In this guide, I answer the question I get most often:
“What are the essential pots and pans that every kitchen needs?”
I give you my recommendations on shapes, sizes, and brands.
I also share a few pans that aren’t essential but are nice to have as you add to your collection over time.
So, if you’re starting completely from scratch or ready to throw out your old pans and invest in better quality, more functional pieces, keep reading.
Use the links below to navigate the guide:
- Cookware Essentials: Key Takeaways
- Stainless Steel Frying Pan
- Stainless Steel Sauté Pan
- Stainless Steel Saucepan or Saucier
- Stainless Steel Stock Pot
- Cast Iron Skillet
- Non-Stick Frying Pan
- Baking Sheet
- Roasting Pan
- Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven
- Carbon Steel Skillet
- Copper Skillet
- Bottom Line: Which Pots and Pans Are Essential?
If you only have a minute, here’s a quick overview of the essential pots and pans every kitchen needs. Throughout the full guide, I offer more detail on shapes, sizes, and brands.
Stainless Steel Frying Pan: A 12-inch fully-clad stainless steel frying pan is one of the most essential pans. You can use it to sear, fry, sauté, and more. Look for one with 3 mm thick walls, flared rims, and a wide cooking surface. Avoid rounded handles because those can slip and rotate in your hand.
Stainless Steel Sauté Pan: A 3-4 quart stainless steel sauté pan is ideal for braising, shallow frying, browning, and sautéing. The straight sides contain ingredients, limit splatter, and allow you to cook liquids.
Stainless Saucepan: Get a 2-3 quart stainless saucepan or saucier for steaming veggies, boiling pasta, and cooking small batches of grains. I prefer a saucier because the sloped sides allow you to reach the bottom corners with a whisk.
Stainless Stock Pot: A 6-8 quart stainless stock pot is necessary for batch cooking soups, stocks, and pasta.
Cast Iron Skillet: A 12-inch cast iron skillet is the ultimate pan for searing and roasting, thanks to its thick walls and superior heat retention. It’s also great for baking, frying, and scrambling eggs.
Non-Stick Frying Pan: Buy a 10- or 12-inch non-stick frying pan exclusively for eggs. Use medium heat (or lower), and always wash it by hand. Don’t spend much on a non-stick pan because they all wear out and eventually need replacement.
Baking Sheets: Two aluminum half-sheet pans (about 18×13 inches with a 1- to 2-inch rim) are perfect for roasting vegetables and fish, baking pizza and rolls, and much more.
Roasting Pan: A 14- to 16-inch roasting pan with a rack is for whole chickens, turkey, roast beef, and other large cuts of meat. The rack lets heat circulate so large roasts cook evenly, and the large pan catches drippings while providing enough space for potatoes, carrots, and other sides.
Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven: A 5- to 7-quart enameled Dutch oven is the best pot for biases, soups, stews, bread, and more. Its thick walls retain heat and maintain a steady temperature for long periods. The enamel coating won’t react with tomatoes, wine, vinegar, or other acidic ingredients.
The right cookware depends on your household size, budget, and the foods you cook most often. Use this guide as a starting point and adjust it to suit your needs. For example, you don’t need a large stock pot if you live alone. And a non-stick pan isn’t worth buying if you dislike eggs. If you only cook occasionally, you could get away with just a stainless steel fry pan and saucepan. But if you cook daily, this list is an ideal (but flexible) starting point.
The first piece every kitchen needs is a quality stainless steel frying pan, also referred to as a stainless steel skillet.
This is your workhorse pan. You can use it for nearly any ingredient and it will last forever. This pan has sloped sides, a long handle, and a large cooking surface.
You can use it to sear meats, sauté vegetables, shallow fry chicken, and much more.
It won’t react with acidic ingredients, and the fond and brown bits stuck to the surface can be deglazed and simmered into a delicious pan sauce.
Look for a fully-clad pan that’s around 3 mm thick. Fully clad means the pan has a conductive core layer of aluminum or copper throughout the pan, including the sides.
