Buying Guide to Cookware

Go Back To Guides

What does the word cookware cover? It's a broad term that means pots and pans-basically, it's any vessel you'd need to prepare a meal that doesn't come from a takeout menu.

The range of cookware options (not to mention the range of prices) may seem overwhelming, but this guide can help: It breaks down the key elements of cookware, outlining the impact they have on the quality of the pot or pan, and the difference they will make in your cooking.

Image of silver pots and pans

What are you cooking?

Do you hardly ever cook, are you new to cooking, do you cook just for family meals, or do you entertain a lot and consider yourself a good chef dabbling in all kinds of recipes. An assessment of your cooking skills and how much you enjoy cooking will help you decide what cookware will work for you.

How will you use the cookware?

I need: Look for:
Cookware that's really versatile as I grow into my kitchen. Aluminum-core pieces with another metallic cooking surface (sometimes called tri-ply), or anodized aluminum.
To be able to make recipes that require shifting from the stovetop to the broiler or the oven. Stainless steel (over an aluminum or copper core-this is sometimes called tri-ply), cast iron.
To use my cookware with any recipes or ingredients, without wondering if they'll damage the pan. Stainless steel (over an aluminum or copper core-this is sometimes called tri-ply), hard anodized aluminum.
To prepare delicate foods, like omelets or fish, without losing bits on the pan. Nonstick cookware.
Precise temperature control-I'm taking on some more advanced recipes. Coppern which heats up and cools down fast.
To make dishes that'll simmer on the stovetop all day-comfort foods like chili or stew. Cast iron cookware is great for cooking all day-it takes longer than some pans to heat up, but it will evenly distribute heat to make long-cooking recipes well.
To really ramp up the heat when I'm cooking meat, so that I can get a great sear on my steaks. Cast iron or stainless steel (over an aluminum or copper core-this is sometimes called tri-ply), which heat up very well.
Cookware that will last for ages. Cast iron can last for decades with proper care. Copper can, too-if you are willing to have it re-tinned periodically.
High quality, chef-style cookware that looks great. Stainless steel cookware is pretty and versatile. It vies with copper for popularity in chef's kitchens. Enameled porcelain can provide a pop of color in the kitchen.
Cookware that will help me keep calorie counts under control. Nonstick cookware-you don't need to add oil or another high calorie fat to the pan to prevent sticking.

How do you care for your kitchen gear?

I tend to: You'll do well with:
Treat my cookware with kid gloves. Cookware that requires a bit of special attention, like cast iron (which requires hand washing and occasional seasoning) or copper (to look its best, it requires polishing).
Do a little work if it's required, but I don't want my cookware to become an additional chore. Aluminum or hard-anodized aluminum cookware-these versatile pots and pans are best hand-washed, but they don't require extremely delicate handling.
To be honest, I'll do the bare minimum. Dishwasher safe cookware is available, but be sure to read and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Consider nonstick cookware, which is usually easy to clean.

What type of stove or cooktop will you use?

For the most part, the type of stove you have doesn't matter, but there are a couple of points for consideration:

  • Smooth-surface ranges (no burners, all flat ceramic) need flat-bottomed pots.
  • If you're in an apartment with an inexpensive stove, consider cookware with tough construction that will stand up to uneven heat without scorching or staining-like cast iron.
  • Induction cooktops work better with magnetic stainless steel (a magnet will confirm its metal content).

Who are you cooking for?

If you’re whipping up dishes to serve yourself and one or two other people, you’ll probably opt for the smaller options in most cookware. But if your plans include a great deal of entertaining, you may choose larger cookware pieces, or multiples of key items, like stock pots and sauce pans.

What cookware pieces do you need?

If you're just starting to stock your kitchen, you might consider a cookware set. Buying a set can be an economical choice for people who need several pieces—but make sure you will use all the pieces included in the set.

