Guide to Buying Cookware

 

Buying cookware is a big deal, but it doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated.

With a little advance planning and research, you can easily stock up your kitchen with the best tools to meet your needs.

To help you out, we’ve put together a useful cookware buying guide.

Keep the following tips in mind, and you’ll be sautéing, stewing, roasting, baking and frying in style before you know it!

Consider the Cookware You Need Most

Cookware You Need Most

While all of us have at least a few items in our kitchens that we pull out maybe once or twice a year (I’m looking at you, ice cream maker!) there are others that we’re more apt to use in heavy rotation, maybe even multiple times per day.

Now that it’s no longer time for hand me downs and yard sale finds (not that there’s anything wrong with those, especially in the case of more expensive or durable items like the coveted Le Creuset Dutch oven or a generations-old cast iron pan!) you want to stock your kitchen with the best cookware that you can afford, in order to meet your needs.

Though it’s true that the opportunity to browse the cookware section of your favorite department store or restaurant supply warehouse might inspire you to cook things that you never considered previously (i.e. “Wow! They have a pizzelle iron! And donut molds! And a paella pan! And crepe pans from France!”), the point of this ultimate guide isn’t to encourage you to cultivate a collection of cookware that is going to spend its days gathering dust, or taking up precious cabinet space for no reason.

Best Pans to Cook With

Best Pans to Cook With

In order to prevent this, think about what you truly enjoy eating and cooking, and consider the meals that you prefer to make on a regular basis.

Do you make a lot of soups and sauces, or maybe oven braised meats? Do you like to deep fry or make omelets or grill fish?

best pans to cook

 

Allow the basics of your at-home menu to dictate what types of cookware you need most.

Then, figure out what the best pans to cook with are. Many recipes make very specific cookware suggestions, so you might find it helpful to use these as a guide.

Beyond individual dishes and cooking styles that you partake in regularly, it’s also important to think about your family and your kitchen setup:

  • If you’re cooking for a crowd on a regular basis, bigger pots and pans are key.
  • If dinner for one is on the menu more often than not, you might not need to invest in the big stuff.
  • Consider whether you cook on a full-size gas range or a compact electric stove with two burners and a tiny oven that couldn’t cook a turkey if you wanted it to. Or maybe you’ve got a smooth top range, or you like to cook on a simple hotplate or induction burner. The pans that you buy need to fit the equipment you’re going to cook on.
  • Maybe you have a dishwasher, maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re into careful scrubbing, and maybe you’re not. Washing techniques and the time you’re willing to devote to maintenance of your cookware is another important factor.

Keeping all of this info in mind will help you to determine which sizes you should look for when it comes to different types of cookware, and what materials will work best in your kitchen.

That brings us to our next point…

Types of Pans: Materials

Types of Pans: Materials

If you’re setting out to stock up on pots and pans for the first time, this might be something you’ve never considered before.

You just used whatever was in the cabinet, right? But now it’s time to ask: What’s the stuff made of?

Many different materials are used to make pots and pans. You’ll find everything from enamel and Teflon coated items to stainless steel, aluminum, cast iron and even copper.

Some items are more expensive than others, some will last longer than others, some work better than others on different types of cooking ranges, and some are more appropriate than others for different cooking techniques and the preparation of certain dishes (not to mention the cleanup afterwards!)

Here’s a quick primer for you:

Aluminum

  • Pots and pans made from this material are great at conducting heat, so that’s a huge advantage.
  • Nonstick coated and uncoated versions are available, and the uncoated kind is perfect for getting your Maillard reaction on, browning those tasty foods that you love to the peak of flavorful deliciousness. The downside is that cleaning up all of the gunk left behind during the browning process can be a bit difficult, but it’s nothing that a good soak and a scrub with a little Brillo can’t solve.
  • Consumer Reports says infused anodized aluminum holds up better than other nonstick coatings, but it’s not the only worthwhile option.
  • Aluminum may not be the best choice for cooking acidic foods, since it’s a reactive type of metal. This means you can wind up cooking some of the aluminum in your pots into your tomato sauce and inadvertently eating it, which you don’t want to do.
  • It’s also a pretty soft metal, so it’s easier to scratch and dent than other materials.
  • Pitting can also happen when aluminum comes into contact with salt.

