Cookware can be confusing. The sheer number of options when it comes to pots, pans, and skillets can be just plain confuddling, especially when you factor in all of the different sizes and materials. You might think an out of the box cookware set is the simplest way to go, but those usually have too many pieces without the variety of materials that allow for actual versatility in the kitchen. You end up with too many pots and pans that just clutter your cupboard instead of doing what you really need.
The truth is, you don’t need a dozen different pots and pans to get the job done. We’ve found that all you really need are six essentials that can take you from scrambles to stews and anywhere in between. This guide will help you build the perfect essential cookware set – here are the six pots, pans, and skillets you really need. (And they’re all budget-friendly.)
1. A 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
You might call the cast iron skillet the true workhorse of the kitchen. It’s a versatile tool that lasts pretty much indefinitely if you treat it well (and makes a great family heirloom to hand down to future generations). It produces a sear like nothing else, but can also be used for shallow frying, go from stovetop to oven, and is virtually non-stick if it’s well seasoned. A good cast iron skillet can handle anything from pancakes to perfectly seared steak, so we consider it a kitchen must-have. While any number of sizes might work for you, we like our 12-inch cast iron skillet the best. It’s big enough to roast a whole chicken, but not so large it’s overwhelming.
2. A 10-Inch Nonstick Skillet
While your cast iron skillet can handle many of the same tasks if it’s well-seasoned, a nonstick skillet is helpful for things like eggs or delicate fish where you need a little extra assurance that your ingredients won’t stick. If you’re a fan of eggs, this is an absolute essential and unless you’re frequently scrambling some up for a family of 10, an 8 or 10-inch pan will work beautifully.
T-Fal is a great option for nonstick cookware; their coating tends to be more durable and resist scratching than other options.
3. A Stainless Steel Sauté Pan
A sauté pan might seem like just a skillet by another name, but we can promise it’s much more. Its higher, straight sides allow you to cook dishes with a large volume (cooking down 10 cups of spinach, anyone?) or where you need to reduce liquids (so it’s great for things like braises and curries).
Pick an option with a heavy bottom that can go from stove to oven and is large enough that it can accommodate a whole cut up chicken; we like a 12-inch for this pan.
4. A Saucepan (Or Two)
While a sauté pan can handle a quick pan sauce, you’re going to need a quality saucepan if you ever plan on making a gravy or a bechamel. (It’s also our go-to choice when dinner is a certain blue box of mac and cheese.) It’s what we use for hard boiling eggs, making a side of rice, or even making caramel, and you definitely need at least one in your kitchen. This is one area where you don’t need to go big – a 3-qt size works great for most things – but if you do have room in your kitchen you might want to double up on saucepans and grab one in two sizes.
5. A Large Stockpot
While a large stockpot is not quite as versatile as some of the other cookware on this list, there are some jobs that only a big stockpot can do. This is the pot you need for making stock or water bath canning, but you can also use it for soups, stews, boiling pasta, or any other task that requires large volumes of liquid. Look for options in the 12-quart to 18-quart range with a nice, heavy bottom.
6. An Enameled Dutch Oven
Last but not least, is a pot that is nothing short of amazing. Almost as versatile as its cousin the cast iron skillet, a large enamel dutch oven is what you want to use any time you want to give something a good sear before you cook it low and slow. Think pot roast, coq au vin, beef stew, and so on. Aside from the fact that they go seamlessly from stovetop to oven, they also make a mean pot of chili and are great for baking no-knead bread.
These come in many sizes but we find that a 6-qt is a great utilitarian pick. Some brands can come with a rather hefty price tag, but Lodge makes high-quality options that are more budget-friendly, usually in the $40 to $60 range.