I’ve been working in professional kitchens since 2010. Over the years, some of the best equipment from my restaurants eventually made its way into my home kitchen.
In theory, setting up a kitchen is a fun task. In reality, even if you’re a pro, it can get overwhelming.
Through years of trial and error and a lot of time spent talking with coworkers, I’ve tried almost every type of pan there is and narrowed down my essential cookware to just seven pieces. In this article, I’ll tell you what I think are the most important pieces of cookware that every kitchen should have, which brands to trust, and what materials to look for when choosing your pots and pans.
Cast Iron Skillet
With a cast iron pan, it’s easy to go right. They last long, can be used for many things, are cheap, and cook well. On the other hand, they are pretty heavy and must be taken care of regularly to keep working well.
Most iron skillets have flat bottoms and deep, straight sides. So, this essential cookware has a big area to put more food.
Iron skillets are heavy, making them hard to move, but their weight helps them distribute and hold heat better than any other material. Whether you’re making steak for dinner or pancakes for brunch, the food will be cooked and browned evenly all the way around.
Cast iron, unlike stainless steel, is a raw material that will rust if not treated. All of the products from trusted brands like Lodge are already seasoned, so they are ready to use immediately.
I keep an 8-inch and a 12-inch cast iron skillet in my kitchen. These two pans can be used for almost anything. On the stove, in the oven, or right over a fire in the middle of the woods, you can bake, fry, or sauté food. Those two reliable skillets can do everything. If I could only choose one size, I would probably go with a 10-inch skillet, which is somewhere in the middle.
On top of that, a cast iron skillet will keep getting better and less sticky as it ages, and it will likely still be used long after we’re gone. That makes the cast-iron skillet even more critical as a piece of cookware.
A stockpot is a large pot with high sides, handles, and, if possible, a lid. As the name says, this is great for making stocks, but there are other things you can do with it. This is the pot I use most often to boil water for pasta, blanch vegetables, and make a lot of soup.
My giant stockpot is more significant than any mixing bowl I have, and I’ve been known to use it to make big batches of salads, lemonade, brine chicken, mix and rise bread dough, or use it as an ice bucket for drinks on a hot day. There are so many things that could happen.
I like stainless steel because it lasts longer and is easy to clean. I would only bother with a partially-clad stainless steel choice for this pick. Those will be very heavy and cost hundreds of dollars. All you need is a pot with a thick, heavy bottom. It will work just as well and cost a lot less.
I also wouldn’t use aluminum nonstick for this piece. Not only are they not very durable, but sticking is usually a tiny deal.
A stock pot is an essential cookware because it can be used for many different things. If you’re cooking for between 4 and 8 people, an 8-quart bank is the right size. But it’s easy to find small or big options to meet your needs.
This pot can be used for a lot of different things. It comes in sizes from half a quart to four quarts. A saucepan can be used to make many different kinds of food, like sauces, gravy, soup, rice, and other grains, to name a few.
It’s also great for making sweet things like caramel, pastry cream, puddings, lemon curd, chocolate sauce, or melting butter. The saucepan is near the top of my list of essential cooking tools because it can be used for many things.
Stainless steel is the best material for a saucepan. Fully clad cookware is made of several layers of metal that are stuck together. Even though it’s not a must, spending a little more on a saucepan with a lid is worth it.
The result is pots and pans that heat evenly from the bottom to the edge, not just from the bottom, like the disk-clad option that costs less. Fully clad saucepans are usually more expensive but last longer and cook better.
I also would only buy something other than a nonstick saucepan. I care more about food not sticking than being cooked evenly; durability is always a big deal for me.
If I could only choose one size, it would be a saucepan with a lid that holds 2 quarts. That size is suitable for most kinds of dishes. From a small sauce to enough rice for four to six people. Smaller and bigger sizes are ideal for certain things but are less valuable than the 2-quart range.
A frying pan is a shallow pan with a flat bottom that is used for cooking quickly over high heat. The sides of a frying pan are only 1.5 to 3 inches tall and not very deep. Most of the time, they are angled or sloped so that ingredients can be tossed.
A good fry pan can go in the oven, spread heat evenly, and take some rough treatment in the kitchen. You can choose from many different materials, each with pros and cons.
Again, my top choice would be fully clad stainless steel. It lasts long, can handle high temperatures, and doesn’t need special care. The bad things about them are that they can be expensive, don’t stick well, and takes some practice to use well.
I like All-10-inch Clad’s fry pan, but Calphalon’s version is hard to beat for less than half the price.
A nonstick skillet that is 10 or 12 inches tall is easy to use, clean, and cheap. The problem is that they don’t last long and can’t handle high heat. If you’re new to cooking, this option will get you started right out of the box, but it has limited uses, and the nonstick surface won’t last as long.
