Stocking a new kitchen or upgrading an old one can be overwhelming. There are so many options for cookware, from sizes to materials. There is even a dizzying array of handle types!
We cut through the noise to round up the basics – the most durable, versatile, and affordable cookware you need to get started. We even looked at where you might splurge, and when you might want more specialized products. Read below to see how to get the most value for basic cookware.
Buying a Set vs. Individual Pieces
At first glance, cookware sets seem like a better deal than buying individual pieces, and they are – but only if you're going to use every piece on a regular basis. If you're a new cook and don't know what you'll use, a set may be your best bet. If you live alone and don't entertain often, you might not need the larger sizes of saucepans or skillets that often come with sets, so you might want to buy small pieces one by one. And if you hate soup, you might not need the stock pot that comes with a set.
As a general rule of thumb, if you don't have a clear idea of what you're going to use a pot or pan for, then don't shell out the money for it. Keep in mind when buying sets that the lids generally count as a piece, so while a 7-piece cookware set sounds like a lot, it's really just four cooking vessels and three lids.
If you want to build a cookware collection piece-by-piece, here's the bare minimum of what you'll need:
Skillet : A basic skillet is ideal for sauteing vegetables, making eggs and browning meat. If you plan to do a lot of one-pot meals, you'll want a deep-sided skillet. Size-wise, 8, 10 and 12-inch skillets will cover most recipes and purposes.
Saucepan : Saucepans are workhorses in the kitchen. You can use them to cook grains, boil and steam veggies, and as the name implies, make sauces. 2-to-3-quart saucepans can be used for most cooking tasks.
Stock pot : Stock pots are tall and narrow, and are usually used for anything of a large size or quantity– lobsters, pasta, and of course, stock. Anything in the 8-to-12-quart family can handle most of a home cook's needs.
Other cookware you may need or want include more specialized items, like a nonstick griddle for pancakes, a wok for stir-fries, and a Dutch oven for roasts, stews and casseroles.
Pots and pans come in a variety of materials, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are the most popular.
Stainless Steel : This is the most popular type of pan, because it's relatively inexpensive, durable and scratch resistant. It's suitable for any type of food as well. The problem with stainless steel is that it isn't a good conductor of heat, and doesn't always cook food evenly. If buying stainless steel, choose pots and pans with an aluminum or copper core, which helps with conduction.
Cast Iron : There's a reason cast iron cookware has been around for hundreds of years – it's durable, relatively inexpensive, and has great heat retention. If you want cookware that you can wash, dry and forget about, however, this material is not for you. Cast iron is high-maintenance, and without regular seasoning it can rust or react with foods. It's also quite heavy.
Copper : Copper is the creme de la creme of cookware. It's the best heat conductor, meaning it heats quickly and adjusts well to changes in temperature. Having that much control over cooking comes with a high price tag, however. Also, copper requires regular polishing, making it a high-maintenance cookware choice. It can also react with acidic foods.
Nonstick : Nonstick pans are easy to clean, great for delicate foods like fish and eggs, inexpensive, and if you want to cook with less fat, they'll be your go-to cookware. On the con side, they don't brown food well; they can scratch easily; and they can't be put into the oven. While an entire set of nonstick cookware is probably overkill, having a nonstick skillet in your arsenal will probably come in handy.
When buying cookware, it's important to consider your cooktop. If you have a smooth-surface range – one with no burners – you'll need to buy flat-bottomed pots.
If you have an induction range, cast iron and some stainless steel pans are your best bet. When shopping for cookware for an induction range, bring a magnet. If it sticks to the bottom of the pan, it should work.
The material a handle is made from is also an important consideration. If you plan to begin cooking on the stovetop and finish in the oven, you'll need metal handles. Silicone won't get hot the way metal will, so if you plan on cooking on the stovetop only, it's your best bet to avoid burns.
Lids generally come in either metal or glass. They're both equally fine, as long as the lid fits on the pot or pan snugly. The advantage to glass is that you can see the food without having to remove the lid. The disadvantage is that glass lids are more fragile, so if you're worried about breaking them, stick with metal.
If you want affordable, no-fuss, durable cookware, stainless steel with an aluminum or copper core is your best bet for the pieces you’ll be using the most often. For skillets, it’s generally a good idea to have at least two – one stainless steel with a metal handle so you can transfer the pan from the stovetop to the oven, and a non-stick for low-temperature cooking. If you want to spring for a third, a cast iron skillet is always a good bet.
Don’t splurge on non-stick pans – even the high-end brands will get scratched and lose their effectiveness over time. You can generally find a good quality one for around $25-$30.
You can also save on specialty cookware that you won’t use as often – griddles, woks, grill pans, etc. If you only use them once in a while, even the lower end models will hold up over time. Where you will want to splurge is on pieces that need to withstand heat for long periods of time, like a Dutch oven. As always, look for deals before you splurge.
Where to Find Deals
If you know what you're looking for when buying cookware, you can't go wrong with an online retailer like Amazon or Overstock. For brick and mortar shopping, wholesale clubs like Costco and BJ's offer brand-name pots and pans at a discount, though usually in sets. Discount chains like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx also sell high-quality cookware at lower prices.
If you have a restaurant supply store in your neighborhood, call to see if they sell to the public. If so, they're a great way to buy individual pieces for less. And if you can, wait until the fall to buy – that's when all of the big sales are, in preparation for holiday gifting and entertaining.
What type of cookware do you have in your kitchen, readers? Do you like it, or are you looking for something that better suits your needs? Let us know in the comments below.
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