What Type of Pots and Pans Do I Need? A Cookware Buying Guide

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Little me thought being a grown-up was all candy whenever you want and staying up til midnight. And while we can all agree that stuff is pretty awesome, being an adult is also a never-ending loop of questioning your  “wants” vs. your  “needs”.

Do I NEED those giant hand-shaped chairs for my breakfast nook, or should I just grow up and stick with the ones I have? Is upgrading to the newest iPhone REALLY necessary?

I WANT my cookware to be cute and coordinated like that mom-fluencer I follow…but what type of pots and pans do I NEED? 

Well, lovely readers, if you’re second-guessing your home decor or technology purchases, you’ve come to the wrong blog. (How did you get here, anyway?) 

But if your search for cookware is sending you spiraling and you need some guidance, then you’re in good hands. As someone who’s bought WAY more cookware than I probably ever “needed” over the years (we all have our things, right?), I can give you all the skinny on stocking your kitchen for success. 

A Quick Cookware Anatomy Lesson

Sure, I could just tell you what to buy … but, ya know, “Give a man a fish” and all that. I want to empower you to make your own informed decision based on your needs.

And since knowledge is power, let’s start with a little crash course on cookware anatomy. Trust me, being familiar with all the pots and pans‘ parts is crucial to assembling your kitchen arsenal. 

1. Handle

There’s 2 questions to ask yourself to determine how important handles are to you.

1. How often do you cook dishes that go from stovetop to oven?

2. Do you keep pot holders handy?

If you responded “never” and “always”, respectively, then your handle options are fully open. But if you had different answers to either question, you’ll have to factor handles into your purchasing equation.

Silicone and metal handles are safe to go from stovetop to oven, but metal handles tend to heat up pretty quickly. Silicone and wood handles stay cool when you’re cooking, but wood isn’t oven-safe.

Also of note, some silicone is only heat resistant up to a certain temperature. If you’re going from stovetop to a really high-temp oven, it’s best to play it safe and go for cookware with metal handles. 

Detail of a skillet handle.

2. Rivets

Rivets join the handle with the cookware body or its lid. Not all pots and pans have them; some handles are welded on. 

Personally, I don’t think rivets (or the lack thereof) will be your kitchen dream team clincher. The only thing I feel like I should mention about them is their tendency to collect grease.

On the other hand, cast iron, the main type of cookware without rivets, has its own upkeep challenges. So pick your poison.

Detail of a skillet's rivets.

3. Body

Unlike rivets, there’s a LOT to unpack when it comes to the body. The body of a pot or pan is usually described in terms of substance, e.g. stainless steelGiven that the body has a huge impact on performance and lifespan, it’s probably the single most important cookware feature. 

It’s too complex of a topic to fit in one subsection, so we’ll dive into that in much greater detail down below.

4. Surface

Surface is exactly what it sounds like: the cooking surface of the pot or pan. With some cookware, the surface and body are the same – uncoated cast iron, for example. But for other options on the market, surface and body differ.  Think enameled cast iron, ceramic, and non-stick pans. 

It’s wise to ascertain surface type before you buy, since surface has a pretty big influence on lifespan, performance, and care. 

The smooth surface of a ceramic skillet shines in the sunbeam.

5. Core

Also called cladding, the core is a layer of a more conductible material (aluminum, copper) within the body of the pan. It allows the pan to heat up more quickly and stay hot for longer.  Once again, not all cookware has this feature. You’ll usually see it in reference to stainless steel pans. 

6. Base

Bases are a lot like handles in that it’s pretty easy to determine whether they’re something you need to think about. The only time you need to consider base is if you have an induction range. The heating element in induction cooktops utilizes magnetic energy, so you’ll need cookware with a magnetized base.  

7. Sides

The importance of sides in cookware isn’t so much a matter of material as it is shape. This is where your usual cooking repertoire comes into play. Slanted sides are better for reducing liquids, pan-frying, or stir-frying. Straight sides are better for braising, simmering, or shallow frying.

Consider which techniques you’ll use most to know what’s best for your kitchen. 

A stainless steel skillet and sauté pan sit side by side.

8. Rim

As you may have noticed, pots and pans can have straight rims or rolled rims. Rim shape isn’t just decorative – there are key differences in performance that make each style better suited to certain cooking methods. 

