Is a cookware set for her first apartment on your niece’s wish list?
Do you want to surprise a cooking enthusiast with a specialty pan that will expand his cooking repertoire?
Is choosing cookware confusing?
If you answered “yes” to at least one question, you’ve come to the right place. Today at, we’re sharing cookware basics that will boost your confidence when picking cookware for gifts or for your own kitchen.
What is cookware?
In the United States, cookware usually refers to vessels that cook food on a stove or cooktop. Cookware includes a wide range of pots and pans made from a variety of materials from stainless steel and aluminum to cast iron and ceramic. Some are “covered” and lidded like a sauce pan while others are “open” and lidless like a skillet and grill pan. A pan’s interior surface may be uncoated or have a nonstick coating that lets you cook with little or no added fat. Although most nonstick pans are not dishwasher-safe, they usually clean up easily when hand-washed.
Need help deciding between stainless steel, cast iron and aluminum cookware? We provide more information at the end of this post. Scroll down to Shopping Listto find a list of cookware by material, the pros and cons of each, and some of the brands to consider when you’re ready to buy.
Form dictates function
The shape of the pot or pan and its dimensions affect how well it will perform specific cooking tasks. For example, a skillet with low sloping sides is a poor choice for boiling pasta but great for frying burgers and bacon. Conversely, a stockpot’s tall straight sides and tight fitting lid make it ideal for boiling water to cook linguine but terrible at searing steaks and sausages.
Basic cookware like frying pans, saucepans, saute pans and Dutch ovens are versatile, handling several cooking tasks well. Many cooks stock their kitchen with different sizes, types and brands.
Specialty cooking pans usually excel at only one or two cooking tasks. Because of their unique designs and functions, they are great gifts for a cooking enthusiast who already owns basic cookware. Choose from a wide range of specialty pans including sauciers, rondeaus, risotto pots, crepe pans, asparagus steamers, egg poachers, pressure cookers, tagines, griddles, paella pans and multi-pots.
See our downloadable Quick Guide to Cookware for more information. This one-page reference shows 16 popular basic and specialty pots and pans and explains their primary uses in the kitchen.
Know your cooktop
What kind of burner or hob do you cook on: gas, electric, smooth ceramic glass or induction? Did you know that the type of cooktop may limit your cookware options?
Here are three examples where choosing the right cookware pays off:
- Induction cooktops are for pans made with a iron-rich magnetic material like cast iron, enameled cast iron, carbon steel or magnetized steel. Look for the induction symbol on the box or pan bottom. Or, test a pan’s induction-ready status with a magnet. If the magnet clings to the pan’s bottom, the pan will work on an induction burner. If it doesn’t, the pan is not induction-capable.
- Cookware for smooth, glass ceramic cooktops should have perfectly flat bottoms. Otherwise, they will wobble on the burner and heat and cook unevenly. Use heavy pans like cast iron skillets or Dutch ovens with care to prevent marring or damaging the cooktop. When removing a heavy pot from the burner, lift it straight up instead of dragging it to the side.
- If you like to finish meat and other stovetop dishes under the broiler, make sure the manufacturer rates the pan as broiler-safe or oven-safe to 500+ degrees F. Otherwise, the extreme heat may damage the pan.
Start with a cookware set or build as you go
A cookware set is a great option for someone who is starting or upgrading a cookware collection or likes matching cookware. Cookware sets also offer great value for the price, with significant savings over buying each piece individually.
Starter sets have essential pieces like a 10-inch fry pan, 1-1/2 and 3-quart saucepans with lids, a 3-quart saute pan with lid and an 8-quart stockpot with lid. You can add individual pots and pans later to customize the set.
Large cookware sets may include multiple sizes of fry pans, saucepans, saute pans sand stockpots plus other pieces like a steamer insert, pasta insert, braiser, Dutch oven or chef’s pan. Although you get a lot of pieces, more isn’t always better. The largest cookware sets may have odd-sized pans that you don’t need or omit sizes that you prefer. And, for cooks with small kitchens or pantries, storage may be challenging.
Another option is to build as you go, buying individual or open stock pieces that match your personal cooking style and needs. You can stick with a favorite brand and style or build an eclectic collection by mixing and matching. My personal cookware collection is a hard-working mix that includes an All-Clad tri-ply skillet, a Cuisinart tri-ply saucepan and stockpot, a Zwilling nonstick skillet, a de Buyer carbon steel crepe pan, a Le Creuset enameled cast iron bouillabaise pot and braiser, and an Emile Henry ceramic risotto pot.
What’s the best cookware?
I think that most cooks would agree that the best pots and pans are the ones you love to use every day.