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.
Good pans are worth their price because they manage heat better
"Good conductor" and "heavy gauge" are the key features of good cookware. Here's how these characteristics affect cooking.
You get responsive heat. Good heat conductors, such as copper and aluminum, are responsive to temperature changes. They'll do what the heat source tells them to do—heat up, cool down—almost instantly.
You get fast heat flow. Heat flows more easily through a good heat conductor, assuring a quick equalizing of temperature on the cooking surface.
You get even heat diffusion. A thicker pan has more distance between the cooking surface and the heat source. By the time the heat flows to the cooking surface, it will have spread out evenly, because heat diffuses as it flows.
You get more heat. Mass holds heat (heat is vibrating mass, so the more mass there is to vibrate, the more heat there will be). The more pan there is to heat, the more heat the pan can hold, so there's more constant heat for better browning, faster reducing, and hotter frying.
You'll want handles and a lid that are sturdy, heatproof, and secure. Handles come welded, riveted, or screwed. Some cooks advise against welded handles because they can break off. But Gayle Novacek, cookware buyer for Sur La Table, has seen few such cases. As long as handles are welded in several spots, they can be preferable to riveted ones because residue is apt to collect around a rivet.
Many pans have metal handles that stay relatively cool when the pan is on the stove because the handle is made of a metal that's a poor heat conductor and retainer, such as stainless steel. Plastic and wooden handles stay cool, too, but they're not ovenproof. Heat- or ovenproof handles mean that dishes started on the stovetop can be finished in the oven.
All lids should fit tightly to keep in moisture. The lid, too, should have a heatproof handle. Glass lids, which you'll find on certain brands, are usually ovensafe only up to 350°F.
A pan should feel comfortable. "When you're at the store, pantomime the way you'd use a pot or pan to find out if it's right for you," advises Fine Cooking contributing editor and chef Molly Stevens. If you find a pan you love but you aren't completely comfortable with the handle, you can buy a rubber gripper to slip over the handle. Just remember that grippers aren't ovenproof.
Some pans need special talents
Depending on what you'll be cooking in the pan, you may also need to look for other attributes.
For sautéing and other cooking that calls for quick temperature changes, a pan should be responsive. This means that the pan is doing what the heat source tells it to, and pronto. For example, if you sauté garlic just until fragrant and then turn down the flame, the pan should cool down quickly so the garlic doesn't burn. Responsiveness isn't as crucial for boiling, steaming, or the long, slow cooking that stocks and stews undergo.
For sautéing and oven roasts, it helps if the pan heats evenly up the sides. When you've got a pan full of chicken breasts nestling against the pan sides, you want them all to cook quickly and evenly, so heat coming from the sides of the pan is important. Even heat up the sides of a pot is important for pot roasting, too. Paul Bertolli, Fine Cooking contributing editor and chef of Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, California, counts on his enameled cast-iron oval casserole by Le Creuset for braising meat because "it's a snug, closed cooking chamber with even heat radiating off the sides for really good browning." Bertolli finds that meat fits especially well into the oval shape.
For cooking acidic foods, such as tomato sauces, wine sauces, and fruit fillings, a pan's lining should be nonreactive. Stainless steel, enamel, and anodized aluminum won't react no matter what they touch, while plain aluminum can discolor white sauces and foods that are acidic, sulfurous, or alkaline. It can even make those foods taste metallic. Eggs, vegetables in the cabbage family, and baking soda are some of the other foods vulnerable to aluminum's graying effect. In the past, there was concern about aluminum and Alzheimer's, but evidence has been far from conclusive.
Interview yourself to help you choose the right pans
There's nothing wrong with matching cookware in principle. Packaged starter sets are attractively priced, and a whole lineup of matching pans can be attractive, too. But a single material isn't suited for every kitchen task—with sets, you're often stuck with pans you don't need. That enameled cast-iron casserole is just right for the cassoulet you'll move from stovetop to oven. But its matching saucepan overcooked your last caramel because the pan was too heavy to heft quickly once the sugar turned color.
