A little about me: I cook a lot, mostly dinner at home for my family and friends but sometimes for massive parties of upwards of 200 people. I’ve been doing sous vide cooking since 2010. I run a food blog called Unselling Convenience (also @unsellingconvenience on Instagram if you’d rather follow along there), which is mostly an inspiration board and memory database of things I’ve enjoyed cooking and probably want to cook again. I believe that shortcuts are great, but not at the expense of quality. I administer the Everyday Sous Vide and Instant Pot Love groups on Facebook.
I wrote a long post about the gear kit we’ve assembled for car camping. People thought it was very helpful, and I’ve gotten a number of requests to do one for cooking gear over the years. I’ve finally gotten around to it, so here we are.
I enjoy inspiring other people to cook and giving advice. Also, I love gadgets, and I’ve tried out a LOT of stuff. I have strong opinions. This post is mostly about things I use in the kitchen plus a few things I don’t and why, and I hope it’s informative and fun for you.
The world of kitchen gadgets is gigantic and most of them are junk. My aim here is to provide a basic overview guide for kitchen equipment with some shoutouts for specific tools I prefer, to help navigate that minefield. Unless otherwise specified, everything listed here is something I’ve used myself. If you buy something from one of the links, I probably get a small commission which won’t even come close to defraying the amount of money I’ve spent on these things over the years but which will make me happy anyway.
This is part of a series, if you’re looking for a specific chapter:
- My Cooking Kit, Part 1 — Cookware & Bakeware
- My Cooking Kit, Part 2 — Knives
- My Cooking Kit, Part 3 — Basic General Tools
- My Cooking Kit, Part 4 — More Specialized and Obscure Tools
- My Cooking Kit, Part 5 — Devices & Electrics
or see my other food writings at https://counter.kitchen.
A respectable basic collection will include at a minimum:
- One 10" stainless frying pan
- One 12" stainless frying pan
- One 10" nonstick frying pan
- Two stainless saucepans, 3–4 quarts
- One 8 or 12 quart stockpot
- One or two half sheet pans
Everything else is some flavor of optional, and will depend on what you want to cook. It’s important but not critical to match the size of the pan to what you’re cooking. A pan that’s too small will be crowded and your food will steam instead of searing. A pan that’s too large will burn where there isn’t food.
Most pans will work fine on either electric or gas, though I have some notes interspersed about some things that work better (mostly for electric and small burners you want conductive materials that will spread the heat out and cool faster when you remove them from the heat). Induction is a different beast altogether — pans that are not magnetic simply will not work at all, so you’ll need to avoid pure aluminum, copper, and cheaper stainless steel. For glass cooktops, depending on how careful you are, you may want pans that are lighter, to avoid damaging the surface.
As a general rule, I prefer tools that do an excellent job at one thing to tools that do a mediocre job at multiple things. Reasonable people can disagree about that.
~ Cookware ~
I group stovetop cookware into a few main categories — general purpose all-around cooking pans, for frying, sautéing, saucemaking, boiling, etc…, non-stick pans, for cooking eggs, fish, and pancakes, and high heat searing pans, for finishing sous vide dishes, cooking pizzas, and the like.
When you cook directly on a surface, you care about a few things:
- heat transference, or how well the surface will release stored heat into your food.
- heat capacity, or how much heat the surface will hold.
- heat conductivity, or how well heat travels across and through the surface.
- durability, or how well the surface will stand up to repeated use, cleaning, and whether you can use hard metal utensils on it.
- ease of cleaning, and whether the pans are dishwasher safe. As a general rule, I love things that can go in the dishwasher.
Stainless Steel Frying/Sauté Pans
Stainless steel has very low conductivity and high transference, but decent heat capacity and high durability. It is often paired with aluminum which has very high conductivity and transference but low heat capacity and durability. So heat will enter the bottom of the pan, spread out through the aluminum core or disk base to give more even heating, and then release up into the food. Food sticks to stainless, but it can stand up to dishwashers and heavy scrubbing.
My absolute first choice in cookware is All-Clad. They aren’t cheap, but they are wonderful, easy to clean, and come with a lifetime warranty which I’ve used on several occasions. Stainless steel by itself is incredibly durable, but doesn’t conduct heat very well, so you want a pan with an aluminum core. “All Clad” itself refers to the fact that the aluminum core in these pans goes all the way to the edge and up the sides, as opposed to having an aluminum disk embedded in the base, which will give you better heat distribution. I’ve tried the D3 (one aluminum layer sandwiched between two stainless layers) and D5 (two aluminum layers sandwiched between three stainless layers) lines and I haven’t seen any difference in heat distribution, tested with a parchment disc to show scorching patterns. The D5 line is somewhat heavier, and you may prefer that. If you have an induction stove, most of the All-Clad line is induction capable. These pans will work well on both gas and electric ranges, but if you have burners that are much smaller than the pans, you’ll still get some hotspots in the middle. If All-Clad is not in your budget, I would look at Tramontina. They are very highly rated as performing similarly to All-Clad at a fraction of the price. I haven’t used their stainless steel pans, but their non-stick ones are a good value.
