Most cooking sites have an article that lists the essential cookware pieces that every cook must have. The lists number from as few as 2 (a frying pan and a sauce pan) to as many as 10 (including every basic pan type plus other tools like knives, a cutting board, etc.).
At TRK, we think the most practical number--cookware only--for most Americans' general cooking and eating habits--is 5: a skillet, a sauce pan, a Dutch oven, a roasting pan, and a baking sheet (or three).
If you have these pieces in the right size, plus a few other tools (knives, strainer, spatula, turner, whisk, cutting board), you can make just about any meal. You can do everything with these 5 pieces except baking, although the roasting pan solves some of those problems.
The 5 Essential Cookware Pieces at a Glance
Here's a table with the 5 essentials, and links to buy them on Amazon.
1. Skillet/Frying Pan/Sauté Pan (Preferably 11"-12")
See our favorite clad stainless skillet on Amazon (Demeyere Proline, about $260)
See our favorite best-value skillet on Amazon (Cuisinart MC Pro, about $75)
See our other favorite best-value skillet on Amazon (Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad, about $50)
See our favorite sauté pan on Amazon (All-Clad, about $200)
"Skillet" and "frying pan" are interchangeable terms that mean a shallow, curve-sided pan used for sautéing food. (Some people disagree and say they are different pans, but we contend that they are different names for the same pan.)
A sauté pan is slightly different because it has straight sides and is almost always sold with a lid (skillets are not), but the two types of pans can be used interchangeably for most frying tasks.
For the definitive differences, see Should I Buy a Skillet or a Sauté Pan? The Differences Explained.
In any case, every kitchen needs a few types of pans, but in particular it needs a good skillet/frying pan or sauté pan (or two). They are likely to be your most used pans, and also your most abused pans, needing to survive high heat, hot cooking oil, rapid temperature changes, and--sometimes--heavy duty scrubbing. You can scrimp on most of your other pans and you might not notice much difference in performance. But you should invest in a high quality, durable, great-performing frying pan/skillet and/or sauté pan (or both).
The right one will last a lifetime.
Most culinary experts agree that clad stainless is the best all-around, daily use cookware. All of our recommendations for essential pieces are good quality clad stainless cookware--but if you can only afford one piece of good clad cookware, make it your frying pan.
What Is A Frying Pan For?
Frying pans are used for a ton of different cooking tasks: pan frying, stir frying, and other "dry heat" cooking methods ("dry" meaning you use small amounts of cooking oil and no other liquids--as opposed to deep frying, poaching, or braising, which are "wet heat" cooking methods). This means you'll use it for everything from frying bacon and pancakes for breakfast to making burgers, chicken, or fish for dinner. You'll also use a skillet for frying potatoes, cooking down greens, and many other side dishes--so you're likely to need more than one.
You will also use a frying pan for stovetop-to-oven dishes (like frittatas), so you want one that can withstand high oven and broiler temperatures.
You can also use sauté pans for most (if not all) of these tasks, plus liquid cooking like poaching and braising: the straight sides and lid make the sauté pan more versatile than a skillet, though most people prefer to use a skillet when they can: the sloped sides make it easier to move food around in the pan and are also more conducive to evaporation, which creates good browning. But when you want a lid, say for steaming/cooking through foods (hash browns are a great example), a sauté pan is tough to beat.
(Handy hint: If you bought a set of cookware and have both a skillet and a sauté pan, the lid from the sauté pan will probably fit your skillet.)
What Makes a Good All-Around Frying Pan?
The best types of frying pans have two equally important traits: durability and excellent heating properties. (We are assuming here that the pan is made from safe materials.)
Durability. Because a frying pan has to withstand high temps, hot oil, and heavy use, it has to be durable. Poorly made pans won't hold up to the heat, rapid changes in temperature, and frequent use that a skillet is going to get in most kitchens. (How will they not hold up? They'll warp, the handles will fall off, the lids will break, and they'll scratch, pit, and rust.)
On the other hand, you don't want a frying pan that's so heavy it's hard to use. While many people love cast iron, we don't for this exact reason: anything larger than 10 inches in diameter is going to be hard to handle. (Cast iron also has mediocre heating properties: it takes forever to heat through--although once hot, it holds onto heat like a champion, making it excellent for certain kitchen tasks like deep frying and searing steaks. So while we don't recommend cast iron for your daily use pan, we do think it's a great supplementary skillet to have. It gets bonus points for being inexpensive, too.)
Stainless handles and lids (as opposed to plastic handles and glass lids) are also best for durability and longevity. All of the clad stainless pans we recommend have stainless handles and lids. (You should avoid cookware with glass lids, which are heavy and have a tendency to shatter under rapid temperature changes.)
Heating Properties. Good heating properties are equally important. Because what good is a pan that will last forever, but doesn't heat well?
What makes for good heating properties? A skillet should heat rapidly and evenly. Heat should spread throughout the pan, and all the way up the sides. (For this reason, we don't recommend a bottom-clad skillet, although bottom-cladding can work fine for other pots, like stock pots and sauce pans.)
Not all clad stainless is created equally. Understanding why is a topic worthy of a separate post, but suffice to say that inexpensive clad cookware can have thin layers of aluminum, causing it to heat unevenly.
Shape. Most people prefer a frying pan with a good amount of flat cooking surface. This means fairly steep sides, like this Tramontina skillet (under $50):
Or this Demeyere Proline skillet:
All of our recommendations have a good amount of flat cooking surface.
Nice Features: You can also look for nice extras like a helper handle (most 12-inch frying pans have one, most 10-inch frying pans do not), a curved lip for mess-free pouring, and an included lid--frying pans typically do not come with lids, but sometimes you can find them (such as this All-Clad frying pan with lid included).
The frying pan gets the hardest use of any pan in your kitchen, so this is where you should invest your money. You can go cheap on other cookware and not regret it, but not so with a frying pan (or sauté pan if that is your preference). You want to get the best one you can afford.
What Size Frying Pan Should I Get?