You'll get more use out of pieces that you hand-pick yourself. You may already own a matched set (the red Le Creuset ensemble I got years ago as a housewarming present is still hanging in my kitchen), but as you add new pieces to your collection, you'll have a chance to branch out to different materials (see "Materials that make the pot").
To decide what you need, ask yourself questions like the ones that follow.
Are you more likely to make saucy dishes like fricassées and sautés than delicate foods like omelets and crêpes? A bigger sauté or frying pan with high sides and a lid may be a better choice than a shallower, slope-sided omelet pan without one. "At home, I make a lot of dishes where the pasta gets thrown in with the other ingredients for the last few minutes, and my anodized-aluminum sauté pan is the one I always grab," says Molly Stevens of her favorite Calphalon pan. "It's responsive, I know the food won't scorch, and I love the handle." She adds that its anodized surface is easy to clean.
Do you cook lots of soup on weekends to freeze for meals during the week? A heavy stockpot may be essential. "I always choose heavy-gauge for anything that stays on the stove a long time," says Larry Forgione, chef/owner of the New York City restaurant An American Place, who says food burns and sticks whenever he uses a thin stockpot. Abby Dodge, Fine Cooking's recipe tester, agrees. "With soups and stocks, a heavy bottom comes first," she insists. "And if your budget allows it, go for the best."
Do you make pasta several times a week? Don't toss that big, thinner-gauge pasta pot if you already have one; it's fine for boiling and steaming -- and lighter is better when you're carting a boiling pot from stove to sink. But if you don't have a big pot yet, think about doubling up your pasta-boiling with stock- and soup-making by using a heavy stockpot.
Do you like making sauces? "When I'm browning or deglazing, I need to see what the pan juices are doing," says Jim Peterson, Fine Cooking contributing editor and chef. For such jobs, he avoids pans with a darker interior, such as anodized aluminum, and prefers a shiny stainless-steel lining.
Nancy Silverton, baker, pastry chef, and co-owner of La Brea Bakery and Campanile in Los Angeles, agrees. "I love the steady heat and surface of seasoned cast iron, but seeing color change is crucial, so I need a pan that's bright inside, like stainless," she says. Silverton cautions that tin- and aluminum-lined pans affect the taste of acidic foods, such as compotes and fruit fillings. Both Peterson and Silverton love the visual warmth of copper but agree that top-notch stainless with an aluminum core, like All-Clad, works just as well.
Do you often serve stews, pot roasts, or braised meat dishes? Paul Bertolli loves the way Le Creuset enameled cast iron handles such dishes. "I can start dishes on the stove, transfer them to the oven, and all the juices will be ready to deglaze in the same pot." He adds that one-pot cooking makes for swift cleanup, too. And Scott Peacock, a southern chef, loves enameled cast iron because "you can put on a lid, set the pot at the back of the stove, and it will hold the food at a good serving temperature a long while."
Do you like cooking chops, steaks, or thick fish fillets? Cast iron may be heavy, but chef and writer Regina Schrambling says that "for searing fish at intense heat and finishing it in the oven, I trust it." Scott Peacock likes it, too, especially for making golden-crusted cornbread, but cautions that unless cast iron is well seasoned, it can make acidic foods taste metallic, and that metal utensils themselves are apt to scrape off seasoning.
Circulon pans have a ridged nonstick surface. The food won't stick, but the juices will, so deglazing the pan is possible.
Are you trying to cook with less fat? Nonstick may be a good choice, and happily, nonstick technology has come a long way in the past few years. With the old-style, lighter-weight nonstick pans, it was hard to get the pan hot enough to sauté properly. Nonstick pans are now being made of harder, high-heat-tolerant metals, such as anodized aluminum and stainless steel, and the coatings themselves can withstand more heat and abrasion -- no more nonstick flakes in your food. Another potential disadvantage of sautéing in nonstick is the difficulty in deglazing. The nonstick surface can be so effective that you never get any good brown bits in the bottom of the pan. With Circulon, which has a finely ridged nonstick interior, browning takes place more like in a conventional pan, and Circulon's Commercial line is super heavy duty.