What’s Cooking? How To Shop For Pots And Pans Online
Whether you’re stocking your kitchen for the first time or adding to your collection, the right pan for the right job makes cooking and almost just as important – cleanup – easier. But sorting through the types of pots and pans on the market and which to use when can be confusing for even the most seasoned home cook. Which pan is the best to get that restaurant-quality sear on your steak? What kind of nonstick pans will actually not stick? And should you get a full cookware set of the same pots and pans or buy pans one at a time? From cast iron skillets to stainless steel cookware sets, we’ll answer all your burning questions and help you find the right cookware so you can cook the food you love to eat.
What Is Cookware?
When we refer to cookware, we’re talking about pots, pans, and dishes that are used in the preparation of food. Though there is a wide umbrella for the term, we’re focusing on cookware used on the stovetop or in the oven, not bakeware.
What To Look for When Buying Cookware
Material refers to what the pan is made of – cast iron, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, non-stick. Each has its own benefits and challenges.
Conductivity is the ability to provide even distribution of heat. This can be achieved by material types, thickness, and multiple ply construction.
Durability is how cookware withstands cooking, cleaning, and how long you can expect to use the pan. Generally, the thicker the cookware, the more durable it will be.
Maintenance is how easy the cookware is to clean. For example, a cast iron pan requires the most maintenance and cannot be put in the dishwasher, while a stainless-steel pot can be put in the dishwasher.
Responsiveness is how quickly a pan responds to a change in cooking temperature and can be a significant factor in choosing what pan will deliver the best results for different jobs.
Weight refers to how heavy or light a pot or pan is. While the ideal thickness of a good pan is subjective to personal preference, a quality pan will have a certain heft to it. Heavier pans stand up well daily use and are less susceptible to dents, warping, and dings than lighter, thinner pans.
Reactivity refers to how certain metals react with certain foods and should be considered when cooking acidic foods. It’s not ideal to cook foods that are acidic, such as tomatoes or foods that contain lemon juice or vinegar, in reactive cookware. Their surfaces will release atoms of metal into the food and can give the food an off-taste or discoloration.
- Non-reactive: Stainless steel, glass, ceramics, enamel
- Reactive: Cast iron, copper, aluminum, and carbon steel
Cladding refers to the layers of metal fused together to create the cookware and harness the best characteristics of numerous metals. Layers of different metals, usually a highly conductive interior to distribute heat and a non-reactive exterior to protect ingredient integrity, are bonded together as a new, single sheet of metal. For example, while the outer and inner layers of the pan may be stainless steel, the inside layer may be aluminum or copper, or another conductive material.
Ply refers to the number of metal layers, usually with stainless steel, copper, or aluminum layers. Common varieties of ply include 3-ply, 5-ply, and 7-ply. A higher ply does not always directly translate to higher quality cookware.
- Tri-Ply (3-Ply): Three layers of metal usually comprised of a layer of copper or aluminum sandwiched between stainless steel.
- 5-Ply: Contains five interior layers of a heat conductive metal.
- 7-Ply: Contains seven more interior layers of a heat conductive metal.
What you cook for yourself and for loved ones will ultimately give shape to your ideal collection of cookware.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the different types of materials from which cookware is made. This can make a world of difference for the type of cooking you want to do. Familiarize yourself with this cookware terminology to make the best choice for your cooking style.
- Cast iron
- Enamel cast iron
- Carbon steel
- Stainless steel
When it comes to cooking, nothing’s more fundamental than a cast iron cookware. On the stove top, in the oven or even on the grill, these sturdy cast iron pieces offer endless versatility. Cast iron is virtually indestructible, affordable, and can even make your food taste better! It retains even heat to sear, fry, bake, and even stir fry. They are a true workhorse in the kitchen. In addition, they retain heat very well and can stay very hot at low temperatures.
Best for: Almost any food that needs searing like steak and burgers. You can also deep-fry chicken and doughnuts and bake cornbread, deep-dish pizza, shepherd’s pie and more. With cast iron, you can go with one pan from searing to oven.
Cast iron skillets can be used by anyone, though experienced and very experienced cooks will feel more comfortable working with its high heat conductivity. Don’t forget to use a potholder or handle cover, since the handle gets hot as well!
