Aside from knives, a home chef’s most relied upon tool is cookware. Too often, cookware companies push subpar boxed cookware sets that don’t meet most people’s needs and are of inferior quality. For most men, buying cookware separately will result in the best performance for the money. In this guide, we’re going to discuss how to purchase cookware that will last a lifetime and what pots and pans you really need.
Kitchen Equipment for the Home Cook
Even professional chefs use only a few pans regularly. If you’ve ever purchased a set of five or ten pots and pans, you probably know firsthand that you only end up using a couple of them. Chances are you have a favorite and stick to that.
Cookware sets — regardless of what brand they’re from — tend to be of the lowest quality produced by the manufacturer. Even if you spent hundreds of dollars on them, chances are you will achieve great results at the beginning, but over time the quality, usefulness, and durability of them will fade.
Pros and Cons of Sets
There are a few benefits and drawbacks to buying a boxed set of cookware.
- It is very economical if you don’t already own cookware or want to upgrade all of your pans at once.
- It is easier to justify and to replace if you’re not a serious home chef or don’t enjoy cooking.
- They make great gifts for newlyweds and as house warming presents.
- They tend to be of poorer quality because they use thinner bottoms that don’t heat evenly or don’t hold the heat well.
- They can contain a couple of oddly shaped or hybrid pots and pans that aren’t useful.
- Unless you need each and every pot and pan, it can be just as inexpensive to buy a few better-quality pots and pans.
- Some contain nonstick coatings, which reduce the value of the purchase since they will need frequent replacement.
- They typically don’t last as long as higher quality cookware because the lighter weight leads to easier denting and warping.
Pros and Cons of Buying Individual Cookware
Buying pots and pans by themselves can comes with its own set of pros and cons.
- Although individual quality pans can be more expensive, they will last longer and distribute heat more effectively.
- You will get less cookware for your money, but the quality will be superior if you make the right choices.
- A very high-quality skillet can last a lifetime or more.
- Often, quality doesn’t mean having to spend ridiculous amounts of money.
- Chances are you will spend more money to build a collection if having multiple pots and pans is important to you.
- The care required to maintain quality cookware can be greater and more challenging than sets because they aren’t as disposable.
- Some pots and pans will need to be seasoned before being used.
Types of Cookware
There are so many types of cookware available. It seems that companies are coming out with new pots and pans for every type of protein and style of cooking or cuisine. In the end, you really just need a few basic items which we’ll discuss.
There are many different materials used to produce cookware. Each of them has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Copper has long been the favorite of chefs, and it is the traditional material used in France. Copper pots are the best conductors of heat, but they are also more expensive and more challenging to clean. These make impressive kitchen display pieces for those who appreciate a beautifully made pan in a standout material.
Aluminum offers fairly good distribution of heat but is known to turn food gray, so it often comes coated with a nonstick finish or is made with anodized aluminum which has to be hand washed and dried. The darker color of the pan also obscures the fond (the flavorful brown bits created at the bottom of pan during cooking), which makes it harder to determine how well food is browning compared with lighter materials.
Easy to clean, durable and it looks good. The main downside is that it’s not a good conductor of heat, so it’s often used in combination with copper.
Take a close look at the pile of skillets in a restaurant kitchen the next time you get a ringside seat. Chances are, they are made of carbon steel. Carbon steel is popular in Europe and in restaurant kitchens, but it hasn’t really caught on in North American home kitchens. It needs to be seasoned and maintained much like a cast iron skillet, but once seasoned the surface is remarkably non-stick even without a chemical non-stick coating. They are also relatively inexpensive.
Non-Stick or Teflon Pans
These are ideal for the home chef who wants food to release beautifully from the pan and clean up quickly. However, there is a wide range of quality in non-stick pans and some inherent dangers too. Most non-stick coatings such as Teflon are recognized as carcinogens, so while they are very effective materials, you need to toss the pan as soon as you notice any flaking of the surface coating. As a result,non-stick pans in high price ranges are rarely worth the investment. T-Fal branded coatings are a good option for an inexpensive non-stick pan that will work well over time.
If you’re not a cast iron user, it may seem old school, but cast iron is an amazing conductor of heat. The downside is that it requires hand washing without soap, shouldn’t be used with acidic ingredients, and rusts easily. It also needs to be properly seasoned before use. However, the big benefit is it will outlast your lifetime and if taken care of, can make an excellent heirloom. It’s also fairly easy to repair if it does rust or experience some wear. Finally, they aren’t all that expensive, so you can easily buy a cast iron pan, and once seasoned, you won’t need to keep buying and rebuying Teflon pans.
Craftsmanship of Quality Cookware
Many people complain about high-quality cookware being too heavy. The reason it is heavy is because heavier cookware tends to distribute heat more quickly and evenly. Thin and lightweight cookware is a good indicator that the quality is lacking or isn’t intended to last long and may result in bending or warping over time. However, carbon steel pans are often thin, yet are still favored by many professional chefs.
Ply or Clad Cookware
The terms “ply”or “clad” are often used interchangeably, and they refer to the number of layers of metal on the bottom of the pan. As we mentioned before, stainless steel isn’t a very good conductor of heat, so while it makes for a durable pan, most manufacturers will add a layer of metal to the bottom of the pan to increase heat conduction. For instance, 3-ply pans are often constructed of stainless steel bonded with anodized aluminum or copper as the middle layer. All-Clad pans for instance, are 3-, 5- or even 7-ply with stainless steel and aluminum.
