In researching our recent report on cookware, we identified several top-rated sets. However, we kept coming across the same complaint: The cookware sets many consumers bought don't contain the pieces they need most. The editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine agree, saying manufacturers usually include cookware that isn't the right size or shape, while omitting must-have pots and pans. We set out to determine which pieces should be included in the ideal cookware collection.

To find the answer, we consulted several sources, including Cook's Illustrated, Good Housekeeping and Real Simple magazine. All recommend three essential pieces.

  • A 2-quart covered saucepan: The editors of Real Simple magazine say this is "the right piece of equipment for making sauces and rice, or for reheating soup and pasta sauce." They consider copper the ideal material for a small saucepan, as it's highly responsive to temperature changes. However, our research suggests that "clad" cookware, which has a core of aluminum sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel, is just as good -- and much easier to care for.
  • An 8-quart covered stockpot: This will be used most often to boil pasta or vegetables like corn on the cob. However, it's also useful for making large batches of soup, and it can accommodate whole lobsters. Real Simple says your stockpot should be less "hefty" than your other cookware so you can lift it when it's full. Large, comfortable handles are a must, and a colander insert is useful for lifting out pasta or veggies.
  • One large skillet or sauté pan in stainless steel: This material is more versatile than any other; it can be used for everything from searing to stir-frying. Real Simple says the most versatile piece possible is a 10-inch stainless sauté pan, which is like a frying pan with high, vertical sides. However, the editors of Cook's Illustrated disagree, saying that they prefer skillets with lower, sloping walls to speed evaporation and promote browning. Their go-to pan is a 12-inch traditional skillet, which is large enough to hold four chicken breasts without crowding. Sharon Franke of Good Housekeeping takes a middle ground, recommending a 12-inch pan with deep, but sloped sides. With this kind of pan, she says, you can brown meat and still have room to add other ingredients, or stir-fry veggies.

The editors of Real Simple say these three pieces will "cover just about any cooking task." Rather than buy additional cookware, they recommend spending as much as you can for a top-quality saucepan, stockpot and skillet. However, the editors of Good Housekeeping and Cook's Illustrated say there are a few other pieces to make your cookware collection complete.

  • A 10-inch nonstick skillet: Sharon Franke says this is "the piece of cookware that will really get a workout in your kitchen," making everything from frittatas to grilled cheese. She recommends a nonstick pan for easy cleanup, since you'll be using it often. The editors of Cook's Illustrated agree that a 10-inch nonstick skillet is useful for delicate foods, like fish and omelets, although they don't consider it the most important pan in your kitchen.
  • A 3- or 4-quart covered saucepan: Cook's Illustrated says this is useful for vegetables and other side dishes, while Good Housekeeping recommends it for rice and pudding.
  • A large Dutch oven with a lid: This is ideal for braising, deep-frying, and preparing soups and stews. It can also be used for cooking short pasta (such as penne or shells) and even for baking bread. The editors of Cook's Illustrated say this pot should hold 5 to 7 quarts, while Franke recommends a capacity of* 4 to 6 quarts. Both sources recommend an enameled cast-iron finish, which can go from stove to oven to table.

Together, these six pieces make up a good basic cookware set. The editors of Cook's Illustrated also recommend buying a 12-inch cast-iron skillet for frying and searing. It's also useful for browning steaks and burgers, Franke says, but cast iron requires extra care when cleaning.

We suggest starting with the first few essential pieces and continue to build on your collection as your cooking demands evolve.

Tags: Editors Notes, Cookware, Dutch Ovens, Skillets, Soup Pots
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