1. Cast-Iron Skillet
An old-fashioned cast-iron skillet is close to a perfect pan. It's versatile and very affordable. The heavy pan holds heat and distributes it evenly, so it browns well rather than scorching the food in some spots and leaving it pale in others. It's nonstick, and there's no surface layer to scratch off. It lasts a lifetime (or longer, as anyone lucky enough to have inherited Grandma's pan knows), and it just gets better with age. You can use it on the stovetop or in the oven. It works especially well for searing, sauteing, and baking. The best ones are made in the United States. Look for a heavy pan that's at least 1/8 inch thick. New pans look gray and raw, but they turn black once seasoned. A good all-purpose size is 10 or 12 inches.
2. Cast-Iron Grill Pan
Meant to be used on top of the stove, a grill pan has ridges that are similar to the grates of a grill. These ridges give food enticing grill marks, plus they let fat drain. Cook pretty much anything in a grill pan that you would normally cook on the grill, such as chicken, vegetables, kebabs, and even fruit. We prefer grill pans made from cast iron because it conducts heat well and cooks foods evenly. To "grill" for a crowd, choose a pan that fits across two burners.
3. Roasting Pan
Sturdy and practical, roasting pans are great for cooking large pieces of meat, such as a whole turkey or chicken, brisket, or pork loin. The sides of the pan are low enough to allow the meat to brown while retaining the flavorful cooking juices. A roasting pan’s size enables you to roast meat and vegetables together—and it can be transferred to the stove to make pan sauces (removing the meat and any vegetables first). You can use the pan to bake big-batch lasagnas or casseroles, too. To prevent scorching and warping, choose a heavy-bottomed pan. We prefer models without a nonstick surface because they’re better suited for sauce-making. Finally, seek out a size that will fit your oven (a 16-by-13-inch pan usually works), with riveted handles that are easy to grip.
4. Straight-Sided Sauté Pan
The wide, flat bottom on this 10-to-14-inch pan allows for greater surface heat and thus better browning. It’s great for shallow frying, tossing pasta, and all manner of one-pot dishes. Look for a material that heats quickly and retains even heat, preferably stainless steel with an aluminum or copper core. The skillet should be ovenproof, with handles securely riveted or welded to the side; it should also feel comfortable in your hand.
A traditional 3-to-4-quart saucepan has tall, straight sides that prevent rapid moisture loss, which is exactly what you need when steaming, blanching, making sauce or soup, or whipping up lemon curd or pastry cream. The walls should be as thick as the bottom, for even heat distribution. Do not use a cast-iron or regular (non-anodized) aluminum pot for sauces; their reactive surfaces can discolor and alter the taste of butter and tomato. Be sure the one you buy has a lid.
This 8-to-10-quart pot is for cooking large quantities. It has plenty of room for big batches of soup, and it holds enough water to boil up to 2 pounds of pasta. It’s also good for making stocks. A thin-gauged pot is fine if you’re just using it for pasta, but if you plan on making soups and stocks, you’re better off with a heavy pot. The handles should be durable in order to stand up to years of heavy lifting.
7. Dutch Oven
This pot has a thick bottom and sides, with a snug, tight-fitting lid that traps in moisture and flavor. With the lid off, it’s perfect for browning meat or vegetables on the stovetop; and it can also go into the oven for even cooking. Look for a heavy 5-to-6-quart Dutch oven made of enameled cast iron. The sides and bottom must be thick in order to retain and evenly distribute heat, and to prevent hot spots. Handles and knob should be sturdy and ovenproof.
Use a 10-to-12-inch nonstick pan, preferably with a ceramic coating, for breaded items, seafood, and eggs; you’ll need less fat and spend less time cleaning up. You can also sauté meat and vegetables, but they will not caramelize as well as in a regular skillet. To preserve the coating, do not use metal utensils or place in dishwasher; soak and clean with a soft cloth and dishwashing liquid (no abrasives).
Watch our Kitchen Conundrums expert Thomas Joseph explain why you should invest in these pots and pans, plus the bonus piece you need if you're really serious about cooking (spoiler alert: it's a wok!):