Which pots and pans are essential, and how can you tell?

Go to any well-stocked kitchen store and it's easy to become overwhelmed by all your cookware choices. Which pots and pans are essential, and how can you tell?

Most pots and pans look similar, but there are certain qualities to check for as you decide which to buy. When you're in the store, don't be shy. Lift the pan, check the thickness of the sides and bottom, and rap the pan with your knuckle. You should hear a thud rather than a ping. Don't be afraid to act out the movements you'll make with the pan. You will use your pan almost daily, so it's important to make sure it has the right "feel."

Pots and Pans in Drawer
Photo by Meredith

Heavy-Gauge Materials with Thick Bottoms

Pots and pans should be heavy enough to conduct heat evenly and keep foods from scorching.

  • Copper is the most expensive option, but reacts with acidic food and requires special care.
  • Anodized aluminum — a great choice for a sauté pan — is responsive to heat and is treated to prevent chemical reactions with food.
  • Cast iron also conducts heat well, but it reacts with acidic sauces and can rust if not properly cleaned and seasoned. Cast iron pots coated with enamel avoids these dilemmas, but they are very heavy, which can be a drawback. You should avoid scrubbing these pans with abrasives.
  • Nonstick pans are a popular choice, especially if you're cutting down on cooking with fat. Newer nonstick coatings are more scratch-resistant than before.

Stainless steel with an inner layer of copper or aluminum is a good all-around choice because it is durable, non-reactive, conducts heat well, and is easy to clean.

Pots and Pans on Counter
Photo by Meredith

Well-Constructed, Heatproof Handles

Many pots have handles made of a low conductive metal like stainless steel, so they stay relatively cool.

  • With metal handles, some cooks prefer welds to rivets, which can collect food residue and are more difficult to clean. Whatever you choose, make sure the handle has been secured in several places so that it won't come loose.
  • Plastic and wood handles are heatproof but not ovenproof: you can't start a dish on the stove-top and finish it in the oven.
  • Metal handles with removable plastic or rubber heat guards are the most versatile.

Secure Lids

Lids should fit tightly and have heatproof knobs.

  • Glass lids are convenient because you can check cooking progress without lifting the lid. Use the manufacturer's guidelines for oven safety.

Lids that fit snugly will keep moisture in the pot. A tempered-glass lid lets cooks keep an eye on simmering dishes, which helps reduce boil-overs.

Pots and Pans and Lids
Photo by Meredith

Pre-Packaged Sets or Hand-Picked Pieces?

Many manufacturers sell matching starter sets with 5, 8, or even 10 commonly used pieces for a budget price. However, you may not have space or need a large set, and the same material doesn't always work well for every cooking task.

  • You may be better off buying fewer individual pieces in different materials — for example, a large aluminum sauté pan with high sides may work better for you than an omelet pan if you make more stir-fries than egg dishes.
  • If you like to make stews, casseroles, and pot roasts, a cast iron Dutch oven that can go from stove-top to oven is essential, but is rarely included in a starter set.
  • You will most likely need a few more items, such as a vegetable steamer in either stainless steel or bamboo, or a roasting pan with a rack.

Bottom line: Choose good-quality individual pieces or sets that match the kind of cooking you do.

Cast Iron Skillets
Photo by Meredith