For most everyday use, I reach for one of these French Skillets. The sides have a gentle slope for easy stirring and tossing, they have a wide cooking surface for pan frying, and they are lighter and thinner than most frying pans. I love them.
The 3 quart sauté pan is a great option for cooking foods that have multiple steps — browning meat first and then adding a lot of liquid for a sauce. It also comes in a monster 6 quart size for when nothing else will do. If I had to choose just one single pan to use for everything forever, it would probably be the 3 quart saute pan.
Unfortunately, my favorite All-Clad pan seems to be no longer made — it’s a 5 quart saucier, and they only have the 3 quart model available now. It’s incredibly versatile, I use it all the time and I wish they’d bring it back. It’s great for making a lot of pasta or sauce, frying, and doesn’t take up a lot of horizontal space on the stove. It fits into that perfect size niche between a sauté pan and a stockpot for capacity. This Breville 4 quart size is the closest thing I could find. The deep 6 quart saucepan is also very useful, but the straight sides aren’t as pleasant for stirring large amounts of thick sauces.
Copper pans are somewhat unique — they have extremely good conductivity and heat transference. Usually unlined copper is only used for specialty uses — whipping egg whites, or jelly pans, where the copper will cause favorable reactions. More commonly, they’re stainless steel or tin lined. Stainless will be more durable, but you’ll lose some of the properties that make copper interesting. A tin lining will be naturally non-stick, but is somewhat sensitive to high temperatures — heating it empty will melt the coating, make it bubble, and destroy it. It’s easy but not very cheap to have them re-lined. The most significant advantage of copper is that it is extremely responsive to temperature changes. Turn the heat up, and it gets hot fast. Turn the heat down, and it cools rapidly without a lot of carryover cooking. I like tin-lined copper for making fried eggs and other sensitive things.
Nonstick Frying/Sauté Pans
For eggs, delicate fish, and pancakes, a stainless surface will stick too much unless you use a lot of butter, and cast iron has poor temperature control and will give you hotspots if you have small burners on your stove. For those uses, a non-stick pan with an aluminum base or core will give you the best results. Non-stick pans have much lower heat transference than metal pans, so they tend to not brown as well, so they’re less well suited for many kinds of cooking where you want to develop deep flavors, though they’ll work in a pinch. For many kinds of non-stick cooking, I like Cuisinart’s Green Gourmet ceramic line. It comes in a few useful sizes of skillets including a 10" skillet and 12" skillet, a double-burner griddle with a beautifully designed pour spout for lots of breakfast, and a lovely round griddle/omelet pan for a small amount of breakfast. I make pancakes on the ceramic griddle with no added butter or oil. Ceramic works well for eggs, but it’s not perfect, and I’ve resigned myself to the idea that teflon is the best surface for that, and more modern variations are striving to be more eco-friendly. Unless you need induction capability, I don’t see any reason to buy anything other than the Tramontina Professional Aluminum Nonstick Restaurant Fry Pan, except that the name is very long. Misen also makes a respectable teflon skillet, which is more expensive but is induction capable. Many of these claim to be dishwasher safe, but they clean very easily with just a sponge and a nylon brush if needed. Ceramic pans can be scrubbed with steel wool. Never use cooking spray on teflon, it gets very gunked up and is difficult to clean off.
After a few people recommended it to me, I tried out the Always Pan. I’m generally skeptical of tools that claim to replace a bunch of other things (what if you want to cook two things at once?), but the sale price was low enough for me to pick one of these up to try it, and I gave it a whirl. I wasn’t prepared for how light it would be, and the build quality is very nice. I wonder if they’ve done some sort of honeycomb pattern internally with the aluminum to remove some of the material. They claim it’s induction compatible as well, which is a real surprise. It heats up fast, and developed a nice even browning on some sausages I tried, none of which stuck to the pan. It comes with a metal steamer insert which works pretty well and has a high capacity, but it does not hold enough water for an 11 minute egg steam and boiled dry. I can’t speak to the longevity of the nonstick surface, but it did exceptionally well with scrambled eggs. The downsides I’m seeing are inconvenience of storage in a small kitchen (no hook hole in the handle so it needs to be stored horizontally, pieces that have to be stored together), it’s not oven-safe, you can’t use metal utensils with it, and it only comes with a 1-year warranty. The design has a number of thoughtful touches — I really like the shape of the helper handle, and it has some nice accessories that match — I like the flipping platter (though it would be even better if you could use it for pineapple upside down cake). The colors seem to rotate frequently, if you find one you like, I’d buy it right away because it might disappear.
