As a cooking instructor, the single most frequent question I’m asked is, “What kind of pans do you have?”
Americans are probably the most brand-conscious consumers in the world. They care about their brand of car, they wear labels on the outside of their clothes (Polo, for instance), they buy Tide detergent when the store brand comes from the same factory, and foodies look for status in the cookware they choose. This isn’t to say that the cookware you use can’t make a difference in your cooking, but it is to say the importance is over-rated –— and choosing a single brand is often a bad idea.
So my answer to the question is, it depends.
I think it’s worthwhile owning a set of cookware because it’s important to understand how your pots and pans behave. This “set” could be Mauviel copper at a list price of $1,400 for a seven-piece set or Revere at $75 for a seven-piece set. The point is that in a set all of the pots and pans will tend to have the same strengths and weaknesses and once you know those strengths and weaknesses you’ll use the cookware more effectively.
Cutting to the chase, my current set is Cuisinart MCP. I got a deal on a set several years ago. It’s probably the least popular of the name brands (All Clad, Calphalon, and Le Cruset) and it’s also the least expensive, even without a deal. But like All Clad it has an aluminum core that extends up the sides of the cookware (as opposed to a single aluminum disk on the bottom or pure aluminum). This design conducts more heat into the contents of the pan. Frankly, I consider that a minor issue, but my set has proven to be durable and has long, comfortable handles that stay cool.
Handles matter. Comfort in your hand is important, not getting hot is important, and being able to put any pot or pan in a hot oven without the handle melting is important. You also want riveted and not welded handles, even though cleaning around rivets is a hassle.
I also like stainless steel interiors and exteriors. Although stainless will stain, it resists staining and with a bit of care will continue to look pristine for years. It’s also largely non-reactive (a claim aluminum and copper can’t make) and so won’t impart off flavors to your food. However, stainless steel is a poor heat conductor, while aluminum and copper are great heat conductors. So if you pair aluminum with stainless steel, you’ve got an excellent pot. But not a perfect pot for every purpose.
One of the very first pieces of cookware I ever purchased was a 10-inch cast iron skillet. It’s now over 30 years old and about as well-seasoned as cast iron can be. It’s the only pan that lives outside of a cabinet on my stove and it enjoys that unique freedom because I use it more than any other of my 10 or so skillets and because it’s too damned heavy to pull out of the cabinet every time I need it.
Cast iron is also a good heat conductor, albeit not as good as copper or aluminum; nevertheless it has the advantage of density, which means that once hot it stays hot. Toss a steak into a stainless-clad skillet and it will cool off in a hurry as the steak absorbs heat. Toss a steak into a cast-iron skillet and it will shrug — the cookware with big shoulders. Think of it as a stevedore on the docks of New York. Well-seasoned cast iron (meaning a pan that has absorbed oils and fats into its open pores) is almost non-stick. However, iron is highly reactive and is best avoided when cooking something acid like a tomato sauce.
But sometimes you need cast iron’s thermal inertia even for a dish that contains wine, or vinegar, or tomatoes — braciole, for instance, or choucroute. The best Dutch (or French) ovens, also known as cocottes are cast iron coated with porcelain. The porcelain is non-reactive and the cast iron retains heat. You can brown lamb in such a beast, developing fond, and then add tomatoes and wine and slow cook it in an oven — a task perfect for cast iron. Porcelain-clad cast iron is still a stevedore at heart, but dressed up in a suit.
Inevitably, a follow-up question is, “Should I buy non-stick?” and the answer is yes, but not exclusively. Most of my cookware is, for lack of a better word, “sticky.” You want “sticky” pans to be able to develop the fond so essential to savory sauces. But sometimes you don’t want fond or need it, specifically in making a pan sauce without those little browned bits, and in these cases a good non-stick skillet is handy, though not essential. I recommend a large (10 – 12 inch) and small (6 – 7 inch) non-stick skillet.
Pick the best cookware you can afford, but don’t get caught up in brand loyalty — it isn’t the brand that matters. Good cookware will last you 20 or more years so make sure it feels comfortable to you, and make sure you have the right tool for the job.