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.