If your food sticks and burns, then your pots and pans are probably too thin. If your food boils over or spills when you move the pot around, then you probably need some bigger pots and pans.
If cooking usually feels like an abominable chore instead of a delicious celebration, I’d guess there’s an excellent chance you don’t have the assortment of sizes and shapes of pots and pans that are suited to preparing the foods you want to make. If you can’t put a beautiful sear on a piece of meat, or a beautiful, carmelized brown on a pan of onions, I’d bet your skillet doesn’t have the type of surface that can accomplish these results.
Best pots and pans
The material that your pots and pans are made of is very important. Avoid cheap nonstick coatings, thin or soft aluminum, and thin stainless steel.
Good choices include:
- Thick, hard, anodized aluminum
- Stainless steel that’s clad with a thick aluminum bottom
- Thick-cored pans clad inside and out with stainless steel, like All-Clad and Tramontina brands
- Enamel over cast iron, most famously made by Le Creuset and Staub these days
- Cast iron (bare, nonenameled)
- Thick aluminum (bare, nonanodized) is no longer made for the home as far as I know, but is made for the restaurant trade. Brands for the home can be a great secondhand find.
Thick pans heat evenly and quickly, and resist scorching. But they’re not cheap (with the exception of bare cast iron and bare aluminum). A good 2-quart saucepan will cost between $40 and $200, for example.
Fortunately, restaurant supply stores and secondhand stores are great places for special finds. My husband introduced me to the excitement of hunting for great pans at flea markets, yard sales and thrift stores. We have a pantry filled with fantastic pots and pans built to last for centuries, the likes of which would cost hundreds of dollars apiece if sold new today, or often, just aren’t made anymore.
For instance, we have a pair of LeCreuset Dutch ovens that we bought for, I think, $8 at a yard sale. The bigger one goes for nearly $300 new. The smaller one was missing its lid, but we found another one in our pantry that fits it pretty well.
Notes on nonstick
Remember that any nonstick surface, no matter how good the warranty, will eventually wear. So if you’re looking for a lifetime investment, don’t bother with nonstick. A well-made pan doesn’t need a nonstick coating.
Nonstick coating is a type of plastic. It wears off with cooking. Now ask yourself: if the coating is no longer on the pan, where is it? Some of it washes away with the wash water, I suppose. But since it’s heat, not soap and water, that’s causing it to break down and wear away, where is most of it winding up?
It’s breaking down and wearing away while you’re cooking, right? That means it’s breaking down and wearing away while it’s in contact with your food. That means it’s wearing into your food. That means you’re eating it. Yuck.
One of the big attractions of nonstick cookware is that you can use less fat and oil in your cooking.
Now I happen to believe that fat is something we don’t need to cut down on at all. But even if I followed the mainstream in thinking that dietary fat should be restricted, I still would think it was crazy — dangerously so — to trade in dietary fat for dietary plastic. Think about it!
Another problem with nonstick is that it doesn’t properly brown food. You can’t build a fond, which means there’s nothing to deglaze. If you’ve followed recipes that describe building up brown bits on the bottom of the pan and then adding wine or stock to melt them off, and none of that happens for you, I’ll bet you’re using a nonstick pan. That means you’re missing out on some of the most delicious morsels you could be enjoying.
The myth of easier cleanup
Meantime, don’t worry about cleanup, if that’s what you’re worried about. A well-seasoned iron pan is just as stick-free and easy to clean as a brand-new nonstick pan. Maybe more so. And it gets stick-freer over time, unlike the nonstick pan. As far as other materials, they just aren’t hard to clean. Really. Unless you burn something in them. And your best protection against burning food is to buy a good, thick, solid, heavy pot or pan.
Buy for life — avoid nonstick
Instead of continually buying nonstick pans, using them up and throwing them out — a horrible way to use the earth’s resources — get some pans that will get better and better over your lifetime. One great place to shop for pans like this is estate sales and yard sales — there you’ll find pans that have already lasted somebody’s lifetime. Iron pans that have seen a lot of use and developed a good seasoning are ready to serve you, too.
Sizes and shapes
Here are some basic pot and pan sizes and shapes you want in your kitchen.
2 quart saucepan, with lid
Ideal for rice, pasta sauce, and vegetables.
5- to 6-quart stockpot or Dutch oven, with lid
Either size is great for pot roasts, pasta, soups, stews, and chilis. For good browning action, don’t get a nonstick surface inside. Make sure the handles and lid can go in the oven.
You can put down a few C-notes for an enamel-over-iron Dutch oven. If you can do it, go for it — you won’t be sorry. Here’s a beautiful fact, though: you can get a heavy cast-iron Dutch oven (without enamel) from most hardware stores for under $50. Take it home, season it up, and make chilis and stews for a lifetime. Awesome.
8-inch frying pan (skillet)
Perfect for cooking eggs and frying up bacon. Cast iron or steel-clad aluminum are both excellent materials for skillets. You will get different results as far as browning and even flavor, so I recommend getting one of each. (We have bunches at our house!)
The best cast-iron skillets are finished with a perfectly smooth cooking surface. Trouble is, nobody makes them that way anymore, as far as I have been able to determine. The solution? Thrift stores, rummage sales, yard sales, estate sales, craigslist, even eBay. Please. Find the great iron pans made over the past 150 years or so. Put them to use. Make great food in them. Save them from the slag heap.
3-quart sauté pan with lid
This wide, flat pan has steep sides. Use for browning, braising, and searing. Good for one-pan meals like chicken cacciatore or stir-fry. Nonstick doesn’t brown as well, and won’t create a glaze. A stainless steel inside surface is best. Here’s a good place to put those premium All-Clad bucks.