[Update: I’ve put together a separate piece about some of the questions I’ve had and answers I’ve found about ceramic pans.]
When you want to sear food as quickly as possible, you need a surface that holds a lot of heat. Cast iron works well for this, but recently I’ve been preferring carbon steel. When properly seasoned, which takes time, carbon steel is just as nonstick as cast iron, but the pans are much thinner for the same amount of thermal mass, and I like the way they cook. I have a Matfer Bourgeat Black Steel frying pan, in the 12 and 5/8" size, and this works well for me. It comes in a range of other sizes if you don’t like that one. It’s not available commercially yet, but I backed the Misen carbon steel pan on kickstarter, and I like it a great deal. It works just as well as any other carbon steel pan but has a less angled shape to give substantially more surface area. I’m told that will be available at the end of October 2020. [Update: this was available for a time, but seems to be gone again.]
Cast Iron/Wrought Iron
For cast iron, Lodge is fairly ubiquitous, and their pre-seasoned cast iron pans are easy to use from the get-go. The Lodge 10.25" cast iron skillet is the best general pick. I have two of these, and mostly use them for cornbread these days, but they’re great workhorses if that’s what you want to use.
Enameled cast iron is a different beast — it’s usually much thinner, coated with a non-stick surface so it doesn’t need to be seasoned, and very expensive. Le Creuset and Staub are the gold standard for this, though Cuisinart seems to have a lot of pieces of these recently. Enameled cast iron is perfectly serviceable for stovetop use if you like it, but I don’t really favor it. I do love it for oven roasting, more on that later.
More recently, I’ve become very enamored of Solidteknics wrought-iron skillets. They are somewhere in the middle of cast iron and carbon steel in terms of how they cook. Look out for their kickstarters for good deals.
I have a few woks for high heat cooking. They’re great for stir fries, deep frying (though it does kind of coat the kitchen with a thin layer of grease), and boiling/steaming with the right accessories. I have two — a Cuisinart ceramic nonstick and a carbon steel one.
Care for all iron and carbon steel is essentially the same — wash with hot water and a nylon brush, heat it until dry, lightly wipe with oil, heat until the oil starts to smoke, wipe again, and let cool. Over time, this will build up a great non-stick seasoning. I’ve been using rice bran oil, and that seems to work very well. Avoid flax oil — the seasoning is very shiny, but it tends to flake off in large pieces.
Saucepans / Steamers
And we’re back to All-Clad. If I had to choose one, I’d get the 4 quart saucepan, but the 3 quart, 2 quart, and 1 quart models are also great and I use them often. I recently got a second 4 quart because I use it so often.
The 3 and 4 quart models will fit the 3 quart steamer attachment, which I use a few times a week and vastly prefer to collapsible steamers. They can also be used as a drainer for pasta. I did not like this more flexible steamer which also fits the 2 quart saucepan — the shape of it doesn’t do a great job of distributing the steam inside the chamber. This steamer will also fit any saucepan with an 8" diameter. It’s a bit of a specialty item, but this 2 quart ceramic saucepan is also helpful for dealing with sticky things like jellies and scalding milk.
I’m not terribly particular about stockpots. I have a 6 quart, and 8 quart, and a 12 quart, and no strong preferences about any of them. The primary use of a stockpot is to bring the whole contents up to a boil as quickly as possible, and pretty much any sturdy pot will do that as well as any other. I would go with stainless rather than nonstick. A multi-pot can be handy — they may include a steamer insert and/or a pasta-drainer. These work fine but are hardly necessary. Ironically, mostly I use stockpots for making sauce and jam these days, and make stock in the Instant Pot instead (which I’ll cover in a future piece on appliances).
I have a few dutch ovens, but I don’t use them much anymore. They’re fine, it’s just that sous vide and the Instant Pot have overlapped a lot of what I would normally use a dutch oven for. I don’t make very much soup, but when I do these days I use the instant pot (which also makes superlative stocks). Braises I usually prefer to do open in the oven because they get a much deeper caramelization without a lid, and it also helps the liquid reduce somewhat. Pretty much everything I’d normally braise in a closed pot (which the dutch oven is an excellent example of) has moved to the IP. The results are not _quite_ as richly browned, but they’re still very good, and 90 minutes with no interaction beats 3–4 hours in the oven most of the time. Sometimes I’ll start something in the Instant Pot and then transfer it to the dutch oven to finish.
Again, here, Lodge makes a good affordable one if you don’t mind seasoning, and Le Creuset and Staub are the exemplars of enameled cast iron if price is no object. The main benefits to a dutch oven are that you can start it on the stove and move it to the oven, and also that it has a heavy lid, and holds a lot of heat for radiance — they can literally be used as an oven by piling coals or a wood fire around them. They’re also a good choice for baking crusty artisan breads if that’s your thing. I’ll cover the Instant Pot and sous vide in the future section on kitchen electrics.