Rolled rims are best for pouring liquids. If you make a lot of sauces or soups and boil things often, you’ll want a rolled rim pot/pan. In contrast, straight rims are good for tossing. So all you sauté and stir-fry stans, look for a pan with a straight rim. 

Details of the various parts of a skillet.

Types of Pans by Material

We’ve gone over the bits and bolts of cookware, so now we can talk about the juicy stuff: cookware materials. There’s no “best” cookware material, as each material has crystal clear pros and cons. However, in my opinion, there are a few materials that come out ahead of the others.

Keep reading to find out which material(s) are right for you.

Cast Iron

Cast iron cookware can be intimidating to new home cooks, and I won’t lie: these pots and pans are high-maintenance. But don’t write them off just yet! There’s something about food cooked in cast iron that just can’t be imitated. If you’re a beginner, learning to work with cast-iron is a fast track to restaurant-quality meals. 

It’s well worth the investment if you make a lot of steaks, too. Seriously, name something more delicious than a steak cooked on a cast iron skillet… I’ll wait. 

Pros

  • Cast iron pans are pretty much the only uncoated non-stick option out there. If you don’t want to deal with stainless steel’s propensity to stick, they’re a great alternative. 
  • You can transfer food from the stovetop to the oven without a second thought. 
  • Amazing heat retention!
  • Cast iron ranks among the most durable material for cookware, it can last a lifetime with proper care. 

Cons

  • When a pan is new, you have to use it a few times before it forms a coating (or patina), which makes it hard to clean at first. And without that proper care I just mentioned, cast iron can rust. 
  • Cast iron pans are slow to heat. They’re also prone to hot spots and can heat unevenly. 

My Cast Iron Recommendation

A Smithey No.10 Skillet ($170) is made the ‘old fashioned way’ and feels like it! The smooth polished surface is something that you typically can’t get with other brands. If you treat it well, a cast iron piece will not only last you a lifetime but can be passed down for generations. Meaning you and your future kids can all savor cloth-napkins-restaurant-level steaks at home.

If you’re on a tight budget, try Lodge cast iron. A Lodge skillet will set you back only $35 and they are a classic brand for good reason.

Lodge cast iron skillet with a silicone handle cover.

Enameled Cast Iron

If you’re going for instagrammable cookware, it doesn’t get more aesthetic than enameled cast iron.

From pastel hues to subdued neutrals to bold, bright statement colors, you’re guaranteed to find pieces that match your kitchen and make you feel like the star of your own cooking show.

Don’t get me wrong: I love narrating what I’m doing to an imaginary camera just as much as anyone else. But I also think enameled cast iron can be more aspirational than practical, especially for a beginner cook. 

That’s not to say you should avoid it – just the opposite! Enameled cast iron is great for slow cooking, braising, and stews.

However, these pieces are some of the most expensive, so I recommend considering the good and the bad before you decide they’re a worthwhile investment. Otherwise, you might end up with a $300 Dutch oven that collects dust.

Pros

  • At least in the short term, their enamel coating makes these pieces of cookware easier to care for than uncoated cast iron. They’re dishwasher safe, don’t rust, and don’t need to be seasoned. 
  • Enameled cast iron has the same excellent heat retention as uncoated cast iron with better heat distribution.
  • Like uncoated cast iron, most pieces can withstand oven temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Cons

  • Enamel can chip, especially with lower-end pieces. Chipped enameled cast iron pieces need to be retired immediately, no exceptions. 
  • These pieces are HEAVY. Like, so heavy you might not use them that often just because they’re kind of exhausting to get out. 

My Ceramic Recommendation

Le Creuset is a household name for good reason. The Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Braiser, 3.5 qt., White is $367 but this is a situation of ‘you get what you pay for. The piece is beautiful as it is functional. It can go from the stovetop to the oven to the table.

Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron in gray.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is the Little Black Dress of cookware materials. It might not be as flashy as some of the other options, but it’s reliable and versatile. There’s bound to be a situation where you’ll be glad you bought it. 

Be that as it may, it’s not the end-all-be-all. It still has some shortcomings. Depending on what you cook, there’s a possibility it’s not the right pick for you. For most folks, though, stainless steel is one of the safest choices.

Pros

  • Stainless steel has excellent heat reactivity and heat distribution. No hot spots here! It’s even induction-compatible. 
  • Stainless steel cookware is lightweight and versatile. You can make a wide variety of dishes using it, which saves you precious cupboard space. Stainless steel without plastic handles is usually oven-safe, as well.  
  • High-quality pieces are typically more affordable than pieces of a similar caliber made with other types of cookware materials
  • You can’t beat its durability. There’s very little that can go wrong with stainless steel save for warping. Just don’t dump cold water into a hot pan, look for all-clad stainless steel, and you’ll be fine.

