Kitchen Essentials 1: Pots and Pans


One of the things I find lacking on many food sites is the idea of kitchen essentials.  Most sites assume you are already a foodie or know how to cook.  That can be intimidating to anyone who wants to become a culinary master but can’t ever seem to get their rice fluffy.  I’ve endeavored to change that.  Over the next few weeks you will find posts here about the basics of cooking; what kind of equipment should you buy and what is useless clutter? Why do good sharp knives matter so much? What kind of spices do you need on hand at all times? What is a mirepoix and why should you care?

We hope to answer all of those questions and more.

To start of the series let’s talk about pots and pans since you really can’t cook without them.  There is no lack of choices when it comes to pots and pans; from the generic brands at your local supermarket to the extremely expensive restaurant quality copper sets sold at high-end cooking sites, the possibilities are nearly endless.  Figuring out where to begin without spending a fortune can be a daunting task.  Buying the wrong set of pots and pans can mean disaster.

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So where should you begin?  Here is a guide.

1. Don’t be cheap.

I know the economies bad and we need to be a frugal as we can, but there is a reason that frying pan at Wal-Mart costs only five dollars.  It is junk.  It wont work well.  It will destroy your food.  Most bargain pots and pans have one thing in common.  They are thin.  That makes sense, right?  They use less material than more expensive sets, so the manufacturer can charge less for them.  Initially, less material may seem better because your food is closer to the heat and the pan wont take as long to warm up as a thicker model.  The reality is that, when it comes to pots and pans though, thin is bad.  A sure way to ruin your cooking experience is to have thin pans.  They don’t heat up evenly, they don’t hold their heat well, and they WILL burn your food.   There is a reason restaurants don’t use these bargain sets at all.  If even chains shy away from such low quality pans, that should be a sign for you to stay away from bargain sets at all costs.

2. Don’t spend a fortune. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum are copper sets.  These are loved by chefs for many good reasons, but you’re not a chef, so you really don’t need them.  It is true that copper conducts heat best, so produces superior results in the kitchen, but is the extra thousand dollars really worth spending for a few less seconds pan searing that scallop?  Unless you’re trying for a Michelin Star, probably not.  I confess I covet a set of copper pots and pans. They have a lot going for them.  They look phenomenal.  They are also hard to justify.  As much as you may want them, you don’t need them, plain and simple.

3. Non-stick in a non-starter. 

I get the non-stick phenomena.  No one likes to scrub pots and pans after cooking a meal.  It is appealing to simply wipe your pan with a paper towel and put it away.  What you gain in ease of cleaning though, you loose in taste.  When food sticks to pots and pans lots of complicated chemistry happens, and that chemistry is delicious.  I’m not saying things like caramelization can not occur on chemically coated non-stick pans, just that it’s a lot harder and nowhere near as satisfying as deglazing with a good wine or beer.  More than that, the non-stick coating begins to wear off the first time you use it.  After a while you have a half non-stick pan, and that makes for even messier clean up than if you never had one to begin with.  The warranty on non-stick sets is tricky at best.  If you use a metal utensil on them even once they are ruined and the warranty is void.  Finally the chemicals used to keep food from not sticking to your pots end up inside your body.  Many studies have found teflon and other related substances in breast milk of nursing mothers.  Doesn’t that sound appealing?

If cheap is out, expensive is out, and non-stick are out, what is in?  Moderately priced, thick bottomed stainless steel sets, of course.  You should plan on spending some money on your pot and pan set, after all if you treat them well, they will last a lifetime, or multiple lifetimes, but you don’t need to open a second mortgage to afford a good set.  Plan on spending three to five hundred dollars.  That may sound like a lot, but considering you will use them every day, it’s not really that much.  Look for sets that are relatively thick (especially on the bottom) since those pots and pans will retain heat better and allow for better caramelization of your food.  Buy stainless steel.  It will take a little practice to learn how to clean them properly, plus some elbow grease, “Bartender’s Best Friend,” and steel wool when you really mess up, but it will be worth it all in the long run.

As far as brands, that really up to you.  I have a set of Calphalon pans I absolutely love, but that’s me.  Find a set that feels good in your hand, is easy enough to lift without burning yourself or the house down, and that has that je ne sais pas that simply speaks to you.  Finally remember cooking should be fun, but it does take some practice.  Good tools will help you on your way, but don’t take any of it too seriously.

What are some of the best sets of pots and pans you have used?  What other advice would you give to a food novice as they set out to purchase a good pot and pan set?