If you already have a few pans and want to round out your collection, we generally recommend that every kitchen have a:

  • Fry pan: A make-it-quick must for frying meat or veggies.
  • A sauté pan: You'll need it if you want to steam or deep-fry vegetables.
  • A sauce pan: Get one large enough for making rice and risottos along with making pasta sauces and boiling eggs.
  • Stock pot: A stock pot is versatile enough to do several jobs: You can use it to boil pasta and corn on the cob, or to make rice and soups or stews.
  • Nonstick Griddle: Quick cooking, Easy cleaning. Pancakes. Enough said.

Looking for a specific pan to do a specific job? Check our list of common cookware types for some of the most popular pots and pans.

Cookware Pieces

Which pans do what? These are the most common pieces of cookware. Keep in mind that most cookware is versatile enough to do more than one job, so only the most passionate home chefs would need every item in the list.

For starter sets, we generally recommend:
A sauce pan, a fry pan, a stock pot, a sauté pan, and a nonstick griddle.

Frying Pans:
These shallow pans (usually 1- to 2.5 inches deep) are used for cooking close to the heat source.
These pans have long handles, to help cooks handle the pan without getting fingers too close to the heat.
Fry Pan (aka, skillet) Fry Pan (aka, skillet) An essential workhorse of the kitchen, fry pans/skillet pans are designed for fast cooking with oils over high heat.
Sauté Pan Sauté Pan The sauté pan is designed for sautéing (that's frying food while moving it around quickly in the pan), frying-and because it's deeper than a fry pan, it can be used for deep-frying-and searing.
A little deeper than a fry pan, it can also be used for preparing marinara and other sauces.
Fry Pan (aka, skillet) Braiser Pan With a large, flat bottom and a moisture-locking lid, the braiser pan is a multi-tasker: It can be used to brown food on the stovetop and/or slow-cook it in the oven, then serve it at the table.
Image of a wok Wok A popular, all-purpose Asian pan, woks have high, sloping sides. They're traditionally 14 inches in diameter and made of carbon steel. These pans have a hot cooking surface on the bottom, and are cooler up the sides. Moving ingredients around the pan gives cooks great control and versatility over temperature.
Image of a griddle Griddle A griddle is a piece of cookware that has a relatively large, flat surface. It can be used with fairly little oil, and is often selected for cooking breakfast foods like pancakes, hash browns, and eggs. It can be square or round, but generally does not have the longer handle of a fry pan.
Sauce Pans: A sauce pan has a rounded bottom and taller sides, which make it ideal for many uses-everything from reheating leftovers and preparing grains (like rice or oatmeal), to boiling eggs and making sauces. Sauce Pan Sauce Pan The sauce pan has a rounded bottom and tall, straight sides, which means it's a versatile choice for making sauces and soups, as well as vegetables and hot cereals. It can be used with or without a lid to control evaporation.
Saucier Pan Saucier Pan The curved sides of a saucier contour to whisks and stirring spoons, making it an excellent choice for building sauces and preparing dishes like risotto, which require continual stirring.
Windsor Pan Windsor Pan A Windsor pan has a narrow bottom and flared sides to facilitate evaporation, which is why it's the ideal selection for reducing sauces. The wide mouth also makes for more precise pouring.
Stock Pot Stock Pot The stockpot is a large, deep vessel with a flat bottom. It is used to cook liquid foods that don't need to be super-close to the heat source.
Stockpots allow you to sauté or brown, and then add liquids when you're making stocks, soups and stews. Their tall profile also keeps pasta submerged during boiling.
These pots come in a variety of sizes; many cooks buy multiple sizes for small and large gatherings.
Dutch Oven: Pieces called Dutch ovens are made for use on top of the stove and in the oven. They're normally used with a lid to contain moisture, which can baste ingredients while cooking. Dutch Oven Dutch Oven The Dutch oven is a larger vessel designed for slow-cooking generous volumes of stews, braised meats or pot roast. Traditionally, Dutch ovens are round and made from cast iron. A pair of short handles makes lifting safe and easy.
French Oven French Oven The French oven is much like a Dutch oven, but can be either round or oval, and made from a range of materials. Perfect for loins of lamb, beef or pork, roasts, briskets and poultry.
Sauteuse with Domed Lid Sauteuse with Domed Lid This pan-which is about the shape of a sauté pan, but with two short handles-excels at browning foods for braised meat and vegetable dishes, as well as for making a variety of stews and sauces.
Bakers: These are generally low-sided pans, with or without center tubes, for use in the oven. Buffet Casserole Buffet Casserole Casserole pans usually have higher sides and are used for both cooking and serving. A buffet casserole has a securely fitted stainless steel lid that makes it perfectly suited for slow simmering one-pot main courses and side dishes.
Image of a gratin Gratin Gratin dishes are bakers with low sides and handles, and they're great for dishes that require some finishing time under the broiler.
It can also double as a small roaster for poultry, meats and fish.
Image of a cassoulet Cassoulet Cassoulet (pronounced kasu-let) is named after a beloved French casserole. The pan is versatile and designed to be carried straight from the kitchen to the table.
Roasting Pan/Roti: Roasting Pan Roasting Pan Also called Roti, roasters are taller, larger bakers. Some have a lid to keep ingredients from drying out. These are the essentials for roasting turkeys, chickens, or other roasts.

