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All the Basic Cookware You Need

Photo of a stainless steel cooking set

Though pans and pots tend to come in all shapes and forms (and can be made from various materials), you want the ones you buy to be capable of withstanding the direct heat from a gas flame or electric burner without warping.

At the store, pick out vessels with thick walls and a heavy bottom. This guarantees quick and even heating and is also a sign for a higher-quality build and sturdier construction than their lighter counterparts.

It’s a good idea to buy your cookware from well-known American, Canadian, or European brands that you can trust. Not only do their sets and pieces last longer, but you can also count on the lifetime warranties and customer care programs if you get a defective model (it happens).

When it comes to cookware, I go by the saying “buy it nice or buy it twice.” Not because I like spending a ton of money on pans and pots as food bloggers and YouTubers usually do; it’s more than I dislike having to spend money on replacements.

In my experience—and that of readers who’ve commented on a post or emailed me to share their stories—cheap kitchenware almost always ends up being more expensive in the long run.

So instead of buying cheap products only to replace them every two or three years, I prefer hunting for high-end products at a bargain built to last a lifetime.

Cast Iron Skillet

What basic cookware do you need? Cast iron skillet.
urban_light (via Depositphotos)

Cast iron is a poor conductor of heat. This is why, compared to other pans, cast iron skillets take a while to get up to heat. But once they do, they hold on to that heat extraordinarily well and without any hot or cold spots.

Cast iron skillets’ ability to retain heat makes them such a good choice for browning steaks, preparing burgers, and pan-frying salmon fillets.

Don’t use them for simmering acidic recipes with wine-, vinegar-, or tomato-based sauces. They’ll react to the acids and leach high amounts of dietary iron into your meal.

Cast iron skillets are mostly safe to use in the oven, so they also double up as versatile bakeware for shepherd’s pie, cornbread, pizza, or cake. They can also be used on the outside grill. Heck, you can even go camping with them and use them for cooking up a bonfire meal.

Unlike a non-stick frying pan, a cast iron skillet’s cooking surface is made of bare and uncoated metal. To keep food from sticking to it, you need to season your skillet two-three times per year. Seasoning a cast iron skillet is done by greasing it with cooking oil, like avocado, rice bran, or canola oil, and baking it at 500°F (260°C) for an hour.

Some experts will tell you to place the skillet upside-down in your oven; others think it won’t make a difference. No matter which method you go for, the oil will coat your skillet with a protective layer called a “patina,” which shields it from oxidation and gives it non-stick properties.

As you cook with your skillet in your daily cooking, the oils and fats you use (as well as those that render and drip down from the food) will naturally contribute to the patina, helping to maintain it.

Since cast iron is prone to corrosion and rust and abrasive cleaners can easily wash off the patina, cast iron skillets are not dishwasher-safe and should only be cleaned by hand with soapy water.

They’re cheap to buy and can last you a lifetime provided you take good care of them. After all, there’s a reason why cast iron cookware is thought of as American heritage—and often gets handed down as family heritage through generations.

My cast iron skillet pick

My pick (and the one I use at home) is the Lodge Pre-Seasoned 10.25-inch Cast Iron Skillet.

This skillet is made in the Lodge Manufacturing Company’s century-old foundry in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Lodge is one of the oldest American cookware companies still in operation.

“Pre-seasoned” means that a coating of soy-based oil (that’s highly refined and therefore free from allergens) has already been applied to the skillet at the foundry, making it ready to use.

Before cooking with it for the first time, make sure to get to know the care instructions on the yellow leaflet glued to the bottom of the pan.

Stainless Steel Frying Pan

What basic cookware do you need? Stainless steel frying pan.
Jim Stonos / Home Cook World

Frying pans made of stainless steel are great for everyday cooking.

Steel isn’t that good at conducting heat, so manufacturers typically make their pans and pots with stainless steel and a more conductive metal, like aluminum or copper:

  • Aluminum is low-cost and heats up fast but does so unevenly and is prone to having cold spots;
  • On the other hand, copper is high-priced but heats up extremely evenly and gives you precise control over the cooking temperature.

While that wasn’t necessarily the case a few decades ago, in recent years, it’s become almost impossible to find frying pans made entirely of stainless steel.

Myself? I’m a fan of aluminum.

It’s the practical choice for home cooking, especially when you’re shopping on a budget, and has by far the best cost/performance ratio.