Care and cleaning: When seasoned well, cast iron will last a lifetime. To clean a cast iron, scrape off any food, rinse with water. It’s okay to use soap, but don’t scrub with harsh detergents. Then, reapply thin layer of oil (vegetable, flaxseed, coconut, peanut — or even lard), bake at 375 degrees for an hour with a pan underneath to catch drips. Scrub with kosher salt, season with oil.
We know cleaning cast iron can be a challenge, so we put together a cast iron skillet cleaning guide for you.
How to season a cast iron: When seasoned properly, cast iron pans develop a somewhat non-stick surface naturally (though scrambled eggs will leave a mess in this type of pan). Make sure your pan is completely dry and treated with oil to avoid rust spots. But if you do get some rust, it can be buffed out with some gentle scrubbing, and then season your pan again.
Best cooking utensils: Wood or stainless steel.
Stainless steel cookware is durable and generally easy to clean. Stainless steel by itself doesn’t conduct heat very well, so layers of aluminum or copper are often added inside the bottom of the pan to increase heat reactivity.
Look for at least three-ply or the term “clad.” The grade of stainless steel is stamped on the cookware. 18/10 is the most common grade for good quality cookware. The fraction tells you the percentage of chromium and nickel in the alloy used — 18/10 contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel and will resist rust while also retaining its shine and polish.
Stainless steel doesn’t have a chemical coating or porous metal that can absorb flavors. In addition, a stainless-steel pot or pan will stay looking and performing as if it were brand new forever. It’s also nonreactive, meaning acidic foods will have no effect on it.
Best for: Almost any food that needs frying, browning, or searing. Because it’s ovenproof, stainless is also a good choice for foods that you start on the stovetop and then move to the oven to finish, like thick pork chops.
Care and cleaning: Allow stainless steel to cool completely before washing it and only use non-abrasive cleaners and sponges. Most stainless-steel pieces are dishwasher friendly, but proceed with caution and read the manufacturer’s instructions.
Best cooking utensils: Silicone or wood. To avoid nicks and dents, don’t use metal utensils.
Enamel Cast Iron
Enamel cast iron is just what it sounds like: a cast iron pan or pot that receives a high-quality enamel finish inside and out. The glossy, enamel finish is durable, easy to clean, and comes in a variety of colors.
For example, Le Creuset enameled cast iron pots are made of high-performing cast iron that heats evenly and efficiently, eliminating any too-hot spots while you sauté or brown ingredients. The cast iron also means that a Le Creuset Dutch oven retains its heat for hours, which is necessary for braising meat or thickening stew. A Le Creuset Dutch oven is the most popular and well-known enamel cast iron kitchen tool, and it’s easy to find the right one that suits your cooking needs. They also make excellent wedding gifts.
Best for: Anyone! Enamel cast iron Dutch ovens can braise, stew, slow cook, sear, sauté and fry.
Care and cleaning: Wash by hand with soap and water.
Best cooking utensils: Wood, plastic or silicone.
Carbon steel is designed for high temperature cooking, and as a result, these pans have become the favorite of many professional kitchens). Though made of the same material as cast iron, carbon steel pans typically have a smoother surface and can be around half the weight of cast iron, which means they are easier to lift. Carbon steel rapidly brings water to a boil, retains heat to keep food and liquids warm, and can be used in the same way as traditional cast iron.
Best for: Searing a thick piece of meat on the stovetop and then move the pan to the oven to finish. Carbon steel is good at high heat, and you can use these pans to fry eggs, fish, and make delicate sauces. These pans are usually used for frying pans, sauté pans, woks and paella pans.
Care and cleaning: Let the pan cool, remove food residue with a paper or cloth towel and then handwash with mild soap and a soft brush. Carbon steel is not to be put in the dishwasher
As with cast iron, you’ll need to season carbon steel by applying vegetable oil to the surface and heating it. And like cast iron, carbon steel will rust if not seasoned (oiled) properly. The good news is that if it is seasoned, it will develop a naturally nonstick interior (very much like cast iron), and experienced cooks will find them to be highly versatile.
Best cooking utensils: Metal, wood, or high-temperature silicone.
