I take great pride in my collection of cookware. It’s big, beautiful and carefully curated with unique pieces that I’ve picked up here and there.
Recently, I had to downsize because my wife and I moved into a condo with very little storage space. I quickly found myself having to pick favourites that would make it into our new home. Luckily, whatever I didn’t take is being stored in my parents’ basement. Thank goodness because I’m not ready to part with most of it just yet!
The overarching question I had to face was: what do I need? More specifically,
What are the essential pots and pans I can’t live without?
Of course, I brought more than necessary because I’m an over-achiever. But if I was asked (as I often am) to list what I consider to be the essential pots and pans for every home cook, this is what I’d include:
- 2 non-stick skillets (6″ or 8″ and 12″ or 14″)
- Cast-iron skillet (10″ or 12″)
- Enameled Dutch oven (5.5qt or larger)
- Sauté pan (5qt)
- Sauce pan (3qt)
- Stock Pot (6qt or larger)
- Baking sheet with oven-safe wire rack (13″x9″)
- Ceramic roasting dish (13″x9″)
For first time buyers or those looking to make some changes, purchasing cookware can be a daunting task. I’ve been doing it for over 15 years (I bought my first pan when I was 16) and still find it challenging. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of companies to choose from and thousands of options when it comes to shape, size, and material. You also have to decide if you want to commit to buying a full set or just buy things individually.
Before you know it, you want to give up your search altogether and stick to cooking everything on your beat up, old, Ikea pan. You know! The one your mom bought you before going to college! It sits in a cupboard on top of your glass cutting board. Oh, the horror!
The bottom line is whether you’re a beginner home cook or a foodie fanatic, Chef’s Table-watching food blogger (what? You don’t watch Chef’s Table?), you’re going to need a few essential pots and pans to cook with. This is especially true if you actually want to enjoy the process of cooking!
In this article, I’ll share the types of pots and pans I think are essential for the beginner homecook. In other words, it is my humble opinion that everyone should own ALL of these. With the essentials in your arsenal, you should be able to cook just about anything and everything, with a few minor exceptions. I will also share which specific models/brands I personally own and recommend. Sadly, even though I really want to, I won’t be sharing any of my favourite specialty pans, griddles or braisers in this article. Those are not essential and need to go on a separate list.
For a more comprehensive list of kitchen items that I recommend, including knives and cookbooks, you can visit the Shop Page on my blog.
Basically, I’ve approached this list with a newly-wed couple in mind (mostly because that’s who keeps asking me to write this article). Having said that, I think it equally applies to a single person, small family, or anyone that is looking to start from scratch or even add to their arsenal. After all, I’m listing the essentials.
The common thread with each of these pots and pans is their versatility. I hate the idea of a unitasker (credit: Alton Brown) so I’ve done my best to select things that can tackle a variety of jobs in the kitchen.
By purchasing versatile cookware, you ensure that you will use everything you buy (i.e. no useless purchases, as my brother calls them) and you will have less storage space to worry about (something I took for granted before moving into our condo).
Disclaimer: If you’d like to take my recommendations, as many have happily done in the past, terrific! I kindly ask you to please purchase through the Amazon affiliate links provided. I earn a (ridiculously) small commission on purchases made on Amazon. Most of these items are actually cheaper on Amazon anyways and you don’t pay a penny extra by clicking these links. In the process, you help support my blog and feed my family! Thank you very much in advance!
Non-Stick Skillet – 6” or 8” and 12″ or 14”
I recommend a minimum of 2 non-stick skillets.
I always keep a 6” or 8” non-stick skillet solely for frying eggs. If you’ve ever tried making a French omelette with anything but a great, non-stick skillet, you know exactly how valuable this pan is. Nothing else touches this pan but eggs, unless I’m making a western-style omelet, in which case I will lightly sauté some vegetables and or bacon in it.
I also keep a 10” or 12” skillet that I use for frying fish, reheating leftovers, sautéing vegetables, making Paleo Pancakes, Salmon Cakes or Sedaring Scallops. It’s ideal for anything you want to cook over med-high to low heat and don’t want sticking.