Cookware Construction

When looking at pots and pans, there are three key factors to consider: The cookware's conductible metal, its cooking surface, and its handle. Each will have a big influence on how you use and care for it.

Conductible Metal

Conductible metal is the part of the cookware that gets hot and delivers heat to the food (this is called transferring heat). Some metals heat up and cool down quickly; others stay hot longer once they've hit the right cooking temperature. The qualities you'll prefer will depend on what you're cooking.

Keep in mind that not every metal in a pan is there for its conductive properties-you'll see stainless steel in many pans, but it's not there for heat transfer (good stainless steel cookware has a core of another, more conductible, metal).

These are the most common conductible metals:

Metal How it conducts heat Pros Considerations
Copper Copper is highly conductible-it heats up and cools back down fast. That makes it a good fit for cooks who make dishes that require a lot of temperature control, like delicate sauces.
(Note: Copper can react to acidic foods like tomatoes, so it's often lined with another metal.)
Great temperature control for advanced cooks
Beautiful to look at
Expensive
Requires polishing
If unlined, it can react to acidic foods like tomatoes.
Cast Iron Cast iron takes longer than most other conductible metals to get hot. But once it heats up, it holds that heat extremely well. That makes it ideal for cooking things like stews. Holds heat well
Extremely durable-can last a lifetime
Heavier that other metals, so it's not a good fit for glass cooktops.
Sometimes requires seasoning before use.
Can rust if not cared for.
Aluminum Aluminum is also a highly conductible metal. It heats quickly and evenly, and retains heat longer than copper (although not as long as cast iron). Aluminum is a great all-rounder in the kitchen, equally suited to cooking breakfast eggs and more delicate sauces.
(It is also very pliable, so it's usually combined with layers of another metal, such as copper or stainless steel. This combination is sometimes called tri-ply.)
Heats quickly
Provides even heat
When not combined with another metal, easy to dent or damage.
Aluminum will react with acidic ingredients (like tomatoes).
Anodized Aluminum This is a specially made aluminum that's been treated to make the metal harder, heavier, darker and non-porous. It will heat up fast and get very hot. Hard anodized aluminum is a great all-rounder in the kitchen, equally suited to cooking breakfast eggs and more delicate sauces. Heats hotter than regular aluminum
Very durable-It won't chip, crack or peel
Creates a surface less prone to sticking
Dark surface can make it difficult to judge browning.
Can take a while to heat up.
Some cooks worry about health impact of man-made conductible materials.
Surface will wear over time.

Whatever conductible metal you choose, look for cookware that has conductible metal throughout the pan-not just on the bottom. This will allow for more even cooking.

Cooking Surface

The material that comes into contact with the food being cooked is incredibly important. It will determine how evenly the heat is distributed, how likely food will be to stick to the pan, and how hard the pan will be to clean. It can also affect how attractive the pan is (hey, looks count too!).