Realistically, a well-stocked kitchen should have a few frying pans of different sizes, or a skillet and a sauté pan of a few different sizes. For your daily use, go-to pan, we recommend a 12-inch frying pan (or 5-6 quart sauté pan) for most people.
Anything smaller can be limiting, often requiring you to cook in batches because you won't be able to fit everything in the pan at the same time (and this is often true even if you're only cooking for two). You may try to cram everything into a smaller pan, but if it sits up the sides of the pan, it's not going to cook evenly. If you're making a stir-fry, with small pieces of food you can move around easily, this isn't a big deal. However, if you're frying hamburgers, chicken breasts, or other large pieces of food, they are bound to cook unevenly if they don't fit in the pan.
A crammed skillet also won't brown food very well. Instead, it steams food. If you've ever had a batch of grayish ground beef, it's almost certainly because the pan was too full to get good browning.
For smaller meals and side dishes, it's nice to have a smaller frying pan around, too. For this we recommend a 10-inch skillet (or a 3-4 quart sauté pan, if you'd prefer).
If you frequently make crepes, omelets, or cook for just yourself, you may find an 8-inch frying pan useful. But in general, an 8-inch frying pan is awfully small, and not terribly useful for most cooks.
With the exception of this Tramontina 12 piece set (you'll find the best price at Wal-Mart), few cookware sets come with a 12-inch frying pan; most come with a 10-inch and an 8-inch frying pan. If you're interested in a smaller set that has a 10-inch frying pan, go ahead and get it--it's usually the most economical way to buy cookware--then buy the bigger frying pan separately.
Sauté pans are measured in volume. A 3-4 quart sauté pan is roughly equivalent to a 10-inch skillet, while a 5-6 quart sauté pan is roughy equivalent to a 12-inch skillet. Keep in mind that sauté pans have more flat cooking surface because of their straight sides, but they are also bulkier and harder to maneuver than their curve-sided skillet cousins.
The lid of a 3-4 quart sauté pan will usually fit a 10-inch frying pan and the lid of a 5-6 quart sauté pan will usually fit a 12-inch frying pan.
NOTE: For more information about Tramontina cookware, see our Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad cookware review.
If you decide to buy a set, pay careful attention to the size of the pieces. They can vary quite a bit among different retailers. For most cooks, small pieces aren't as usable as larger pieces.
How Much Should I Spend on a Frying Pan?
Having said you should invest in a frying pan, you don't need to break the bank if it's not in your budget. Yes, our favorites are spendy: both the Demeyere Proline and the All-Clad D3 or Copper Core will set you back more than a hundred dollars, even in the smaller sizes. These pans are built like tanks and will last forever, and you will appreciate their heft and quality every time you use them.
When you consider that these are products which will last a lifetime, the cost-per-year-of-use is small, so if you can afford a top notch brand, we highly recommend buying one. (Especially the Demeyere Proline, which has about 75% more aluminum than the All-Clad, making for much superior heating properties.)
However, there are a few less expensive brands that are almost as good. These are Cuisinart MultiClad Pro and Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad. If you go with one of these brands, a 12-inch skillet will set you back about $40-$60.
What About Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Skillets?
There are also good things to be said about investing in a $35-dollar-or-less Lodge cast iron skillet, which will also last forever and take hard use and abuse even at this low price. If you want to do high heat searing (steaks!), cast iron is indispensable and carbon steel is a close second. A stainless steel skillet is more versatile and should be your first priority, but cast iron or carbon steel are affordable and highly useful. A lot of cooks would be lost without their cast iron or carbon steel skillets.
If you can handle the weight, cast iron will provide the best heat retention (thus the best browning), but carbon steel also browns well (better than most clad stainless pans).
For more information, see our articles The Best Cast Iron Skillets: How Much Should You Spend? and The Best Carbon Steel Pans.
What About Nonstick Frying Pans?
Nonstick frying pans aren't a "top 5" pan because they have a lot of drawbacks, but they're a nice type of pan to have as an extra (if you follow the right techniques, you can cook anything in a stainless steel pan, including eggs; if you want nonstick performance in a pan that will last, go with cast iron or carbon steel).
See below for our nonstick recommendations.
Buy a Demeyere Proline (atlantis) Frying Pan on amazon now:
BUY A Cuisinart MC-Pro frying pan ON AMAZON NOW:
BUY A Tramontina tri-ply clad frying pan:
2. Sauce Pan (3-4 Qt.)
What's A Sauce Pan For?
A sauce pan is an essential cookware piece because it's your go-to pan (actually a pot) for liquids. You do everything with this type of pan you can't do with a skillet: soups, making pasta and rice, making hot cereals, boiling veggies (steaming too if you have a steamer insert), sauces, custards and puddings, gravies, reductions, and so much more. It's a kitchen workhorse that you'll probably on a daily basis (and often numerous times a day).
For more info on sauce pans, see our article How to Choose the Best Sauce Pans for Your Kitchen.
What Makes Good All-Around Sauce Pan?
Again, assume that we have chosen safe cookware that is non-reactive and free of toxins.
Heating Properties and Durability: As with all types of pans, you want a durable pan with good heating properties.
A sauce pan doesn't need to be as durable as a skillet because cooking with liquids isn't as hard on cookware as cooking with oil. However, you want a sauce pan with some heft so it lasts, resists warping, and will work well even if you're using it for viscous foods (e.g., oatmeal, stew) or dry heat cooking.
The heating properties aren't quite as important as for a skillet because liquids spread heat through natural convection. Thus, even heating happens naturally and the amount of aluminum and/or copper in a pan isn't as crucial--but a good quality sauce pan that will last should have pretty good heating properties.
Design: Ideally, a sauce pan should have straight sides: curved sides might be pretty, but they're harder to scrape food out of, clean, and store (stacking!). It should have a tight-fitting lid--preferably stainless--a handle that feels comfortable to grip and is good for stabilizing and maneuvering. If it's larger than 3 quarts, a helper handle is a nice feature.