The alternative is disc bottom, meaning the pan only has this conductive layer at the base. Fully Clad pans are more durable and heat more evenly.
I prefer pans with flared rims because they make it easier to pour liquids and slide food onto a plate.
Avoid rounded handles as those can rotate in your hand.
I recommend a 12-inch pan because it can handle large amounts of food without overcrowding. But if you live alone or don’t have space, a 10-inch pan is a good option, too.
Stainless Steel Sauté Pan
The next pan you need is a stainless steel sauté pan. The main difference between a frying pan and a sauté pan is that frying pans have sloped sides and sauté pans have straight sides.
Because of the taller L-shaped sides, sauté pans can handle more volume and liquid-heavy meals and do a better job containing splatter. They’re great for braising, shallow frying, and sautéing.
The downside of the straight sides is that liquid doesn’t evaporate as quickly. And since you need the surface of the meat to dry out to get a good crust, searing in a sauté pan is less effective than searing in a frying pan.
Most come with a lid, so you can stuff them with large amounts of greens, like kale, to steam and cook down. And they usually have a helper handle to make it easy to pick up and move, even when they’re hot and full of food.
Sauté pans come in several sizes, but I recommend 3 to 4 quarts for most people. These sizes are large but still maneuverable and easy to store.
Every kitchen should also have either a stainless steel saucepan or a saucier.
Saucepans have a flat bottom, straight sides, a narrow opening, and a long handle. Sauciers have a curved bottom, sloped sides, and a wider opening.
Both are great for making sauces, pasta, grains, braises, and small batches of soup.
Although I use both regularly, I prefer a saucier because the rounded bottom makes stirring, whisking, and cleaning easier.
With saucepans, ingredients tend to stay in place, which increases the risk of burning and sticking. And the corners are difficult to clean.
I recommend a 2-, 3-, or 4-quart saucepan or saucier. The 4-quart gives you extra room to avoid overcrowding foods like pasta, but the 2-quart version is better for hard-boiled eggs and quick meals like mac and cheese since it boils water faster. 3-quart is a nice balance between the two.
One reason you might want to go with a smaller saucepan is because you also need a stock pot. These pots are similar to a saucepan but they’re larger with taller sides, wider openings, and two small handles.
A stock pot will be the largest pot you buy, and I recommend getting one that’s between 6 and 8 quarts.
You’ll use your stock pot to cook soups, stocks, large quantities of rice, and pasta. You may not use it daily or even weekly, but I still consider it essential. Sooner or later, you’ll need to make large quantities of food and cooking multiple batches in a smaller saucepan isn’t practical.
Although I recommend fully-clad stainless steel cookware in most cases, stockpots are one exception where you can get by without it. The circulating liquid helps distribute heat effectively and food doesn’t often directly contact the sides of the pot. So, there’s less risk of scorching or uneven heating even without full cladding.
A 12-inch cast iron skillet is another essential piece of cookware. The main difference between this cast iron skillet and the stainless steel frying pan I mentioned previously is how they heat.
Cast iron doesn’t heat up as fast or evenly as stainless steel, but due to its thick construction, it has far superior heat retention. It’s the ultimate cookware for searing because it can hold temperature stable and not cool down when you place a piece of cold meat in it.
But you can do much more than searing. You can use this skillet for roasting, sautéing, frying, and even baking cornbread and pizza.
To prevent rust, you need to season cast iron occasionally, which involves coating it in a thin layer of oil and baking it in the oven.
As layers of seasoning build up over time, the cooking surface becomes slick, which makes it easy to cook eggs without sticking.
The main downside is that cast iron doesn’t go well with tomatoes, wine, vinegar, and citrus. These acidic ingredients can strip the seasoning and react with the metal, leaving behind a metallic taste in the food.
Every kitchen should have one 10- or 12-inch non-stick pan to cook eggs. I know I said you can cook eggs in cast iron, but a non-stick pan is, by far, the easiest and most convenient way to do it.
