On any given week, our test kitchen is putting a dozen or so recipes through the ringer: testing, measuring, re-testing, cross-checking, and plenty of tasting. For one, that means our dishwasher gets a lot of use. But it also means we’re running our kitchen equipment through the ringer, and as a result have some pretty strong opinions about what makes good cookware—and what doesn’t. Here are our top picks for what we’d call our pot and pan essentials: the skillets, saucepans, and stockpots that we’d reach for before anything else, and that we’d happily give to anyone.
Planning an upgrade for your kitchen? Giving a gift to someone who’s just starting out with their own? These are what you want.
Lodge Cast Iron Pan
If you want to be all minimalist about it, you could begin and end this list with this cast iron skillet. Beyond sturdy, oven-safe, and capable of retaining heat and delivering a burnished sear unlike anything else (not to mention super affordable), cast iron is a must-have for everyone. While we prefer vintage models for their superior ergonomics, lighter weight, and denser iron content, Lodge’s new skillets have everything you need and nothing you don’t, and they come pre-seasoned to give you a nice head start on developing that perfect patina that will turn virtually non-stick with time. Amazon
All-Clad fry pan
An all-too-common myth about cast iron: that it’s an excellent conductor of heat, which is why it browns steaks and veggies so well. This is the opposite of true. Cast iron’s a terrible conductor: it heats up slowly and unevenly, and once it’s hot, it stays that way for a long time. That makes it great for tasks like baking casseroles evenly and searing meat, but it’s not what you want when you need your pan to react more quickly to changes in stove temperature. For those uses, stick to stainless steel], ideally a skillet clad with a layer of copper in the middle (unlike iron, copper actually is a great heat conductor). All Clad’s 12-inch skillet is heat-responsive, nicely ergonomic, and will last you a lifetime. The optional lid isn’t necessary for all tasks, but we like having it on hand. Amazon
Calphalon Omelette Pan
If you cook eggs or pancakes regularly, a non-stick pan is worth an order, as even well-kept iron and steel pans can cause some sticking. Most non-stick skillets on the market are one of two extremes: bargain-bin low quality ones that scratch and warp so easily they’re effectively disposable, and really pricey ones from high-end manufacturers that…eventually get scratched anyway. We recommend neither. Our test kitchen director Stacy Adimando’s favorite non-stick is the mid-range anodized line from—yes—Emeril Lagasse. ‘Really! They never warp or scratch and I love the way they feel.’ The line is hard to find at retailers and online stores these days, so if you can’t score a 10-inch one, pick up Calphalon’s anodized non-stick version for similar quality without breaking the bank. Amazon
All-Clad sauce pan
The ne plus ultra of saucepans, sauciers are perfect for small to medium batches of soup, but they’re also ideal for sauces, stirred custards, and anything that needs gentle, even heating—their smooth, rounded bottoms mean no corners that your whisk or wooden spoon can’t access. Of course, a saucier is only as good as the materials that go into it, which is why we’re all for All-Clad again here—stainless steel with a copper core make for even heating and fast heat response. Amazon
Enameled French Oven
Stock, stews, braises, chili—a sturdy Dutch oven is perfect for it all, and though a proper enameled one is an investment, like everything else on this list, it’s designed for the long haul. Buy one, be sure to read Le Creuset’s generous replacement warranty, and you’re set for life. And yes, Le Creuset’s the one we rely on day in, day out. Pretty, isn’t she? Amazon
Stainless Steel Stock Pot
Most of what a stockpot does, a Dutch oven does just fine, but if you make lots of stock and pasta, it’s a handy thing. 6 quarts is big enough for most purposes without gobbling up your cabinet space, and the stainless steel construction makes it lighter and more heat-responsive than a Dutch oven. Amazon
All-Clad sauté pan
With straight sides and a greater depth, saute pans are, ironically, less apt for sauteeing than the skillets above, but they make great vessels for braising vegetables or shallow-frying schnitzel without lugging a heavy Dutch oven onto the countertop. They’re handy for building pasta sauces, too, and deep enough that you can toss your cooked pasta in and finish it right with the sauce. Amazon