With all of the different brands, shapes, materials and price points out there, buying cookware can be a confusing proposition. But it doesn't have to be. With a little bit of knowledge of cookware shapes and terms, and a little thinking about your own cooking style, you will be able to outfit your kitchen with a selection of pots and pans that will be most useful to you.
Know Your Shapes… And Which Ones You'll Need
There are dozens of different cookware shapes, from everyday workhorses like a skillet to specially shaped fish poachers. Familiarize yourself with the different cookware shapes and their names, and then decide which ones you'll actually need.
Although buying 7- or 10-piece sets often seem like a good deal, don't buy one unless you're sure you will use all the pieces regularly. Often there will be a few essential pieces, combined with odd shapes or sizes that you'll never use, which wastes both money and cabinet space. Instead, build up a collection over time as your budget and kitchen allows. A few basics to start with:
- A medium- to large-sized skillet (10 to 12 inches) for sautéing and stir-frying
- A nonstick skillet for cooking eggs (8 to 10 inches)
- A 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven for cooking stews and soups, and for boiling water for pasta or potatoes
- Or, instead of the Dutch oven, a 6- or 7-quart rondeau pan, which can be used for braising, pan-frying, pan-roasting, and more.
- A saucepan or saucier for cooking smaller batches of soup, as well as sauces, rice and grains, and vegetables.
Once you have the basics, build upon your collection with other pieces that make sense for your cooking style. Other useful cookware pieces include:
- A small saucepan (1 or 2 quarts) for melting butter, boiling an egg or heating a can of soup
- A wok if you do a lot of stir-frying
- Additional sizes of nonstick or uncoated stainless steel skillet, depending on how many people you cook for. A small nonstick skillet is great for cooking 2 scrambled eggs or an omelet, while a very large one can be used to cook a big batch of eggs, pancakes or bacon.
- A cast-iron skillet (10 to 12 inches) for searing meat, making cornbread and more.
- A grill pan for indoor grilling
- An inexpensive stock pot for boiling water for pasta or potatoes, or for making stock
- Additional sizes of saucepan
- If you don't have one already, a or saucier for cooking risotto and grains, or for making custards and delicate sauces
- A steamer insert
- A double boiler for melting chocolate or making delicate egg-based sauces
Learning About Metals
The type of metal or combinations of metal used to make a piece of cookware is key to having a pot that works effectively, whether you'll looking for a piece of cookware that will retain heat for a slow, steady cooking process, or you need a pan that will conduct heat quickly but also allow you to adjust the temperature quickly.
You'll often see references to the gauge of the metal used for the cookware. This refers to the thickness of the metal, and the smaller the number, the thicker and heavier the piece will be.
These are the metals most commonly used in cookware, and their properties:
Knowing what pieces you'll need, and the best materials to choose, will go a long way in helping you outfit your kitchen with the best cookware for your needs. In many better-quality cookware pieces, different combinations of metal are layered to take advantage of their varying attributes. For instance, a pot may have a stainless steel interior and exterior for the durability, with an aluminum layer inside for conductivity.
- Aluminum: Conducts heat quickly and evenly, and is sensitive to temperature changes, so it cools nearly as quickly as it heats. Aluminum is also lightweight and durable, but it can adversely react with acidic or alkaline foods so it's often coated with another material, such as stainless steel or nonstick finish.
- Anodized Aluminum: An electrochemical process makes aluminum nonreactive and resistant to scratches. It also gives the cooking surface nonstick properties. The anodization process also seals in the aluminum so that it is less likely to corrode into food.
- Cast-Iron: Produces heavy, thick, durable pans that are slow to heat but are excellent at retaining and distributing heat. Regular cast iron, or enamel-coated cast iron, are good for deep frying and dishes requiring long cooking periods like braises or stews.
- Copper: Excellent at conducting, distributing and retaining heat, but copper tarnishes and dents easily. Because it is an expensive metal, it's often used in combination with other metals, such as in only the base or a pan or in a thin layer in the construction.
- Stainless Steel: Durable, non-porous, nonreactive and resistant to rust, corrosion and pitting. Because stainless steel is not very conductive, it is often combined with other metals, such as copper or aluminum.