Many recipes call for a "heavy-bottomed" sauce pan. A heavy bottom ensures the best heat spreading and will also help prevent sticking and scorching. Any well-made clad stainless sauce pan will be "heavy-bottomed." If you really want to go for the heavy bottom, take a look at Demeyere Atlantis sauce pans--these have about the heaviest bottom you'll find on any cookware on the market.
Sauce pans can have a wide, shallow shape or a tall, deep shape (you can easily see this difference in our two favorite picks shown above). Neither design is inherently better than the other, so go with your personal preference for this type of pan (we prefer a wider, shallower sauce pan).
Pouring: Some sauce pans have grooved lips, which are nice for pouring, but not essential. Our favorite, the All-Clad D3 tri-ply, does not have a pouring lip but still pours nicely. The cheaper Cuisinart MC Pro sauce pan does have a pouring lip--but it isn't quite as pretty or quite as heavy as the All-Clad.
The best sauce pans are clad stainless: these will provide good heating properties, decades of durable service, and are easy to care for--yes, food can sometimes stick, but you can soak and scrub the pans for easy cleaning.
What's the Best Size Sauce Pan to Get?
For an all-around sauce pan, we recommend a 3 quart size. This is the minimum size for boiling pasta easily. A 1- or 2-quart is good mostly for heating cans of soup, making small batches of sauces, and other small jobs. You may even want a 4-quart, especially if it's going to do double duty as a small stock pot.
Anything larger and we are straying into small stock pot territory.
Once again, if you're buying a set, pay attention to the sauce pan size(s). Just like frying pans, sauce pans are going to be small. We recommend not buying a set without a 3-quart sauce pan. (It's okay if there are smaller sauce pans included, but you really need at least a 3-quart to be considered an all-around, go-to sauce pan.)
About the All-Clad D3 Sauce Pan: The All-Clad sauce pan is a sturdy workhorse that will last for decades. It has a wide, not-too-deep shape that makes it great to cook with. This model, the tri-ply (D3), has completely straight sides, lacking a lip for pouring. Other All-Clad lines do have a lip (such as the Copper Core and the D5), but these cost quite a bit more without having significantly better heating properties.
The D3 also has the traditional All-Clad grooved, U-shaped handle. This handle gets a lot of bad press, but we like it, especially for sauce pans. The grooved shape makes it easy to stabilize even if wet--if a sauce pan full of hot liquid has ever slipped out of your grip, you'll appreciate how nearly impossible it is for that to happen with this handle design.
About the Cuisinart MultiClad Pro sauce pan: Although a little lighter weight than the All-Clad D3 and (we think) not as pretty, this pan comes in a close second place. It's design is deeper and narrower than we like (harder to wash, though possibly easier to store), but it's well made and has the grooved lip that the D3 lacks. The finish isn't quite as polished and the stainless may not be quite as high quality as All-Clad, but that is reflected in the much lower price.
For a fraction of the cost of All-Clad, this is a really great sauce pan.
BUY All-Clad d3 sauce pan:
BUY CUISINART MC-PRO SAUCE PAN:
3. Dutch Oven (5 Qt or Bigger)
See our favorite all-around Dutch oven on Amazon (le Creuset)
If you buy a set of clad stainless cookware, it's likely that you'll get a Dutch oven. Even so, you won't regret investing in an enameled cast iron Dutch oven. You'll love it.
Also: See our comprehensive Dutch oven review.
What's A Dutch oven For?
A Dutch oven is primarily for braising--covered, wet heat cooking in the oven--but it's a great all-around pan you can also use as a skillet, stock pot, or even a large sauce pan. This makes it ideal for soups, stews, and braises, which start out with searing mirepoix and meat, then adding liquid and simmering.
Because of its all-around versatility and one-pot dinner functionality, you'll find yourself reaching for your Dutch oven frequently. Its two short handles that make it ideal for oven braises and for serving at the table right out of the pot (one less bowl to clean!).
What Makes Good All-Around Dutch oven?
Good heating properties are essential, but in the case of a Dutch oven, what makes for good heating is a little bit different.
First of all, the cast iron construction works a little differently than clad stainless. The cast iron doesn't heat all that quickly or all that evenly (compared to the aluminum in clad stainless cookware), but its heat retention is superb, meaning that once heated through, it hangs onto heat really, really well. This is what makes it so great for oven braising and even baking. It is an excellent vessel for deep frying for the same reason.
Another reason you want cast iron for Dutch ovens is the heavy lid. The ample weight gives the lid a tighter fit than you'll get from lighter stainless lids. This means enameled cast iron pots will lose less liquid, making them a better vessel for braising.
As far as durability, cast iron construction makes it a given. Lower priced enameled cast iron may require a bit more careful handling, as the enamel will be more prone to chipping. But in general, these pots are tough as nails: they'll take a lot of use and abuse and last for decades (and you can use steel utensils with them too).
What about cast iron Dutch ovens that aren't enameld? They're considerably less expensive, and they'll last forever. The only problem with them is that certain foods--in particular, acidic foods--will react with cast iron, and can impart an off taste. You don't want to use non-enameled cast iron for any dishes with tomatoes, which rules out quite a few recipes.
Liquids can also strip seasoning from cast iron.
For these reasons, enameled cast iron is the more versatile choice.
Le Creuset vs. less expensive brands. You can get a nice enameled cast iron pot for a tenth of the price of Le Creuset, so why spend the money on le Creuset? Mostly durability, but there are a few other considerations such as weight, balance, handle design, and shape.
What Size Dutch Oven Should I Get?
This is dependent on how you cook, but a good standard size is 5-7 quarts. This is the size you need for an average sized pot roast or chicken, or to feed a family of 4-6 (or have enough leftovers for a second meal).
You can go larger, too, but we don't recommend going below 4 quarts unless you want it primarily for side dishes.
BUY A le creuset dutch oven
BUY A LODGE DUTCH OVEN ON AMAZON NOW:
4. Roasting Pan (or Large Baking Pan)
See our favorite all-around roasting pan on Amazon (Cuisinart Chef's Classic)
You can also go with a glass or ceramic baking dish which easily doubles as a cake pan, lasagna pan and more (but you might not be able to fit a whole turkey into it):
What's A Roasting Pan For?