Think about how many people you usually cook for when choosing the right size skillet, sauté pan, or frying pan. If you only cook for one or two people, it might not make sense to buy a 14-inch pan.
Suppose you cook for more than one person; an 8-inch skillet must be more significant. When I’m cooking for three or four people, I usually use a 10-inch option for most daily tasks.
Consider a carbon steel pan if you are okay with putting in some extra work. Carbon steel is like cast iron, but it weighs a lot less. This kind of pan needs to be seasoned and cared for, but it will last forever and can be made to cook well without sticking.
Half Sheet Pan
You may call it a cookie sheet or baking sheet, but most bakeries and restaurants call them sheet pans or trays. This is a flat, rectangle-shaped pan with a rim that is 1 inch high.
There are many ways to use a sheet pan. You can roast meat and vegetables, toast nuts and granola, and bake cookies, brownies, and any other pastries, to name a few.
I stopped buying expensive nonstick trays long ago and stayed away from the cheap ones you can often find in grocery stores. As soon as I put them in a hot oven, they always bend and warp.
Both Vollrath and Winco make good, inexpensive pans, and professional kitchens often have one or the other. Both are made of aluminum and work well to spread heat.
Look for pans with “closed bead” on the bottom. That means they have a metal rod inside the rim, which gives them shape and keeps them from warping in the oven.
This baking dish has three main sizes: whole, half, and quarter. A 13-by-18-inch half-sheet pan is a great all-around size that will fit in most home ovens. Full-size pans are often too big to use at home because they are made for commercial ovens.
If you have extra money, add a wire rack made of stainless steel and a silicone baking mat. They aren’t necessary, but they make the baking tray even more useful.
The bottom and sides of a Dutch oven are thick and strong. It should also have a lid that fits well and keeps in moisture while cooking for a long time.
Cast iron is still the most common material used to make Dutch ovens. You can find them made of heavy, clad stainless steel, aluminum, and ceramic, but cast iron is the best material for this piece of cookware.
This is an excellent pot for making soups, stews, and braises. Even heat is great for browning meat, and the heavy lid will seal in moisture so you can cook tough cuts of meat for hours without them drying out.
A raw cast-iron Dutch oven is excellent and cheap, but it needs to be seasoned and washed carefully. Consider spending a little more on a version made of enameled cast iron, which has all the benefits of raw cast iron without the need for maintenance.
Sizes range from one quart to fifteen quarts. Think of each quart as one serving. This will help you choose the correct size. So, a 2-quart Dutch oven can feed up to two people, while a 4-quart Dutch oven can feed up to four.
I cook for three people every day, but I’ve found that a 5-quart Dutch oven is the best size. This site allows me to cook more if I need to without buying more than one size.
Also, don’t feel like you have to spend hundreds of dollars on a Le Creuset enameled cast iron model, although you will be satisfied if you do. Check out our list of the best Dutch ovens on the market for a good choice at any price point.
Casserole dish with a square shape
A rectangular baking dish with high sides is probably the simplest and most important piece of cookware I have, and you’ll find it helpful too. Even though a casserole dish looks like a metal roasting pan, it is used for many different things.
A casserole dish shouldn’t just be used for tuna casserole and lasagna, though those are two great things to make in it. It’s also great for roasting vegetables, chicken, enchiladas, bread pudding, stuffing, tiramisu, ratatouille, etc. I could go on and on, but that would make me hungry.
Only cooking a big turkey is better in a big metal roasting pan. And since most of us only do that once a year, that pan spends most of its life in the back of a cupboard, taking up space that could be used for something else.
There are many different kinds of casseroles. If you can only get one, a standard 13-by-9-inch size is great because it can be used for many other things. This size is often used in recipe books and online. You can also easily find a rack for roasting large pieces of meat or whole birds.
Even though a glass casserole dish is cheap, you might want to “splurge” on a ceramic model. They’re still cheap and often look nice enough to be the focus of any meal.
Even though food often sticks to this dish, a good soak is usually all you need to fix it. If that doesn’t do the trick, this is one of the few cookware pieces I am okay with putting in the dishwasher.
Where Do I Begin?
Before you go crazy with gadgets and specialty cookware, I suggest assembling a core collection of the most reliable and essential pieces. Now you know mine.
If you keep working in the kitchen, you will eventually add more pieces to your collection. Even then, you’ll use a few pots and pans repeatedly.
Start with a cast iron skillet if you want to keep things simple or are on a tight budget. You can get a good one for less than $20, and it will last forever and work for almost every meal. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
Remember that you don’t need all of these things to start cooking. Every kitchen is different, but most of the time, a few critical pans, knives, and a source of heat are all you need. I want to share what I’ve learned to help you figure out which tools are most important in your kitchen. Happy cooking!
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