Most pots and pans look similar, but there are certain qualities to check for as you are deciding which to buy. When you're in the store, don't be shy. Lift the pan, check the thickness of the sides and bottom, and rap the pan with your knuckle. You should hear a thud rather than a ping. Don't be afraid to act out the movements you'll make with the pan. You will use your pan almost daily, so it's important to make sure it has the right "feel."
Heavy-gauge materials with thick bottoms
Pots and pans should be heavy enough to conduct heat evenly and keep foods from scorching.
- Copper is the most expensive option, but reacts with acidic food and requires special care.
- Anodized aluminum--a great choice for a sauté pan--is responsive to heat and is treated to prevent chemical reactions with food.
- Cast iron also conducts heat well, but it reacts with acidic sauces and can rust if not properly cleaned and seasoned. Cast iron pots coated with enamel avoids these dilemmas, but they are very heavy, which can be a drawback. You should avoid scrubbing these pans with abrasives.
- Non-stick pans are a popular choice, especially if you're cutting down on cooking with fat. Newer non-stick coatings are more scratch-resistant than before.
Bottom line: stainless steel with an inner layer of copper or aluminum is a good all-around choice because it is durable, non-reactive, conducts heat well and is easy to clean.
Well-constructed, heatproof handles
Many pots have handles made of a low conductive metal like stainless steel so they stay relatively cool.
- With metal handles, some cooks prefer welds to rivets, which can collect food residue and are more difficult to clean. Whatever you choose, make sure the handle has been secured in several places so that it won't come loose.
- Plastic and wood handles are heatproof but not ovenproof: you can't start a dish on the stovetop and finish it in the oven.
Bottom line: metal handles with removable plastic or rubber heat guards are the most versatile.
Lids should fit tightly and have heatproof knobs.
- Glass lids are convenient because you can check cooking progress without lifting the lid. Use the manufacturer's guidelines for oven-safety.
Bottom line: lids that fit snugly will keep moisture in the pot.
Pre-packaged sets or hand-picked pieces?
Many manufacturers sell matching starter sets with 5, 8 or even 10 commonly used pieces for a budget price. However, you often get pieces you don't need, and the same material doesn't always work well for every cooking task.
- You may be better off buying fewer individual pieces in different materials--for example, a large anodized aluminum sauté pan with high sides may work better for you than an omelet pan if you make more stir-fries than egg dishes.
- If you like to make stews, casseroles and pot roasts, a cast iron Dutch oven that can go from stovetop to oven is an essential, but is rarely included in a starter set.
- You will most likely need a few more items, such as a vegetable steamer in either stainless steel or bamboo, or a roasting pan with a rack.
Bottom line: you could end up spending less money by choosing good-quality individual pieces that match the kind of cooking you do.