glues onto the back of your mobile phone or phone case and pops out to act as a little handle for when you’re using your phone one-handed. It sounds stupid and most people hate the little bump the popsocket makes when it’s not in use… until they try one for themselves. I don’t ever worry about dropping my phone while using it with one hand anymore, and it’s all thanks to this. What a smart little invention.
Not much to say about this other than it’s a comfortable, portable bluetooth mouse for £6. It’s the equal of Logitech mice that sell for forty pounds or so, and generally just works when you plug it in without needing extra software. The side buttons (which you might use to go forward or backwards on a web browser, for example) don’t work on macOS, unfortunately.