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A Basic Guide to Pots and Pans

Many people get their first experience in cooking with random pots and pans donated by family when they go off to college or get their first full-time job. But unless you’re planning on eating ramen and macaroni and cheese forever, you’ll eventually have to branch out to a wider range of cookware designed for specific purposes. There’s no one pot or pan out there that’s ideal for every situation, unfortunately.

It’s important to understand each of the materials that cookware is made from, and the range of uses that each basic type of pot and pan are meant for. With this knowledge you can get a basic collection together that will cook a wide range of food without ruining the flavor or leaching metals into it.



The primary concerns with a pot or pan’s material are whether it will react with acidic food and how evenly it will heat across the surface. If you have to do your own dishes, ease of cleaning is also an important factor.

Stainless Steel

stainless steel cookware

If you want an all-purpose pot or pan that doesn’t require much thought, stainless steel is the top choice. Since it doesn’t react with acid, you can cook just about anything in it. It’s also fairly easy to clean and usually dishwasher-safe, though there may be some special considerations if the handle or other parts of the pot are not made of steel. They’re also among the most durable forms of cookware, easily surviving accidental drops and potentially lasting for a lifetime.

So why not just use stainless steel for all of your cookware? Well, there are some disadvantages. It doesn’t conduct heat very well, and therefore food will tend to heat unevenly and cook more slowly unless the pot is coated with copper or aluminum (which complicates cleaning and makes them less useful for acidic foods). Salt may also cause pitting unless it is only added when the water is already boiling. Thick stainless steel cookware will conduct heat much more evenly, but is still slower to heat than any other material, and of course also comes at a higher price.



copper cookware

The best even conductor of heat is copper. However, it’s very reactive and ingestion of too much copper can cause serious health problems, so acidic foods are completely out unless it is lined with stainless steel. It’s also one of the toughest materials to clean and maintain. Copper pots and pans need to be cleaned separately from other dishes with a copper cleaner or vinegar and salt, and they’ll also need to be polished regularly to keep up their appearance.



glass pan

Glass is non-reactive, so it can be safely used with any type of food. It also retains heat well, keeping food warm when removed from the cooking surface. There are a number of downsides, however. Uneven heat sources like electric ranges can cause it to crack by overheating a specific point relative to the rest of the surface. They’re also not very likely to survive an accidental fall. Glass is also among the more difficult materials to clean thoroughly, especially when used for frying.


Cast Iron

cast iron skillet

Cast iron is a traditional material for pots and pans, and it’s one of the best conductors of even heat. Iron pots and pans are the heaviest type of cookware, which may be a disadvantage for travel and for use by the elderly, but they’ll also last for a lifetime. They do react with acidic foods, however, and too much iron in the diet can cause health problems. They’re also one of the more finicky types of cookware to clean and maintain. New cast iron cookware that is not enameled will have to be “seasoned” with a coating of oil, which can be tricky to do right. This helps to protect it from leaching iron into food, but complicates cleaning. They must then be rinsed out and cleaned without soap, or they lose their protective coating and have to be seasoned all over again.


Carbon Steel

carbon steel wok

If you want cookware somewhere between the longevity of cast iron and the simplicity of stainless steel, carbon steel is worth a look. It costs less than cast iron, and when enameled it does not need to be seasoned. It’s also much thinner and lighter than cast iron. The downside is that it does not have the marvelous even heating properties that cast iron does under high heat. It’s best used for quick cooking applications, like sauteeing or frying in a wok.



aluminum pot

Aluminum is very close to copper in heat conduction and even cooking. It’s reactive, but health questions about aluminum consumption are still up for debate, and using anodized aluminum eliminates that problem anyway. Anodization also improves durability and makes it scratch-resistant. It’s also possible to get aluminum cookware coated in Teflon, but health concerns about the material are still up for debate as well. Anodized aluminum is an excellent choice for nearly every application, but will cost more than plain or Teflon-coated aluminum. Plain aluminum is fine as an inexpensive stock pot for boiling pasta and rice, however.



clad cookware

Finally, there’s a form of cookware that attempts to combine all the positive qualities of the above types while eliminating all of the negative. Clad cookware uses multiple layers of material (usually three or five) to provide even heating, durability and easy cleaning without acid reactivity. Tri-ply construction usually blends stainless steel and aluminum with copper. Five-ply cookware is similar in composition but adds extra layers for greater thickness and durability. Of course, this is the most expensive cookware on the market.


Types of Pots

The general rule of thumb for pot height is that taller pots are for boiling and shorter pots are for frying. When purchasing a very tall pot for boiling large quantities of pasta, vegetables or shellfish, definitely look for a colander insert to make removal of the food much easier.



sauce pan

At the very least, you’ll want two sizes of saucepans — smaller ones (1 to 2.5 quarts) for heating sauces and melting butter, and larger ones (3 to 4 quarts) for boiling pasta and rice.




A stockpot is essentially a larger version of a saucepan. The ones designed for home use usually hold around 8 quarts. If you’re single and don’t plan on doing much cooking for other people, the stockpot can probably be skipped in favor of a large saucepan, but it’s an essential for families.


Dutch Oven

dutch oven

A dutch oven basically serves the same function as a crockpot, but you can get more volume for less money with one. They’re meant for stews, roasts and other recipes that call for cooking over a period of several hours with some sort of sauce or liquid.


Pressure Cooker

pressure cooker

Pressure cookers have a number of applications for cooking food more quickly than usual. But their primary appeal is that they eliminate the need to soak certain types of beans for hours before cooking.


Types of Pans


Frying Pan/ Skillet


You can tell a frying pan or a skillet apart from other types of pans as it has sides that are as short as possible to allow for lifting and tossing food while cooking. If the pan is going to be used regularly for eggs, it should have a non-stick surface or cleaning will be a daily nightmare. Pans with non-stick surfaces tend to not conduct heat as well as regular pans, however, so it’s not uncommon for people to keep a separate pan that’s used solely for cooking eggs.


Sauté Pan

saute pan

Sauté pans are basically designed to produce carmelization or brown crust. The wide design promotes searing, as each individual piece needs an adequate amount of space to prevent steam from building up. A handy feature to look for in a sauté pan is a handle on either side, to make it easy to transfer to the oven to finish cooking after a quick sear.


Baking Pan & Roasting Pan

baking pan

A baking pan and a roasting pan are good investments if you plan on cooking a lot of meat in the oven, or baking bread or cakes regularly. If these are infrequent activities, however, you may be able to get by with disposable aluminum pans from the discount store.


That’s The Basics!

There are more factors in choosing the right set of pans, including the source of heat they’ll be used over most frequently and the specific thickness of the bottom and sides for certain types of food. There are also many more exotic pot and pan types that have specialized uses. This advice should help to get the basic core of a cookware set assembled, however. Once you’ve experimented with your initial purchases, you’ll have a better feel for what additional materials and pot types you’ll want for your regular cooking. Bon appetit!

by Otto Baynes

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