Nov 2014 update: The concepts in this post still hold true, but the links might be out of date. For an updated and more expanded list of pots and pans that I like, check out my amazon store.
I got an interesting message on my answering machine the other day.
* * *
Hi Helen! I remember you telling us in the Fish class about your favorite skillet. I'd like to buy it for my daughter for Christmas, but can't remember its name. Would you mind calling me back?
* * *
For the purposes of this post, let's name this caller "Nancy", so that we don't ruin the surprise for her daughter in case she is reading this blog.
I called Nancy back to chat about the skillets. In the Fish class, I use 3 of my favorite skillets (stainless, non-stick, and cast-iron), so I asked Nancy which dish she was talking about.
"The expensive one. The one you used to make the sauce for swordfish," she said.
Ah! The All-Clad skillet. This is definitely my workhorse. It does almost everything. Sautés vegetables, sears meats, caramelizes onions, makes sauces, poaches fish, and makes a fabulous tarte tatin.
"Yes," said Nancy. "That's the one."
"But remember," I said, "It's not good at searing delicate fish. You need non-stick or cast iron for that."
"That's right. I remember," said Nancy.
"It will be a great present that will last your daughter a life-time," I said.
I wasn't being romantic. All-clad pans literally do last a life-time.
Nancy's call made me realize that I haven't discussed pots and pans on my blog before. At least not thoroughly. Since all you cooking enthusiasts might be looking for a good way to spend the Christmas gift money, or looking for good gifts to give to other cooks, I thought this would be a good time to discuss this subject.
First things first. No sets! Just because one company makes a great stock pot doesn't mean they make a great skillet. Besides, you want to have control over the exact pieces that you get. You don't want to get a 10 inch skillet if you really needed a 12 inch one.
There are two exceptions to this rule. One for very rich people and one for penniless, college students. If you belong to one of these categories, see the end of this post for some cookware options.*
Now, the cookware for the rest of us.
09/24/2009 update: I have recently tried Tramontina 18/10 TriPly-Clad cookware from Walmart as a cheaper alternative to All-Clad. It's just as good at about one third of the price.
Stainless Steel Skillet
That's the work horse Nancy and I were talking about. You'll use it so much, it's worth getting a good one. All-clad is unbeatable in this department. If you normally cook for 1-2 people, 10 inch skillet (around $100) is all you need. If you normally cook for 4, get the 12 inch one (around $130). All-clad makes different lines, like "Stainless", "LTD," "Master Chef 2," etc. The only difference is in the outside finish of the pan. It will effect the look, but not the performance of your cookware, so get whichever look you like and can afford. "Stainless" is the most expensive one. The important thing is that the interior of the pan is stainless steel, so don't get a non-stick by accident. Non-stick pans have very limited applications and only last a few years, so there is no need to spend the big bucks on them.
Medium sauce pan with straight sides and lid
I used to think that I could live without an All-clad sauce pan. I did until this year. It's one thing to spend $100 on a skillet that cooks expensive steaks and racks of lamb, but to spend $180 on a pot that cooks soup and boils potatoes seemed exorbitant. It wasn't until this year that I finally got a 4-quart all-clad sauce pan. I can confidently tell you that it was worth every penny. Even heat distribution, great conductivity, balanced design, the long handle that stays cool, and a little helper handle that helps me get the pan in an out of the oven -- everything I wanted in a sauce pan. My soup production tripled after I got this incredible sauce pan. Need I say more? Make sure to get stainless steel interior, not non-stick. If you normally cook for 1-4 people, 4-quart sauce pan is the perfect size.
Small sauce pan with sloped sides and lid
All-clad again. While I view the 4-quart all-clad sauce pan as a luxury, the 2-quart sauce pan with sloped sides (around $100) is a necessity. You'll need it to make sauces and if your pot is mediocre, it will take a miracle to produce a good sauce. I also use mine to warm up small quantities of soups and stews, make risotto, and cook small quantities of pretty much anything that requires wet heat. Make sure to get stainless steel interior, not non-stick.
A non-stick skillet
Most home cooks think of a non-stick skillet as a necessity. It's not, but it does have its applications: searing fish fillets, cooking eggs, and frying crêpes. There is no such thing as a non-stick skillet that will serve you a life-time. After a few years, the non-stick coating will get scratched and you'll need a new skillet. Luckily, it's possible to get a good non-stick skillet for about $30. I am currently in the process of replacing mine and have ordered WearEver Premium Hard-Anodized 12-Inch Saute Pan per Cook's recommendation. I'll let you know how it is once it arrives.
09/24/2009 update: I've been using the WearEver non-stick skillet for about 6 months now and I love it.
A large stock pot
A stock pot to a professional chef is like a non-stick skillet to a home cook: something they think they think they need to survive in the kitchen. But will you be making stock or huge amounts of soup on regular basis? For most home cooks the answer is no, so I would only buy this pot after you acquired all the all-clad pieces mentioned above. I would also not spend a fortune on this pot. 8-quart stockpot from Cuisinart works fine. It's price seems to range from $20 for "classic" model to $100 for "multiclad-pro" model. $20 seems like an amazing deal. I bought mine for $50. $100 seems too high. You can buy a whole Cuisinart set for $100 which includes the 8-quart stockpot.
That's a good starting list. I'll leave the dutch oven and cast-iron skillet for some other time.
How to clean your stainless steel cookware
If stuff got stuck or burnt, fill the pan with water and boil for 5 minutes. Most of the stuck stuff will come off easily when you scrub with a sponge. If that doesn't work, there is always Bar keeper's friend. This stuff will get anything off your pan.
Where to buy your cookware
Definitely not in a cooking store! They might not have all the lines or sizes of pots and pans and their prices are not any better than what you'll pay on-line. When spending hundreds of dollars, I want what I want. Cutleryandmore.com is my first choice. They have free shipping on orders over $50 and deliver in 2-3 days. If there is something they don't carry, go to Amazon. It's a good idea to check both sites to see who has the best price, but take shipping into account. The links I give for all-clad are for the "Stainless" line. Remember you can often save $20-30 by buying LTD, Master-chef 2, etc.
I suggest you use this post as a guide, but check with Cook's Illustrated as well. You'll need an on-line subscription ($35/year) to get their equipment evaluations, but considering how much money they saved me over the years with their excellent reviews (the winners of their tests are often modestly priced models), I find the subscription well worth it.
* For the rich and the poor
If you have money growing on trees, and enjoy wasting it, buy everything all-clad. Don't get me wrong, it's all fabulous, but do you really need to spend $250 on a stock pot or $100 on a non-stick skillet? Absolutely not!
If you are a penniless, over-worked college student, a set might not be the worst way to go. You haven't cooked enough to know what you want, you don't have time to research the subject, and you don't have any money. You are relying on a gift from your generous parents who are already paying your college tuition, so you have to be careful what you ask for. In this case, a set will work. But at least let's make it the best set $150 can buy: Tramontina 8 piece Stainless TriPly-Clad set. Before you get too excited, let me warn you that 3 of those pieces are covers, so it's really a 5 piece set. But for $150, you couldn't do better.