This probably doesn't need an explanation, but a roasting pan is for roasting meats in the oven.
Roasting is different than braising in that the meat is exposed to the hot oven air in order to produce a crispy, browned exterior. You can use an uncovered Dutch oven for this, but the high sides discourage browning. You can use a frying pan or sauté pan, too, but these often aren't big enough for the cuts of meat you use a roaster for, and their long handles make them tricky for using in the oven.
Because it's made for oven use, a roasting pan has an entirely different set of criteria for what makes it "good" than other cookware on our list. In fact, if you prefer a more versatile pan, a glass or ceramic baking dish fits the bill just fine here.
Why Is a Roasting Pan "Essential Cookware"?
A roasting pan is only essential if you roast meat. If you're a vegetarian, a roasting pan is definitely not a kitchen essential. However, this is the type of pan you can use for many things, including casseroles, baking, and more.
In fact, a designated roasting pan may not be essential even if you do eat meat. If you like to bake, you probably have one or two vessels that you could use for roasting. A 9x13 cake pan works, as do any other shallow (but not too shallow) glass or ceramic pans.
However, you may want a pan just for meat--particularly if it comes with a roasting rack, which allows air to circulate all around the cut of meat and produce a fully browned exterior. This is hard to achieve in a cake pan. (Although you can buy roasting racks separately that will fit in a baking pan, roasting pan, or baking sheet.)
What Makes Good All-Around Roasting Pan?
With a roasting pan, heating properties are less important than for any other piece of cookware. Because oven heat hits the food from all sides and not just from a burner, the pan is transferring very little heat into the food. You can use pretty much any type of pan for roasting, whether glass, ceramic, stainless, or nonstick, and it will produce fine results.
You can even use disposable aluminum roasting pans as they will work just fine. (Just be sure to put them on a baking sheet because they're not sturdy enough to hold their shape on their own under the load of a heavy cut of meat.)
So what makes a good roasting pan, then? Here are a few features:
- Good, easy-to-grip handles (important because those pans are hot--and heavy!)
- Large enough for what you want to use it for
- Easy to clean (e.g., straight sides w/no lips, not a lot of nooks and crannies to collect gunk)
- Comes with a roasting rack (many do not).
You don't need clad stainless, or really, any high end roasting pan at all. The pans we recommend are some of the cheapest roasters on Amazon.
If you want a high-end roaster, by all means spend the money. (You'll never regret getting the good stuff.) But if you're looking for ways to cut corners and still have an excellent set of cookware, the roaster should be the first item to look at to keep your costs down.
About the Chef's Classic roasting pan: Chef's Classic is a less expensive Cuisinart line than the Multi-Clad Pro. This roasting pan is clad stainless steel, but the steel isn't the best quality (the primary reason to get an All-Clad roaster). But at this price, you can take the chance because you can replace it 4-5 times over before getting close to the All-Clad price (but you probably won't have to).
The pan claims to be induction compatible (only important if you want to use the pan on the stovetop, say for making gravy), but it may not be. Our tests found that it worked just fine with induction, but some reviewers complain that it didn't work with their induction cooktop.
Otherwise, this pan is a good shape and size, it comes with a stainless rack, and it has good handles. What else do you need?
About the OXO GoodGrips Glass Baking Dish: It's a great, versatile piece that you can use for preparing baked goods as well as roasting meat. It might be a little small for certain cuts (turkeys, for example) and it doesn't come with a rack, but it's more versatile than a dedicated roasting pan. If you don't roast a lot of meat, a glass or ceramic baking dish is a good choice (or even a stainless or aluminum cake pan).
What Size Roasting Pan Should You Get?
In general, you want a pan that's about 16 inches by 13 inches, not including handles. This is large enough for a good-sized turkey as well as just about anything else.
If you have a small oven, you should get one with handles that don't stick out too much, or that fold down.
A 13x9 baking (or lasagna) pan will also work for most meats. You can even find some "lasagna" pans that come with a roasting rack, like this one. The advantage is that these are more versatile than a designated roasting pan; the disadvantage is that they're on the small side, and you may hate those hinged handles.
Or, if you're more interested in versatility, a glass or ceramic baking dish that you can use for dozens of tasks is also a good choice--it just might not be large enough for a whole turkey.
BUY Cuisinart Chef'S Classic Roasting pan:
buy OXO GoodGrips Glass Baking Dish:
Baking sheets, also called sheet pans, are a kitchen essential. No matter what your kitchen style, no matter what your diet, you will get a ton of use out of them. If you use an oven, you will use sheet pans. In fact, you will use them so frequently that you should have at least a couple on hand.
What Are Sheet Pans For?
Baking sheets have become hugely popular in recent years for making sheet pan suppers, easy one-pan meals where you toss the meat and veggies straight in the oven for a quick roast. But we've been using them for years for myriad kitchen tasks:
- baking cookies
- baking sheet cakes and bars
- homemade pizza
- roasting bacon (best done with a rack)
- roasting veggies
- catching drips from pies and casseroles (Tip: cover it with foil for easy cleanup)
- under pie plates for easy lifting out of the oven without breaking the crust (Tip: cover it with foil for easy cleanup)
- under disposable pans (also for easy handling)
- dehydrating fruits and veggies
- sheet pan dinners
- heating leftovers and takeout food
- thawing frozen foods.
Quarter sheet pans--9x13 inches or so--make great, inexpensive trays to corral kitchen clutter, too. Just don't use them for baking--ever!--or they will lose their shine.
What Makes a Good All-Around Sheet Pan?
You should think of sheet pans as being inexpensive and replaceable. Because no matter how much you spend, you're going to want to replace them every few years. At least, you will if you use them as often as you're likely to.
You can go with aluminum or stainless steel. Though aluminum is cheaper, stainless steel are a little more durable. Whichever type you choose, they're hard to keep looking new: they get stained pretty quickly at high oven heats and are hard to get looking like new. But it doesn't matter because they're just as useful no matter how stained they get.
