Whether you just moved into your first apartment and are outfitting your kitchen from scratch, or you’re a seasoned pro streamlining down to only the best pots and pans, the absolute must-haves are actually quite limited. You don’t need a 10-piece cookware set, and you especially don’t need a nonstick cookware set (Never. Never ever!). You really only need six pots and pans to cook everything your heart desires. So we went through our product tests to find the categories that are core to cooking: sheet pans, nonstick pans, cast-iron skillets, Dutch ovens, stainless-steel frying pans, and stockpots. Below we’ve compiled the best in each category for the ultimate guide to the best pots and pans, because we believe the best cookware set is one you arrange yourself.
A sheet pan that makes your bacon crispy and your brownies chewy
The humble sheet pan is essential to your collection. You roast vegetables on it, you make no-hassle dinners with it, you bake cookies on it, and you cook Sunday-morning bacon strips on it. (If you really want to go crazy, try sheet-pan brownies.)
A sheet pan may seem like the sort of thing where one brand is so different from another. But over several years of rigorous sheet-pan testing, we’ve found that these essential tools—utilitarian as they may seem—are not all created equal. We tested eight highly rated models and concluded that the Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Baker’s Half-Sheet is the best—our old faithful.
Nordic Ware’s half-sheet is weighty enough that it doesn’t warp easily at high heats, but is light enough to be easily maneuvered in and out of the oven. The light color means cooks can effectively gauge the browning on their foods. And while we are wary of aluminum’s propensity to become discolored and damaged by scratching and discoloration, we find that these pans hold up to wear and tear and are easy to clean.
To find out how we tested and what to look for in a sheet pan, read the full review of the best sheet pans.
A cast-iron skillet that lasts a lifetime (and makes giant cookies)
Have a craving for cornbread? How about a giant chocolate chip cookie? Maybe a pork chop that you start on the stove and finish in the oven? You’re in need of some cast iron. The cast-iron pan is an old-school kitchen standby that will literally last you a lifetime—and get better with age. If you treat it right, you’ll be able to use it as a natural nonstick skillet for hash browns, salmon fillets, and so much more—and, of course, it’s oven-safe for all manner of baking and roasting too. We tested a variety of options over the past four years and the Victoria 12-inch skillet consistently came out as the winner. And it’s inexpensive to boot. Read our full review of the best cast-iron skillets to see what else we liked and how to care for your cast iron.
A nonstick skillet...if you care about perfect scrambled eggs
Even if you generally avoid nonstick pans because you worry they’re too delicate, you need to face the fact that there are some cooking tasks—omelets, soft scrambles—where nonstick surfaces just produce superior results. If you’re stocking up on nonstick, you have two options.
We tested a whole bunch of them and found the Zwilling Madura Plus to quite possibly be the best we’ve ever used: eggs (made all of the ways) slid off of it with ease.
The Madura Plus has a forged aluminum core, which means it has efficient heat distribution, cooking foods evenly and heating up and cooling down relatively quickly. It’s also relatively lightweight and comfortable to maneuver. We’ve used the pan in our home kitchens for over a year and have found it to be durable too (something that can be an issue for nonstick coatings).
This—and its superior nonstick abilities—are likely due to a four-layer PFOA-free Duraslide nonstick coating. As with most nonstick cookware, it’s not for high heat. The pan is only oven-safe up to 300°F and it's extra important not to overheat it, as this will ruin the nonstick coating.
$50.00, Bed Bath & Beyond (8-Inch)
In general, we don’t recommend ceramic cookware, but if you’re concerned about health issues linked to nonstick pans, we recommend the GreenPan Paris Pro.
The pan is made of hard anodized aluminum, which means it boasts even heat distribution and has a Thermolon Minerals ceramic nonstick coating. It’s scratch-resistant, compatible with induction cooktops, and oven-safe up to a way higher temperature than the Zwilling Madura (600°F). If you intend to transfer your nonstick pan from the stovetop to the oven for dishes like baked eggs, this is a huge selling point.
$40.00, Amazon (8-Inch)
A Dutch oven for simmering soups and frying chicken
This heavy, wide-lidded enameled cast-iron pot can do pretty much anything: bake bread, simmer soups, or fry potato chips to name just a few. Sure, most Dutch ovens don’t come cheap, but if you pick the right one, you’ll score a piece of kitchen equipment that can be passed down to your grandchildren.