Cons

  • Stainless steel pans are resilient and easy to care for, but they are not technically nonstick. It can take a little practice and a whole lot of temperature monitoring to keep foods from turning into a caked-on mess

My Stainless Steel Recommendation

Heritage Steel is hands down my favorite stainless steel brand for several reasons:

  • 5-Ply Fully Clad Construction
  • Made in the US by a family owned company
  • Come with a lifetime warranty 
  • Work on any stovetop – even induction
  • The Stay Cool Handle actually stays cool
  • They cook like a dream – fried and even scrambled eggs have never once stuck on my Heritage Steel skillet.

And a 10.5” skillet (my personal go-to skillet) is only $129 on Amazon

Detail of the EATER Hertiage Steel stainless skillet.

Carbon Steel

If you can’t decide between stainless steel and cast iron, you’ll be happy to know there’s a middle ground. That best of both worlds is a little thing called carbon steel. It has all the maneuverability of stainless steel, with all the killer searing power of cast iron.

But like every other material,  carbon steel isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. There are still things both stainless steel and cast iron can do better. 

Pros

  • It does everything cast iron pans with the same designated purpose can do, but it’s lighter and usually comes pre-seasoned. 
  • It’s non-stick, with a much smoother surface than cast iron.
  • Carbon steel is hardier than cast iron, although it still needs to be seasoned between uses and isn’t dishwasher safe.

Cons

  • Carbon steel pans usually have rivets. Normally, this isn’t a huge deal, but since you can’t wash these pieces with a degreasing dish soap, the rivets become mini grease traps.
  • For whatever reason, it’s hard to find carbon steel iterations of the most versatile cookware pieces. Most carbon steel pots and pans have a specialized use: crepe pans, woks, and so on. 

My Carbon Steel Recommendation

YOSUKATA is my top pick for carbon steel skillets ($50) and woks ($80). Their products are high quality at a super affordable price point. 

A carbon steel wok and skillet sit side by side.

Ceramic

The only type of nonstick pans I feel comfortable recommending, ceramic and ceramic-coated pans are a great option for anyone who just can’t seem to master the more finicky materials. 

And for the fashionistas, ceramic cookware rivals enameled cast iron in its cutesy-ness. It comes in a variety of pleasing shades that you’ll be excited to display and use. 

Pros

  • Ceramic is the only healthy and eco-friendly nonstick coating. If easy cleanup is your jam, you can’t go wrong with ceramic.
  • A lot of ceramic skillets are oven-safe, but only to a certain point. Make sure to check the max temperature for your pieces. High temperatures can damage the nonstick surface and shorten your pan’s lifespan. 
  • They’re very versatile pieces. Ceramic cookware can go from heating up leftovers to reducing a sauce to stir-frying without missing a beat. It’s also great for delicate foods that tear easily, like eggs.

Cons

  • Even though you can take steps to lengthen the lifespan of ceramic cookware, they’re still the most ephemeral cookware purchase you could make. Like enameled cast iron, once the ceramic coating chips, the piece is a goner.

My Ceramic Recommendation

Xtrema cookware is the only brand I know of that is fully ceramic. Their 9’ skillet ($173) is the perfect size for eggs for the family or a one pan dinner. If you’re looking for an enamel-coated piece, the Alva Maestro skillet ($159) shines for universal stovetop use.

A ceramic skillet from Xtrema sits on a granite countertop.
MaterialProsConsHCK Recommended?Best Brands
Stainless SteelVersatile; Durable; Quick and even heatingFood can stick, high quality pieces are expensiveYes – a favoriteHeritage Steel, Demeyere
Cast IronExcellent heat retention; Naturally non-stick; Extremely durableRequires seasoning and maintenance, not for acidic foodsYes – a favoriteLodge, Smithey
Enameled Cast IronLow maintenance; Non-reactive; Stylish color optionsIf enamel chips, cookware is ruined, can be expensiveYesLe Creuset
CeramicNon-reactive, naturally nonstick, stylish color options, low maintenanceCan chip or break, can be heavyYesXtrema, Alva
Carbon SteelLightweight; Responsive; High heat toleranceRequires seasoning and maintenance, not for acidic foodsYesYOSUKATA, de Buyer MINERAL B
Non-StickFood will not stick, cheapShort lifespan, made with toxic chemicalsAbsolutely notNot Recommended

How Do I Choose the Right Material for My Pots and Pans?

