Choosing the right pots and pans can be a daunting task. There are hundreds of options to choose from, and a lot of people don’t fully understand the differences between many of them or how total full advantage of their cookware. So, I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of the 5 basic cookware items that will get you through 90% of anything you want to cook
#1. 10 – 12 inch stainless steel pan
This pan is very versatile, and can get you through most cooking activities. It is a “go-to” for sautéing, pan frying, sweating aromatics, and browning meat. I really like to use this pan for roasting in the oven when cookie sheet or sheet pan is to big. A good steel pan will have a heavy, thick bottom, a long arm without any rubberized coating (which would just melt in the oven, thus limiting the functions it can perform), and a gentle upward curve around the outside, which, when done carefully, is great for quickly flipping food. The steel bottom’s best function is for absorbing and holding onto heat, and evenly distributing it back to the food which is great..if you like evenly cooked food. resist the urge to buy cheaper aluminum pans. Aluminum is light weight and affordable, but it tends to get really hot in one spot where the heat is focused and stay cool around the edges. The weight of the steel bottom is also nice because the pan will stay in place as opposed to being off balanced by the arm. Above all else, never send a teflon pan to do a steel pan’s job. The steel surface of the pan is mandatory for good browning. And, if used correctly, a a good stainless steel pan will never stick. More on teflon below! I like to have one medium sized pan (about 12 inch diameter) and a large sized pan (about 20 inches) on hand at all times. The medium sized pan can handle most of the day to day work, but it’s nice to have more pan-space in case you want to pan sear a large pice of meat, or are cooking for more than five people.
#2. 12-15 inch stockpot
This pot is extremely versatile, and will probably be one of the most used items in the kitchen. As with the steel pan it should have a heavy steel bottom, which helps with faster and more even cooking. Also, it’s not a necessity to but a matching lid. Don’t get me wrong, its nice, but if you can find one for a good price, skip the lid and use your steel pan or a cookie sheet..that’s what the pro’s do, which I like because lids are a pain to store and take up precious cabinet space. This pot should have sturdy handles. And again like the steel pan, should not have rubber anywhere on it so that you can use it in the oven if need be. Personally, I like really tall sides for my stockpots, but anything over 5 inches should be more than you will need. The things you can do with this pot are practically limitless, so I won’t list them all, but here are a few: soups, broths, stock, cooking pasta, boiling eggs, making pickles, making candy, tea, cooking rice and other grains, deep frying, mashed potatoes…I could go on.
If a steel pan and a stockpot had a baby, that baby would be the saucepan. The saucepan, although similar to both, has different functions and can be used in ways that that the stockpot and steel pan just can’t handle. Similar to the steel pan, the saucepan has a long arm (again…never coated), and similar to the stockpot, it has tall sides. Saucepans come in sizes ranging from very small to very large. In fact, I recommend getting a small, medium, and large saucepan for versatility. Saucepans also have steel bottoms, but in this instance, thick aluminum will also work for smaller ones. So what exactly is the purpose of a saucepan? Like the name implies, saucepans are perfect for making sauces, but they are great at doing lots of other things. Now, You could sauté or make stock in a saucepan, but those functions are better left to it’s parents. The real reason to have a wide range of sauce pans is because they fill in the gaps, so to speak, of what stockpots and steel pans can’t do. For example, My stockpot holds 5 gallons of water to make pasta. But if I’m making one portion of pasta, 5 gallons is a little overkill. Rather, I would use a large saucepan. Or, if I’m caramelizing 5 onions, a steel pan just can’t handle that volume, so I would use a saucepan. Other things you can use a saucepan for includes candy making, deep frying, and pastry making. Although it’s not technically cooking, I like to use my large saucepan to hold hot soapy water I use when hand washing dishes. And in some cases, I have used it as a mixing bowl. It just speaks to the versatility of the saucepan.
