Thanks for asking this, Renee, I know a lot of people must be wondering about this as well! Picking out pots and pans can be really overwhelming, especially as more and more stores devoted to cooks pop up and offer so much selection. While choices are wonderful, if you are anything like me, it can also send you straight into the Land of Indecision, where you just wander aimlessly for three hours and then walk out eventually in a total daze and still no closer to a purchase. Luckily, there is no need to head down the paralyzing spiral of doom…here’s the breakdown on what you really need. Everything else is just bonus!
At a minimum, every home should have one of each of the following:
- Heavy bottom Dutch oven (ideally enameled cast iron)
- Cast iron skillet
- Wide, flat bottom Saute pan (10” is usually a good diameter for an all-purpose pan)
- 2 quart Sauce pot
- Stock pot (at least 8 quarts)
I highly recommend picking out each of these individual work horses separately, rather than buying a prepackaged set. When it comes to pans, quality definitely trumps quantity. If you get a 20 piece cookware set for $100, you aren’t really getting a deal…you are most likely getting 20 pieces of flimsy, low quality aluminum pans that will make you angry every time you try to cook something and just end up scorching it.
Here’s the lowdown on the materials used for cookware, so you can decide what will work best for your lifestyle.
Stainless Steel: Most chefs all-around favorite material for cookware. It’s versatile, heats evenly, and retains heat well. Also, as long as the entire pan is stainless steel, it can transition from stovetop to oven without a hitch. Look for pans that are heavy, at least 3-ply, and have a copper or aluminum core, which will speed the heating process.
Cast Iron: old fashioned, it’s heavy, it’s kind of a pain to get ready to use, but it’s amazing. Every single home everywhere should have at least one cast iron skillet. The great news is that they can be acquired fairly inexpensively, and will last for literally decades with proper care. For your first cast iron pan, Lodge sells an array of perfectly good, well-priced, “pre-seasoned” pans at pretty much every store that sells cookware, from Sur La Table to Target. If you can pry one out of possession from a parent or grandparent, all the better…the longer cast iron has been used and seasoned, the more incredible it becomes.
Seasoning, you ask? What does that mean? That’s the kicker when it comes to cast iron. It is slightly finicky to begin with, but once you’ve put a little time and love into it, it will be the hardest working, least demanding pan you could hope for. All cast iron (even the “pre-seasoned” ones) need a little love before you can just jump in and start using them. If you are starting with a new, clean pan, just scrub with a little bit of coarse salt and hot water, then place in 350F oven for about an hour to make sure it is completely dry and the metal is warm and ready to absorb oil. Then smear it with your oil of choice (Alton Brown swears by vegetable shortening, due to it’s high smoke point. Others choose avocado oil. I personally just use plain old vegetable oil and have never had a problem). Place a foil-lined baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch drips, and then place the cast iron pan on the top rack of the oven upside down. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool in the oven. Remove when cool, wiping in any excessively shiny or oily areas. If your pan was “pre-seasoned” when you bought it, this should be adequate preparation to use it. If not, it may need a few go ‘rounds of this treatment (minus the salt scrub). If you pick up a diamond in the rough at a garage sale or from a relative, start by cooking the pan in the oven on the self-clean cycle, then scrubbing off any rust or crusty junk with salt and a wire brush or scouring pad.
Once your pan is properly seasoned, it should be easy to clean with just a quick wipe. Use water and coarse salt if you must, but never soap, it will just eat away your seasoning and leave an unappetizing taste in your pan. Once you have cleaned the food residue out of your pan, heat it briefly on the stovetop or in the oven and wipe the inside with just a little bit of your preferred fat to maintain the seasoning. Regularly cooking a batch of bacon in your cast iron also does it a world of good…and who doesn’t love an excuse to cook bacon?? In general, it is also a good idea to ease into using a new cast iron with high fat foods, to help build up the seasoning before moving into more delicate items, like eggs. Once the seasoning is well-established, the cast iron will be smooth and shiny like a non-stick pan, but with no potentially harmful chemicals. It also has the benefit of adding a small amount of iron to everything you cook in it!
Cast iron takes a while to heat up, but is incomparable for creating a gorgeous sear on meats, or anything really. It holds heat unbelievably well, and the heaviness of it ensures an even heating surface. It’s also great for transferring from stovetop to oven. The only caveat with cast iron is that the seasoning can be damaged by cooking high acid food in it, so cooks are often told to not cook anything with lemon, tomato or other high acid ingredients. That is overkill, in my humble opinion, a few tomatoes in a well-seasoned cast iron pan are not the end of the world, but do avoid simmering a marinara sauce all day.
Enameled cast iron: Excellent choice for your Dutch oven. It cooks just like cast iron, the enamel coating means it doesn’t need seasoning, and is immune to high acid foods. Just be careful to use wood or silicone spatulas to stir food in it, or you could damage the coating.
Copper: One of the fastest conductors of heat. Excellent choice for a sauce pot, especially if you do any candy making or like to dabble with very delicate sauces. Because it conducts heat quickly, it responds very quickly to heat adjustments, so you run less risk of curdling sauces or overshooting temperatures.
Non-stick: At the risk of sounding elitist…there’s mostly no point in buying non-stick pans. Used properly, stainless steel and cast iron both work as well as non-stick without the risk of chemicals. Crepes and eggs are two dishes that are frequently thought to require non-stick coatings, but a small, very well seasoned cast iron will do the trick even better. The New York Times also recently ran a blog article on choosing “green” non-stick cookware that does not rely on chemical coatings, worth checking out if you really want non-stick cookware. That being said, if you are determined to buy non-stick pans, there are some things to know. There is much debate about the toxicity of non-stick coatings, especially when exposed to high heat or accidentally ingested due to non-stick coatings peeling off the pan and flaking into food. In order to lessen the risk of inhaling or ingesting potentially toxic fumes or particles, follow these best practices when using non-stick cookware:
- Look for brands that are “PFOA and PTFE Free”
- Use only on low to medium heat
- Never let the non-stick pan reach a smoking point
- Do not attempt to sear on non-stick
- Do not use metal utensils
- Throw away any non-stick pans on which the coating is flaking or damaged in any way
“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” — Harriet van Horne