I don’t care what the owner’s manual or the Reddit trolls tell you, NEVER, EVER, put these in the dishwasher and don’t you dare use anything but a wooden or silicon spatula on them. Wash them with warm soapy water and the soft side of a sponge promptly after each use.
As for storage, you can either purchase a set of felt protectors or place pieces of cut up cardboard between each pan when stacking. It’s best to store them separately though. They will eventually get scratched.
Brands I Recommend:
- I am a huge fan of any of the Ballarini Granitium coated pans. They’re PFOA and Heavy Metal Free and most models have a helpful Thermopoint indicator that lets you know when the pan is hot (helpful for beginner cooks).
- They’re the most durable non-stick skillets I’ve ever used. My first Ballarini Bologna has been my egg pan for over two years and it’s still turning out insanely good omelettes.
- I also have a set of GreenPan Revolution cookware that I use as my daily driver. GreenPan is renowned for its ‘healthy’ and ‘clean’ ceramic cookware that is free of toxic materials. The Revolution line is only sold at Williams Sonoma and isn’t exactly the cheapest. But it is durable and as long as you care for it, you should get your money’s worth.
Cast-Iron Skillet – 10” or 12”
The workhorse of any kitchen is a cast-iron skillet. It’s practical, safe, versatile, affordable and, with proper maintenance, will outlast you. You can use it on the stovetop, throw it in the oven, or even cook with it over open fire.
Everyone should own a 10” cast-iron skillet, at minimum. It’s big enough to cook a spatchcocked chicken but not as clunky as a 12”. If you have the storage space for another cast-iron skillet, I recommend getting a 6.5” skillet for crispy eggs!
A well-seasoned, cast-iron skillet will be virtually non-stick. Where it differs from non-stick skillets proper is in its ability to withstand outrageously high temperatures. Most non-stick skillets can only withstand temperatures of up to 400F. Some can handle 450F. Anything above that and the materials start to break down. Cast-iron, on the other hand, can handle temperatures of above 500F, which means they’re safe for almost all home ovens.
Perhaps the biggest issue/deterrent for most people is seasoning and maintenance. Don’t worry, it’s easier than you think!
Brands I Recommend:
- I am a big fan of Lodge cookware. They’re affordable, great quality and easy to care for.
- If you want to drop a couple extra dollars, Finex Cookware is a connoisseur’s piece
Enameled Cast-Iron Dutch Oven – 5.5qt or larger
An enameled cast-iron Dutch oven is one of my favourite pots to cook with. Cast-iron takes a little while to heat up, especially over an electric stovetop, but it maintains heat very well and distributes it evenly. These pots are suited for stovetop and oven cooking, which means they’re versatile and practical. You can do everything from boil, sear, fry, roast, braise and bake in them. They’re also great for soups!
The enameled coating protects the cast-iron from rusting and does not involve any seasoning (cast-iron seasoning, that is).
I recommend purchasing a Dutch oven that is at least 5.5 qt so that you can tackle larger batches of soups, stews, ragus and/or braised whole-cuts of meats (think lamb shanks!). Remember, a 5.5qt Dutch Oven can do everything a 4qt one can, but not the other way around. You might as well get the larger size since the price difference won’t be that significant.
Brands I Recommend:
- I love my Staub Dutch ovens (also called cocottes) like my children. They sit perched atop my kitchen shelves like trophies. They’re heavy, conduct heat well, have tight-fitting lids and are durable. They are not cheap but you pay for quality and design. They are made in France and have a lifetime warranty that protects against defects. I also like that the Staub lids are lined with a dimpled interior that funnels moisture directly back onto whatever you’re cooking, as opposed to cascading down the sides or just the center. The interior is coated with a dark enamel, but it does not require seasoning like untreated cast-iron.
- Le Creuset is another excellent option. Like Staub, they cost a pretty penny but, again, you get what you pay for. These lack the dimpled lids and have a light-coloured interior, which means you can get a better idea of how the fond develops on the bottom of the pot. However, this also means that you are more likely to see any scuffs or discolorations. Personally, the discolouration doesn’t bother me since the inside of the pot is meant to be used. However, I have had some readers tell me that they obsess over a perfectly cleaned interior.