No matter what brand you buy, the non-stick coating will eventually wear out, food will start to stick, and you’ll need to replace the pan.
That’s why I recommend using it exclusively for eggs and keeping the heat low to medium.
Don’t waste money on non-stick saucepans, stockpots, and sauté pans. Liquid-based meals don’t stick, so there’s no reason to buy larger pots and pans with a non-stick coating.
And don’t spend too much money on a non-stick frying pan because you’ll have to replace it eventually. Brands like Misen, Tramontina, and All-Clad Essentials make affordable aluminum non-stick pans that get the job done.
A rimmed baking sheet or sheet pan is another essential. It’s helpful to have two of these so you can roast multiple foods at once without mixing flavors or overcooking one of them.
These pans are great for cooking large quantities of ingredients that need to spread out flat and bake or roast in the oven — for example, pizza, chicken wings, broccoli, potatoes, and squash.
You can also use a baking sheet to catch drippings under a cutting board or on the lower rack under a smaller pan.
Go for the half-sheet size which measures about 18 inches by 13 inches. The 1-inch rims contain ingredients, so they don’t slide off when you move the food around.
These pans are made of either aluminum, steel, aluminized sheet, or aluminum with a non-stick coating. I recommend aluminum without the non-stick coating because it heats more evenly than steel and can withstand higher temperatures than non-stick. Plus, it’s safe under the broiler.
A roasting pan with a rack is only essential if you cook large chickens, turkeys, roast beef, ham, or other large meats. Otherwise, you can roast smaller foods in a cast iron skillet, stainless steel frying pan, or rimmed baking sheet.
I recommend a 14 to 16-inch roasting pan with 3- to 4-inch walls. If the walls are too shallow, juices can splash over the sides. Walls that are too high prevent air from circulating, and the food won’t cook as evenly.
Make sure the roasting pan you buy comes with a rack. The rack allows heat to circulate so the meat cooks evenly and doesn’t stew in its juices.
Enameled cast iron Dutch ovens are incredibly versatile. You can use them to make soups, stews, sauces, braises, and even bread.
Because they have thick cast iron walls, they retain heat incredibly well. So meatballs, short ribs, chicken thighs, and any other meals that require browning and braising, frying, or low and slow cooking do well in these pots.
The enamel coating is non-reactive, so you can cook tomato sauce, chili, and other acidic foods without issues.
You could argue that a Dutch oven is not essential if you own a stock pot since both are large pots with tall walls, large openings, and lids.
But I suggest getting both for the same reasons I recommend buying stainless steel AND cast iron skillets.
Dutch ovens are heavier and retain heat better. Therefore, they are better for browning, searing, braising, slow cooking, and any meals that require a steady temperature for long periods.
Plus, the heavy lids do a better job locking in moisture and keeping meals tender.
In terms of size, a 5 to 7-quart Dutch oven is ideal for most kitchens. They make round and oval Dutch ovens, but I prefer round because they fit better on standard cooktop burners.
A carbon steel skillet is a lightweight version of a cast iron skillet. But owning both isn’t necessary.
Carbon steel is 99% iron and 1% carbon, and cast iron is 98% iron and 2% carbon. Some cast iron contains up to 3% carbon. With lower carbon content, carbon steel is more ductile than cast iron, meaning it can bend without breaking.
Unlike cast iron skillets, which are made in molds, carbon steel skillets are made by rolling out sheets of carbon steel, cutting the dimensions, and punching the pan into shape. This process results in cookware that’s thinner and less bulky.
Carbon steel skillets offer many of the same benefits as cast iron: they’re ultra-durable, naturally non-stick when seasoned properly, and retain heat well. But because they’re thinner, carbon steel skillets heat up and cool down faster.
So, if you love cooking with cast iron but want a more responsive and maneuverable skillet, a carbon steel skillet is a great addition. It’s perfect for dishes that require more temperature precision, like stir-fries, eggs, and fish.