#4. 12 inch cast iron pan
Having a good cast iron pan is like having a best friend. If you treat it right, it will always be there for you. In many cases, the cast iron pan is handed down from generation to generation, and I have seen some that are over a hundred years old and still work like new. What I mean to say is that cast iron is a very versatile and durable pan. If you were like me and had to buy one new, there are some things to keep in mind. First of all, Iron will rust very easily. If you live in a humid climate, it will rust just from sitting around. Most cast iron you buy will already come heat treated for rust prevention and have a protective layer of wax for shipping. If for some reason your’s isn’t treated, the process is simple. Rub it down with a good amount of vegetable oil ( or even use non-stick spray) and bake it in a 400 degree oven for about an hour. There will be some smoking so turn on the vent above your stove and open a window. The point of this is to burn a layer of black carbon onto the pan so that it can’t rust. Incidentally, this also makes cleaning and storing cast iron extremely easy. In most cases, I just put about a teaspoon of kosher salt (the flakes act as an abrasive which knock gunk loose, and the salt itself will absorb and excess oil or grease on the surface) in the pan, scrub it out with a towel, and wipe a little oil back onto it to protect it from the air. Generally this is the easiest pan to clean, but in extreme cases clean it with steel wool and soapy water, dry thoroughly, spray a generous amount of non-stick spray over the entire pan (handle and all) and wipe off the excess with a paper towel. Smaller cast irons are available, but I suggest buying as large as you can get. Although This pan can do anything a steel pan can do, it’s heavy…really heavy, so I still like to have my steel pans. There are, however, a few tricks that cast iron can do that nothing else will do quite as well. Cast iron is essential for good pancakes, as the surface doubles as a griddle. So, if you get a big enough pan, you can cook your bacon, eggs, and pancakes all at the same time. And if I didn’t have you at pancakes, another reason I love cast iron is because you can use it in the oven to make pizza…a trick not capable from anything else besides a pizza stone. So many reasons to love cast iron!
#5. Teflon coated pan
The fifth and final item is the teflon pan. This style of pan is unique on my list and in my opinion a bit misunderstood. Teflon is a waxy substance that is enameled onto pans and is extremely slippery. It is for this non-slip surface that this style of pan has become extremely popular. I’m just going to say it… resist the urge to use a teflon pan to do any of jobs listed above. Teflon, while safe at lower temperatures, begins to chemically break down at temperatures exceeding 500 degrees fahrenheit. When It’s left for extended periods at that temperature, it can produce a gas that can be fatal to animals and can make humans sick. Now while it’s unlikely that any of that will happen during cooking, teflon, just isn’t very good at doing what other pans do. Creating the perfect crust on a steak can’t be done on a teflon pan because teflon doesn’t conduct heat the way steel or cast iron does. Teflon it is extremely fragile and will scratch easily. Once scratched, food will seep into the scratches and be impossible to clean. Which is ironic since the whole point of teflon is that food won’t stick for easy clean up. Nope, teflon unfortunately isn’t good at very many things. There is, however, one thing that teflon can do so well that it earns a place on this list: cooking eggs. Eggs are one of the most delicate things you can cook and require low temperatures, and unfortunately steel, aluminum, and cast iron just stick and burn no matter how careful you are. Teflon is so good a pan for eggs that restaurants just refer to it as “egg pan”. Eggs actually deserve their own article, so I won’t get into too many details, but in my kitchen teflon is reserved for eggs sunny side up, fried, over easy/medium/hard, scrambled, omelettes, and frittatas. As with the other pans in my collection, I don’t like handles with rubberized coating. Also, I like a 10 inch pan. Anything smaller doesn’t have enough room for multiple servings, and anything larger is too big to do the infamous “egg flip”. Teflon pans are about just as easy to clean as cast iron, usually only requiring a wipe with a paper towel. If you are going to clean this pan, use warm soapy water and a soft sponge. For storage, never set anything into the pan. I like to hang mine, but if you don’t have a spot to hang it, find a spot where you won’t be tempted to stack other pans on it. even with a towel or lid over the top, it can still scratch.
Now that that is out of the way, One more subject requires a little attention. No doubt, you have been to a department store and seen the massive cost on the sticker, sometimes getting into the thousands, and decide to pass on the 29 piece set of copper cookware buy some exotic artisanal French company. Relax, you can find cookware for much cheaper that is, to be frank, much better, if you know where to look. First of all, NEVER buy a set! They will never have all the items you need. Second, don’t think that price is indicative of quality. In most cases, paying for a brand name is a waste of money. Finally, keep away from infomercials! I have never seen anything good come from a late night binge on a shopping network program. It’s far far better to find all the above listed items a la carte at either your local restaurant supply store, where the price will be a fraction of the amount for actual professional pots and pans, or a store where you can buy individual items that have been overstocked and are sold at a massive discount. You know the types of discount department stores i’m talking about..places where you can “dress for less’, etc… If you stick to this list, and take your time looking around to find good deals on individual items, I promise, your food will not only come out better, but cooking will be more easy and fun!