Essential Cookware: A guide To The Pots & Pans Every Kitchen Needs

I’ve been cooking in professional kitchens since 2010. Over the years, some of the best equipment from my restaurants eventually found its way into my home kitchen. 

In theory, outfitting a kitchen is an exciting task. In reality, even when you’re a pro it can become overwhelming. 

Only through years of trial and error and countless hours debating with coworkers, I’ve worked my way through virtually all the types of pans available and whittled down my essential cookware to seven pieces. In this article, I’ll give you my take on the most essential cookware pieces that every kitchen should have, which brands to trust, and the materials to look for when selecting your pots and pans.

Cast Iron Skillet

It’s hard to go wrong with a cast iron skillet. They’re durable, versatile, inexpensive, and provide excellent cooking performance. On the downside, they are quite heavy and require some ongoing maintenance to keep them in good working order.

Most iron skillets have flat bottoms and deep, straight sides. That gives this piece of essential cookware a large surface area to fit more food.

The weight of an iron skillet can be a bit cumbersome, but it also allows them to distribute and hold heat better than any other cooking material. Whether it’s steak for dinner or pancakes for brunch, your food will come out evenly cooked and browned from edge to edge.

Unlike stainless steel, Cast iron is a raw material and it will rust if left un-seasoned. Luckily, trusted brands like Lodge, pre-season all of their products so they’re ready to go right out of the box.

I keep an 8 and 12-inch cast iron skillet on hand in my kitchen, and those two pans have a limitless number of uses. Baking, frying, sauteing, on the stove, in the oven, or directly over a fire in the middle of the woods. Those two trusty skillets do it all. If I could only choose one size, I would probably split the difference and go with a 10-inch skillet.

On top of everything else, a cast iron skillet will keep getting better and more nonstick with age, and will easily be in use well beyond our lifetimes. That further cements the cast iron skillet as an essential cookware piece.

Stock Pot

Fully furnished stovetop.

A stockpot is a large, high-sided pot with handles and preferably a lid. As the name implies this is perfect for making stocks, but its use certainly doesn’t end there. This is my go-to pot for boiling water for pasta, blanching vegetables, or making large quantities of soup.

My largest stockpot is bigger than any mixing bowl I have, and I’ve been known to use it for large batches of salads, lemonade, for brining chicken, mixing and rising bread dough, or just using it as an ice-bucket for drinks on a hot day. The possibilities are really endless.

For a stockpot, I prefer stainless steel because it’s durable and easy to clean. For this pick, I wouldn’t bother with a fully clad stainless steel option. Those are going to be very heavy and cost hundreds of dollars. A pot with a thick, heavy bottom is all you need and will cost a fraction of the price.

I would steer clear of aluminum-nonstick for this piece as well. Not only do they lack durability, but sticking isn’t a big concern with most uses.

8-quarts is a perfect size if you’re feeding anywhere between 4 to 8 people. But it’s also easy to find smaller and larger options to fit your needs. It’s the versatility of a stock pot that makes it easy to recommend as a piece of essential cookware.

Saucepan

This is an all-purpose pot that ranges in size from half-quart up to large 4-quart options. A saucepan can be used for a wide range of dishes including making sauces, gravy, soup, rice and other grains, just to name a few.

It’s also very useful for sweet applications like caramel, pastry cream, puddings, lemon curd, chocolate sauce, or melting butter. Its wide range of uses put the saucepan close to the top of my essential cookware list.

When it comes to a saucepan I think stainless steel is the best way to go. While it isn’t absolutely necessary, I think it’s worth it to spend a little more on a fully-clad saucepan. Fully clad cookware is built from multiple layers of metal, bonded together.

The result is cookware that heats evenly from base to rim. Not just from the bottom like the less expensive disk-clad option. Fully clad saucepans tend to be more expensive but are more durable and give a better cooking experience.

A saucepan is another piece that I would not recommend buying in a nonstick model. I’m more concerned with even heating than having food stick, and durability is always a big priority. 

If I could only choose one size, it would be a 2-quart saucepan with a lid. That size can be used for the widest range of dishes. From small amounts of sauce to rice for 4-6 people. The smaller and larger sizes are great for specific uses but are not as versatile as the 2-quart range.

Frying Pan

A frying pan is a shallow, flat bottomed pan generally used for quick, high-heat cooking. The sides of a frying pan are not very deep and rise between 1.5 and 3-inches high. They are usually angled or sloped to allow for tossing ingredients.

A good fry pan should be oven-safe, distribute heat evenly and be durable enough to take some abuse in the kitchen. You can choose from a wide range of materials, each with its own benefits and weaknesses.

Once again, fully clad stainless steel would be my top choice. It’s durable, can handle high heat, and requires no special maintenance. The downside is they can be expensive, they’re not nonstick, and they take some practice to get good with.

All-Clad’s 10-inch fry pan is one I stand behind, but it’s hard to go wrong with Calphalon’s version at less than half the price

A 10 or 12-inch nonstick skillet is easy to use, easy to clean, and inexpensive. The problem is they lack durability and cant be used with high heat. If you’re new to cooking, this option will get you cooking straight out of the box, but the uses are limited as is the life of the nonstick surface.

