Chefs and cooking teachers share what you should look for when selecting these kitchen essentials.
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skillet sauteing vegetables
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"Selecting cookware could be compared to choosing a spouse: trustworthy, fits your lifestyle, meets expectations, attractive, and of course, lasts a lifetime," says Rhonda Stewart, MA, CEPC, CHE, senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University's Charlotte, North Carolina campus. We agree. Zooming in on that long-lasting, dependable, attractive cookware? Not always the easiest of tasks.

Whether you're selecting cookware sets and items for a wedding registry or simply considering buying new cookware, the process of selecting kitchen essentials can seem overwhelming. Thankfully, with expert guidance, it doesn't have to be that way. Dare we say, choosing the best cookware for your registry or whatever the reason can be fun? Ahead, professional chefs and cooking teachers share practical tips for choosing the best cookware.

Cut Through the Noise

Shawn Matijevich, lead chef for online culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education is the first to admit there are a lot of options out there, and it is daunting, even for a professional chef like him it's sometimes hard to choose cookware. "The best thing you can do is think realistically about the way you cook, and narrow down your list to a few functional pieces to start," he says. This way, says Matijevich, you'll be able to eliminate a lot of the things that will seem gimmicky once you have them and realize their limited use.

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To that point, Tricia Wheeler, chef and owner of The Seasoned Farmhouse, a cooking school in Columbus, OH, emphasizes that the most common mistake is overdoing it with your registry. [Couples] "register for everything under the sun, thinking they'll need dozens of different sizes, shapes and types of pans," she says. "Just a few good pieces will serve you well, and you won't find yourself cleaning out cabinets every few years, wondering if you'll ever use that tiny pot or the odd steamer," she notes.

In general, prioritize quality, so adopting a "less is more" ethos may be helpful, especially when you think of future generations that may one day use these products. "I have a knife and a few pans that my parents actually passed down to me and that now hold memories of the meals we've cooked and shared together," says Ken Rubin, chief culinary officer of the online cooking school Rouxbe.com. "Quality cookware will last a lifetime or more if treated properly."

Do Your Research

The internet is a wealth of knowledge, as is talking to friends and staffers at local culinary supply stores. "It's easy to find tons of information regarding a wide selection of cookware," says Stewart. She suggests breaking down your purchase criteria into these categories: construction, functionality, budget, ease of clean-up, and design. Here is her brief overview of each:

Construction: We'll share more on this in the section below, but first a lay of the land. "Most quality cookware manufacturers use the term 'clad.' This means that the layers of material used to create the pot are bonded together. Stainless steel is the most common material, however, the bottom of the pot is often several layers of aluminum and copper sandwiched between stainless [steel] layers," says Stewart. "These layers create favorable conditions for the transfer of heat from the source, underneath the pot, to the food inside the pot. Thin-walled cookware with just a single layer base can cause food to burn, be challenging to clean, or dent easily. Other materials like tin, aluminum, copper, ceramic, nonstick, cast iron, and enameled cast iron all have different cooking qualities based on their ability to conduct heat," she explains, adding that some of these materials may have undesirable reactions to acidic foods like citrus or tomatoes.

Functionality: As you decide what cookware to put on your registry or what new cookware to buy, Stewart suggests asking yourselves questions like: "How much do you cook?" "What types of food do you cook?" "How many folks are you cooking for?" Doing so may help you decide the number of pieces of cookware, the types of pots, and the variety of pot sizes you'll need, she says. "You also need to consider the type of stove you have. For gas or electric, most cookware will work well. For induction cooking, you'll need to make sure your cookware is induction-friendly," she added.

Budget: Of course, if you're registering for cookware, it's nice to include pieces at various price points for your guests, but in general, keep in mind that cookware set costs run the gamut from budget-friendly (say, under $200) to splurge (over $2,000). "Depending on the length of relationship you plan to have with this investment, you have many choices. As with most purchases, more expensive does not always indicate better quality. Sometimes the fancy name can elevate the price," says Stewart. "If this is your first major cookware purchase, spend as much as you are comfortable with knowing that a good quality item will last for at least 20 years."

Ease of clean-up: Do you like dishwashing, well, everything? Take note. "Some dishwasher soaps can deteriorate the finish of these kitchen essentials," says Stewart. She notes that a few minutes of washing by hand can extend the life of your investment. "If you do make better use of your dishwasher than I do, make sure you check the product care guides to ensure their safety," she recommends.

Design: Various bells and whistles make cooking more enjoyable and some also make for a better aesthetic look. "Ergonomic handles to fit your hand, flared rims to ease pouring, stainless lids vs. glass lids, brushed, hammered, or shiny surfaces? These are even more choices for you," says Stewart, adding that many of these variations provide visual appeal more than functional differences, so the choice depends on how you want your cookware to look.

Decide on Your Material(s) of Choice

"Top-quality materials will give you a better cooking experience and if you take care of them, they will be around long after you are gone," says Matijevich. With that in mind, here's a rundown of some common cookware materials.

