When I was in culinary school, I had a chef-instructor who believed that all you needed was one large, deep skillet to cook everything on top of the stove as well as in the oven. As his student, I did as instructed and prepared everything from gnocchi, to quiche, to an 8 lb. goose in that skillet. Making omelets was easy. Preparing delicate sauces was not.
Luckily, most of us don’t have to rely on only one pot to prepare an entire meal. However, there are three key pieces of stove-top cookware that everyone should have in their collection if they plan to prepare more than just canned soup or grilled cheese sandwiches. Having a variety of pots in different sizes and shapes will make cooking easier in the long run, but you should have some basic pieces before you start adding to your collection. Equally important is what the pans are made of and how they are made.
As you’re shopping, follow this basic rule: Look for cookware that suits your lifestyle. A lot of people say “buy the best you can afford.” Baloney. Maybe you can afford beautiful and crazy expensive hand hammered Ruffoni copper cookware. But while these pans do stand up to all kinds of abuse and last a lifetime, they have to be hand-washed. If easy clean-up and put-it-in-the-dishwasher is important to you, then opt for pans that are dishwasher safe (not all are).
You’ll see the word “anodized” a lot when you are shopping. This basically means that an aluminum pan has been coated with an electrochemically-hardened protective layer to resist corrosion. This layer makes the cookware non-stick, non-reactive, non-toxic and virtually non-porous (is that enough “nons” for you?). What I like about hard anodized cookware is that it won’t chip or peel like artificial non-stick coated pans and can be heated to mega temperatures… even in the oven (provided it has the proper handle). Hard anodized pans are scratch resistant and do a great job of heating up evenly. Do I sound like a cheerleader for these pans made out of this material? Well, yes… but read on…
Pots should be sturdy with thick sides to hold the heat and cook evenly. Thin, light weight cookware will dent and warp and you’ll end up replacing it. Also look at the handles and knobs on the sides and lids of the pots and pans. These should be heat-proof, and ideally, ovenproof to at least 500°F. They should also be riveted or welded to the pan. Some cast iron cookware have the handles integrated into the lid and sides of the pot or pan. Remember: plastic handles melt and aren’t oven-safe. Wooden handles look pretty, but can char. The lids should be snug to keep cooking juices and moisture in.
Now that you know what to look for, what pieces should you buy?
- Saucepan with a Lid – A 3-quart saucepan is perfect for almost everything from heating up ready-made soups (don’t put those plastic containers in the microwave!), to making creamy mashed potatoes, seafood jambalaya, fabulous sauces and good old boiled eggs. I use a variety of saucepans now, but the first one I bought was a stainless steel pan with an aluminum core. I started investing in great pieces (like copper pots which respond beautifully to heat changes) once I became more proficient in the kitchen.
- Sauté, Skillet or Fry pan (with a lid if possible) – The difference between these pans will be the slope of the sides and the depth of the pan. Buy a 10 or 12-inch skillet… you’ll be happier having a larger skillet when you want to make a couple of blueberry pancakes at the same time, sauté more than one veal scaloppini or whip up some stir-fry. A deeper sauté pan, a 4 or 5-quart size, is great if you are into deep frying. If you are just venturing into the world of cooking, I recommend a non-stick pan. But remember, these pans come with a lot of caveats: a) the coating eventually wears away so most manufacturers don’t offer a lifetime guarantee b) you can’t heat these pans to extremely high temperatures for blackening and c) they can’t be put in the oven. Otherwise, look for a stainless steel pan (with an inner core of copper or aluminum), an anodized pan or a cast iron skillet. Again, make sure the pan has oven-proof handles and the lid has an ovenproof knob.
- Stockpot or (at least) a 8-quart pot with a lid – You may never make a stock, but you’ll find this big pot invaluable when boiling pasta, making chili or steaming whole ears of corn. Make sure the pot has a lid and handles on either side so you can easily lift it and hold it firmly when emptying the contents. Some stockpots come with steamer baskets or inserts. If yours doesn’t have it… buy it.
These three cookware pieces will get you started… and you can add on as your cooking repertoire grows.