Sheet pans should be a standard size, as well, so it's easy to find racks that fit them (such as for oven bacon). Most large home-use sheet pans are actually half sheet pans, and are 13x18 inches; quarter sheet pans, also useful for a ton of things (though not large enough for most sheet pan dinners), are 13x9 inches.
How Much Should You Spend on a Sheet Pan?
The fast answer: Not a lot. Stainless pans are going to be more expensive than aluminum, so you should spend enough to get stainless. Other than that, you don't need any other features. There's no need to get anything fancy.
You may want to get one with a rack included--the option we linked to above is the cheapest we've seen on Amazon--or, you may want to buy a rack separately. Both are good options.
You may not think you'll use a rack, but that's probably because you've never made bacon in the oven. A rack essentially turns your baking sheet into a shallow roasting pan, so your meat browns all the way around and won't get soggy. It's essential for fatty meats (like bacon) so they don't turn soggy in their own juices.
Having said all of that, you should be able to find half sheet pans (standard size for home use) and quarter sheet pans for under $15 apiece.
Amazon has a huge array of sheet pans in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Check out the Amazon selection here.
BUY set of 2 sheet pans (different sizes) ON AMAZON NOW:
BUY SET OF 2 SHEET PANS WITH RACK ON AMAZON NOW:
Optional, But Good, Pieces to Have (Depending on Your Cooking Style)
These are in no particular order, because what makes a piece good for you (maybe even essential) is based on your personal cooking style and preferences.
Nonstick Frying Pan
See our favorite all-around nonstick frying pan on Amazon (All-Clad HA1)
See our other favorite nonstick frying pan on Amazon (Anolon Nouvelle Copper)
A lot of people consider a nonstick frying pan an essential piece. In fact, a lot of people buy entire sets of nonstick cookware. We, however, dislike nonstick cookware for most tasks, and consider it a necessary compromise for certain tasks.
Why do we dislike nonstick cookware for daily use? For one, it's incredibly fragile, with even the most durable nonstick coating lasting only a few years under most conditions. You can't use metal utensils, put it in a dishwasher, or use anything above medium heat (at least for PTFE; ceramic can withstand high heat, but even though it's more durable than PTFE in this way, it tends to have an even shorter life span, sometimes loving its nonstick properties after just few months of use).
In other words, you really have to baby it in order to get the most life out of it--and even then, you're just not going to get anything near what you'd get out of a clad stainless pan.
Maybe the biggest reason we dislike nonstick pans, though, is that the slick surface is not conducive to developing fond: those brown, crispy bits that remain in a pan after sautéing and searing. That fond is a goldmine, vitally important to building flavor. And it's very hard to build a good fond on a nonstick surface.
So while we much prefer clad stainless for most tasks (with cast iron coming in second), a nonstick frying pan might be a useful addition to your kitchen if you'll use it for the tasks it does best.
NOTE: We have several articles about nonstick cookware. See our Cookware Page for a list of informative nonstick cookware articles.
What's A Nonstick Frying Pan For?
A nonstick skillet is the type of pan that excels at sticky, delicate foods that do best with gentle heat and don't need a lot of browning for delicious results: eggs and fish are the two foods that come to mind.
You can also use a nonstick skillet to make sticky things like caramel and candied nuts. For sticky foods like this, nonstick provides easy cleanup that's hard to beat. (If you've ever tried to clean burnt-on sugar from a stainless skillet, you'll understand the appeal of nonstick here.)
Are There Other (Non-Toxic) Options Instead of Nonstick?
Yes and no, depending on what you're willing to put up with. The two options that come closest to PTFE nonstick are cast iron and carbon steel.
Ceramic nonstick: Even though these pans--like GreenPan and Caraway, for example--are advertised as nonstick pans, they are really closer to stick-resistant: read the fine print from any maker, and you'll find that they all recommend using butter or cooking oil for "best results."
The ceramic nonstick also tends to not last as long as PTFE, and it has many of the same limitations. For example, though the ceramic can withstand higher heat than PTFE without producing toxic fumes, the pans retain their nonstick properties at low heat.
The ceramic nonstick coatings have also been linked to some health issues, including tumors, but there isn't a lot of research out there to know if they're completely safe under normal use.
For these reasons, we aren't huge fans of ceramic nonstick, but we understand why people like it. For more information, see our article Ceramic Frying Pans: Better than PTFE?
Cast iron: Cast iron has been around for thousands of years and is the original "nonstick" cookware. It requires seasoning but once properly seasoned, it provides a slick surface that comes very close to nonstick. You still have to use cooking oil to get desired results, and it's never going to equal PTFE for slipperiness. But many people love it, and it's a viable alternative to nonstick if you're willing to keep the pan seasoned and don't mind the bulk.
Cast iron is slow to heat through. Once heated, though, cast iron hangs onto heat like a champion (this is due mostly to its mass--it's thick and heavy), so it's great not only for a pseudo-nonstick pan, but also for high heat searing (putting a thick, crusty sear on a steak, for example).
Cast iron is inexpensive, and many consider it an essential piece of cookware. Why don't we? Well, it's heavy and hard to handle, and like we said, the heating properties don't match those of clad stainless. But if you want a decent all-around pan that doubles as almost nonstick, cast iron is a good choice.
In the last couple of years, some high-end cast iron has entered the market. It's made the "old school" way, which actually does result in slightly better heating properties, as well as a smoother surface (i.e., closer to nonstick when well-seasoned). But for most people, it's probably not worth the higher cost. Some of these pans cost 10 times what you'd pay for a Lodge skillet. Unless you have a lot of disposable income, you'd be better off investing in a high-end clad stainless skillet like the Demeyere Proline, and using your cheap-but-always-reliable cast iron for what it's best at: searing steaks, frying chicken, deep frying, and other tasks that do best in pans that hold on to heat really well.
So, we recommend buying an inexpensive cast iron skillet--pre-seasoned pans may need less seasoning, but, they will perform better with additional seasoning.