To choose the right material for you, I’d recommend thinking about three things:

  1. Your cooking ability and recipe rotation: As you read above, each material has areas where it shines, and limitations. Granted, every limitation can be overcome by adjusting your technique. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for being able to cook without overthinking.
  2. Your space constraints: Consider where you’re going to be storing your cookware. If you’re planning on hanging from a ceiling rack or stashing it in a low cabinet, cast iron might not be for you.
  3. How much maintenance you’re willing to do and how often you’re willing to replace your cookware: If you opt for cast iron and carbon steel, be prepared to season your pans between uses and scrub them clean by hand.

Enameled cast iron and ceramic pans are dishwasher safe and don’t need to be seasoned, but they’re prone to chipping. Purchase them with the understanding that they won’t last forever. 

Five skillets of different materials laid face up side by side.

What is the Best Cookware for Health?

You can feel 100% certain that any food cooked on stainless steel, cast iron, or carbon steel is safe for you and your family’s health. Unless you undercooked the chicken…in which case, I wish you all a speedy recovery. 

In all seriousness, though, when you cook in any pan with a coating, whether it be ceramic or enamel or, god forbid, Teflon, there’s always a chance the coating could have chipped without you noticing. It would then get into your food. It wouldn’t kill you, but it’s definitely not good for you either. 

What Cookware Lasts the Longest?

With proper care, a lot of cookware can last decades – or longer. Heirloom cast iron is a thing, after all. 

I should probably just come out and say what cookware isn’t exactly prized for its longevity: enameled cast iron, and ceramic. The coating is fragile and as soon as it chips, the pan needs to be retired.

Other materials degrade, too, but it’s more of a gradual decline than coated cookware’s “here today, gone tomorrow” lifespan. 

Detail of a cast iron skillet handle.

What Cookware Do Professional Kitchens Use For Pans?

If you asked 20 professional chefs what cookware they use, you’d get 20 different answers. 

Classically-trained fine dining chefs usually prefer copper cookware, which you’ll notice I didn’t even mention in this article. I chose to omit it because I don’t want to overwhelm you with choices, and I haven’t found copper is worth the price of admission for most home cooks. It’s mainly for situations where you need very precise control over temperature. 

But not every high-end kitchen uses exclusively copper, and therein lies the real answer. Professional kitchens typically use a mix of different cookware that’s as unique to the kitchen as the food being made in it. In a professional kitchen, you’ll usually find a mix of stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel.

Given the heavy use professional kitchen cookware has to withstand, enameled cast iron and ceramic are less common.

Sainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel pans sit side by side.

What Should You Avoid When Buying Pots and Pans?

I have two big no-no’s for buying pots and pans.

  1. Don’t buy them as a set. I know it’s tempting, because they’re a good deal and they look satisfyingly color-coordinated in their product photos, but seriously, just don’t. Sets are almost always single-material, and you’ll most likely find you want a mix of materials for different techniques. You’ll also almost certainly end up paying for pans you don’t use, which doesn’t make them as good of a deal as they seem on paper. 
  2. Avoid non-stick pans, unless they’re ceramic. I’ll spare you the trip down the Teflon rabbit hole and just leave it at this: non-stick pans are flimsy at best, toxic and harmful to the environment at worst. With the endless cookware options out there, I see no reason to buy them. 
A teflon pan with a flaking PTFE coating.

What Type of Pots and Pans Do I Need? My Final Thoughts

Cooking style, space restrictions, and budget vary so much from home cook to home cook.

Instead of just giving you a shopping list,  I thought it better to give you all the essential information you need to cut through the sales jargon and make the best decision for you and only you.

Hopefully, now you know enough to figure out what pots and pans you really need….and which ones you can go without. 

About Author

TiaGoodnight

Hey! I'm Tia, and I started this site to bring you the best information on all things kitchen so you can enjoy and elevate your everyday life.

I love trying new techniques and tools, living for the thrill of pulling off a new skill. On weekends you'll find me at the local farmer's markets or hosting friends and family for an evening of yard or card games and delicious food.

If you're looking for honest, real-world advice on all things kitchen and cooking, you're in the right place!