Here's the thing: pots and pans are tools. Good tools make tasks pleasant. And if you're sitting there struggling with a warping saucepan with a handle that gets so hot it burns your hand, there's no way in hell cooking will be pleasant.
So what kind of pots and pans do you need? I am full on in the cult of all-clad. That shit is awesome. Solid, well balanced pots and pans, level bottoms, shiny and pretty. And USEFUL. But if it's too much money? Get something else "clad" (they sandwich a metal that conducts heat well in between layers of aluminum, to make the pot heat up quickly and evenly).
But getting all clad for every piece is insane. The usual adage of the best you can afford goes well in most situations, but not, I think in this one.
There are far too many super pricey pots and pans that are useless for actual COOKING. And don't waste money on a set. Buy open stock, and get only what you need and what you will use. There's no need to spend that kind of cash for a stockpot, which if fully clad, will weigh the same as a toddler. And non-stick pans wear out so quickly that spending cash on fancy ones is just a waste.
So here are my recommendations, based on personal usage and on Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen's testing.
- 4 quart saucepan with lid, and a 2 or 2.5-quart saucepan with lid. (a 1 quart one is also handy for ramen)
- 10" nonstick skillet and 8" nonstick skillet
- I go straight up restaurant supply store for these babies, because the nonstick gets damaged or wears off and it needs to be replaced. No all clad here. Cook's Illustrated suggests the T-fal non stick pan, and I think the next one I need to replace, I'll pick one up. $20!
- 3 quart saucier
- I LOVE my saucier. It's such a workhorse--part skillet part saucepan, the perfect pan, I think. They have wide mouths, slightly rounded bottoms, and are AWESOME. Mine is all-clad. Cook's Illustrated has a roundup, but it looks like the cheaper ones they liked are discontinued. Boo.
- stockpot (12 quarts)
- I don't even remember which one we have of this. A cheap aluminum one with a clad bottom. Here's one that Cook's Illustrated recommends.
- 10 or 12" regular skillet (optional).
- Once again: all clad is my first choice. Cook's Illustrated likes this pan from Emeril. The thing you want here is an oven safe handle. Not "oven safe to 350" plastic, but METAL. OVEN SAFE.
- 10 or 12" cast iron skillet
- these are cheap. You will need to season it (I have opinions. That's another post entirely, though), but it will last forever. First option is to get an old one from someone's grandmother, a thrift store, secondhand store or flea market. The reason being that the old ones were cast then the cooking surface was polished and ground down to be smooth. After seasoning, that cooking surface was like GLASS. Even a cast iron pan with shitty seasoning (rusty, etc.) is preferable to new because you can redo the seasoning pretty easily. But, if you're lazy, like me, just buy a new Lodge cast iron pan.
- dutch oven
- don't go too small here, but don't get enormous. How many people do you normally cook for? a 6-8 quart range is fine for most. I like LeCrueset because it's pretty, and you can get it at their outlet for cheaper. Cook's Illustrated recommends the Lodge enameled dutch oven, which is ALSO pretty and way cheaper. Either way, make sure you get one with a metal knob on top so you can do the no-knead bread method with it!
Where do you go to get these things?
All-Clad is everywhere. I linked to Amazon, the ever useful Evil Empire. But Bed Bath and Beyond has those lovely 20% off coupons. Even your local hardware store may carry good deals on things--certainly the Lodge cast iron.
If you don't care if your All-Clad has teeny flaws in it, go to Cookware N More and buy the irregulars for way cheaper. Still great quality! (also check out their knife section!)
And do not forget a restaurant supply store! While you're there for those nonstick skillets, pick up a half sheet pan or two. They are better than cookie sheets, less expensive than the overpriced sheet pans that'll warp and drive you batty. Also, look at their whisks and serving spoons. GREAT DEALS to be had.
PS: saucepans are "pots," in the traditional sense. Most come with lids. Get lids. Skillets are frying pans that have sloping sides and to me, are far more useful than saute pans, which have straight sides. They may or may not come with lids, but a universal lid is a handy thing to have.
(yet another I was told to write about this!)