One of the most common questions that pops up in my inbox every day is: “What pots and pans do you recommend?” With so many brands, materials, sizes, and sets, purchasing new cookware is daunting, to say the least.
As a professional cook, I own enough cookware to open a kitchen shop of my own, but in reality, I return to the same few stainless steel, nonstick, and cast iron pots and pans over and over again. As a rule, I don’t recommend purchasing a set of cookware but rather mixing and matching the essential items you need. While cookware sets are usually more cost-efficient than buying individual pots and pans, they always come with several items you’ll never use – and you really do need pots and pans in different materials for different purposes. In the long run, you’ll get more bang for your buck by buying the specific items you need.
These are the 9 essential pots, pans, and skillets I use every day and recommend, whether you’re stocking your first kitchen, cooking for a large family, or downsizing to a smaller space.
Stainless Steel Pans
Stainless steel pans are your everyday workhorses. They heat food evenly, can handle all types of cooking, go from stove to oven, and, depending on the brand, can withstand temperatures up to 600°F. They are also highly durable (i.e., safe to use with sharp or metal utensils) and dishwasher-safe – and they last a lifetime. I’ve been using the same stainless steel pots and pans since I got married in 2001, and they are no worse for the wear.
These four stainless steel pans will give you the most versatility:
Why You Need It: A medium-sized saucepan is an essential tool in your kitchen, and it’s useful any time of day. Use it to make oatmeal in the morning, reheat leftover soup at lunchtime, or steam rice for that stir-fry you’re having for dinner.
Use When: A recipe calls for a medium saucepan
Best For: Making soft or hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal, small batches of soup, hot dips, sauces, custard fillings, puddings, mashed potatoes, rice, couscous, quinoa, or other grains
Why You Need It: This incredibly versatile pan is designed for everyday dinner tasks like sautéing, stir-frying, searing, shallow-frying, and making pan sauces. (Note that this skillet is often interchangeable with your nonstick or cast iron skillets in recipes, but nonstick skillets should be used only when necessary, and stainless steel is often preferable to cast iron as it’s much easier to handle.)
Use When: A recipe calls for a large skillet (that doesn’t specify nonstick)
Best For: Searing or browning meat, such as steak au poivre or pan-seared steaks; making dishes with pan sauces, like chicken piccata, chicken marsala or chicken tikka masala; making pasta sauces; stir-frying without a wok, like beef and broccoli; sautéed vegetables, like string beans or zucchini and tomatoes; making taco or pot pie fillings; pasta dishes; and cooking stove-to-oven dishes, like rack of lamb or shepherd’s pie
Why You Need It: This is my go-to “big pot” that I use daily for boiling pasta (it can hold up to 2 pounds of pasta), blanching veggies, or making big batches of stock.
Use When: A recipe calls for a standard large pot
My Fave: All-Clad 8-Quart Stock Pot
Why You Need It: This sturdy and functional pan really shines when it comes to roasting your Thanksgiving turkey, large cuts of meat, and whole chickens. It comes with a roasting rack that allows heat to circulate around the food for more even cooking, and the high sides make easy work of basting your meat while it cooks. The pan is also stovetop safe, so you can deglaze the pan over a flame to make delicious and easy gravies. While it is most often used for savory dishes, a large roasting pan also comes in handy as a water bath for custard-based desserts.
Use When: A recipe calls for a large roasting pan
Best For: Roasting holiday turkeys, whole chickens, bone-in chicken pieces, whole beef tenderloins, pork butts, sides of salmon, oven-steamed mussels, brisket, and roulades, and water baths for cheesecake or flan
Nonstick cookware is infused or lined with a coating that prevents food from sticking, making it a great option for things that are a bit delicate or more likely to stick, like omelettes, fish, or anything else particularly wet or cheesy. They’re also good for healthy cooking, as they don’t require as much butter or oil to prevent food from adhering to the surface.
In the past, there were concerns that the nonstick coating on pans could present health risks. To adhere to safety guidelines, manufacturers now use safer alternatives, and any chemicals released when using nonstick pans fall within required safety standards. To maintain the pans’ nonstick coating, avoid high heat and metal utensils which will scratch the surface; instead, use wood, plastic, or silicone. These pans should be hand washed with dish soap and a sponge, and they should be replaced when they get worn.
I recommend these two nonstick skillets for everyday cooking (they are usually sold as a set):
Why You Need It: As mentioned above, nonstick skillets prevent food from sticking, and this size is ideal when you’re cooking delicate foods for one or two.
Use When: A recipe calls for a small nonstick pan or skillet
Best For: Making scrambled eggs for one or two people, omelettes, or crepes
My Fave: All-Clad 8-Inch Nonstick Pan
Why You Need It: Nonstick skillets prevent food from sticking, and this size is ideal for cooking larger quantities.
Use When: A recipe calls for a medium or large nonstick pan or skillet
My Fave: All-Clad 10-Inch Nonstick Pan
Enameled Cast Iron & Cast Iron
Dutch ovens and cast iron skillets are not as essential as your stainless steel and nonstick pans, but if your budget allows, it’s nice to have at least one of each. Not only are these pans functional but they are also heirloom-worthy.
Why You Need It: Made from enameled cast iron, or cast iron with an enamel coating, Dutch ovens conduct heat beautifully, are ideal for slow-cooking, and can go from stove, to oven, to table. They are easy to care for and they come in a variety of vibrant colors that can add a little personality to your kitchen.
Use When: A recipe calls for a heavy-bottomed pot, a Dutch oven, or an enameled cast iron pot
My Fave: Le Creuset 5.5 Quart Dutch Oven
Why You Need It: There’s a reason these old-school skillets have been around forever. They actually improve as they age (and if you care for them correctly, they last a lifetime). Cast iron pans are are ideal for searing, sautéing, and even baking. They are also reasonably priced, have a natural-nonstick finish, and can be used on the stove, in the oven, and even on the grill.
Use When: A recipe calls for a medium cast iron or nonstick skillet or pan
My Fave: Lodge 10-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
Why You Need It: If you want to take care of your grill fix but don’t own a grill, or it’s too cold outside to fire it up, a cast iron grill pan is a great alternative. It’s nonstick, cooks food evenly, can withstand high heat, and the ridges in the pan mimic the grates of a grill and will give you those appealing grill marks.
Use When: A recipe calls for quick grilling (avoid longer-cooking cuts, like bone-in chicken)
My Fave: Lodge Cast Iron Grill Pan
Keep in mind that you don’t need to run out and buy all of these pots and pans at once! Start by purchasing one or two based on your cooking needs or the items in your kitchen that are in need of a refresh. I think you’ll find that cooking will be easier and you’ll get better results with the right tools. If you have any questions about which options may be good to start with, feel free to email me at email@example.com. Happy Cooking!