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Choosing cookware for your kitchen comes down to what you like to eat. Think about the recipes that you and your family enjoy, and make sure you have the right pot or pan to prepare them. You can cover most needs with a cookware set, but if you won't use all the pieces in the set, that might not be the right choice for you. If you're buying each piece separately, then use this guide as your shopping list.
Stock pot: From boiling pasta to making corn on the cob, this is a pot that will get a lot of use in most kitchens, so it's a good idea to pick a durable material. Stainless steel and anodized aluminum are popular choices because they heat evenly and are fairly easy to care for. Cast iron and copper stock pots are beautiful and will last a long time, but they will require more care, so you'll have to decide if you're willing to take on that task. You can choose a nonstick stock pot, but this isn't necessary with most recipes you'll use it for, and you'll have to replace the pot more often as the nonstick surface wears out.
Nonstick frying pan: If you eat eggs for breakfast, then you need a good nonstick pan to cook them in. Even if you choose not to have a nonstick finish on any of your other pots and pans, you'll want to have it here because of the delicate nature of eggs. This can be a smaller frying pan; 8 to 10 inches should be large enough. It helps if it also has a lid; this will come in handy for making evenly cooked eggs.
Skillet: A 12-inch skillet is the perfect size for cooking one-dish dinners. Choose one with a lid, and you'll get even more use out of it. While sauté pans have straight sides, a skillet has angled sides; this makes them lighter weight and easier to stir and toss the food by shaking the handle. Because they have less surface area, you can choose a material that is heavier than you would normally choose, but you'll still want to consider what is comfortable for you. Heavy cast-iron skillets are popular because they can get hot enough to sear meat. Stainless steel is lighter weight and can also be heated to high temperatures; a stainless steel pan with an aluminum core is a popular choice.
Sauce pan: A 5- to 7-quart sauce pan will be large enough for making most sauces, and you can also use it for cooking small batches of soup, hard boiling eggs (if it has a lid), and heating up leftovers. Choose a material that you're comfortable using; nonstick isn't necessary, and generally cast-iron isn't either. A quality stainless steel or even a copper pan will look great and warm up evenly.
Sauté pan: A skillet takes care of many of the jobs that you would need a sauté pan for, but because sauté pans have straight sides, they are better for shallow frying. If you like to make fried chicken at home, for example, then this will be the next pan you need. The recommended materials are the same as for skillets, but keep in mind that sauté pans have more surface area, so they will be heavier.
Dutch oven: If you want to be able to sear meats in the same pot they're going to be made into a soup in, then a Dutch oven will be needed in addition to your stock pot. Stews and pot roasts are delicious when slow cooked in a Dutch oven. An enameled cast-iron Dutch oven won't be your most-used pot, but it may be the one that lasts the longest.
Wok: The main use for a wok is stir frying, so if you want the best results for that, you'll need one. You can also use a wok for deep frying. Read our guide about buying woks to get help finding the right one.
Roasting pan: Not every kitchen needs a roasting pan; vegetarians can skip this one. But if you plan to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving or you love to eat juicy roasted chicken, then you'll need a roasting pan.
Griddle: This is another pan that not every kitchen needs, but anyone who loves pancakes and French toast (and really, who doesn't?) will appreciate the wide, flat cooking surface that you don't have with any other pan. This is another pan that really benefits from a nonstick finish, but if you're willing to do the maintenance, then a cast-iron griddle would be an excellent investment.
Published February 9, 2010
Updated March 18, 2015
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