I often have readers ask me to write about the types of stovetop cookware I recommend, particularly for a home cook who is just starting out. If you’ve ever been shopping for pots and pans, you know it can be a perplexing process. It’s easy to get confused with the dizzying amount of cookware choices on the market. While the simple choice might be to get one complete set of cookware and be done with it, this isn’t always the right (or most economical) choice for a serious home cook. Certain pans have strengths and weaknesses, and you may not need an entire set of pans when you consider your own cooking needs. On the flip side, if you’re a busy home cook, a simple cookware set may not be enough to stock your kitchen arsenal. It can be difficult, especially if you’re purchasing your first set of cookware, to know exactly what you need.
I feel the best way to approach this is to give you a comprehensive overview of the major types of stovetop pots and pans out there, along with their potential uses, to help make the decision process a bit easier. Evaluate your own cooking habits– do you do a lot of frying, or are stews more your thing? Do you like roasting chickens? Is easy cleanup important? Once you are clear on the types of cooking you do most, it will be easier to figure out which pots and pans you’ll need in order to get comfortable in your kitchen.
First, it’s important to understand the different metals and surfaces that pans are made from and how they can affect what you are cooking. The thickness of the metal is important, as pans with a thicker bottom will heat more evenly. Different kinds of metal have different conductivity– in other words, the speed that heat is dispersed through the pan and to your food.
Stovetop Cookware Metals and Surfaces
Aluminum pans conduct heat well and are lightweight, making them easy to lift and handle. You should not store food, particularly those high in acid (tomatoes, lemon juice) in aluminum, because the chemical reaction will cause a change in both color and flavor.
Stainless steel pans are nice, but unfortunately are not the greatest for creating even heat. They are best for cooking at low temps or for holding steaming baskets, when even heat is not as crucial. Many nice pans are made from stainless steel, so when using them, be sure to keep an eye on what you’re cooking so that it doesn’t burn or scorch.
Cast iron pans are favored for their ability to conduct heat well and hold high temperatures for a long period of time. They need to be maintained, or seasoned, to avoid rust or drying out. They are quite heavy and will break easily if dropped(your floor would probably suffer a break too!)
Non-stick coatings on pans are great for cooking low-fat meals because they do not require any added oils. Certain non-stick surfaces may be healthier to use than others (I’ll expand on this below). Be careful not to use any metal utensils or rough sponges on non-stick pans because the coating scratches very easily.
Copper, though it is rarely used now, conducts heat better than any of the other metal used for cooking equipment. It is very expensive, heavy and requires a good amount of maintenance. It also chemically reacts with some foods, creating a poisonous compound, which explains why you now see pans with a copper core that is lined with another metal, like stainless steel, instead of pans made from pure copper alone. While copper pans do exist, they are quite pricey and should only be used by cooks who know the benefits and weaknesses of cooking with copper.
Now that you know what you’re getting into in terms of metal, let’s take a look at the many varieties of pots and pans out there. I’ve also linked out to some solid options for each cookware variety below, in case you’re in the market for some quality pots and pans.
Cookware Types – Pots and Pans
A stockpot is a very deep pot with high, straight sides and two handles. They are best for heating and simmering stocks (broths) or any other large quantity of liquid. You can also use them for blanching vegetables and canning.
Splurge: All Clad Stainless Steel Stockpot
Bargain: Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Stockpot
A saucepot is similar to a stockpot, but shallower in depth. The shorter sides make it easier to stir soups and sauces.
Braisers, like stockpots and saucepots, have straight sides, but are shorter in depth. They are great for browning and braising meat, cooking stews and reducing larger amounts of liquid. They can be used in the stovetop and in the oven.
Saucepans are one of the most universal pan choices. Lighter and more shallow than the saucepot, they typically have one long handle and straight or slightly slanted sides. They can be used for cooking a wide variety of food on the stovetop, including, but not limited to: soup, pasta, rice, oatmeal, boiling eggs, and making popcorn. It is nice to have a few saucepans in your kitchen; they are user friendly and can cook a wide variety of foods.
Splurge: All Clad Stainless 12-quart Saucepan
Sauté pans are shallow pans with one long handle. They come with either straight sides or sloped sides. Each has a different purpose.
Straight-sided sauté pans are used in sautéing, browning and frying. Their large surface area lends well to reducing liquids quickly and the straight sides help to keep the liquid from splashing out.
Bargain: Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Sauté Pan
Slope-sided sauté pans, also called frying pans, are another universal pan. They can be used to sauté or fry meat, eggs, vegetables or roast nuts for a salad. If you’re skilled in the kitchen, this type of sauté pan is best for flipping food, like pancakes, without using a spatula. I prefer frying pans with a nonstick coating, however some nonstick surfaces contain a chemical substance called PFOA. Even though PFOA is considered food safe, I have read a lot about it and have decided that I do not want these chemicals ending up in my food. All of my frying pans are made by Scanpan, (see the splurge links below). They are completely nontoxic, PFOA-free, and very well made, but they are an investment. There is technically nothing wrong with a normal nonstick pan, but I try to keep my kitchen as clean and natural as possible– so in this category, if you’re going for a nonstick surface, I suggest splurging on a Scanpan or another PFOA-free nonstick pan if you can afford it. I have not suggested a bargain here because I don’t currently stock one in my market, but if I come across one I will definitely add it.
Another great affordable option in a similar category is a seasoned cast iron skillet, which needs more maintenance than nonstick but costs a lot less– plus, one pan will last you forever (more info below)
Splurge: Scanpan Pro 11-inch Fry Pan
Splurge: Scanpan Pro 8-inch Fry Pan
Cast-iron or enameled cast iron skillets, as mentioned above, are very heavy and hold a nice even heat. They are great for frying. They also have some other interesting and unexpected uses, like baking cornbread or pineapple upside down cake, as they can be used on the stovetop or in the oven. Basic cast-iron is best for cooking things with only a small amount of liquid, while enameled cast iron offers easy clean up. Hint here– I’m offering options for both the splurge and the bargain, but I totally recommend going with the bargain in this case. I use a Lodge cast iron, and I love it. It’s very affordable. While the enamel does make for easier cleanup, I generally use my Scanpan nonstick pan when cooking something that might stick (though a well-seasoned cast iron will prevent sticking just as well).
Enameled cast-iron pots are great in that they have the same helpful properties as a cast iron skillet. They are quite heavy and deep, usually round or oval in shape and come with two handles and a lid. These styles of pots, also called dutch ovens, are great for cooking hearty meals with a lot of ingredients, like stews, roasts and ragus (think Julia Child’s famous boeuf bourguignon). They are also useful for braising and simmering. The enameled finish helps with easy clean up.
Double boilers are helpful when preparing foods that cannot be held over direct heat. They consist of a 2 parts, a bottom pot that holds water and an upper pot that rests inside, over the steam and away from direct heat. When the water in the bottom pot begins to simmer or boil, the steam rises and heats the upper pot. Double boilers are key in warming delicate foods like melting chocolate and making candy.
Splurge: Cuisinart 3-piece Double Boiler Set
Roasting pans are deep rectangular pans used mostly for roasting meat and poultry. Many are available with a removable rack, which helps to separate fat drippings from the meat.
This is a basic overview of stovetop cookware, however there are many other specialty pots and pans out there. Bakeware is another category that can be perplexing– I’ll deal with that in a future post. The stovetop pots and pans listed above are the most common and most useful. They’re the ones I rely on most in my kitchen. I hope this list will help take some of the stress out of choosing the right cookware for your own kitchen!