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Choosing the ideal pots and pans

Pots and pans

I can't imagine anyone cooking in a kitchen without pots and pans. Perhaps if you're a rare cook who prepares only cold dishes, but for most of the rest of us, they're an essential. With the myriad of choices facing you in the stores, it can get confusing on what you might want to plop your hard-earned cash on.

Just like the article on kitchen essentials, this is really geared towards the amateur. The neophyte who perhaps was fine boiling water and performing simple tasks, or the person who lived on their microwave, but now wants to really dig in and cook.

The Material Issue

Pots and pans in a storeIf you look at any article or discussion on pots and pans, the biggest debate you'll encounter is on the material those pans are made of. Most pans are made either of (or combinations of) stainless steel, copper, cast iron, or aluminum.

In my opinion, I would choose stainless steel over the rest. You might notice copper all over in many fancy kitchens, but while copper conducts heat the best, it doesn't react well to acidic foods. What this means is you'll cook, let's say a spaghetti sauce, in a large copper pot and it might end up tasting funny. This reaction problem is also shared by cast iron and aluminum cookware.

Now I wouldn't totally dismiss cast iron or even copper just yet. The best kind of cookware would be stainless steel with an inner core of copper. Thus when you heat up the pan, the copper will hold and retain that heat, but the stainless steel will protect your food. Cast iron also works wonders when it has a ceramic coating, like you would find on most Dutch Ovens. I'd even toss out there owning a cast iron skillet, frying pan, or grill pan mainly for cooking steaks, burgers, and eggs; but nothing acidic, like a stir fry with vegetables.

Regardless of the metal you select, steer clear of non-stick coatings. I know those non-stick teflon surfaces might look like a wonderful convenience, but over time you'll be noticing scrapes and scratches forming. That's plastic getting into your food. It's one of the reasons why I advised you to use bamboo utensils. The non-stick surfaces also aren't oven-safe, and when they do fail, you can't even scrub them with abrasives. Just do yourself a favor and skip past the non-stick cookware.

Also, make sure the pots and pans do not have plastic parts. Most of the reason is you want pots and pans that can go from the stove to the oven. I'm sure you've seen many times where a chef sears a piece of meat on the stove, and then tosses the whole pan into the oven. With plastic handles, you won't be able to do that. The same goes for your lids. Most cookware comes with metal or thermal glass lids, but I'd tell you to avoid those with plastic parts.

What to buy

Basic pots and pans set

With material being the first, the running second has been the debate on exactly what to buy...especially in regards to buying a set of pans over individual items.

In all reality, this choice comes down to you and how you view your style as it comes to cooking. I'll be honest and say when I moved into my condo, I bought a set of pots and pans which I still use six years later. I generally subscribe to buying a set when you have nothing mainly because you get the essentials with room to breathe. A simple set should contain the following:

  • Sauté pan
  • Small saucepan
  • Medium saucepan
  • Stock Pot

Some will say you only need one saucepan, but I'd counter that with how many times I'll have one saucepan in use and suddenly need a second. Maybe you're melting butter in the small one, and then you need the medium-sized one for mixing a filling or something.

The sauté pan is your frying pan for anything from eggs to stir frys to meat and/or vegetable dishes you cook over the stove. If you feel the need to expand on this, pick up a second pan, but I'd suggest one of your pans have a flat bottom with nice walls, while the other be the typical concave curve of most frying pans. It just gives you more options for different dishes.

The stock pots that come in most sets will do you perfectly for most soups and pasta needs. I did eventually buy a larger stock pot because I like to make big pots of soup or chili, which tend to be more than the usual modest-sized stock pot can hold. A bigger pot though is not a mandatory though. I worked fine with the normal-sized pot for many years.

Beyond the basic set

A solid kitchen doesn't stop at the basic pots and pans. Here's a few more items you'll want to think about obtaining:

Baking dishesBaking dishes/pans: They are the usual rectangular pans you could cook anything from brownies to ratatouille to lasagna in. Definitely for dishes where your saucepans or stock pots will not do. Usually they come in thermal glass or various metals. I usually like glass, but it's really up to you. A handy tip is also to use temporary aluminum ones if you're baking/cooking for someone outside your home, or you really know you're not going to use them much.

Broiling pan: We talked about this in Broiling 101. If your oven didn't come with one, definitely get one. I seriously would not try broiling anything in any other kind of pan.

Cookie sheets: Some of you might think that this is unnecessary, claiming you don't bake, but you would be surprised how many times I use these for other purposes. It could be just slicing up a baguette and making garlic bread, or even just cooking/baking various non-bakery items in your oven. It's a flat piece of metal for any oven-related purpose you might think of.

Optional extras

Before you go buying up more stuff, I again reiterate you should always buy based on NEED. Buying a new pot or pan to add to your collection should come about as a solution to a need you have that your current gear isn't fulfilling. Regardless, here's a few ideas if you wish to expand:

Cast-iron grill panCast-Iron skillet or grill pan: Based on experience, I'd tell you to go for one with a handle, and not one of those reversible long pans you can put over two burners. I've been told that breakfasts cooked in a cast-iron skillet are wonderful, and have seen many chefs cook burgers and sear steaks in them. I myself picked up a grill pan for these purposes, but it could also double as a panini grill.

Large stock pot: As mentioned before, if you like to make a big pot of soup or chili, the kind where you have leftovers for days, then the normal stock pot that comes in a set might annoy you when you need more capacity.

Wok: Your sauté pan should do fine for your wok needs, but I ended up getting one just to have more room to move and the nice concave surface known to a wok. In many ways it's fulfilled my needs for a large frying pan. I'll use it also to cook paella in or jambalaya.

Loaf pan: I definitely like having one not just for bread, but meatloaf or Country-style Pâté. However, if you seriously think you'll use one only maybe once or twice a year, then skip this and go with temporary disposable aluminum pans.

Crepe panCrepe pan: This is definitely one for the luxury ideology. I'll be serious and say that unless you plan on making crepes very often, then skip this. What makes a crepe pan wonderful is that it's a flat round surface ideal for making crepes, heating up tortillas, or even making quesadillas. However you could get away with not having one and just use your sauté pans. Only pick one up if you really are going to use it regularly.

Muffin Pan or Madeleine Pan: Again, this is one mainly for those who will use it often, especially the Madeleine pan. While the Madeleine pan does only have one purpose, you can get multiple uses out of a muffin pan, as you'll notice if you're ever surfing Pinterest.

Dutch Oven: I'd love to throw this on essentials, but I want to be fair and not obligate you to buy one. It's a cast-iron pan coated with ceramic material, ideal to use both on the stove and in the oven. I've used mine for many purposes, from gumbo to braising. I will dive deeper into this one in a future article, as well as share recipes you can make with a Dutch Oven.

Tags: kitchen, pots, pans, equipment

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