Often in cooking classes, I’m asked about what kind of cookware to buy. In case you’ve ever wondered the same thing, this post is for you. (If you’ve ever wondered what kind of knives to buy, this post is for you.)
A few skillets for searing
You need skillets that can get good and hot, so you can cook steaks, chops, chicken, fish, and even vegetables and get nice browning on them. What’s so good about browning? Browning is flavor.
The best surfaces for even heating are copper and aluminum. Unfortunately, they’re not the best surfaces for cooking—they can react to alkaline or acidic foods and are hard to maintain. The solution? Triple-ply cookware, which has a copper or aluminum core typically sandwiched between layers of stainless steel. This makes for cookware that can stand high heat, that can cook pretty much anything, and that is relatively easy to use and care for.
Yes, most triple-ply cookware is expensive. But you don’t need a whole fancy set of it. Just a few pieces. And they’ll last you a lifetime. (More about sets in a minute.)
On the other end of the price spectrum, cast iron is also a great choice for high heat cooking. You need to care for it a little differently than stainless steel, but it’s not difficult, just different. (Here’s an article from Lodge, great makers of cast iron, about its care and use.)
The biggest drawback of cast iron is it’s heavy. I have a few pieces I adore, but I’ve warned my husband, who brought them into our marriage, that one day my wrists will be too weak for them—and at that point they’re history.
What about nonstick, you say? Nope, I say. Without damaging its nonstick surface, you can’t get it hot enough to get a good sear on your food. Some brands claim you can use them over high heat, and I’ve used a couple, but not enough to fully erase my skepticism.
What size for these skillets? It depends on the size of your household and what kinds of things you tend to cook. I’d recommend small, medium, and large skillets, maybe 8, 10, and 12 inches—big enough for one, two, and four steaks.
A skillet or two for nonstick cooking
While some swear to the nonstickiness of well-seasoned cast iron, I also have nonstick skillets for nonstick cooking—things like fried eggs or pancakes. Again, it depends on the size of your household and the things you tend to cook, but I’d recommend a small nonstick skillet and a larger one, maybe 8 and 12 inches, for cooking, say, two eggs and four.
Nonstick skillets will lose their nonstickiness over time—the surface that makes them nonstick will wear down. Some brands say this won’t happen, but that’s not been my experience. So when you buy nonstick skillets, figure they won’t last forever and buy ones priced accordingly—not too cheap, but definitely not too expensive.
A few saucepans for boiling, steaming, and simmering
Although there’s no reason you can’t cook a soup in a skillet, a saucepan will make better use of your stovetop space. Also, liquids will evaporate from a saucepan less quickly than from a skillet. That means if you want to concentrate a liquid, a skillet is great. But if you want to boil, steam, or simmer, a saucepan is your tool.
You don’t typically sear in a saucepan, but you might brown vegetables for a soup or chunks of meat for a stew. So while it’s not critical to have saucepans that can get screamingly hot, it’s not a bad idea. You do, however, want your saucepans to heat evenly.
All of which means that while you don’t need fancy triple-ply for your saucepans—it’s nice, but not critical—you don’t want cheap stuff either.
It also means nonstick is okay for saucepans. I have some that have lasted about 25 years—but it’s time to replace them.
What size for these saucepans? You’ll need a small one, a medium one, and a large-ish one—maybe 1 to 2 quarts, 3 to 4 quarts, and 5 to 6 quarts. You also might want a very big saucepan or small stockpot, say 8 to 12 quarts, if you have a big family or regularly make super-large batches of things like soup and stew.
A couple of other goodies
My “extra” pots and pans include a wok and a braising pan. Neither is critical—a good skillet would be fine for either (providing it had a lid for braising). But these two pieces do the job a little better—and I enjoy feeling like I’m a regular stir-fryer and braiser, even though I can’t remember the last time I made a pot roast!
Other goodies might include a griddle, a paella pan, steamer inserts, or double boilers. It all depends on your cooking style and how much cupboard space you have to spend.
What about a set?
A small set can be a great way to start off your cookware collection. But since the ideal combination of pots and pans includes a couple of different cooking surfaces and various sizes depending on your own specific needs, I don’t recommend buying a big ol’ set and thinking you’re, well, set.
Instead, buy pots and pans a piece or two at a time, and get the best you can each time. It’s okay if everything doesn’t match—and that’s coming from someone who loooooves everything to match.
More important is to have a combination that does what you want. The more your pots and pans suit your needs and work well, the more you’ll love using them and the more you’ll cook.
And that’s the point, right?