Copper is the best heat conductor of any material used to make cookware, but it’s also the most expensive. It heats rapidly and cools down as soon as it’s removed from the heat, giving you maximum control over the application of heat.
Pure copper reacts with the natural minerals and acids of many foods, which means it can add a slight metallic taste to many foods. Because of this, most copper cookware is often combined with a nonreactive metal such as tin or stainless steel to create a safe barrier between the copper and its contents.
Best for: Copper cookware is great for high-heat searing, sautéing, and frying along with things you need to keep an eye on like sauces, caramel, and eggs. It was also Julia Child’s favorite cookware!
Care and cleaning: Copper pots and pans need to be hand-washed. To maintain its luster, copper needs to be polished, or it will lose its shine and develop a darker green patina.
Best cooking utensils: Wood or stainless steel.
If you want something that is easy to clean, can cook delicate foods with ease, and is nonreactive, go for nonstick. Nonstick pans will make your life easier, but they come with a few drawbacks.
Much has been written about potential toxins in non-stick coating. It can be confusing to follow, but the general rule of thumb is to make sure you get a pan that is PFOA-free (free of perfluorooctanoic acid, a synthetic substance designed to resist heat, water, grease, and sticking.) Since they were first introduced, many of the toxins associated with non-stick pans have been taken out of production. Still, if you have any non-stick pans made before 2006, it would be a good idea to discard and replace them.
In addition, over time your nonstick pans will lose their performance (nonstick coatings usually last no more than five years), so you’ll likely need to replace them anyway.
Best for: Cooking anything with sticky sauce, eggs or pancakes. Also, they’re great for browning food without sticking.
Care and cleaning: To preserve the nonstick coating for as long as possible, skip the dishwasher. Even if a brand says its pan is dishwasher-safe, stick to handwashing to prolong the life of the pan. Do not put non-stick pans in the oven unless the manufacturer indicates otherwise. Avoid cooking at temperatures over 500 degrees, and don’t heat an empty pan.
Best cooking utensils: Use only wood, silicone, plastic or manufacturer-designated cooking utensils to avoid scratching non-stick surfaces. Do not use metal utensils that can scratch nonstick coating off.
Ceramic nonstick pans are not actually ceramic. Instead, they are clad pans typically made of layers of aluminum or steel and then finished with a coating made of sand to create a slick, glossy surface that is free of some of the toxins commonly associated with non-stick pans. It’s extremely scratch-resistant and durable.
Care and cleaning: Ceramic nonstick cookware is dishwasher-safe, though hand washing is recommended to prolong its life. Ceramic nonstick cookware is safe for use on all stovetops, including induction. Like nonstick pans, use silicone or wood utensils only.
Which Cookware to Get for Different Cooking Surfaces
If you’re cooking with a gas range, you’re in luck; you can use pans made of just about any material without concern of damaging your range. Some materials are better than others when cooking with gas, though when it comes to conducting, controling and distributing heat evenly. Again, though any material will work, Stainless steel pans made with layers of aluminum or copper are a good choice for even heat distribution.
Cookware for Electric Cooktops
Electric cooktops include metal-coil burners and smooth top ceramic glass surfaces. The best cookware for electric cooktops combines excellent conductivity, durability, and non-scratch features.
Best pans for exposed metal coil cooktop
Cookware will heat quickly because they sit directly on the heated coils. Cast iron, stainless steel, aluminum and copper cookware are great selections for metal-coil burners.
Best pans for ceramic glass surfaces
These surfaces radiate heat through the cooktop surface before it gets to your pan. As a result, you can’t expect a glass-ceramic electric stove to heat as quickly as an electric coil stove.
Smooth top electric cooktops should be used with cookware that is also smooth on the bottom like copper, stainless steel, and enamel cast iron. Textured cookware, like cast iron, might scratch or damage the surface of your cooktop, making it prone to cracking.
Best pans for induction cooktop
Induction cooking works by creating a magnetic field between the pot and the magnetic coils beneath the cooking surface. This technology only heats the pot or pan, meaning the actual cooking surface does not heat up and is safe to the touch.
Cast iron, enameled cast iron, and many types of stainless-steel cookware are induction compatible. Aluminum, copper, or glass cookware will not work unless they have a bottom with magnetic properties. Be sure to check the product details.