Stainless Steel

  • Stainless steel is necessary if you’re cooking with induction burners, because it needs a magnetic connection to get that heat going. Some experts suggest bringing a magnet with you to the store to make sure a piece is magnetic before you buy it.
  • Unfortunately, it’s not very good at conducting heat in comparison to other materials.
  • On the upside, it holds up well and tends to last for a long time without warping, scratching or otherwise becoming damaged.
  • It’s also a nonreactive material, meaning it won’t create an unwanted chemical reaction with certain types of food.
  • Sometimes stainless pots and pans are “clad,” meaning they’re stainless on the outside, with a layer of copper or aluminum sandwiched in between. This helps to improve the heat transfer, and is probably the most common type of cookware that you’ll find in the average kitchen.
  • An extra coating is often added to the bottom of clad pans as well, to improve heat transfer to the food cooking inside.
  • Clad stainless steel is probably your best option in this category, but it tends to be more expensive than pure stainless.

Copper

  • Copper is great at conducting heat.
  • Not good for cooking certain types of foods. Since this is a reactive metal, it’s not recommended for daily use.
  • Needs a lot of polishing if you want to keep it looking good.
  • Copper tends to be very expensive.

Cast Iron

  • This material is perfect for searing, or cooking low and slow.
  • Maintenance is important if you’re investing in a good set of cast iron cookware, but many claim the results they can achieve when cooking on this material are unlike anything else.
  • In order to keep your cast iron pans from rusting, they will need to be seasoned. (This is when you basically coat the pan with oil and heat it at a high temperature a few times to create a protective coating).
  • Pans might need to be seasoned again if the protective coating becomes compromised.
  • Some pans come preseasoned, and can be used for cooking right away.
  • Do your homework in terms of prep and washing if you’re looking to buy cast iron. Some say never to wash these pans, but others claim gentle washing is important, and will not damage the seasoning that you’ve carefully created.
  • Even though it takes some work to maintain, cast iron is a long-lasting material that’s often worth the investment, especially in the case of cast iron with a thick and chip-resistant enamel coating.
  • Something to keep in mind here is that this stuff is HEAVY. Taking it in and out of the oven can be a workout, and may prove to be downright impossible for some cooks, once the pans are filled.
  • Cast iron Dutch ovens are amazing for holding in heat, but Consumer Reports claims cast iron frying pans tend to cook unevenly.
  • Iron is reactive too, but at least in my experience, I’ve never had a problem with this. I guess I’ve never tried cooking acidic or alkaline foods in mine.
  • Some claim the reactivity of iron isn’t really a problem in cooking, since our bodies process the iron pretty easily (unlike copper or aluminum).

Nonstick (Teflon)

  • Nonstick pans are easy to clean (though egg can still get stuck on there if you forget to clean it up right away).
  • They can actually help you to cut down on calories, preparing easy healthy meals with less fat (from butter and oil) since your lean fish and veggies will be less likely to stick to the pan.
  • You need to be careful not to use metal utensils on this kind of pan, since they can scratch and chip the nonstick coating.
  • You also need to toss these pieces if the nonstick coating becomes eroded or starts flaking off into your food.
  • They leave something to be desired if you’re trying to cook pan-roasted potatoes, bacon or other types of meat, since foods are harder to brown.

Beware of Branding

Beware of Branding

This can be very important when you’re trying to figure out how to choose a cookware set.

