First things first: Examine your habits. As is true of assessing a budget, you should first look at how you cook. Do you spend hours a day in the kitchen? Do you cook precise sauces or sturdy braises, or both? Will you be able to handle a skillet with a bit of upkeep, or do you need something you can throw in the dishwasher?
Here’s our ultimate guide to cookware—each type’s strengths and weaknesses—with a link to each style for further reading. Prepare to obsess, because let’s be honest: Our cookware is just gorgeous.
Belle English, our test kitchen director, uses her stainless steel cookware every day. As she points out in this helpful video, “A good stainless steel set is probably your best bet for basic, all-around cooking, but it’s not all created equal.” Look for terms like “18/10,” which denotes a nonreactive cooking surface that should ensure tomatoes and citrus shouldn’t taste metallic once cooked. Depending on what you can afford and how you cook, you may want a copper core 5-ply stainless pan, such as those from All-Clad, which Belle calls “the Cadillacs of everyday cooking.” Those heat evenly, hold their heat, and are thick enough on the bottom that they’ll protect your food from burning. In terms of care, these tend to be the easiest around: Stainless steel sets tend to be dishwasher-safe. Some pros would quibble, though, that if you want yours to last for decades, wash them by hand, and avoid high heat. And a wise tip to know is to add fat to the pan before heating it; a fat-free pan can warp over heat.
We’re not going to lie: Chefs covet copper. So do our avid home cooks. (This includes copper core stainless steel cookware, which is a bit easier to care for.) For that “I’m about to plate gorgeous quenelles de brochet at a café in Lyon, France, and you are going to want to watch me” vibe, choose copper. It’s what you want for risotto, tricky recipes like caramel, and lemon curd. Copper shines in any recipe that requires precise heat, and it is stunning. It does require TLC to maintain that brand-new gleam, but many cooks love the natural patina it develops over time. Copper cookware has an interior lining of either stainless steel or tin. Copper pans lined with stainless steel can take higher heat and are more resistant to scratching from metal utensils, but tin-lined pans can be lighter and easier to maneuver. Both types of lining are best maintained by keeping cooking heat in check and by not placing empty pans on hot burners.
To clean copper, use copper polish, baking soda mixed with lemon juice, a lemon half sprinkled with salt, or a vinegar-dampened rag. And try to avoid scratching it! We use this product to keep ours in top shape, but you can get a vintage piece re-tinned if need be. Copper is a treat, so consider investing in a few quality pieces right now.
Sear steaks and chops. Clean using hot water, or deglaze to make a sauce for those steaks and chops. There’s something so gratifying about cast-iron. First, after a slow build, it gets ripping hot. Secondly, you can sear meats in a cast-iron skillet, then throw the whole thing in the oven to finish cooking minutes later. “Regular” cast-iron has been around for hundreds of years and is almost impossible to damage. We use it for frying, searing, and even making pizzas. Some cast-iron needs to be “seasoned” with fat before use, but it develops a natural nonstick seasoning over time. It will occasionally need to be re-seasoned. It’s fine to use soap and water in a warm pan so long as you don’t soak it, which could produce rust. Dry seasoned cast-iron completely after use. And consider kits to make care even easier.
When you started cooking, you might have coveted gorgeous Dutch ovens such as those from Le Creuset and Staub. These feature enamel coating over the iron that prevent them from rusting. For those who like a lower-maintenance lifestyle, know that enamel-lined cast iron doesn’t require seasoning and it can handle acidic foods. This is what you want to use for your slow-simmered tomato sauce and hearty braises. When cleaning, watch out for “shocking” the pot from hot to cold, which can cause cracks. Try not to clunk it about, either, which can cause chips. Warm water, sitting in a dirty pot, will work more often than not, but a 3-to-1 baking soda and water paste can help get rid of tough stains.
First things first: The coating on nonstick pans can vary, but most are either PTFE (a synthetic polymer, “traditional,”) or “ceramic,” a ceramic-like coating called “sol-gel.” (Here’s our 101 on the distinction, plus an excellent deep dive on both materials.)
A large nonstick skillet is an excellent pan for a starter cook to have. We reach for traditional nonstick when we’re making omelettes, marinades, and the like and we don’t want to make a mess. It’s going to be PFOA-free, as is its sibling ceramic nonstick, but it tends to last longer than ceramic. Use it over medium heat when making eggs, tofu, fish and other delicate dishes, and opt for silicone or wood cooking utensils (instead of stainless steel) to prolong the lifespan of the nonstick surface.
Though the label may read “dishwasher-safe,” the coating on all nonstick pans will wear down over time. Hand-wash them if you can, avoid using them over high heat, and enjoy how darn easy they are to clean! Use a soft-bristle brush, never steel wool, and use Bar Keepers’ Friend in a pinch.
Pining to heat something over high heat but not have a big mess afterwards? In a pinch, you can use ceramic nonstick (which is typically metal with a silicone finish!) Though it behaves best over medium heat, it can handle heat better than traditional nonstick. (It also tends to break down more easily over time, though, so it has a shorter lifespan than traditional nonstick.) If you want to cook something for a little while over medium heat, break out your ceramic nonstick. Thanks to that aluminum body, it can get hotter and tends to heat more evenly than a traditional nonstick.
Essential for fried eggs, stir-fries and big cuts of meat, carbon steel heats evenly and provides reliable results. (We’ve got some great woks!) Some carbon steel is pre-seasoned, such as this Lodge skillet, whereas others are traditionally forged and require seasoning prior to first use, such as this hand-hammered wok.
Read those care instructions carefully: For carbon steel with nonstick coatings, you may want to pick up a wooden spoon set or silicone spatula set to avoid scratches. Some pans can be carefully deglazed with water while still hot; carefully scrape away leftover food with a soap-free sponge. Then dry thoroughly with a paper towel or briefly put it back on a flame over medium heat to dry faster. Some pans may require a little bit of oil prior to storage to keep their seasoning intact. And avoid cooking with acidic food in seasoned pans, which could strip the seasoning. (For most of these pans, you can always re-season afterwards.)