In our tests we made a vegetable and meat stew, which allowed us to test the Dutch oven’s stovetop-to-oven capabilities. In the stovetop test, the Le Creuset gave a good sear on meat and evenly caramelized vegetables for stew. Our stew came out of the oven test with the ideal amount of evaporation. The pot’s light-colored enameled bottom allows the cook to easily monitor the level of browning. The Epi Test Kitchen uses Le Creuset Dutch ovens, so we know that they hold up extremely well over time.
$370.00, Bed Bath & Beyond (5.5-Quart)
$410.00, Le Creuset
If you’re looking for a less expensive Dutch oven, go for the Lodge. Like the Le Creuset, it has a light-colored enamel bottom. It moves from stovetop-searing to oven-braising extremely well and costs a very reasonable $60 at the time of writing. Its sloped sides even offer an advantage over the Le Creuset; they prevent food from getting stuck and scorched in the corners of the pot and make it easier to stir (however they do lead to slightly more evaporation in braising). This Dutch oven is a bit heavier and more difficult to maneuver than the Le Creuset, and it won’t offer as much durability as the top contender, but it’s a great budget option for a beginner kitchen.
Read our full review of the best Dutch ovens.
A stainless-steel skillet that’s worth investing in
Finding the best stainless-steel frying pan is all about quality of construction. And for quality construction, we turn to All-Clad. The company is known for its bonded tri-ply stainless-steel cookware—and it totally lives up to the hype. This pan has won our stainless-steel sauté pan test year after year.
To find the best stainless-steel skillet, we tested models from legacy cookware brands and new, direct-to-consumer start-ups. The All-Clad 12-Inch Fry Pan came out as the clear winner.
$130.00, Sur La Table
If you’re working with a smaller budget, both Tramontina and Calphalon’s stainless-steel skillets offer serious performance at affordable prices, though neither is quite as amazing as the All-Clad. Both had strong searing and even-heating capabilities. Bonus: the Calphalon offers a glass lid rather than a stainless-steel lid, which is optimal for monitoring your food as it cooks.
Read more about how we chose the winners in our review of the best stainless-steel skillet.
A small saucepan for everyday bowls of oatmeal and soup
A medium-size saucepan is a tool that even the most bare-bones kitchen must have: It’s there for you for all the day-to-day monotonous cooking, like when you’re stirring together a batch of oatmeal in the morning, reheating a serving of soup for lunch, or making a box of instant mac and cheese for your kid who will eat only instant mac and cheese. But it’s also the tool that’ll be with you when you’re babying a batch of lemon curd, making sure the eggs don’t curdle. It’s the tool you’ll use when you attempt to make your grandma’s toffee recipe and yet again fail to heat the caramel to the right temperature. (With our winning saucepan, you’ll be forced to admit that it’s your fault, not the pan’s.)
For both everyday and out of the ordinary tasks, a tri-ply, 3-quart, stainless-steel saucepan is your best bet. Unlike your beloved cast-iron cookware or the precious copper pots you registered for but couldn’t convince your friends to buy you, it’s easy to care for and dishwasher-safe—and it will still last a lifetime if maintained properly. Plus, it’s the perfect size for most everyday kitchen tasks. Our favorites were offerings from Misen and, once again, All-Clad. Read our full review for more about why we think they’re so essential a proper set of pots and pans.
A stockpot for big batches of sauce and summer seafood boils
You may not pull your stockpot out as often as you do your 3-quart saucepan—but rest assured, it earns its (considerable) storage footprint in a lifetime of quadruple batches of Sunday sauce for family gatherings, freezers full of chicken stock, and those once-a-summer seafood boils.
We tested six 8-quart stockpots—we think this is the perfect size to balance the need to do big projects with the need to have somewhere to store it—to find the very best model on the market. In the end, we had multiple top picks: Our all-around winner was the All-Clad Tri-Ply Stainless-Steel Stockpot, but we also found a high-quality budget option in the Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Stainless-Steel Stockpot—and it’s a whopping one sixth of the price. Read our full review of the best stockpots to find out why these were our top picks, how we tested our stockpots, and the other models we considered.
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Originally Appeared on Epicurious