Carbon steel: Carbon steel is cast iron's lighter weight cousin. It requires similar seasoning to create a slick surface, as well as similar care and use (using cooking oil and washing with water only, for example). It's also inexpensive, like cast iron, and many people are huge fans of carbon steel frying pans. Here is a new, non-seasoned carbon steel pan:
Carbon steel's drawbacks are that with its lighter mass and thinner walls, it lacks cast iron's ability to hang onto heat well. It's better than most stainless steel pans, but won't be as good as cast iron.
A lot of people will disagree with us on this and sing the praises of carbon steel. But really, the main reason professional chefs use them is because they're cheap, they're lighter than cast iron, and they can hold up to a lot of abuse. And they do hang onto heat fairly well; just not as well as cast iron.
If you're averse to nonstick cookware because of its possible health hazards and averse to cast iron for its weight and bulkiness, carbon steel is a viable alternative.
Consider this, as well: carbon steel is lighter weight than cast iron, but it's still heavy. Don't let that thin-looking wall fool you; this is dense stuff, and can be almost as heavy as cast iron.
As with cast iron, you can buy pre-seasoned carbon steel pans, but they will perform best with more seasoning (and continue to get smoother and more nonstick with use).
What Makes a Good All-Around Nonstick Frying Pan?
Heating Properties: Like all cookware, heating properties are important. If you buy a cast (or forged) aluminum nonstick frying pan, excellent heating properties are built in (the thick layer of aluminum ensures this). Both of our picks, the All-Clad cast aluminum and the Anolon Copper Nouvelle, provide thick aluminum walls that give great performance.
Pan Shape: Shape is another important consideration. Ideally a frying pan should have short, steep sides and a lot of flat cooking surface--yet not so steep that it's hard to get a turner in there to flip a burger or chicken breast. But in general, the more flat cooking surface, the better.
This is where our two favorite picks differ considerable. The All-Clad HA1 frying pan has a really nice shape with a lot of usable flat surface, yet nicely sloped sides that make it easy to get inside it with a turner:
The Anolon Copper Nouvelle skillet, although it has better heating properties with an astonishing (for the price) amount of copper in the base (about 0.6mm), is a little too wok-like, with long, sloped sides and a smallish flat cooking surface, as you can see here:
If it were shaped like the All-Clad pan, it would be our number one choice, no contest. But as it is, it's great for some tasks (like stir frying), but not as ideal for pan frying burgers or chicken breasts.
You can read more about it in our Anolon Cookware Review.
Size: If you're using the nonstick frying pan for eggs, a 10-inch skillet is probably big enough. If you're going to use it for other jobs, or routinely make eggs for a crowd, you may want to jump up to a 12-inch.
Extras: As with your clad stainless frying pan, you may want a grooved lip for easy pouring (both of our recommendations now have a grooved lip), a great handle (stainless is our favorite), and if possible, a lid (some skillets come with lids, but most do not).
If you buy cheap, you may get a plastic or silicone handle, which we do not recommend. They wear out easily and don't withstand any oven use at all. You might also prefer a nonstick pan with a rivetless cooking surface, like this one from Tramontina that we like (although it's a little expensive, particularly with that silicone handle).
How Much Should You Spend on a Nonstick Frying Pan?
The short answer is, "not a lot." Because of the short life span of nonstick coatings, you should spend a fraction of what you would spend on a clad stainless frying pan (which will last for a lifetime and then some).
What does this mean in practice? Our advice is to not spend more than $50 dollars on a 10-inch nonstick pan. If you want a 12-inch, you may have to go above that number, but you should try to keep it low; you should have no problem finding a good quality 12-inch nonstick frying pan well under $100.
The good news is that you can get really nice performance even under $50. The secret is to buy cast aluminum rather than clad stainless nonstick (too expensive) or stamped aluminum (usually too thin to provide even heating). Cast (or forged) aluminum provides excellent heating properties; as good as clad stainless, if not better (because there's more aluminum than in most clad stainless pans). And with the nonstick cooking surface, the aluminum is completely safe to use (at least until the nonstick coating scratches or wears off).
BUY All-Clad HA1 nonstick SKILLET:
BUY Anolon Nouvelle Copper NONSTICK SKILLET
Deep Sauté Pan
See our favorite all-around deep sauté pan on Amazon (All-Clad D3)
While not as popular as some other pan types, the deep sauté pan is a fabulous multi-duty piece of cookware. In fact, it's one of the most versatile pans you can have in your kitchen.
What Is A Deep Sauté Pan Used For?
You can use a deep sauté pan for pan frying, deep frying, poaching, sauces, soups, stews, making stock, braising, making pasta, rice, and beans, plus numerous other cooking tasks.
Thus, in a pinch, you can do pretty much anything in it: it's shallow enough to work as a frying pan, yet deep enough to use for braises, soups, stews, and stocks. You can use it on the stovetop and in the oven.
And it not only does all of these tasks; it's good at them.
Yes; you can do most of these things with a Dutch oven, also, but here's the difference: the deep sauté pan is a little shallower than the Dutch oven, so it's easier to use for frying, deep frying, and sautéing. Yet it's as perfect as a Dutch oven or small stock pot for soups and stews.
What Makes A Good Deep Sauté Pan?
As with all our recommendations, you can assume that we are only looking at safe, non-toxic cookware.
Heating Properties. Like any other piece of cookware, you want it to have decent heating properties. And because it's an all-purpose pan you'll use for dry cooking and wet cooking methods, it should preferably be fully clad (rather than disc-clad).
Durability: Because you'll be using this pan for so many different tasks, durability is also a must. Durability is built in to a clad stainless pan like the All-Clad D3 deep sauté pan. Stay away from nonstick and poorly made options. They won't perform well, and they won't last.
Shape/Size: You want a deep sauté pan to be, well, deep. There are a lot of options on the market that really aren't very deep. In fact, the All-Clad pan is one of the few we've found with nice deep sides. (If/when we find a cheaper alternative, we'll be sure to add a link to it.)