- Looking for a budget-friendly option? Consider this Lodge enameled Dutch oven. It may not be as fancy shmancy as Staub or Le Creuset but it will get the job done!
Alternatively, if you are in the Toronto area, head to any Home Sense store and try to find a Cuisinart Dutch oven. They usually have a few on sale for a fraction of the retail cost. It was the very first Dutch oven I owned and used it for years (you can see it in action in my Bolognese video). I passed it on to my brother and sister-in-law after getting my Staub.
Sauté Pan – 5qt
I used to think sauté pans were not essentials, until I found myself cooking with one almost everyday of the week.
Unlike a skillet, the high walls of a sauté pan prevent oil splatter. They also give you the option of using the pan to cook things like smaller batches of soups and stews, pan-roasts, meatballs, and stir-fries. You can also use it to shallow-fry things like my Cod Fritters.
Like your Dutch oven, it’s better to go a bit bigger with your sauté pan. 5qt is a good target size. Since this pan is often used to brown things, surface area is crucial. The larger size will pull off everything a smaller one can and more.
Stainless steel is a practical choice for sauté pans. Whichever you purchase, look for one that has a heavy bottom. A thin bottom will transfer heat too quickly and scorch your food and/or pan at high temperatures.
Brands I Recommend
- All Clad is the gold standard when it comes to stainless-steel cookware.
- For a budget friendly option, consider this Tramontina model.
- For a non-stick version, I like the Greenpan Revolution sauté pan. It came as part of my set and I use it all the time.
Sauce Pan – 3qt
You may not always want or need a giant stockpot or Dutch oven. Having a smaller sauce pans is ideal for making smaller batches of soup, reheating leftovers, blanching vegetables, boiling potatoes, or making sauces. The long handle and smaller surface area also makes them more suitable to reducing sauces over the stovetop.
They can also be used to make big pots of Turkish-style coffee, just saying.
Brands I Recommend:
- Once again, All-Clad is the cream of the crop
- Slightly less expensive is this model from Zwilling
- For a budget-friendly choice, consider this one from Calphalon
Stockpot – 6qt or larger
Although your Dutch oven can likely handle just about everything your stock pot can, sometimes you will find yourself needing to use both at the same time. Or, you may find that your Dutch oven is just too heavy and you can’t stomach the idea of lugging it in and out of the kitchen sink for cleaning. My wife, for example, dreads the thought of having to wash dishes after I make a hearty stew!
Having a fitted steamer basket/insert is also quite useful. Most of the time it comes at no extra cost so you might as well try to find a model that includes one. Personally, I like to use it for steaming broccoli, cauliflower and other veggies. If you cook pasta, it serves as a built-in colander.
Unless you plan on making giant vats of stock, a 6qt pot should be sufficient for a small family. If you want something bigger, you might as well go with an 11qt or higher. No sense in getting anything in between.
Brands I Recommend:
- Look for ones that come with a steamer/boiler insert, like this one from All Clad. The insert comes in handy for steaming veggies or boiling the occasional pasta.
- For larger versions, this Le Creuset enamel coated steel stock pots. If you’re lucky and patient, these often appear at Home Sense for reduced prices.
Baking sheet with Oven-Safe Wire Rack – 13″ x 9″
I don’t bake many cookies but I do use my baking sheet very often.
As far as sizing goes, the standard is 13 x 9.5”. It’s perfect for family-sized meals and double batches of my Paleo Biscotti.
Brands I Recommend
- The USA pans are great and can be purchased with cooling rack inserts that fit snugly within the pans. This is important for easy clean up. Simply fill the sheet pan with hot, soapy water. Flip the cooling rack upside down and lay flat in the water to help degrease. If you purchase a cooling rack separately, make sure it fits the dimensions of your pan and that it is oven-safe.
Tip: save yourself some clean up by always lining the sheet pan with some parchment paper. Unless, of course, you are broiling, in which case the parchment paper can catch fire!
Ceramic Roasting Dish – 13″ x 9″
These are not only great for baking casseroles and lasagnas, but you can also use them to serve food in. Personally, I prefer ceramic ones to glass because I think they make for better presentation pieces.
Most recipes call for 13X9” pan so it’s a good idea to get that size.