These are the most common cooking surfaces:

Surface Description Keep in Mind
Stainless Steel Stainless steel (an alloy of steel, carbon, and chromium) is by far the most common cooking surface. It's durable (resists scratches and dents), distributes heat evenly (no hot spots to burn your food), and looks great.
  • Stainless steel is not a great heat conductor, so it shouldn't be the only metal in your pans.
  • Avoid scratching stainless steel with abrasive cleansers.
Non-Stick Non-stick cooking surfaces have been treated with a coating (usually a variation of the polymer PTEE-or polytetrafluoroethylene) that keeps food from clinging. The cookware's lack of stickiness makes it easy to clean. It also makes non-stick pans a great choice for lower-fat cooking, because there's no need to add any fat to the pan when using them.
  • Metal utensils must not be used with nonstick pans, because they damage the surface.
  • Look for multiple layers of non-stick material.
  • You can't use non-stick sprays with non-stick pans.
  • Do not use non-stick pans in the oven.
  • These aren't for use with extremely high heat.
  • Some people are concerned that the polymers will leach into their food.
Infused Infused non-stick surfaces are not merely coated with a polymer; they are made with the non-stick material permeating the pores of the cookware itself. This results in more even heat and better temperature control for cooks.
  • Metal utensils must not be used with nonstick pans, because they damage the surface and release potentially harmful chemicals.
  • You should not use non-stick sprays with non-stick pans.
  • Do not use non- stick pans in the oven.
  • People worry that the polymers will leach into their food.
Stick-Resistant Stick resistant pans haven't been coated-they simply have a less "sticky" surface to which you can add oil, another fat, or nonstick sprays to keep food from sticking. Stainless steel and pre-seasoned cast ion pans are stick resistant when used at a moderate temperature with some oil or shortening.
  • You will need to use oil or cooking spray to prevent sticking.
Porcelain enamel This coating is applied to conductors like cast iron. It's most common in Dutch ovens, stock pots, and slow roasters, where slow, even heat is key. Porcelain enamel's smooth surface will also make the pot easy to clean. It also comes in a wide selection of colors, so it can add a real pop of fun to the kitchen.
  • Take care to avoid scratching or chipping the surface of porcelain enamel cookware.

Handle Construction

The way your cookware's handle is constructed will impact how you use it and care for it.

These are the most common types of handles:

Handle Type Description
Riveted A riveted handle is permanent and extremely sturdy. It's applied through the pan, so it is permanently attached and never needs tightening. Pans with rivets need to be properly cleaned to prevent food buildup around the interior rivet.
Welded or Screwed On These handles are applied to the outside of the pan with either a heating technique or a screw. These are not as sturdy as riveted handles; however, they do provide a smooth interior surface.
Cool V Cool V construction, also known as an arch vent handle, is a hollowed out and rolled handle design that disperses heat and enables handles to stay relatively cool during stovetop cooking. Stainless steel is often the material for these handles because it's a poor conductor of heat.

Essential Pieces

  • Saucepan
  • Frying pan
  • Stockpot
  • Sauté pan
  • Nonstick griddle

The most versatile cookware can go from the stovetop to the oven to the table, but all cookware is different, so be sure to check the manufacturer's instructions.

Keep in Mind:

  • Metal utensils can be used on stainless or aluminum surfaces, but non-stick cookware requires plastic, silicone, nylon and wood utensils.
  • Not all handles are "stay cool." Make sure you check the line you have selected, and if the handles aren't designed to stay cool.
  • Read the guidelines of dishwasher safety from the manufacturer. A few select lines of cookware claim to be dishwasher safe, however, we recommend that you hand wash your pots and pans. This will help prolong the life of your cookware, help it stay looking new, and protect it from harsh dishwasher detergents. Many lines, such as anodized aluminum, can't be put in the dishwasher without damaging the surface.
  • Cast iron surfaces should not be cleaned with soap.
  • Don't soak nonstick cookware; it's best to clean it right away.

Everything in the kitchen seems a helpful accessory to your cookware. But here are some key items to consider.

The right cooking utensils are essential, to make cooking easy-and to protect your cookware. (See manufacturer's instructions for specific details.)
Bar Keeper's Friend can be used on cookware to unstick clinging food without damaging the surface of cookware.
To avoid burning yourself on handles.
Protect tables and counters from hot cookware.