How To Pick a Cookware Set
Cookware sets are great way to save money and check several different pans off your list, but that means picking the same material for all pieces.
Another insider tip: the accessories and lids are also often counted toward the set along with the pans— for example, a five-piece set may be made up of three different pots and two lids. Be sure to read the fine print of the product page.
What usually comes in a cookware set?
Cookware sets vary by brand and size. Look for sets that come with a variety of sizes and lids. For example:
A 10-piece cooking set might come with:
- 4.5-quart round Dutch oven
- 1.75-quart saucepan
- 2.5-quart braiser
- 10.25” skillet
- 10.25” grill pan
- 5.25-quart roaster
- Four lids
A 13-piece cooking set may come with:
- 8-inch fry pan
- 10-inch fry pan
- 12-inch fry pan
- 2-quart saucepan
- 4-quart saucepan
- 4.25-quart sauté pan
- 4-quart braiser
- 6.3-quart stockpot
- Five lids
Build Your Own Cookware Collection: The 7 Essential Pots and Pans
While buying a cookware set takes the guesswork out of which pots and pans to buy, you can also select exactly what you want and purchase them individually. If you’re building your own set of a cookware, depending on how you cook and how many people you cook for, you will eventually want an assortment of skillets and pots, a stockpot, and lids.
Though pre-packaged sets are cost effective and excellent place to start, it is unlikely that such a set will be complete given the individual nature of a cook’s personal journey.
What you cook for yourself and for loved ones will ultimately give shape to your ideal collection of cookware. Your pots and pans will be acquired over years of culinary development and exploration; to refine what you know and learn what you don’t. It will vary in shapes, sizes and materials and it will reflect your taste and ever-evolving repertoire.
Collect your own set with these pots and pans in a variety of materials and sizes.
1. Skillet or Fry Pan
With gently sloping short sides and a long handle, a skillet provides a wide, open view and convenient access to stir, move, or flip ingredients around. There are several types of skillets: cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, copper, and nonstick.
Skillets and frying pans are easily mistaken for one another and can be used interchangeably in a pinch. The word “skillet” is frequently used to reference to cast iron, while “fry pan” is typically used for all other materials.
Best for: Browning and searing meats or frying.
Skillet and fry pan sizes: 8-inch, 10-inch, or 12-inch diameters.
If you only have one: Get a 10” cast-iron skillet for high heat searing and a 12″ nonstick pan for frying, searing, and browning.
2. Sauté pan
A sauté pan has straight sidewalls to fit more food and liquid, a long handle and a wide, flat bottom. A long handle is a signature element on this essential pan to help the amount of motion required flipping food. Besides sautéing, you can use them to sear, fry, braise, boil, broil, and much more.
Sauté pan sizes: 1-quart, 1.5-quart, 3-quart, or 4-quart. It’s recommended to have 2-3 different size sauté pans in the kitchen. The cooking surface of most 3-quart sauté pans is about 11 inches.
Best for: The large surface area is ideal for the rapid, high heat searing and cooking of tender meats, fish, vegetables and egg dishes.
If you only have one: Get a 3-quart sauté pan with a nonstick or stainless steel interior.
A saucepan features a flat base, smaller diameter bottom, tall sides, and a long handle. Saucepans most often come with lids and a single long handle.
Saucepan sizes: The size of a saucepan is determined by its capacity measured in quarts. There are four standard sizes: 1-quart, 2-quart, 3-quart, and 4-quart. The most popular are 2- and 4-quart sizes.
Best for: As the name suggests: sauces! That said, saucepans can be used for poaching, boiling and reheating foods with a high-liquid content. The lid is used to trap heat and moisture for foods. Use a saucepan to make or heat soups and sauces; poach an egg or fish; steam or blanch vegetables; cook oatmeal or polenta; boil a small quantity of grains or potatoes.
If you only have one: Go for a 2-quart stainless steel saucepan with glass lid.
With tall straight sides, dual handles, and large capacity, stockpots are typically used for making soup, pasta, mashed potatoes, chili, boiling seafood, corn or anything in large quantities. Stockpots can be found in a variety of sizes and in sets if you’re doing a lot of cooking. Consider the weight of the pot, and about how heavy it will be when it’s full (a quart of liquid weighs about 2 pounds, so factor that into your decision). When cooking in a stockpot, you’ll want enough room between the contents and the top to avoid boiling over, so also take that into consideration when you’re choosing a size.