The All-Clad deep sauté pan is 6 quarts, and that's about as small as you should go. Anything smaller than that probably isn't going to be as deep as you want a deep sauté pan to be.
Design: A grooved lip is nice for pouring--and you will be pouring from this pan occasionally. A lid is also a must, preferably stainless. If it has a helper handle, that's a huge plus as well, because this pan can get heavy when it's full--and if it's full of hot oil, a helper handle is a necessity for safety's sake.
How Much Should You Spend on a Deep Sauté Pan?
Seeing as how the only deep sauté pan we really like is an All-Clad pan, it's not cheap, at about $185. Unfortunately, this is the only pan we've found with these dimensions, and they're perfect for so many things; wide enough to use as a frying pan but deep enough to use as an oversized sauce pan (perfect for long pasta if you don't have a pasta pot!).
If that's over your budget, you can find other all-purpose pans, like a chef's pan or large saucier, which provide similar versatility, in a cheaper line. You may even like them better than a deep sauté pan: a lot of people do. We prefer the more stable base and straight sides of this pan, but we may be in the minority, as chef's pans/large sauciers are very popular.
BUY A deep sauté pan:
See our favorite all-around sauté pan on Amazon (All-Clad D3)
See our favorite best-value sauté pan on Amazon (Cuisinart MC Pro)
A sauté pan isn't a kitchen essential because you can do pretty much everything a sauté pan can do with a skillet. Nevertheless, they're a nice piece to have for a number of reasons: the straight sides result in less spattering than a skillet, they have more flat cooking surface than comparably sized skillets, and they come with a lid for wet cooking methods--and, for an added bonus, this lid will often fit your similar-sized skillet, too.
Some cooks prefer a sauté pan to a skillet, and that's perfectly fine. But a lot of cooks prefer to use a skillet when they can and a sauté pan when they have to because sauté pans are bulkier and a little trickier to maneuver. For these reasons, we consider a sauté pan a nice extra, but not a kitchen essential.
And if you do want a sauté pan, consider the deep sauté pan (see above). It's a fabulously versatile pan.
What's A Sauté Pan For?
As discussed above, a sauté pan is essentially a skillet with straight, rather than sloped, sides. It's almost always sold with a cover, while a skillet is rarely sold with one. These two things give you a clue about the difference between these two pans: a sauté pan is designed primarily for wet cooking methods (poaching, braising, etc.), while a skillet is used primarily for frying.
Another clue is how they're measured. Skillets are measured by diameter--8-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch, from top rim to top rim. Sauté pans are measured by volume: 3 quart, 4 quart, 6 quart. So this is another clue that they're designed for liquid cooking.
And it's true: sauté pans, with their straight sides and lids, are perfect for cooking down big batches of greens, for poaching chicken breasts, and even for deep frying--whereas the sloped sides of a skillet, as well as its lack of a lid, make it less than ideal for any of these jobs.
In fact, if you had to pick one or the other, the sauté pan is the right choice, because it's a more versatile pan. But its straight sides make it less than ideal for many pan frying tasks: it's harder to get a turner in there to flip foods. Their squarish shape also gives them a bulkier, less maneuverable feel than skillets.
Which is why many people have both: skillets for pan frying, sauté pans for poaching, braising, and, in a pinch, frying, too.
For more details about the differences between these pans, see our article Should I Buy a Skillet, a Sauté Pan, or Both?
What Makes Good All-Around Sauté Pan?
Like every pan, it's a combination of great heating properties, durability, and easy-to-use design.
Assuming we stick to our two favorite options, the heating properties and durability are both givens; the All-Clad pan is going to heat a little more evenly, but they are both very good quality pans, with stainless cooking surfaces, tight-fitting lids, helper handles (they can get heavy when full!), and a nice balance that makes the pan feel good in your hand.
These are all important features of a sauté pan. Additionally, you may want a pan with a grooved rim for easy pouring.
The most important thing is that the pan is not too big so that it's bulky and hard to work with. This is a bigger problem with sauté pans than skillets because they're squarer in shape, so they can be harder to maneuver.
How Much Should You Spend on a Sauté Pan?
Since a sauté pan is an extra for most cooks, you may not want to spend a lot on it. However, this is a pan you're going to use a lot; almost as much as your skillet, and maybe more if you find you prefer the sauté pan. And if you want it to double as a skillet occasionally, you're going to want it to be durable and have excellent heating properties.
A sauté pan, much like a skillet, is an investment. A good one will last decades.
The Cuisinart MultiClad Pro is a really nice pan, but the All-Clad is going to win on performance and durability. Not by a lot, but by enough that it might make a difference to you. Although for about half the price, you may be willing to live with the less-than-perfect MC Pro. Either way you decide to go, it's a great investment, and both come with a lifetime warranty.
Should you want to go even cheaper, you can find sauté pans with bottom cladding only. Depending on how you plan on using the pan, this might be just fine. If you're going to use it primarily for wet heat cooking, a bottom-clad sauté pan works great. However, if you're ever going to use it as a skillet, too, you want fully clad sides so you have good heat transfer throughout the entire pan.
BUY the All-Clad sauté pan:
BUY the Cuisinart Multiclad Pro sauté pan:
The best woks are carbon steel, which means they are inexpensive. They're a good addition to your cookware collection if you like Asian food and have the storage space for this large, bulky piece of cookware--because if you buy one, you should get a large one: the most common size for home use is 14-inch, measured across the top diameter.
For a detailed discussion of woks, see our article How to Choose the Best Wok for Your Kitchen.
What's A Wok For?
Woks are used for stir frying. Stir frying is an Asian cooking technique in which the food--including veggies and meat--is cut into bite-sized pieces before cooking. Because the pieces are small, the food cooks rapidly and almost always at the highest heat possible. You use the sloped sides to manipulate which food is cooking: once the meat is cooked, for example, you can push it up the sides while you give the veggies a quick sizzle in the bottom, where it's hottest. Finish with a sauce, which bubbles and thickens quickly.