When it comes to choosing the right size skillet, sauté pans, or frying pan, think about how many people you regularly cook for. It probably doesn’t make sense to buy a 14-inch skillet if you only cook for one or two people.

An 8-inch skillet is ok for one person, but it’s a bit too small for any more than that. I usually stick to a 10-inch option for most daily tasks when I’m cooking for three or four people.

If you don’t mind putting in a little extra work, consider a carbon steel pan. Carbon steel is similar to cast iron, but in a much lighter package. You will have to season and maintain this type of pan, but it will last forever and you can develop a great nonstick cooking surface. 

Half Sheet Pan

You may know it as a baking sheet or cookie pan, but in most bakeries and restaurants you’ll hear them called sheet pans or trays. This is a flat, rectangle pan with a 1-inch tall rim around the edge.

The uses of a sheet pan are endless. You can roast meat and vegetables, toast nuts and granola, bake cookies, brownies, and any other number of pastries, just to name a few.

I have long given up on buying expensive nonstick trays, and I steer clear of the cheap versions you often find in grocery stores. Those always seem to bend and warp as soon as I place them in a hot oven. 

Vollrath and Winco both make excellent, inexpensive pans, and you’ll often find one or the other in professional kitchens. They’re both made from aluminum and distribute heat well.

Look for pans that are “closed bead”. That means that they have a metal rod enclosed in the rim making them rigid so they won’t warp in the oven.

You’ll find this type of baking pan in three primary sizes, full, half, and quarter size. Full-size pans are designed for commercial ovens and are often too big for home use. A half sheet pan is 13 by 18-inches and is a perfect all-purpose size that will fit most home ovens.

If you have a little extra room in your budget, think about adding a stainless steel wire cooling rack and silicone baking mat. They aren’t necessary, but they add even more versatility to the baking tray.

Dutch Oven

A Dutch Oven is a heavy-duty pot, with a thick bottom and sides. It should also have a tight-fitting lid that traps moisture during long cooking times.

Dutch ovens were traditionally and still most commonly made out of cast iron. You can find them made from heavy, clad stainless steel, aluminum, and ceramic, but cast iron is perfectly suited for this piece of cookware.

This is the perfect vessel for soups, stews, and braises. The even heating is great for browning meat, and the heavy lid will seal in moisture so you can cook tough cuts of meat for hours without them drying out.

A raw cast iron Dutch oven is great and inexpensive, but they require seasoning and special care when washing. Consider spending a little more on an enameled cast iron version, which will give you all of the benefits of raw cast iron without the maintenance.

Sizes range from 1-quart all the way up to 15-quarts. A useful guideline for choosing the right size is to think of each quart as one serving. So, a 2-quart Dutch oven will feed up to two people, while a 4-quart Dutch oven will feed up to four.

I cook for three people every day, but I find that a 5-quart Dutch oven is ideal. That size gives me the flexibility to cook larger quantities if I need to, without having to buy multiple sizes.

Also, don’t feel obligated to spend hundreds on an enameled cast iron model from a brand like Le Creuset, although you won’t be disappointed if you do. For a good selection on any budget, check out our roundup of the best Dutch ovens on the market.    

Rectangular Casserole Dish

A rectangular baking dish with high sides is perhaps the simplest piece of essential cookware in my kitchen, and I think you’ll find it gets a lot of use for you too. While a casserole dish is similar to a metal roasting pan, it has several distinct uses.

A casserole dish shouldn’t be relegated to tuna casserole and lasagna, but those are two excellent uses. It’s also a perfect choice for roasting vegetables, chicken, enchiladas, bread pudding, stuffing, tiramisu, ratatouille, I could go on and on but it’s just going to make me hungry.

The only thing a big metal roasting pan is better at is cooking a giant turkey. And since that only happens once a year for most of us, that’s a pan that spends most of its life shoved in the back of a cupboard, taking up valuable space.

Casserole dishes come in all shapes and sizes. If you can only have one, a standard 13 by 9-inch size is a great multitasker, and a common size used in recipe books and online. It’s also easy to find a roasting rack that you can use for large cuts of meat or whole birds.

While a glass casserole dish is an inexpensive option, you should consider “splurging” on a ceramic model. They’re still quite affordable and often look good enough to be a centerpiece at any meal.

While it’s common for food to stick to this type of dish, a good soak is usually the only remedy you need. If that doesn’t do it, this is also one of the few pieces of cookware that I have no problem throwing in the dishwasher.

Where Do I Begin?

Before you go crazy with gadgets and specialty cookware, I recommend establishing a core collection of the most reliable and essential cookware pieces. Now you know mine.

I guarantee if you stay active in the kitchen that you will eventually expand your collection to include more pieces. Even then, you’ll probably find yourself returning to a few specific pots and pans again and again.

If you’re on a budget or just want to keep things simple, consider starting with a cast iron skillet. You can get a great one for under $20, it will last forever, and can be used for virtually every meal. Here are some of my favorites.

Just remember, you don’t need all of these pieces in hand to get cooking. Every kitchen is different and usually a few key pans, knives, and a heat source will go a long way all by themselves. I just hope sharing my experiences will make a small contribution toward the discovery of which cookware is most essential in yours. Happy cooking!

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