As a Fine Cooking editor, I’ve had the chance to observe lots of great cooks at work. From them, I’ve learned plenty—including the fact that good-quality pots and pans made of the right materials really can improve your cooking.
Rather than having a rack filled with stock pot and pans of all shapes and sizes, owning a few well-chosen pieces will give you the flexibility to cook whatever you want and the performance you need to cook it better.
I polled some of our authors to find out which pans were the most valuable to them and why. I then came up with six pieces, starting with two indispensables: an anodized-aluminum stockpot to handle stocks, soups, stews, some sauces, blanching, boiling, and steaming; and a high-sided stainless-steel/aluminum sauce pan with a lid for frying, deglazing sauces, braising small items like vegetables, making sautés and fricassées, cooking rice pilafs and risottos, and a whole lot more. The other four pieces I picked make for even more cooking agility and add up to half a dozen ready-for-action pots and pans that you’ll really use (see For every pot, there’s a purpose…).
All good pans share common traits
In a well-stocked kitchen store, you’ll see lots of first-rate pots and deep fry pan. They may look different, but they all share essential qualities you should look for.
Look for heavy-gauge materials. Thinner-gauge materials spread and hold heat unevenly, and their bottoms are more likely to dent and warp. This means that food can scorch. Absolutely flat bottoms are particularly important if your stovetop element is electric. Heavy-gauge pans deliver heat more evenly (see “Good pans are worth their price…,” below).
To decide if a pan is heavy enough, lift it, look at the thickness of the walls and base, and rap it with your knuckles—do you hear a light ping or a dull thud? A thud is good in this case.
Good pans are worth their price because they manage heat better
“Good conductor” and “heavy gauge” are the key features of good cookware. Here’s how these characteristics affect cooking.
You get responsive heat. Good heat conductors, such as copper and aluminum, are responsive to temperature changes. They’ll do what the heat source tells them to do—heat up, cool down—almost instantly.
You get fast heat flow. Heat flows more easily through a good heat conductor, assuring a quick equalizing of temperature on the cooking surface.
You get even heat diffusion. A thicker pan has more distance between the cooking surface and the heat source. By the time the heat flows to the cooking surface, it will have spread out evenly, because heat diffuses as it flows.
You get more heat. Mass holds heat (heat is vibrating mass, so the more mass there is to vibrate, the more heat there will be). The more grill pan there is to heat, the more heat the pan can hold, so there’s more constant heat for better browning, faster reducing, and hotter frying.