Cast iron: "It's heavy, but provides even cooking and great heat retention," says Matijevich. Many love cast-iron pans for their versatility; you can cook everything from a skillet chocolate chip cookie to Creamy Lemon Chicken with Spinach and Artichokes in them. "I have a well-seasoned cast iron pan that I gravitate towards for some stove-top applications where I might finish cooking in the oven," shared Rubin, of this nice feature of cast-iron cookware. "I can serve right from that pan, and it makes a fantastic presentation," he added.

Carbon steel: "This is my go-to everyday sauté pan material. It heats up fast, develops fond easily and is really easy to clean," says Matijevich, noting that it does have a bit of a learning curve to get the most benefit, but it has all the advantages of cast iron without the weight. Rubin prefers carbon steel pans especially for the "the feeling of heat control" they offer. "More recently, I've started cooking more with carbon steel pans, which require a bit more care, but they yield fantastic results for sautéing, searing, and roasting," he says.

Enamelware: Love a pretty looking set of pots and pans? Enamel-coated cast-iron cookware may be for you. "This has most of the benefits of cast iron in really pretty colors and styles," says Matijevich. "This is really where you get what you pay for. Cheap enamelware cracks easily and still isn't that cheap, so you might regret just considering price if you decide to get enameled castware."

Stainless steel: "This is what I would select for saucepans and stock pots. It is easy to clean, has even heat distribution and looks nice," says Matijevich, who recommends looking for something with a heavy bottom. Rubin also considers stainless steel pans his everyday go-to: "They are no-fuss and easy to care for," he says. "Stainless pans continue to be a top pick of mine because they are user-friendly to cook on but also bulletproof in terms of maintenance and care—they're easy to go in the dishwasher."

Keep in mind that "cheaply made stainless pans will be very thin, dent easily, and attract carbon build-up that will ruin the appearance," Matijevich says, adding that you should also look for riveted handles.

Copper: You probably want to skip copper. "Copper is really just for show. It looks gorgeous, if you maintain it; but it takes a lot of maintenance to keep it as shiny as it is in the store," says Matijevich. "You have to keep it polished, and it is super expensive." And remember what Stewart noted about reacting to acidic foods? That's also true for copper. "Any bit of acidity will have your food tasting like chewing on tinfoil," says Matijevich.

Aluminum: Steer clear. And with so many other great materials on the market, you don't have to tell us twice to eliminate aluminum from the running. "It can get the job done, but it is cheaply made, reactive, and warps really easily. Aluminum pans are not made to last a lifetime," notes Matijevich.

Consider Brand Loyalty

Just like you may love a certain brand for appliances or knives, a penchant for particular companies comes into play when selecting cookware for your registry, too. "Most folks who appreciate good cookware are very loyal to their brand of choice. Ask your friends or parents for advice," says Stewart. "Once you get used to how a particular brand works with your equipment, you begin to build a trusted relationship. Sounds crazy, but I still love my 20-year-old All-Clad cookware and know it will last another 20 years!"

Heavier Cookware Is Often Better

When embarking on your cookware selection process, a little extra heft may be a good indicator of quality. "More material generally means better heat retention, even cooking and easy cleaning. Sometimes manufacturers will make a pan that looks great and shiny, and it is made from stainless steel, but it feels light," says Matijevich. "If you can touch and compare two pans in person, feel the thickness of the wall of the pan. In general, I would pass on the one that is thinner or lighter."

(About stainless steel, learn the gauge of the material: 18/10 is the standard, good quality stainless steel thickness, advises Stewart.)

Think About Environmental Impact

Big, cheap sets need to be replaced every few years, sending the old ones to the landfill, stresses Wheeler. "Heirloom-quality pans are passed down and continue to serve future generations without sending prior cookware to the landfill. Coated pans further impact the environment, as the chemicals used in coating are often harmful to ecosystems, water sources, and eventually come off the pan into your food," she says.

Seek out Cookware You'll Actually Use

You want to avoid cookware-collecting-dust syndrome. "After some time working with a pan, you'll figure out its personality and how it handles in different cooking situations—which heat quickly or which hold heat longer, etc.," says Rubin, adding "I direct people to cookware that has some weight, but for some cooks, a hefty pan can be a barrier to cooking as it can feel cumbersome or unsafe when handling—especially if you're not used to handling such weight with one arm." This is all to say that personal preference matters, so if you know that a piece of cookware doesn't seem like something you'd realistically use in your rotation regularly, don't register for it.

And whatever you decide upon, be wary of claims that seem too good to be true. "I see people going for the gimmicks like a pan that is nonstick 'forever' or a pan that you can run over with your car…all nonsense," Rubin says. "Buy quality cookware and, more importantly, invest in learning to actually cook to make the most of your pots and pans."

One Last Thing

Cooking is a lifelong journey that involves time and effort to hone your craft. Be realistic when approaching your registry or buying new cookware. "No pot or pan is going to make you a better cook. Having good quality cookware is really like paying for a piece that has great style, will last a long time, and make cooking a bit more comfortable for you when you are doing it," notes Matijevich.

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