I suppose, in order to make a good decision about cookware, you will need to know a few basics about your own intentions for what and how you will mostly cook. A typical cookware set will include a dutch oven, 2 or 3 saucepans in sizes ranging from a quart or less to 4- or 6-quarts, at least 2 skillets of different sizes and usually one other goody: maybe an everyday pan, a square griddle pan or maybe even a wok. Those are probably sufficient for most of your cooking needs, at least to get started with.
If you decide to purchase a set of cookware, instead of buying individual pieces, your first decision will be, what kind? As I mentioned in the last post, my parents gave me a nice set of stainless steel cookware for an engagement present. I've been using them regularly for nearly 32 years now and they serve me as well today as they did in our first home. It says something significant that I never replaced them, I only added to them.
For reasons I can't understand myself, I have occasionally bought the one-off skillet in some non-stick variety to mainly use for omelets, crepes, etc. Looking back, I would have been money ahead to buy a really good one in the first place instead of spending $15 for one that would be peeling before the year was up. Water under the bridge, I suppose, but do remember to consider longevity as well as price. Let's move on to some basic choices to consider:
- Stainless Steel (henceforth known as SS because I'm lazy that way). A class kitchen basic. My cookware has (if I remember correctly) an aluminum core sandwiched between layers of stainless, making it even-heating. If you make sure to choose oven safe handles, then SS can go effortlessly from stove top to oven for items like pot roast or other braised dishes. Also handy if the stew is ready and everyone is still outside talking fishing. You can just throw that dutch oven in a warm oven and and go tell some whoppers of your own. SS is easy to clean, mostly non-reactive, does not absorb flavors or odors and it's durable. It is NOT non-stick, but we will talk a little more later about how to keep things from sticking in most cases. SS is a great choice for candy-making, boiling pasta, frying, simmering and nearly any cooking task. I like it especially well for making hearty sauces and soups, when I brown onions or meat and then add liquid to deglaze the pan and stir up all those yummy bits? Fabulous for that! In my experience, it is not that good for pancakes or crepes, scrambled eggs or omelets, as these all tend to stick too much to the pan. Caring for SS is easy, too. It doesn't scratch easily, so metal utensils are fine, although I don't suggest you take a knife to the interior of any pan. If you have a particularly ugly burnt mess in your SS pan, just put in the sink with hot water, add a little dishwasher detergent (I like those little gel packs you throw in the dishwasher?) and let it soak for a bit. You can bring a lovely shine back to your SS by simmering tomato sauce in it, and a magic eraser sponge works wonders on the finish, too. Even if your pans say they're dishwasher safe, though, I wouldn't. Handwashing is better, and keeps the handles much prettier through the years.
- Coated non-stick. There have been many incarnations of this kind of product over the years. Quite honestly, I haven't kept a single one of those pans for more than a couple of years, until they came out with the item described in the next bullet. The coating was too easily scratched, flakes off into the food--yikes!!!-- and I have found that most of these tend to absorb flavors of the food last cooked in them. Chorizo cooked in the pan for one breakfast can show up as a hint of chorizo in the crepes the next time. Not very appetizing.
- Hard-anodized aluminum. Aluminum is great for conducting heat evenly. The non-stick finish on these seems to me to cling to the pan far better than any other kind I have ever tried, and some brands also have a non-stick exterior coating which makes cleaning up much easier. I have used some metal utensils in these without harming the finish, although I still tend to reach for wooden spoons and plastic/nylon/melamine/silicone and other non-scratching things. Once again, for longevity and beauty, wash them by hand.
- Cast iron (CI). You can get cast iron in several choices: unseasoned, so that you have to season the pan yourself, pre-seasoned, or enameled. First, unless you really want to take charge of your whole life, let them do the seasoning for you. :-) A well-seasoned CI pan is pretty much a non-stick thing, although scrambled eggs seem to have the ability to stick to ANYTHING. If you cherish your CI, don't use it for scrambled eggs. CI has the added bonus of contributing some iron to your diet, so that's a plus. It's also fairly heavy so you get to work your arm muscles. Also suitable as a weapon, although choose your victim carefully. A really hardheaded home invader might damage your pan and that would be a shame. It is a great choice for so many kinds of cooking, from cornbread to pork chops. It's fairly easy to care for, just remember to never use soap on it and if you put it in the dishwasher you will not only ruin your pan, you will be haunted by 5,000 generations of hausfraus, chefs and camp cooks who will be horrified by what you've done.
- Copper. I don't have a dog in this fight. I've never owned a copper pot. Mom had some copper-bottom SS Revereware when I was a kid, but that would fall under the SS and not copper category.
- Enamelware. You've seen these in every old pioneer photo and you see it in your local outdoorsy store in the camping section. Enamelware can be very useful, it's virtually scratch-proof, non-reactive and comes in some great colors and patterns. Canning kettles are usually black or blue speckled graniteware, which is just a description of the color, really. Downsides? It doesn't heat super-evenly and things do tend to stick. Great for soups, stews if you like to stir a lot, oven-safe... You may find this to be a useful addition to your arsenal, but I don't think you would like to have only enamelware for your everyday cooking. Covered and open roasting pans can easily and affordably be found in enamelware, and those are definite YES.