Though some name brands (like the aforementioned Le Creuset) are known as tried-and-true top-quality products with a long history of happy customers, other types of cookware are all hype.

cookware branding

When you’re choosing pots and pans, it might be tempting to go for the brightly colored package adorned with the smiling face of your favorite TV chef. Not so fast! According to Consumer Reports, many chef-endorsed sets of pots and pans yield disappointing results.

Set or a la carte?

Set or a la carte?

Though you might be tempted to purchase a full set of matching cookware that’s on sale at your local store, this might not be your best option.

Set of cookware

Remember to weigh the cost savings against your actual needs. Just because you’re ready to stock up on cookware now doesn’t mean it’s necessarily time to toss everything you already own.

Avoid doubling up on items (especially those that you don’t use very often) and investigate whether an item that’s available only in a set at your local store is also available individually via an online retailer, or try ordering it directly from the manufacturer.

Different cookware manufacturers specialize in different things. If the best quality is what you’re after, making sure everything is sunshine yellow with silver handles to match the curtains over your kitchen sink shouldn’t be your top priority.

A Look at Lids & Handles

A Look at Lids & Handles

The lids that come with your pots and pans are important, too.

If you’re buying a cookware set, the same size lid may fit a few different pots. This may mean you only get one lid to cover two pans. Does this meet your needs?

Do you prefer clear lids that you can see through? Some brands of cookware offer this, while others don’t. Though I’ve never had this happen myself, clear lids are also known for a tendency to crack.

Do you like to steam vegetables? Maybe you need to look for a pan with a fitted steaming colander, plus a vented lid?

Do you like to make roasted meat and stews in pans that can go straight from the stove top to the oven? Maybe a tight-fitting lid (and head resistant handles!) are the only things that will do.

A pan with plastic handles can’t go in the oven, but one with a metal handle probably can (though some hollow versions may actually warp), and silicon is usually safe as well. Check the package to be sure before you take a pan from the cooktop to the oven.

Screwed-on handles also tend to get loose, which can be a pain. Pans with exposed rivets or screws can also be more difficult to clean. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s something to consider.

Make sure each pot or pan and its corresponding lid is the perfect fit for your kitchen and your cooking style before you buy.

Putting it All Together

Putting it All Together

Once you have a good handle on what you like to cook and who’s eating, take a moment to review a few final questions:

  • What’s required to make your favorite recipes? What sizes and types of cookware will work best for you?
  • Do you usually have multiple dishes going at one time? How many pans does this require?
  • Do you mind washing up during the cooking process, or do you need doubles of certain types of cookware?

So you’ll be sure to cover the basics, start with the following list. Add to it in order to more specifically meet your personal cooking needs:

  • small saucepan with lid
  • medium pot with steamer/colander insert
  • large stock pot
  • roasting pan
  • 10” nonstick frying pan
  • 12” nonstick pan with stainless lid and handles (to go from stovetop to oven)

Final Thoughts

What’s the bottom line? You want to maximize efficiency and effectiveness in the kitchen within your budget. Take the information that we’ve provided here to create your own personalized pots and pans buying guide.

Make a list of what you already have, and what you like to accomplish in your kitchen. This can be aspirational, but within reason (i.e. “Gee, I’d really like to be able to cook pasta and sauce at the same time!” not “I’m so inspired by this catalog, I think I’ll buy enough gear to start a restaurant!”)

Transfer that knowledge of your kitchen and your cooking habits to the sizes and types of cookware that will best fit your needs. Read product reviews online, then hit up a store where you can actually touch the products and read the packaging.

When you’re there, check the weight and other elements of products that you’re considering, read the packaging to find out what can be transferred to the oven, and check on the tightness of handles and lids.

Finally, purchase the best cookware that you can afford. Once you get it home, care for it properly to ensure a long life for the products, and to ensure that you get your money’s worth.

Whether you’re making easy meals or the occasional more complicated and elaborate feast, you’ll be sure to have everything you need if you take the time to choose your pots and pans wisely.

Happy cooking!

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