What to Buy and How to Create Your Own Set
If you’re the typical home cook who enjoys cooking for your family and the occasional dinner party, you can easily get away with just the following cookware to start with and then build your collection over time as your needs change. Here are our top tips for buying cookware:
- First, decide if a set or individual pans are right for you. If you already have a few good pans, then individually is probably the best way to buy. If a set is a better fit, read the individual reviews for each pan in the set to see if they all perform well independently.
- Avoid larger sets (10+ pieces) because that seems to be the threshold at which cookware companies start adding pieces that you don’t really need, such as a second stockpot, double boiler or a third saucepan in an awkward size.
- Determine your budget and goals. If you have a low budget, consider spending your budget on one great quality pan for now. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to consider buying secondhand. Good pans should last a lifetime, so pretty much anything can be cleaned up and restored to perfect working condition as long as it’s not dented, warped, or Teflon coated.
Two Skillets or Quality Pans
A 9 or 10-inch skillet and a larger, deep-sided 12-inch skillet will give you the ability to cook just about any meal quickly and without issue or needing other pans. Consider using one that’s a non-stick and a second that is cast iron. Although you may use one more often, you’ll find they both have benefits and drawbacks. A perfect example is that many chefs favor a cast iron skillet, however it is problematic with acidic foods so it is necessary to have an alternative on hand. Finally, a stainless grill pan is a good option for meat lovers.
Lodge Cast Iron Skillets
We recommend and use Lodge MFG cast iron skillets which are made in America and revered by the top professional chefs. They conduct and retain heat beautifully. They are also the only cast iron skillet to come properly pre-seasoned. Click here for an 8″ Lodge cast iron skillet to get an 8-inch skillet or click here for a larger 13″ Lodge Cast Iron model.
Lagostina Accademia Bistecchiera Stainless Steel Grill Pan
We also really liked the Lagostina Accademia Bistecchiera Stainless Steel Grill Pan, which Lagostina sent us awhile back. Its grates allow fat content to sit below the meat, and it’s the best stainless steel pan we’ve ever used. The only issue is that it can be tough to clean and can cause food to stick if not properly lubricated with high heat oil. Click to get the Lagostina Grill Pan here.
T-Fal 12″ Professional Non-Stick Fry Pan
Since cast iron and a grill pan aren’t for everyone, this T-Fal pan will be your kitchen workhorse. It’s easy to clean, dishwasher safe and a brilliant performer. Once it starts to chip, the $28 price tag makes it affordable to replace. Click here to get a 12-inch T-Fal Non-Stick Pan.
Having two different sized saucepans in four and six-quart variations will give you the ability to easily heat soup, steam vegetables or cook stews and prepare sauces. One of the most versatile pans in your arsenal, you’ll find these get used all the time.
Mauviel M’Heritage Copper Saucepans
This is a pan worth investing in! A good cast iron skillet won’t cost much money, but a high-quality copper saucepan is more expensive yet worth every penny. We tested a number of saucepans but none compared to the copper ones from Mauviel. It’s worth every dime you’ll spend, and they will last a lifetime if well cared for. Click here to get this display-worthy Mauviel M’Heritage Copper Saucepan here. If this pan is a bit out of your price range, consider an All-Clad saucepan instead — it will last you just as long!
Large Dutch Oven
Having a large Dutch oven for stews and pot roasts is essential for the home cook. It’s also useful for baking bread. Dutch ovens are constructed from enameled cast iron, so they conduct heat beautifully while being much easier to clean up. Enamel will stain over time, but this is another cookware purchase you can keep and enjoy for a lifetime.
Le Creuset Dutch Oven
This 7 qt Le Creuset Dutch Oven is big enough to handle most dinners and yet distributes the heat evenly, which results in a perfect dish. Slightly higher priced, it will still save you money since it lasts a lifetime if well cared for. If $350+ dollars is out of your price range, then consider this Dutch Oven from Tramontina — stellar reviews at around $60 make this a great buy!
Having a stock pot is worthy of your consideration if you want to be able to cook soup or pasta. Although it can be beneficial to own a smaller pot, a stock pot doesn’t have to be filled all the way.
Mauviel M’Heritage Copper Stock Pot with Tin Interior
Copper is great for heat distribution, but having a copper stock pot can impart a terrible aftertaste when cooking in water. This one from Mauviel has a tin interior to prevent that taste. It still heats just as well as a full copper pot, but without the drawback of tasting it. Click here to get it.
Recommended Sets & Creating Your Own Set
In general, we don’t recommend buying sets because the savings tend to be limited, the quality is poor and they often come with awkward pots and pans you wouldn’t otherwise need. However, for the home cook who doesn’t want the hassle of having to create their own set, there are a couple of pre-packaged cookware sets we do recommend that don’t have any of the aforementioned pitfalls.
Mauviel M’heritage 10 Piece Cookware Set
An heirloom quality set, this French-made cookware set includes two skillets, three sauce pans, one saute pan and 4 lids, as well as copper brill cleaner. It is arguably one of the best boxed sets you can buy and one of only two we recommend, for several reasons: the quality of Mauviel pans, the usefulness of each pot, and the durable yet beautiful construction. Click here to pick up the Mauviel M’Heritage 10 Piece Cookware Set.
All-Clad D5 Stainless Steel 5-Ply 7 Piece Cookware Set
This set covers all the basic categories of cookware. It contains one stock pot, one saucepan, one saute pan and one skillet plus three lids. While you may want to supplement this set with a non-stick or cast iron skillet, it is otherwise a complete cookware set made up of only the most useful pieces. Click here to get the All-Clad D5 7 Piece Cookware Set or check out smaller and larger sets.
With cookware, you get what you pay for. Stay tuned for upcoming articles on other kitchen items worth investing in. What cookware do you use at home?