Whether your cookware is starting to wear out, or you’re just starting your collection, finding the right sets and pieces can be difficult. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the tons of different materials, accessories, and features, we have some expert advice for you.
To get the lowdown, we spoke with Sylvie Giret, managing director at de Buyer North America, Alicia Waters, chief marketing officer at Crate & Barrel, Bobby Griggs, vice president at Heritage Steel, and Matt Cavallaro, owner of Nest Homeware.
Here are some of their expert tips on choosing the best cookware for you.
What Are the Cookware Staples?
To choose the kind of cookware you need, you’ll first want to think about the kinds of foods you cook most often. For example, if you fry a lot of foods, you’ll want to invest in a good frying pan. If you make a lot of casseroles, you might want to pick up a Dutch oven.
Generally, though, our experts agreed that every kitchen should have the following four pieces of cookware:
A medium-size frying pan: It’s likely this will be the most-used pan in your kitchen. The wide cooking surface and low sides make working with food easy. They’re also perfect for searing meats and seafood, sautéing veggies, and pan-frying.
A nonstick popped pan: Ideal for low-medium heat cooking. You might want several of these in different sizes to suit your cooking style.
A large stockpot: When it comes to cooking sizable dishes, stockpots are the best! They’re perfect for making soups, stews, pasta, veggies, or anything that needs to be simmered.
With saucepan: You can use one of these to make smaller quantities of pasta, soups, and stews. However, they’re also perfect for making sauces, simmering, or stewing.
Now that you know which pieces are most important to have in your cookware collection, it’s time to figure out which material would be best. The three materials cookware is most commonly made out of are aluminum, cast iron, and stainless steel.
We asked our experts to break down the benefits and drawbacks of all three.
All of our experts agreed that aluminum cookware is a good choice if you’re most interested in durability. It’s also lightweight and transfers heat evenly. Giret said it’s especially good for those who do a lot of low-medium heat cooking and don’t need to add browning or color.
Nonstick aluminum’s heating perks, however, do come with one drawback: they’re not designed to withstand the high temperatures necessary for searing. In fact, according to Giret, exposure to such high temps can actually damage the coating and make these pieces susceptible to scratching.
Cavallaro prefers seasoned cast iron due to its uniqueness. He especially likes that you can take it from the stovetop to the oven for searing/roasting combination cooking. Plus, it’s the only cookware that gets better the more you use it.
“As the seasoning on the cookware (polymerized cooking oil) builds up,” Cavallaro said, “its surfaces will behave more like a piece of non-stick cookware but without the synthetic coating. It’s also incredibly resilient to hard use, and able to be reconditioned and reseasoned, if need be.”
While cast iron is popular as both a cooking material and decorative piece (here’s looking at you, Le Creuset), there are some drawbacks.
Griggs doesn’t like that cast iron isn’t as responsive to temperature changes, nor is it best for acid food and braising.
“Acids react with cast iron and can cause some food discoloration and flavor change,” Griggs said. “And it is not great for the pan. If a cast-iron pan is not well seasoned and you attempt to braise, you can create a slightly metallic taste.”
At Crate and Barrel, Waters said stainless-steel cookware is a customer favorite. The material’s durability and longevity make it one of the top choices. In fact, she said some customers who purchased Cuisinart cookware 25 years ago are still using it today.
“It’s also non-corrosive so it won’t react with acidic ingredients,” Waters said. “If food does get stuck while you’re cooking, you can use more abrasive scour pads or cleaners, which won’t damage the surface of your pans.”
Some believe cast iron cooks more evenly than stainless steel, but Griggs disputed that claim. While cast iron might have the ability to hold temperature better, it doesn’t heat as evenly.
Stainless steel, however, can not only handle the higher temperatures for searing, but you can also reduce the heat easily and evenly to create pan sauces. Plus, acidic foods have no impact on steel, so there won’t be any flavor or visual changes made to the final dish.
“The beautiful thing about multi-clad stainless is it really gives control of the pan to cook,” Griggs said.
Like all the other cookware materials, however, there are some things to consider before you buy.
“The main downside is that it can sometimes take a bit of trial and error until you get the hang of it,” Giret said. “Because stainless steel is not naturally nonstick, like carbon steel or nonstick pans, your cooking may require more fat or oil.”
How Do You Choose the Right Material?
Hopefully, after perusing the pros and cons of each material, you’ll feel better equipped to choose the type of cookware that will work best for you. To seal the deal, think about what types of food you cook the most and your cooking style.
“Consider your needs and desires in the kitchen,” Cavallero said. “What kind of versatility do you need? How many pieces of cookware do you want to manage/store? Are you okay with risking damage to your cookware’s coating?”
Arguably, there are two main types of cooking: high and low temperature. Those working with high-temperature cooking are usually browning or adding color, as Giret mentioned previously. This would include searing meat or seafood. If you do a lot of those types of cooking, she recommends stainless steel.
Low-temperature cooking is when you cook directly in a pot or pan, but don’t intend to add color. Think caramelizing onions or sautéing leafy greens. That’s when you should go with the non-stick cookware.
Waters recommends that you also consider both how often cook and use your dishwasher. If the idea of hand-washing pots and pans seems like a real chore, she seconds the vote for stainless steel, but without the non-stick surfaces.
For those who do more than just high- and low-temperature cooking—like reduction and immersion cooking—Griggs also said stainless steel is the best option.
“This gives you the widest range of cooking techniques,” Griggs said, “will last a lifetime if you purchase a quality set, and gives the user the most control over the pan.”
Other Details to Look for When Choosing Cookware
The material cookware is made of is, obviously, one of the biggest factors when it comes to choosing your new set, but that’s not the only thing to consider. For example, to properly gauge the ergonomics and functionality of the different pieces, you should shop in person, if possible.
All of our experts agree that sampling how ergonomic a piece of cookware is, is incredibly important. After all, if you cook a lot, you’ll be handling them often, so you’ll want to make sure they’re comfortable to use.
Giret advised studying the shape of all handles and any other ergonomic features. When in doubt, head to the store in person to test out the cookware before you purchase it. It will help you out a lot if you can actually feel what it’s like to hold a certain pot or pan.
The shape and size of the pieces should also be taken into account.
“I really believe consumers often buy too small a pan,” Griggs said. “If you overcrowd the pan, you essentially boil the food, versus searing or sautéing.”
Giret recommended you also look for features you prefer, like oven safeness, non-stick capabilities, heat-resistant handles, and/or dishwasher safety.
Finally, you can’t forget about aesthetics.
“How will it look in your home?” Cavallero said. “How do those things actually make you feel?“ “Cooking is often social and can be an extension of an emotional event or experience—the way your cookware makes you feel can enhance those events or make them worse.”
How to Care for Your Cookware
Now that you know which pieces of cookware you need, the material you want it to be made of, and the features that are important to you, you’ll want to know how best to care for it so it lasts. While every piece will have its own specific care instructions, there are a few general rules.
“Handwashing is always recommended, even with cookware that is dishwasher safe,” Giret said. “Dishwasher detergent can be very harsh, and when paired with extremely hot water inside a dishwasher, it can degrade the cookware over time.”
She also recommended you follow some basic rules, like touching up the seasoning on cast-iron pans and using wooden or silicone utensils that won’t damage the surfaces.
If you follow these general instructions, along with any special directions that come with your cookware, many pieces can last you a lifetime!
Whether you’re looking to add to your cookware collection, or you need to invest in a good starter set, there are a few important factors to consider according to the experts. However, if you follow the advice in this comprehensive guide, you’ll be happily cooking away in your new pots and pans in no time.