Steam coming out of a pot

How to Choose the Right Cookware

Whether you’re buying your first set of cookware or looking to replace old pots and pans, you might have quite a few questions about how to choose the right products.

The right cookware can actually help you be a better cook, so it’s important to find quality cookware that fits your cooking style, your stove type, and your particular kitchen needs. This guide will cover some of the most frequently asked questions about choosing and buying the right cookware.

The Cookware You Actually Need

Determining what cookware you need is an important step in making one big decision: whether to purchase a set or single pots and pans. Sets can be economical, can get you all the basics, and they are popular for those who are just starting out.

Related: See our guide to the best cookware sets here

See our buying guide for individual pieces here

On the other hand, buying pieces lets you pick different brands and different material types, and reduces the amount of space you need for storage in some cases. Sets can include pots and pans that you might not ever use.

What you need depends largely on the type of cooking you do most often. Many cooks don’t have much use for a saute pan, for example, and some cooks only need large skillets and pots (rather than the small sizes that are common in sets).

All-Clad Stainless 10 Piece Set
This All-Clad set includes 10-pieces

There are some basics new cooks will want to have (we’ll talk about basics next), but another thing to consider is what you need beyond basic pots and pans. Some of the additional cookware to think about (and which can help you make further decisions about sets vs. single pieces) include:

A Guide to Basics

If you’re building your kitchen’s inventory, you probably want to know what essentials you need to get you by for most of your cooking. Here are some of the basics we think you should consider.

  • Nonstick skillet, 10- or 12-inch: Even if stainless is your cookware of choice, you may need a nonstick frying pan for eggs, fish, and other foods that stick easily. A good nonstick skillet is a go-to for many new cooks. (See our top picks here.)
  • Large pot, 6-8 quarts: To cook pasta, you gotta have the right size pot to get the job done. We recommend going for a 6-8 quart pot to ensure that the noodles don’t get all mushy.
  • Skillet with lid, 10-12 inch: Stainless would be a great option for this other large skillet, and make sure it has a lid. This skillet can be versatile and cook any number of things. Bonus points if it’s oven-safe. This can also do the work of a sauté pan in some cases. 
  • Saucepan, 4 quart: If you only have one saucepan, a 4 quart size should do the trick. This is perfect for rice, boiling eggs, or for quick pasta sauces. We recommend stainless for this, and adding a steamer basket can make it even more versatile.

Now, this is a very minimal list, and if you are feeding a family or plan to do much cooking beyond the basics, you’ll definitely want to add to it. However, these four pots and pans can get you started if you’re not sure where to begin, or if you want a solid foundation of key pieces to build off of. 

Cookware Material

The two most common types of cookware you’ll see are stainless steel and nonstick. Nonstick pans come in a variety of sub-categories based on the nonstick material and the construction of the pan itself. Stainless also has some sub-categories based on what the core is made of (stainless doesn’t conduct heat well so cores are typically made of aluminum or other materials).

There are additional types of cookware you’ll see, including:

  • Copper
  • Ceramic
  • Cast iron
  • Aluminum
  • Titanium
  • Carbon steel

Cookware on a blue background

The benefits, drawbacks, and purposes of each type of material is something we’ll cover at another time, but for now just know this: Stainless steel and nonstick are the most common and will fit most of your cooking purposes. Some of the other types are worth looking into, but most cooks who purchase specialty materials do so with a specific purpose in mind.

Related: Learn more about cookware material on our Cookware Set Buying Guide

It’s definitely worth doing research on nonstick pans, as there are plenty of do’s and don’ts that you should know about. There are also legitimate worries about specific types of nonstick material, so we recommend learning a bit about what you’re intending to buy to ensure you get the right pan. Note: If you have or plan to have an induction cooktop, you’ll also need to be sure the cookware you buy is induction-safe. 

Types of Pots and Pans

As you’re looking at sets and pieces, you’ll see a few types of pots and pans. Here’s a brief guide to what each of these key cookware items are, and what you might use them for.

Frying Pan/Skillet: The ubiquitous skillet (also called a frying pan) is marked by its sloped sides and flat bottom. This is really the most commonly used item in the kitchen, and it can be used for sauteing (though a saute pan is different — more on that in a moment).

Saute Pan: Sister to the skillet is the saute pan, which many home cooks do fine without. It is different from the skillet in that it has straight sides. This shape gives you more surface area and a bit more depth. While it might be preferable for some recipes, the skillet can accomplish most of the tasks you’d use a saute pan for. Thus, you can probably get away with not having one.

skillet vs saute pan
All-Clad Skillet & Saute Pan

Saucepan: What we usually call a “pot” is usually the saucepan. This item is round, with tall sides, and used for liquids — sauces, soups, water, and so forth. Saucepans come in sizes ranging from 1.5 quarts and larger, with the largest sizes called saucepots or stock pots.

Stock Pot: A stock pot is good to have for all the large liquid things you need to cook: broths, large batches of soups or pasta sauces, and so forth. Sizes usually begin at 6 quarts but are typically larger — 12 quarts is a popular and useful size, though you may want to go bigger if you know you’ll need the room.

Budget Considerations

Of course, all of this information is for nothing if we don’t talk about costs. Cookware can be expensive, and as a general rule of thumb, the pricier stuff is better (although that’s not **always** true). Our best advice is to buy the best cookware you can afford, but always do plenty of research on particular brands, sets, and even pieces to be sure you get the most for your money.

In many cases, it’s best to buy pieces one at a time so that you can get the best you can afford. However, if you’re moving into your first place or starting from scratch, a cookware set is an easy way to get almost everything you need all at once.

Final Tips

Ready to get to shopping? Here are a few last minute tips:

  • Double check to see if lids are included when you buy any cookware — you’ll want to have lids for most of your stock. If they aren’t, be sure to see if you can buy them separately.
  • While there are plenty of well-known and trusted brands, there are plenty of newer names and up-and-coming cookware companies that offer excellent products at lower prices.
  • Consider particular features that matter to you: For example, oven safe, dishwasher safe, comfortability, or weight. Then, it’s easier to narrow down the search to find the right cookware for your particular needs.
  • Get to know the parts of pans so you can be discerning in your selection. Some keywords are: Cladding, rivets, and core.
  • Be sure your cookware will work with your stove type. This doesn’t matter for all, but some kinds of stovetops won’t work with some cookware.


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One Comment

  1. I like how you said that what you need depends largely on the type of cooking you do most often. I often saute and fry my food. I appreciate the tips on how to choose the right cookware.

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