The aluminum or copper is either bonded to the bottom of the frying pan (called “disc-bottomed cookware”) or wrapped between layers of stainless steel (known as “fully-clad” cookware).

Frying pans made of two layers of stainless steel clad around a single layer of another metal are marketed as “tri-ply,” those with three layers of stainless steel clad around two layers of another metal “five-ply,” and so on.

Disc-bottomed frying pans are more affordable and generally good enough—but tend to overheat and will scorch your food on the sides. When you have the option, opt for a fully-clad frying pan instead; the difference can be as big as night and day.

To put one and two together, a tri-ply frying pan made of two exterior layers of stainless steel fully clad around an interior layer of aluminum (that is to say the cladding goes all the way to the edges) gives you the most value for the money.

My stainless steel frying pan pick

Try all you want, but you won’t find a product better than USA-made All-Clad Tri-Ply D3 Stainless 12-inch Fry Pan.

It’s sold with a lid that comes in handy when you want to keep splatter on your stove to a minimum.

This model also comes in a smaller size with a diameter of 10 inches. However, I wouldn’t go for it, even if I mainly cooked for myself. It’s a slope-sided frying pan, so you’ll have less cooking space for your food than what I consider comfortable.


belchonock (via Depositphotos)

Circular, tall, and equipped with a long handle, a saucepan is a vessel with a typical capacity of 2 to 4 quarts that’s designed first and foremost for cooking sauces.

Don’t get fooled by the name; it doesn’t do it justice.

A well-built saucepan will quickly turn into your go-to pieces of cookware to prepare stocks, gravies, soups, stews, boil rice or pasta, steam vegetables, melt butter or chocolate, warm milk, as well as boil or poach eggs.

Though you can find plenty of cheap saucepans at the kitchenware aisle at hypermarkets and home improvement stores, the chances are they’ll heat unevenly, scotch your sauces, and eventually warp.

So, when you add up the cost of replacement saucepans over a few decades, you’re better off buying one built to last for a lifetime.

Look for a solid lid that helps you keep the moisture in when you need it and a metal handle that makes your saucepan safe to use in the oven.

Avoid non-stick saucepans and those made of hard-anodized aluminum. They keep food from sticking, but, more often than not, the dark color of their cooking surface makes it hard for you to tell what’s going on, so you can easily burn butter and scorch milk.

I won’t go into a rant on the topic right here and right now, but I always find it fascinating just how different our choices tend to become when we start to make them from the lens of total cost of ownership.

My saucepan pick

All-Clad Tri-Ply D3 Stainless 3.5-quart Saucepan is by far the best stainless steel saucepan on the market.

The tri-ply construction comprises two layers of stainless steel wrapped around an aluminum core for fast and even heating.

All-Clad’s proprietary “starburst finish” makes the cooking surface slightly less sticky than conventional stainless steel cookware (don’t expect non-stick).

The saucepan is oven- and broiler-safe (without the lid) at temperatures of up to 600°F (315°C) and can safely be cleaned in the dishwasher

Like all of All-Clad’s D3 Stainless collection cookware, this piece is made with high-quality American steel in the USA.

Pasta Pot

gpointstudio (via Depositphotos)

Whether you’re boiling spaghetti for your family, cooking up chili for the crowd at your backyard BBQ, or blanching crawfish, you’re going to need a tall and narrow pasta pot with sufficient capacity to get the job done.

Unless you eat only pasta and seafood, you’re probably not going to need this type of pot every day. But it will save you from having to break spaghetti in half so that they fit into the saucepan, and it will make blanching shrimps or crawfish a much easier thing to do.

So there’s no need, at least if you ask me, to go all-in on this piece of cookware. A disc-bottom pasta pot from a good brand that retails at a reasonable price will do—and my pick below reflects it.

My pasta pot pick

I’ve yet to find a better bargain than the Cuisinart Chef's Classic Stainless 12-Quart Pasta/Steamer Set.

This past pot is made of 18/10 stainless steel, the exact grade used by All-Clad and other high-end cookware brands, with an aluminum disc bottom for quicker heating.

It comes with a pasta insert, which makes straining noodles a breeze, and a steamer basket that sits on the top, allowing you to steam broccoli, shrimp, as well as any other food that comes to mind.