I also do a lot of food preservation — boiling water and pressure canning. It’s an investment, but if you’re going to do a lot of this, the All American Pressure Canner is completely worth it. It has no seals to wear out, and should give many years of service (I’ve had mine for 8 years, and it shows a little spotting on the aluminum but otherwise no signs of wear). If you’re just doing boiling water canning, any large stockpot will do.
For ovenware, there are even more materials to choose from than with stovetop use. Stainless, aluminum, cast iron, silicone, and glass are the most common. Glass works fine most of the time, but I don’t prefer it — it’s not very likely, but it can be subject to thermal downshock and shatter, and is a pain to clean up when that does happen. I don’t like non-stick surfaces — I use silpat or parchment paper pan liners when needed. Most of the time, stainless/aluminum is the right choice. Glass and silicone will work, but they are slightly better insulators, so you won’t get as good browning on the bottom and you may have to cook things a little longer. I use cast iron when I want things really crispy. These Glad Ovenware plastic pans are heatproof to 400F and are great for when you’re bringing dishes to places and may not get the dish back. I also use them extensively for storage and leftovers, as they hold a lot and fit well in the fridge.
For general purpose roasting, my go-to is a standard half sheet pan or quarter sheet pan. As they start to develop a patina, I rotate them into heavier duty jobs — higher temp roasting that’s harder to clean off. The cleaner ones get used for marshmallows and other cleaner tasks. Pair them with parchment paper or half sheet silpats (quarter sheet) for cookies and non-stick work, like chocolate dipping, freezing berries, etc… If you have a restaurant supply store handy, go there. If not, these Chicago Metallic half sheet pans are nice. They are also available in a quarter sheet pan size. Also get some half sheet pan racks and quarter sheet pan racks.
For chickens, turkeys, and other large roasts and casseroles, I adore this All-Clad Flared Roaster. The large size is plenty large, and the extra-large is huge. The flared sides are easy to clean and pour from, and they ensure good heat distribution, while still holding a large amount of food without overflowing. They used to make a medium-size with a chicken roasting suspension arm, but it seems to have been discontinued. If you can find one, buy it. Misen (really kicking it lately) also has a very nice-looking iteration of this roasting pan. It is a fraction of the price of the All-Clad, but larger — it’s nearly the size of a half sheet pan (though frustratingly not exactly the same size, so precut parchment sheets leave some exposed areas).
Enameled cast iron pans are expensive but they last a lifetime, and will give a great caramelization for gratins and roasted vegetables. They come in a few different sizes — this small oval baker is particularly nice.
Winco Sizzle Platters are very useful for cooking or reheating small amounts of food, and they can go straight from the oven to the table with an optional wooden base. If you put them in the dishwasher, they’ll lose their shine and develop a dull patina. I decided that I didn’t care about that and the convenience is worth it. They’re very versatile, come in a few sizes, and are cheap enough to get as many as make you happy.
Most commonly available two-burner stove griddles seem to be cast iron, and I don’t love them for making eggs, pancakes, and french toast. They’re unwieldy, and the cast iron tends to develop hot spots if you have uneven burners. I much prefer this Cuisinart Green Gourmet ceramic non-stick griddle. It has a much more compact shape than others I’ve used (pleasantly so), the handles are large and easy to maneuver, and it has a grease drip spout on the corner.
For high intensity searing, I love the Baking Steel Skinny Griddle. It’s pricey, but works really well. It can also be used for rectangular pizzas in the oven. The baking steels come in a number of different shapes for different uses. They’re also great for making pizza, and keeping in your oven for thermal mass to help maintain a consistent temperature.
Cookie Sheets, Muffin Pans, Bread Pans, Brownie/Cake Pans
I do a fair amount of baking, and I have a bunch of specialty pans for the things I like to make. Generally speaking, you want heavy duty pans that will last forever and transfer heat well.
For metal pans, I usually look for aluminum or aluminized steel. My two preferred brands are Chicago Metallic Commercial II Uncoated and Fat Daddios. They both have a full line of pans in pretty much every shape you could want. I’m especially fond of the Fat Daddios springform pan, which has a flared base and comes in a few sizes.
For cookie sheets, for best results you’ll want an unrimmed sheet, but rimmed half sheet pans with a liner will also give great results if you don’t want to keep extra pans.
The Baker’s Edge Pan deserves special mention for brownies, and it’s my only non-stick baking pan. It is advertised with extra cooking surface area for making all edges, but if you undercook it a little, you get all gooey centers and everything can be right with the universe. Pro tip: get the larger lasagna pan and make a double batch.
Cleaning and Care
I’m so glad you asked:
That’s about it for now. Part 2 will (update: does) cover knives…