Hardware & Software: Pots and Pans -- The Essentials
Tools For a City Cook's Kitchen
Equipping a kitchen is very personal. Having the right tools can make all the difference in both the experience of cooking and your results. The pots and pans that are best for you depend upon what and how you cook and since city cooks don't have lots of storage space, we have to choose wisely. But there are basics that everyone needs.
This article is about those basics tools that form the foundation of a well-equipped kitchen. These are the pieces you should buy if you're just starting out, or the ones you should add to what you have now before buying anything else.
A couple of tips about shopping. First, when buying cookware, resist the lure of those pre-selected sets. The price may seem compelling but I promise you that at least one piece will end up never used. Instead, buy exactly what you want and you'll get more value.
Second, regarding non-stick cookware, this technology has improved since it was first invented and now there are new materials, including ceramic surfaces, making today's non-stick a safer option than it once was. My philosophy is to replace them often, as soon as the surface begins to look worn or scratched. And while non-stick can be very useful, remember that they shouldn't be used in a very hot oven as temperatures above 400°F can damage or destabilize the surface.
When shopping for non-stick, I do lots of research, look for good values, and never buy fancy ones like All-Clad (which a salesman in Williams-Sonoma recently told me were made in China, the only All-Clad items not made in the U.S.). The last time I bought a non-stick pan, about a year ago, I purchased one (on sale) by Scanpan TechnIQ, made in Denmark, and love it.
For everything else, there are several good cookware manufacturers. My personal favorite is All-Clad for almost everything. I've bought mine gradually over several years (to spread out the expense and to add as my cooking improved and diversified) and each is as good a performer as when I first bought it. I also love Lodge for cast iron and Le Creuset and Staub for enameled cast iron, and Pillivuyt, Apilco, or Emile Henry for oven-proof porcelain. [Editor's note: I have no relationship with any of these brands. These are simply my independent opinions about their quality and value.]
Unless there's a dish you make frequently that requires a specific pan, say paella, be sure that each piece you buy gives you multiple uses. For instance, a ceramic rectangular pan can be used to roast a small chicken, make lasagna and gratins, or bake fish with tomatoes. A loaf pan is perfect for meat loaf but also banana bread or a vegetable paté.
For most cooks, these are the essentials:
- Sauce pans with covers: 1 quart, 3 quart
- Sauté pan with a cover, also called a sautoir: 4 quart (approx. 3" deep with straight sides, 10 1/2" diameter)
Tip: I use this pan more than anything else in my kitchen; it has a surface like a fry pan, it takes a cover, the straight sides help reduce sauces, it's deep enough to poach or steam in, and you can start on top of the stove and finish in the oven
- Fry pans, also called sauteuses: 7" and 12" (with handles that can go in a hot oven)
Tip: A 12" fry pan can take the place of both the sauté pan and a small roasting pan -- it's extremely versatile except that it doesn't take a cover
- Non-stick fry pan: 10" Replace this about once a year (depending on use) to ensure the surface is intact
- Cast iron grill pan: 10"-12" with grill ribs. Great for stove-top grilling of steaks, chops, fish and vegetables. This pan can easily end up as one of your favorite pieces because it adds versatility to the smallest kitchen
Tip: A square grill pan more easily accommodates foods that are grilled than a round one.
- Pasta pot (7-8 qt.) with insert and cover: This pot can double as a small stock pot and with the insert can also be a steamer
- Enameled cast iron Dutch oven: 8-12 qt. Get one big enough to be versatile for making braises, stews, soups and stocks, tomato sauce, etc.
- Porcelain or ceramic ovenproof rectangular pans: Approx. 1-3 quarts, small enough to make gratins but big enough to roast a small chicken
- Rimmed sheet pan (also called a jelly roll pan): Approx. 13" x 18." Far more useful than for just baking cookies, this pan is perfect for roasting vegetables and some meats, browning bones for stocks, slow-cooking tomatoes, and much more. You can even put a rack on it and roast a turkey. Buy a good one so that it doesn't warp when it gets hot. I get mine at a restaurant supply store where the quality is sturdy and the prices are good.
- Tea kettle
Remember: always buy the best quality you can afford and select pieces that you love and think are beautiful.