Dutch Oven

akatzphoto (via Depositphotos)

The Dutch oven is a piece of cookware so instrumental and so versatile, it’s worth splurging on. Use it in your oven for baking bread, roasting beef, and broiling birds. Sear, shallow-fry, and deep-fry with it on your stove. Cook up chicken soup or hearty beef stew in it.

Most Dutch ovens are made of cast iron or enameled cast iron, though there are exceptions to the rule (like those made of stainless steel and cast aluminum).

More on the difference between the two, and which of them I consider to be the better choice, below.

Like their not-so-distant cousins, cast iron skillets, Dutch ovens made of bare cast iron need to be seasoned, shouldn’t be used for cooking acidic foods, and can’t go in the dishwasher.

While they’re perfect for backyard cooking and campfire meals, using them daily in your home kitchen feels like more of a hassle than a convenience.

Enameled cast iron Dutch ovens are made of cast iron with a porcelain enamel coating that protects them from corrosion and rust, keeps them from leaching iron into acidic foods, gives them non-stick properties, and makes them dishwasher-safe.

Plus, most makes and models come in bright colors with a polished exterior—so your Dutch oven will double up as decoration for your kitchen while you’re not cooking with it and it sits empty on the counter shelf.

It’s a nuisance that you can’t use them over a fire (as the heat of the flames will crack the enamel, and the continuous stream of smoke will stain it), but the bigger downside to enameled cast iron Dutch ovens is their price.

Compared to their bare-iron counterparts, they can get really expensive. So are they worth it?

The short answer is, yes. And I mean that for every single dime, especially if they come from a reputable brand. My editorial team recently published a whole post to explain why.

Look for a bulky lid that fits the Dutch oven tightly and a set of handles that allow you to conveniently carry it, even when it’s full of liquids and ingredients (they can get heavier than you think!).

My Dutch oven pick

Those of you interested in my pick should consider Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron 5.5-quart Dutch Oven.

Founded in 1925, Le Creuset is a French cookware company known for making the best Dutch ovens worldwide. It continues to make all of its cookware in the town of Fresnoy-le-Grand in northern France.

Every piece is inspected by at least 15 individuals and must meet all of Le Creuset’s extensive quality criteria before it hits the stores. And it comes with the company’s limited lifetime warranty that protects you from defects.

Pizza Steel

cookelma (via Depositphotos)

Pizza bakes best when it comes into sudden contact with a scorching hot cooking surface. The heat not only draws out the moisture in the dough, but also puffs up the crust so that the pie comes out light and airy.

That’s why pizzeria pizza looks and tastes so good! Traditionally, it’s baked in wood- or coal-fired brick ovens that get as hot as 800°F (427°C), cooking a pie in as little as 60-90 seconds.

Replicating these conditions in your home oven can be… least to say difficult. Most home ovens don’t get hotter than 572°F (300°C), and they definitely don’t heat as evenly as the ones made out of brick.

The way to counter that is by preheating your oven for at least 30 minutes, along with a thick piece of bakeware in it. Some people use cast iron skillets, others go for baking stones, but, in my experience, a pizza steel is by far the best tool for the job.

When it comes to homemade pizza pies and rustic loaves of bread, few pieces of bakeware can rival the even heating and retention of the thick piece of metal called a pizza steel (also known as a “baking steel”). Simply put it on the lowest rack of your oven and preheat it for 30-45 minutes over maximum temperature before sliding the pie onto it.

My pizza steel pick

The Conductive Cooking Square Pizza Steel Plate is a square and heavy steel slab with dimensions of 14-inches by 14-inches that weighs 21 pounds.

Made in the USA from highly conductive metal alloy, this 3/8 inches thick pizza steel radiates and holds on to heat extremely well, even when you’ve opened your oven’s door to slide a pizza onto it.

Unlike a pizza stone, you can use this pizza steel to bake pies over a gas or charcoal grill without worrying about it cracking.

In Conclusion

There’s no need to break the bank for equipping your home kitchen. But, even if you’re running on a tight budget, don’t go shopping for the cheapest cookware that you can find.

When you factor in the cost of replacing the defective or warped pans and pots, cheap cookware ends up costing you more than its high-end counterparts—most of which are built to last a lifetime—in the long run.

Some bloggers will try to convince you to buy entire sets. Apart from the fact that they get fatter commissions when you buy them, I don’t see a good reason to do it. Each brand excels at one type of cookware and remains pretty mediocre in the others. It’s much better to build your collection piece by piece, adding to it only if and when you need to.


Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.

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