As a Fine Cooking editor, I've had the chance to observe lots of great cooks at work. From them, I've learned plenty—including the fact that good-quality pots and pans made of the right materials really can improve your cooking.
Rather than having a rack filled with pots and pans of all shapes and sizes, owning a few well-chosen pieces will give you the flexibility to cook whatever you want and the performance you need to cook it better.
I polled some of our authors to find out which pans were the most valuable to them and why. I then came up with six pieces, starting with two indispensables: an anodized-aluminum stockpot to handle stocks, soups, stews, some sauces, blanching, boiling, and steaming; and a high-sided stainless-steel/aluminum sauté pan with a lid for frying, deglazing sauces, braising small items like vegetables, making sautés and fricassées, cooking rice pilafs and risottos, and a whole lot more. The other four pieces I picked make for even more cooking agility and add up to half a dozen ready-for-action pots and pans that you'll really use (see For every pot, there's a purpose...).
All good pans share common traits
In a well-stocked kitchen store, you'll see lots of first-rate pots and pans. They may look different, but they all share essential qualities you should look for.
Look for heavy-gauge materials. Thinner-gauge materials spread and hold heat unevenly, and their bottoms are more likely to dent and warp. This means that food can scorch. Absolutely flat bottoms are particularly important if your stovetop element is electric. Heavy-gauge pans deliver heat more evenly (see "Good pans are worth their price...," below).
To decide if a pan is heavy enough, lift it, look at the thickness of the walls and base, and rap it with your knuckles—do you hear a light ping or a dull thud? A thud is good in this case.