The short answer, says perfectionist Felicity Cloake, is not very much: “Start with the basics, see what you actually cook and equip accordingly.”
Topping Cloake’s “basics” list is a frying pan, which, of course, you can do more than fry in – a sentiment echoed by Home Cookery Year author Claire Thomson. “I like a cast-iron one, because it lasts longer,” she says. “Just maintain it by cleaning with a cloth and oiling with sunflower oil.” If space is at a premium, Cloake recommends investing in a frying pan that goes in the oven. “Make sure everything you buy is as versatile as possible.”
As the late American writer Laurie Colwin puts it in her essay The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine, “Pots and pans are like sweaters: you may have lots of them, but you find yourself using two or three over and over again.” Chef and cookery teacher Gill Meller keeps three in his arsenal. In addition to a frying pan (he favours non-stick), he suggests – budget allowing – a Le Creuset or Crane cast-iron casserole pan for stews and the like, and a small milk or egg pan. “With those, you can knock together everything from a lunch to a banquet,” he says. You’ll want a couple of decent roasting tins, too – “Something with a bit of weight that can go on the hob”.
A stick blender is another Thomson essential, for marinades, sauces, curry pastes, soups and smoothies, while Gill suggests a pestle and mortar – the bigger, the better – for crushing spices. Merlin Labron-Johnson, chef/owner of Somerset’s Osip, is a NutriBullet convert, after buying one for juices: “I now use it for blending soups and dressings, and pulsing things like pesto and spice mixes.”
Then there are knives. For Thomson, this means a 25cm chef’s knife and a small, rounded, serrated one for veg prep: “They don’t have to be expensive.” Labron-Johnson opts for a petty knife (larger than a paring knife, smaller than a cook’s one): “I use it for butchery, filleting fish, and preparing fruit and vegetables.” Invest in a steel to sharpen those blades, too.
Utensil-wise, stock up on silicone spatulas. “They’re really useful,” Cloake says. “They’re good for stirring and get every last thing out of the pan.” Tongs are another staple, for dealing with salad leaves and pasta, and you’ll want a grater, as well – a Microplane and/or a decent box one. If you’re a baker, measuring spoons, scales and a few mixing bowls are advisable, but when it comes to tins, Cloake warns against stocking up unnecessarily. “Inevitably, the cake you want to make is the tin size you don’t have.”
Last but not least, a chopping board, which is among Meller’s most treasured kitchen possessions. “I’ve got mum’s old one,” he says. “If you get a decent-sized wooden board, it will last for ever… There’s a whole life told in hers.”