- Everything else. Yeah. Everything. Cheap, uncoated aluminum? NO. It heats quickly and evenly but is reactive, discolors, and is purported to add aluminum to your diet in unhealthy amounts. Glass? Not so much. I had a set of Visions cookware and it was OK for some things but never more than OK. Horrible for cooking pasta: the noodles stuck to the pot like crazy. It was fine for making soups and stews. I used the dutch oven of the set as a casserole dish for tetrazzini more than anything else, I guess. I know there are other choices out there than just what I've listed but these are the only ones that came to my mind today.
If it isn't too late to make a long story short, my own cookware consists of the old trusty SS set, a few CI pieces I cherish and use frequently and a set of Kirkland hard-anodized aluminum cookware.
You may find that you need some special pans that might not be included in a boxed set. You might want a wok, for instance. Or a double-boiler if you want to make a lot of delicate desserts or sauces such as hollandaise. I find my butter melter to be very handy. Griddles are nice, and grill pans too if you have a good ventilation system in your kitchen, or just if you like the sound of the smoke alarm. You can find asparagus steamers, which are tall, skinny pots, and fish poachers. And of course there are tea kettles and coffee percolators to consider.
That covers the cooking part. What about baking? That I can talk about in a lot fewer words. The two pieces of bakeware I use most often both happen to be refugees from the restaurant industry. I have a pan pizza pan from Pizza Hut, salvaged when the Pizza Hut in Payson, AZ was getting all new pans. I use it for a million things. I also have a big sheet pan that came from Burger King for baking their biscuits. My sister in law rescued it for me: someone had burned some cheese or something on it and they were going to throw it away. Can you believe that? All the rest of my bakeware is a mishmash of Ecko Baker's Secret, Wilton, Pyrex, Anchor Hocking, Calphalon and Romertopf. I use the Pyrex or Anchor Hocking for making lasagna and oblong cakes, etc. most other things go on one of the non-stick sheets from Ecko or Calphalon.
What about the shapes and sizes of bakeware? What does a cook need? That, too, depends on your battle plan. If you are going to become the King Of Cookies, you'll want a lot of cookie sheets in several different sizes. But basically I think every cook/baker needs a couple of cookie sheets, a couple of pie pans (useful for more than just pies) a really super-non-stick muffin pan or two, at least one good loaf pan, an oblong cake pan and a square cake pan. If you want to make bread, a baguette pan can be handy but isn't necessary. If you want to make spectacular cakes, then pay special attention to the cake pans. The Wilton professional quality ones have some great features, not least of which is perfectly-straight sides, for nice, upright cakes, and sizes that are meant to go together for tiers, etc. If you want to make a New York Style cheesecake, then a springform pan is an absolute must-have. A springform pan is useful for other things, too. No matter what you are baking in springform pan, put a pizza pan or a cookie sheet with sides or something under it. Butter from the batter or crust tends to seep out during baking and drip onto your oven floor.
I think a pizza stone is a great thing and once you get used to using it, you'll use it for more than pizza. You might want a tart pan, or popover pans, or a CI pan for making corn sticks. The world is your oyster when it comes to what is available for a creative baker. You can even get a cake pan shaped like a girl in a bikini. And don't forget the trusty Bundt pan. ("Bun? Bonk? Bunk. Bonk??? Oh, I know! It's a caaaack!" Name that movie.)
Last, but certainly not least, please do give some serious consideration to clay. I have a clay roaster that I got when Mom down-sized and it is a glorious and ancient thing. Mine is a Romertopf, but there are other brands out there. Bread baked in a clay pot is amazeballs. Since mine is a covered roaster, I mostly use it for roasting chicken, stews, braised meats and that sort of thing. A chicken roasted in a Romertopf will get your more marriage proposals and offers of foot-kissing than you would ever believe possible for a simple chicken dinner. They are super-simple to use (soak in cold water for the specified time before baking), clean up is easy and are a classy yet earthy presentation. They are even pretty sitting on the shelf. A total treasure in your kitchen.
There are a myriad of casseroles, lasagna pans, bean pots and other kinds of bakeware that are meant to go from oven to table. You can find them in enamelware, stoneware, ceramic, glass, etc. My only real recommendation on those is, buy what pleases you. In these items, the presentation is the important part. Go with a good brand that really can withstand the oven temperatures, read reviews on the item if you can. After that, buy something that makes your eyes happy.
In all cases, do remember to read the specifics on the bakeware you're using. I did once explode a Pyrex oblong cake pan because I was using it dry-roast a pork tenderloin. You can't do that, you know. Plus, as it turns out, a pork rub that includes shards of glass was not a big hit, either. All kinds of glass, ceramic and stoneware should be used for items with liquid: casseroles, cakes, baked pastas with sauce and that sort of thing. ONLY metal pans should be used for roasting things like, oh... a pork tenderloin.
One last note: I am not generally a big fan of any object in the kitchen that can only do one thing. With very few exceptions (a lemon reamer, that baguette pan I mentioned) I tend to choose tools that have more than one use. One thing that springs to mind is the latest craze for upright chicken roasting pans. I have an angel food cake pan AND a Bundt pan and either of these, with a foil cap over the center, would serve the same purpose. You can use a angel food cake pan for monkey break, lemon pull-apart bread, and so on. I use pie pans for dredging things in flour, breading cutlets or eggplant, and so on. Gadgets are fine, but most are really just space hogs and not worth your trouble. Think about that when you consider spending $32 on a pan to make a cake shaped like a famous Japanese cat. It might be better to choose a set of heart-shaped cake pans that you can use again for Valentine's day, and again for another birthday with different decorations than last time.