Food and Drink

4 pots and pans that every home cook needs

My family moved often while I was growing up, living in small apartments and even occasionally on a sailboat, so our entire kitchen inventory — including a saucepan, skillet, stockpot and wok — could fit in one box tucked into the back of our Chevy hatchback. We could cook pretty much everything with those pans, since they were easily adaptable for tomato soup, blueberry pancakes, steamed crabs, fried rice or any other hankering we might have.

As an adult, after spending a couple of decades living in a single-family home with plenty of kitchen storage, my husband and I downsized to a two-bedroom apartment with less space for specialized equipment. After I gave a Marie Kondo “thank you” to a dusty 12-quart pasta pot, copper crepe pan and an impractical 10-pound cast-iron skillet, my newly streamlined kitchen is now focused on the four — okay, maybe five — pans that can take any household from breakfast through dinner.

If you’re building a kitchen as opposed to cutting back, don’t be afraid to purchase individual pans instead of a full set, especially because pans come in a dizzying array of materials. “I’m sort of a minimalist when it comes to kitchen tools because I live in New York City,” says Elinor Hutton, author of “The Encyclopedia of Kitchen Tools,” “but wherever you live, it can make sense to mix and match, to customize your pans to exactly the kind of food you cook.” And if you have an occasion coming up when you are preparing a special dish or a feast for a crowd, consider borrowing any specialty pans from your neighbors or in a local Buy Nothing group. Your kitchen cabinets will thank you.

Once you decide which kinds of pans to buy, next you need to pick the materials they’re made from. Stainless steel pans can be great for searing, while hard anodized cookware (made from aluminum, stainless steel or ceramic) has a surface similar to nonstick pans but may still require some oil when cooking. Nonstick cookware, coated in a synthetic polymer, may be important to your lifestyle because it reduces the amount of cooking oil and offers faster cleanup, while traditional cast-iron or glass cookware might be your jam. Feel free to mix and match so that whatever pan you reach for, it’s exactly the right one for you.

And now on to the essentials: With a few adjustments to suit your lifestyle, these four pots and pans will be the workhorses that you’ll depend on every day.

A Dutch oven

“This is the pan I probably reach for most often,” says Hutton. “You can bake bread in it, cook beans in it, even roast a whole chicken in it.” Typically made of cast iron and often coated with enamel, these wider short pots have a tightfitting lid and can handle a wide range of recipes. Hutton suggests a 5 1/2-quart option, big enough to cook up chili and stews, and, if you opt for an oval instead of round shape, is the perfect size and shape for boiling long pasta, negating the need for a larger stockpot.

A 12-inch skillet (or two)

There are two styles of these round shallow pans: One has slightly higher straight sides, called a saute pan, which is great for searing, sauteing and even cooking pasta, while the other (known as a skillet or frying pan) has shorter sloped sides, just right for French toast, grilled cheese sandwiches and fried eggs. “Whatever kind of skillet you choose,” advises Hutton, “I would definitely get a lid for it. That way you can use it for steaming, sauteing and frying — it’s a lot of functionality in one pan.” When opting for two, many folks choose a nonstick slope-sided skillet, for ease of flipping pancakes and eggs, then a heavier steel or cast-iron straight-sided saute pan (or skillet), which can also be popped in the oven for cornbread — with one lid to fit both pans.


A 2- or 3-quart saucepan

A saucepan is a deep, straight-sided, round pan with a handle, perfect for making rice, gravy or hard-boiled eggs. In my empty-nester household, a 2-quart is the right size, but a 3-quart can be more practical for larger families, like Hutton’s, when you might be regularly making a pot of oatmeal for breakfast for the kids.

A wild card pan

This is the pan customized to your own needs. For me, it’s a carbon steel wok, something that I use several times a week; for you, it might be an 8-quart stockpot for re-creating your Nonna’s Sunday dinners, or maybe it’s the 6- or 7-inch skillet that’s just the right size for making your favorite egg-in-a-hole.