If you only have one: If you are cooking for two people, a 4- or 6-quart stock pot will work. If you have a large family or frequently host dinner parties or holidays, you might need a 16-quart.
Stock pot sizes: When picking out the right stock pot size, the most important factor is your household size. The most common stock pot sizes are 6-quart, 8-quart, 12-quart, and 16-quart. As a rule of thumb, you’ll need a pot with 2.5 to 3 quarts of capacity per adult (or young adult) in the household.
5. Dutch Oven
From big pots of chili to cassoulet to baking bread, this versatile pan goes from stove top to oven.
Best for: Dutch ovens are typically used for cooking stews, roasts, and casseroles on the stove or in the oven. Dutch ovens come with a tightly fitted top.
Dutch oven sizes: When it comes to the capacity of your Dutch oven, the general rule of thumb says you should plan for one quart per person, and then round up. If you’re cooking for your family of four, look for a pot with a minimum capacity of four quarts. This gets you to a five- or six-quart Dutch oven.
If you only have one: Splurge for the best quality you can afford, such as Lodge or Le Creuset brand. If taken care of correctly, an enamel Dutch oven will last a lifetime.
6. Roasting Pan
Whether it’s Sunday night roast chickens or a Thanksgiving Turkey, a roasting pan is a must-have in your collection. If you’re into one-pan meals, this will be the most used item in your kitchen.
If you only have one: Carbon or stainless steel is your best bet. Be sure to get one with a fitted insert rack to elevate what you are cooking and create space to reap the tasty rewards all those juicy drippings on vegetables below your roast.
A wok is a large, rounded bottoms and smooth, sloped rounded edges. Woks are used for meals that benefit from a large cooking area and a centralized heat source like stir-fries, pad Thai noodles, or even deep frying. Stainless steel, cast iron, or carbon steel are the preferred choices in a healthy wok
If you only have one: If you have a family of four, go for a 12” – 14” wok in stainless steel or cast iron.
How to Determine Which Sizes of Pots and Pans You Need
To choose the right-sized cookware, consider this:
- How many people you’re cooking for
- How often you will be cooking
- The size of your average meal (that is, how much your family eats)
If you’re regularly cooking for large groups, you may need more than one 16-quart stock pot.
If you’re only cooking for 2, you may only need one 10-inch non-stick frying pan, a 12” cast iron skillet and two sizes of stainless steel or copper saucepans.
Of course, there are many other pans you can get to address the volume of cooking you will do, so scale up or down as needed. You can always buy more!
Round Out Your Kitchen With These Extras
In addition to your classic pots and pans, there are additional pieces of cookware that can make your cooking much easier.
A braiser is a wide-based pan with a domed lid and shallow sloped sides. It’s like a cross between a Dutch oven and a skillet. The wide base allows ingredients to be placed in a single layer for searing without crowding; the domed lid circulates steam to lock in moisture and flavor. The versatile shape of the braiser also makes it perfect for shallow frying, steaming, stews, casseroles and serving at the table.
If you only have one, an enameled cast iron braiser is designed to provide steady, even heat to transform tough cuts of meat and hearty vegetables into tender, flavorful dishes. Go for a 3.5-quart braiser for 3-4 servings.
Sunday morning pancakes faster! If you get a double griddle that spans two burners which means the fam is feasting down pancakes even sooner.
Pasta cooker/steamer “multipot”
How many times have you cooked pasta for your kids this week? Also great for blanching and steaming veggies and dumplings. Get a stainless one with two inserts—one deep one for boiling and blanching and a shallower one for steaming.
Double boiler pan
A double boiler pan is essentially two saucepans that stack together: a large one that’s like a regular saucepan and a smaller, more shallow pan that sits inside of it. To use a double boiler, add water to the bottom pan then bring to a simmer to transfer a gentle heat to whatever you’re cooking in the top pot. Perfect for for melting chocolate or cheese or keeping a sauce warm.
Sizzle, Sear and Simmer
If you do the cooking, somebody else has to do the dishes, right?