While my kitchen is stocked with a complete set of copper-core All-Clad pots and pans and a collection of Le Creuset enameled cast-iron cookware in both classic “flame” and their delightful “Caribbean” hues (I couldn’t pick just one!) a solid kitchen only needs a handful of carefully curated items. Seek out the well-made workhorse in favor of newfangled uni-taskers. With that said, there are certainly pieces I have spent too much money on, allured by the prestige of a particular brand or material.
My advice is to save and slowly build your arsenal piece by piece; good cookware will last forever. Here are my recommendations with a general indication on how much you should spend ($ = low-end, $$ = mid-range product, $$$ = top of the line).
Large Stock Pot ($)
You will want a stock pot large enough to fit a small dog or human baby (20-quart pot pictured though 12 quarts should be sufficient in most cases). A workhorse if there ever was one, stock pots are perfect for making, well, stock as well cooking large portions (e.g., pasta, potatoes, Sunday gravy). When I first moved to NYC I went to the Broadway Panhandler when it was still in SoHo, ready to buy a fancy All-Clad model. A salesperson persuaded me to buy a cheaper product. The benefits of 18/10 stainless-steel or a copper core are lost on the types of foods generally cooked in stock pots. Besides, today’s modern stove-top has sufficient temperature control and you can always buy a cheap heat diffuser to compensate for your economy stock pot’s less-than-perfect construction. Look for a stock pot with a nice fitting lid. Forget about Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table; restaurant supply stores like Chelsea Market’s Bowery Kitchen are your best bet.
Non-stick Frying Pan ($-$$)
I’ll admit it. I got bamboozled and purchased an All-Clad non-stick frying pan. Too heavy, too expensive, not the right tool for the job. The more I read and talk to people in the restaurant industry the more I’ve come to understand you don’t need the Rolls Royce of cookware for every kitchen task. To properly cook eggs, delicate fish or sauté foods with less oil a basic light-weight frying pan will do. Again, skip the high end specialty shops but also avoid discount department stores as well. Visit the closest restaurant supply store and ask around. They’re used to dealing with industry folks and will know which product is best for you. Personally I’m curious about the Bialetti (the Italian stovetop espresso maker people) “nano-ceramic” cookware that recently got rave reviews in the January 2011 issue of Bon Appétit.
Sauté Pan ($$$)
I have and swear by my 13” All-Clad sauté pan: wonderfully fitting lid, great angle on the handle, deep enough to both sauté and braise. A sauté pan is extremely versatile and can easily go from the stovetop to the oven (just remember the handle, uh, gets hot!). The unique shape of a sauté pan allows you to employ many techniques where a standard frying pan would fall flat. For example, use it to quickly pan fry vegetables, finishing the job by adding a bit of liquid and covering the pot to steam your food. Also perfect for poaching large pieces of fish. I have the basic model which is very well made and has excellent temperature control.
Sauce Pan ($$$)
I splurged on this one, purchasing an All-Clad copper core 4-quart sauce pan. I also almost threw up in my mouth as the young UWS couple in line behind me bought the entire copper core set on a whim. Why did I flash my Black AmEx? I use the sauce pan more than any other piece of cookware to do everything from cooking small volumes of pasta to deep frying to candy making to reducing delicate sauces at a controlled, even temperature. The copper core will give you unparalleled temperature control and heat distribution when you need it. It’s a beautiful piece that will last forever and be in use all the time. If my apartment was on fire I’d run in to rescue my sauce pan. After my Precious Moments figurines, that is.
Dutch Oven ($$$)
I’ll preface this “essential” piece of cookware by stating that I bake bread. A lot. In Emile Henry stewpots made from Burgundy clay that cost about $200 each. For me, they are a remarkable product worth every penny. If you’re interested in learning the “no knead” bread method – this is the tool you need. Besides breads I use my Dutch ovens to braise vegetables, meats and even octopus. They are a thing of beauty, can take extreme temperatures and have many design features (e.g., lid design which evenly distributes evaporated cooking juices) that other products in this class do not. Le Creuset and Staub make great enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens (Dutch ovens, braisers, stewpots…they’re all basically the same thing) that will also take your roast meats and slow-cooked dishes to the next level. Buying tip: if you buy cast iron, make sure it is enameled so the metal does not react with your food.
Enamel Two-in-One Pan ($$)
Truth be told, the only piece of Le Creuset I own is a 2-quart saucepan with a lid that doubles as a fry pan, a product exclusive to Sur La Table. In my opinion there is nothing better for caramelizing garlic and onions, cooking delicate sauces at precise temperatures for very long times, frying one or two eggs, preparing dairy-based foods (e.g., cream sauces, hot chocolate) or looking gorgeous on my stove.