I recommend a 12-inch carbon steel skillet. Matfer Bourgeat makes an excellent quality carbon steel skillet at an affordable price point.
A braiser is like a Dutch oven but with shorter sides and a wider cooking surface.
The primary purpose of a braiser is to braise meat and vegetables, but it’s incredibly versatile for all kinds of cooking tasks.
Because braisers have thick cast iron walls, they retain heat incredibly well, just like Dutch ovens. Because of that, they’re ideal for searing, browning, frying, and braising. They’re also excellent for Braisers for one-pot meals like chicken parmesan, lasagna, and sausage with peppers and onions.
However, unlike typical cast iron, an enameled cast iron braiser has a glossy porcelain enamel coating. You can cook acidic foods like tomato sauce without stripping seasoning or imparting a metallic taste.
The wide cooking surface provides plenty of room for ingredients, similar to a stainless steel sauté pan but even more spacious. And the heavy lid locks in moisture and flavors.
While highly versatile, enameled cast iron braisers are not essential since Dutch ovens can accomplish most of the same tasks. And stainless steel sauté pans provide a similar wide cooking surface.
I recommend the Misen’s 5-quart braiser. It’s thick and heavy with a durable enamel coating. It’s a high-quality pan at an affordable price.
A wok has tall sloped sides and a rounded bottom. It’s specifically designed for stir-frying, steaming, sautéing, and deep-frying. The cone-like shape minimizes splatter and allows you to regulate the heat as you rotate ingredients from the hot bottom up to the cooler sides.
Woks are typically made from carbon steel or cast iron. These materials become non-stick through seasoning, withstand high temperatures, and retain heat effectively.
There are two main styles of woks: traditional ones with rounded bottoms, designed for use on special wok ranges, and modern versions with flat bottoms, designed for standard home cooktops.
Unlike sauté pans, which distribute heat evenly across their flat surface, woks create a temperature gradient. They are hottest at the bottom and gradually get cooler up the sloped sides.
This concentrated heat makes woks less ideal for searing large, thick cuts of meat. But it’s perfect for quick cooking methods like stir-frying small pieces of meat and chopped vegetables that require intense heat delivered in short bursts.
A wok is not an essential piece of cookware for every kitchen. However, it’s a nice-to-have specialty pan if you enjoy making Asian-inspired stir-fries and other dishes requiring intense heat.
For most home cooks using electric or induction ranges, I recommend a 12-inch flat-bottomed wok, like the durable carbon steel version from Made In.
A copper skillet is a luxurious addition to any kitchen, although it’s not essential.
These skillets feature a gorgeous copper exterior and a tin or stainless steel interior to prevent reactions with food.
The main benefit of copper is its superior heat conductivity and responsiveness. Copper skillets heat up rapidly and adjust to temperature changes faster than stainless steel and aluminum. This precise temperature control is helpful for making sauces, caramel, or cooking fish.
However, copper has several downsides. It’s a soft metal prone to scratching and tarnishing over time. It also requires more skill to cook with since it reacts to heat so quickly. And it’s not compatible with induction cooktops.
Although copper skillets are fun to cook with because they heat up so fast and respond quickly when you turn the heat up or down, they’re not essential. Stainless steel pans can deliver similar results at a lower cost.
For most home cooks, the essential pots and pans include:
- Stainless steel frying pan
- Stainless steel sauté pan
- Stainless steel saucepan (or saucier)
- Stainless steel stock pot
- Cast iron skillet
- Non-stick frying pan
- Rimmed baking sheet
- Roasting pan (with rack)
- Enameled cast iron Dutch oven
In addition to these essentials, a carbon Steel Skillet, enameled cast iron braiser, carbon steel wok, and copper skillet are nice to have.
The truth is, the ideal cookware collection truly depends on your household size, budget, and the types of foods you cook most regularly.
If you live alone and don’t often cook large batches, an 8-quart stock pot may not be essential right away. Or if you never fry eggs, you can likely hold off on buying a non-stick skillet. Consider your cooking habits, and use this guide as a flexible framework.
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