Wok cooking is kind of the original one pan meal. The prepping takes the longest, but the cooking itself usually takes under 10 minutes.
Problems with Woks
It can be difficult getting really good wok performance at home. Restaurants are equipped with special, high-powered wok burners, often concave, or large enough so the wok sits well inside the burner, to create more surface contact on the bottom.
This is hard to do at home. The small bottom on the wok creates little contact with the heat source, which is problematic. A gas stove gives the best performance because the flames spread heat, but even so, most home gas ranges simply aren't powerful enough to get a wok hot enough for optimal wok cooking.
This doesn't mean woks aren't viable for home use. They are--but you may not get results like the takeout from your local Chinese restaurant.
Can you get similar results from a large skillet or sauté pan? Yes, you can, for the most part. Which is why a wok is an optional piece of cookware. But if you like Asian stir frying, home wokking can be a lot of fun.
Ways to Improve Home Wok Performance
- As we already said, buy a flat-bottomed wok if you're going to use it on your conventional stove. A convex bottom will have almost no contact with the heat source.
- Gas hobs are better than electric hobs.
- Stir-fry in batches, removing cooked food to a bowl or plate. This allows the wok to stay hotter and produce results closer to those of an Asian restaurant. Only throw everything back into the wok at the end to heat through before serving.
- Buy a special wok burner (use with caution!):
What Makes a Good Wok?
You can find all sorts of "Americanized" woks, some with nonstick coating, or made out of tri-ply clad stainless, with covers, or so flat-bottomed that they're not much more than an extra large chef's pan.
But if you want an "authentic" wok, your best bet is an inexpensive carbon steel wok. They hold heat decently (as a wok should), they provide good performance, and they're as close to "authentic" as you're going to find.
Carbon steel is also going to be durable, and should last a lifetime.
Like all carbon steel cookware, they need to be seasoned properly. Once seasoned, though, they are a breeze to use: the almost nonstick surface is easy to cook with and really easy to keep clean, requiring a quick wipeout and a quick oiling to prevent rusting.
As far as size, a 14 inch is the best size to go with. You want a large, deep wok so you can stir fry with vigor and not have to worry about food flying out of the pan. Also, this large size really sets it apart from other frying pans and sauté pans, which simply aren't going to be this large.
And remember, get a flat-bottomed wok for best results on a home burner.
NOTE: If you have an electric or induction cooktop, you may want to bypass a wok altogether. Induction heats only the bottom surface, and won't travel up the sides of a wok like the flames of a gas burner will.
BUY A wok:
See our favorite chef's pan on Amazon (All-Clad tri-ply)
If you don't want to commit to a wok but want a larger, more general purpose pan that can function like a wok, a chef's pan is a good way to go.
What's A Chef's Pan For?
Chef's pans are a large, versatile type of pan, good for many cooking tasks including pan frying, deep frying, stir frying, braising, poaching, and more. In fact, they get their name for being such a good all-around pan--one that a chef can put to many good uses.
A similar pan is called a sauciér pan, but it's usually smaller, and therefore not as versatile. (Click here to see one on Amazon.) Sauciér pans are so called because they're used primarily for making sauces: their rounded sides leave no spots for a whisk to miss.
We prefer the chef's pan: because it's larger, it's more versatile, but otherwise, it is essentially the same pan as a sauciér. So if you're cooking for just one or two, or like to make a lot of sauces in small amounts, go for the sauciér instead of the chef's pan.
What Makes Good All-Around Chef's Pan?
Like all pans, good heating properties and durability are the important features--and since this is a pan you'll use for many tasks, good heating properties--i.e., full cladding--are a must (not an option, as with sauce pans, Dutch ovens, and stock pots). Our favorite is All-Clad's tri-ply clad stainless chef's pan.
These pans should always come with a lid. A stainless lid is best because it's more durable.
A helper handle is also a nice feature.
The only chef's pan we could find with all of these features is the All-Clad. You may be able to find less expensive ones if you're willing to live with a glass lid and/or nonstick coating, neither of which we recommend.
How Much Should You Spend on a Chef's Pan?
Since it's an optional pan, we wish we could find one we liked for a little less, but we couldn't. If you don't want to pay All-Clad prices for a chef's pan, consider getting the smaller sauciér pan (this Demeyere sauciér is a superb pan at a reasonable price) or--cheapest of all--a carbon steel wok.
BUY All-Clad saucier/chef's pan ON AMAZON NOW:
Should You Buy Sets or Individual Pans?
Sets are a great way to get a lot of pieces all at once for a good price. However, you have to be careful.
If you won't use all the pieces in the set, is it really a good deal? You also have to pay careful attention to the size of the pieces, because all too often, the pieces are small. It's common for sets to have two small sauce pans--1-quart and 2-quart, for example--and two small skillets--8-inch and 10-inch. These pans are too small for most everyday uses, unless you cook for just 1-2 people.
On the other hand, it's nice to have matching pieces, and you can augment your set with larger (or smaller) pieces to match as you figure out what you need. So if you do buy a set, we suggest you buy a small set--5 to 7 pieces--and one that has pieces you know you'll use.
Another strategy, particularly if you stick to the essentials, is to invest in two or three top quality pieces and spend less on the pieces that don't need top-notch heating properties. For example, you could invest your money in a Demeyere Proline skillet, an All-Clad Deep Sauté pan, and a Le Creuset Dutch oven, then choose Cuisinart MC Pro or Tramontina for the rest of your pieces, or go with inexpensive cast iron or carbon steel for your second (or third) skillet.
There's no right or wrong answer here. It's in what you want and how much you want to spend.
Final Thoughts on the 5 Must-Have Cookware Pieces
Most cooking sites have an article on essential cookware pieces, and the list varies considerably. Our list is comprehensive enough to make every cooking task doable yet is still minimal, and our list of optional pieces allow you round out your collection based on your individual cooking style.
We leave baking and other kitchen tools for another post.
What do you think of our list? Do you have a different idea of what the essential cookware pieces are? Let us know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!
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