Instagram is littered with pretty new cookware lately, tempting consumers to buy more pieces than they really need, and raising question of which kinds are really worth the money.
While it may feel daunting to spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of cookware, spending more on certain types of higher-quality pots and pans can be the most economical solution in the long run, as they will often hold up for longer. Additionally, high quality — and often more costly — cookware can offer a more consistent and more pleasant cooking experience (think frying pans that evenly cook your food without hot spots, or sturdy Dutch ovens that retain heat well and have easy-to-grip handles for simple transport).
But not all cookware is created equal ― there are types that aren’t worth spending more on. To help determine which pots and pans are worth investing in, we turned to professional chefs and cookware experts for advice.
When it comes to building your personal cookware collection, it’s best to buy what you need (aka skip the 20-piece cookware sets) and invest in what you use the most.
Jimmy Ly, chef and owner of Madame Vo in New York City, told HuffPost that home cooks should take a look at how they cook and the types of dishes they like to make.
“For me, I know that I make a lot of braises and also do lots of shallow frying and sautéing. This informs my priorities and how much I would like to spend on each,” he said. “Ultimately, my suggestion is to buy for longevity and precision. A lot of these pots and pans can last you lifetimes if you buy smart now.”
Splurge (but buy a cheaper nonstick one, too)
As one of the most used pans in your kitchen, and often used for high temperature cooking, skillets are definitely worth splurging on. You’ll want to have a high-quality skillet on hand, plus a cheaper nonstick skillet for cooking eggs and the like, as nonstick enamel will wear off over time and you’ll need to replace it every so often.
If you’re looking to save money, a pre-seasoned cast iron skillet offers the best of both worlds, as it’s both sturdy and it’ll become increasingly nonstick over time. Seamus Mullen, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, said that cast iron skillets are the best deal as far as larger skillets are concerned: “They are relatively inexpensive and will last a lifetime.”
“You don’t need to splurge, but by all means do not skimp on a skillet,” Lance Knowling, chef and owner of Blujeen Events and Chef Lance at Home (a dinner delivery service), told HuffPost. “Cooking requires high heat and such, so don’t buy cheap, it’ll wear out quickly and become dangerous.” Knowling recommended nonstick pans for their versatility, plus high-quality regular pans to extend the life of your nonstick pans.
Lisa McManus, executive editor of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews, said you should get the best traditional fully clad skillet you can afford, plus a cheaper nonstick skillet (as it will inevitably have to be replaced).
“Our favorite [skillet] from All-Clad might look simply made of stainless steel, but it’s actually fully clad, which means it is composed of three layers of bonded metal (steel, aluminum, steel) that use the best properties of each metal to transmit heat evenly, so you get gorgeous browning instead of hot spots, frustration and bad food,” McManus said.
She noted that cheaper cookware tries to mimic this by putting three layers of metal in a disk on the bottom of a thin steel pan, which doesn’t work as well. “They tend to heat too slowly, then overheat, and everything around the edges of the pan burns because the rest of the pan is paper thin,” McManus said. “Look along the bottom exterior of the pan. If you see a seam — avoid it. That’s a disk-bottom pan.”
Whether you’re splurging or buying a less expensive skillet, if you can only buy one, McManus recommended buying a 12-inch pan, no matter how small your household is.
“You can always cook a little food in a big pan, but the reverse is not true,” she said.
Saucepans and sauciers are versatile pieces of cookware that can handle a variety of tasks, including cooking pasta, simmering stews and reducing sauces. As such, our chef experts agreed that they’re worth the splurge.
“I don’t skimp on saucepans, and I have several different sizes,” Knowling said. “High quality is recommended, you’ll have them for a very long time. I have a complete set and use them more on a daily basis than any other single item.”
“Good saucepans are wonderful things,” McManus said. “Your life will get easier. It’s worth it. You may wince at spending hundreds of dollars on a saucepan but it’s a one-time thing.” If you can only buy one, she recommends getting a large regular (not nonstick) saucepan; 3.5 to 4 quarts.
“If you can afford a second one, go for a smaller 1-2 quarts for variety,” McManus said. “Then you’re done. Look for a broad bottom, medium-high walls and a handle that stays cool.” In general, she recommends getting a metal lid rather than glass as it’s more durable. “Glass just steams up anyway, so you can’t see. And it’s breakable.”
If you aren’t exactly sure what a sauté pan is, the good news is: You probably don’t even need one. Ly said that “anything you’d need a sauté pan for you can do with a frying pan. If you’re tight on space, just use the one.”
McManus echoed this sentiment. “If you have a great skillet and Dutch oven, you don’t really need a sauté pan. It’s sort of a less good hybrid of both of those,” she said.
Of course, if you’re in the market for a sauté pan, Mullen recommended picking up a regular (not nonstick) black steel pan for a fraction of the price of a stainless steel sauté pan.
“It will conduct the heat quickly and sear nicely,” he said. “Just don’t wash it with a lot of soap and make sure you dry it immediately. Basically treat it like a cast iron skillet.”
The experts interviewed for this story unanimously agreed that Dutch ovens are a splurge-worthy piece of cookware.
“Skimping is OK, but if you can, splurge,” said McManus, who recommended getting a Dutch oven and skipping a braiser if money is tight, as its taller walls make it more versatile. “We’ve written an entire cookbook of what you can do in a Dutch oven, and it’s our review team’s favorite all-purpose piece of cookware.”
“There is a reason Le Creuset costs so much — they’ve really nailed the formula for making enameled coating that doesn’t chip easily,” McManus said. “As the underlying cast iron and the glasslike enamel coating contract and expand when the pan is heated and cooled, the two materials can separate if that enamel is not perfectly applied. That said, cheaper enameled cast iron is available, and it works. We have a best buy from Cuisinart that’s pretty good at a fraction of the price.”
Knowling is a big fan of stovetop braising, so investing in a higher quality one makes sense. “With a braiser, it’s important that it’s on the heavier side as this will allow for even cooking,” he said. “Heavier will cost more but it is definitely worth it.”
There’s no need to spend big bucks on this large pot. Our experts recommended buying something lightweight with securely fastened handles to avoid kitchen mishaps with hot liquids.
“As long as you’re not heating up the pot to super high heat to sear or brown meats and vegetables, you don’t need a super fancy stock pot,” Mullen said. He recommends using your Dutch oven for browning bones or vegetables for a stock, then transferring them to the stock pot. “That way, you can conduct high heat and brown [your ingredients] in batches.”
McManus noted that since this type of pot is typically used for liquid-y things like stock, pasta, lobster boils and corn, material and construction are less important compared to other cookware that is used to sear and brown food or radiate heat. “Grab a 12-quart if you can, our favorite is about $40. Eight quarts is OK, but not really anything smaller,” she said.