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Help me decipher cookware set lingo!

Now that I'm finally moving to an apartment on my own, I can buy nice pots and pans and not have to worry about my roommates ruining them. I've just started browsing online and have come across all different types of cookware sets and I'm not sure which type to get: Aluminum, copper, hard anodized alumnium, multi pli, non-stick, stainless steel? What do these all mean? As a med school student I can't afford to buy the very best...probably about a $200 budget (although I'm pretty good at finding deals online or at outlet stores). I would like the set to include a small and large saute pan, a small and large suacepan, and some sort of large stockpot. I'll be using them for a variety of everyday cooking, sauteeing, making risotto, soups, stews, omelettes, fritattas, etc. Advice on type of material to buy as well as brands that are a good value for the money would be great. Thanks!

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  1. I would suggest:

    Get a really cheap stockpot - I've found them at Tuesday morning for $20.
    Get a good large-ish saute pan and sauce pan, rather than both large and small. My favorite brand (I know I post ad nauseum about this) is Sitram. I lived for years with just those two pans. A heavy sauce pan will do for making risotto until you are up to springing for a LC.

    1. Check out Costco - They have a great Annodized aluminum set that is excellent - for around $200 - I bought a set and am very happy with it and has the pans you are looking for -

      1. What you need depends on what you cook. lf you throw things in the oven to warm them up (as a busy student, this may be the case), invest in one or two half-size cookie sheets to use alone or put under pre-cooked foods. Get a non-stick frying pan for eggs and omelettes, and I agree with the suggestion about a saute pan.Go for 3/ 1/2 qts. for one to two people, larger if you cook for more. For a starting cook, I would invest mostly in 18/10 stainless steel with a good disk bottom made of sandwiched aluminum or copper. If no copper shows, meaning no decorative band on the bottom, then you should be able to put it in the dishwasher. 18/10 stainless is the workhorse of most kitchens, and my cooking got raves for years using inexpensive versions of such cookware. Stay away from handles that are not made of the same material. This means no phenolic handles and, Lord help us, no Rachel Ray silicone. I don't believe you can put anodized aluminum (the dark Calphalon style) in the dishwasher, nor should you put copper in it. Copper, by the way, is only good when it is very thick, and you will spend more than your budget on one pot, so pass on the copper until you can afford it. Good, thick sandwiched aluminum disk bottoms on stainless steel pots and pans work nearly as well as copper. Stay away from the much heralded-All Clad until your budget loosens up. I would also invest in a light weight roasting pan. There is no need to buy a $100 version -- here, aluminum works just fine. Add a rack to keep the roast or chicken off the bottom. I am not crazy about glass lids, but this is personal preference. You will also need a stock pot or a more flexible 5 qt or larger Dutch oven if you boil pasta or make soup. If I had to choose, I'd pick the Dutch oven. You should also get at least two small sauce pans with lids to cook gravies, cans of soup, boil vegetables. 1 1/2 to 3 quarts are common sizes. If you fry, or pan fry and then transfer to the over, NOTHING beats a cheap, seasoned black cast iron skillet. Take a look at Costco and Sams -- their house brands are fabulous and are made by major manufacters. I forget which one sells Tramontina -- and it is fantastic. Good luck -- it sounds like fun.

        1. First, you don't have to buy a set -- almost every set I've ever seen has items I would never use, so it's a waste of money and storage space. In addition, different materials and construction methods are better for different things, so the set that has the best saute pan might not be the best stock pot.

          When I was a student setting up my first kitchen, I bought my pots and pans at garage sales. You can pick up some really good stuff, especially if you cruise through some more upscale neighborhoods where people are always remodelling their kitchens and getting rid of the stuff that doesn't fit their lifestyle (or that came in a set and they never use). Buy a couple of different types of pans and see how they fit your cooking style -- if you read these boards, you'll see that for everyone who swears by brand X, there's someone else who hated them! Then maybe later when you're a little more flush you can buy more of the stuff you really liked and used. I'm now slowly replacing my first set of "nice" cookware, because I personally hate it. I wish I'd tried out a couple of pieces for a while before I bought as much as I did!

          To answer your question specifically:

          Aluminum -- light weight and conducts heat well, but is soft and reactive with foods. Most often used as a "core" or "sandwich" (see "multiply") with another metal (usually stainless steel) on the inside and sometimes the outside.

          copper -- another great heat conductor, but expensive. Cheap copper isn't worth buying.

          Hard anodized alumnium (that dark grey stuff you see all over the place) -- aluminum that has been treated by an electro-chemical process to make it less reactive and harder, while retaining its heat conducting properties. Cheap anodized alumimum is worthless, and I personally don't recommend it ever.

          Multi pli -- a constuction method where a good heat-conducting metal like aluminum is layered with one that's a poor heat conductor but has other desirable properties (i.e. stainless steel) in order to take advantage of the desirable properties of both materials. Most of the time the "Layered" part is just a disk on the bottom, but sometimes the layers extend up the sides of the pan.

          Non-stick -- can be either a coating (i.e. the latest version of teflon) over a metal pan, or you can get almost the same non-stick properties with a well-seasoned cast iron or anodized aluminum pan. Most serious cooks avoid teflon pans, except for very limited uses.

          Stainless steel -- poor heat conductor, but strong for its thickness and durable, not to mention attractive and relatively easy to clean. I grew up using Farberware pans that were stainless with an aluminum-clad bottom, and after buying anodized aluminum because everyone told me it was better, I finally acknowledged that at least for me, it wasn't, and I've gone back to aluminum/stainless.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Thanks for explaining all these to me. It makes trying to navigate through all the choices a little easier!

          2. I agree with the post about buying individual pieces rather than a set, and what you need depends on what you cook. I don't like anodized aluminum as a cooking material. I would go for Gourmet Standard for regular cookware...it is a core of aluminum with a stainless surface just like All-Clad, but about half the price. For non-stick pieces, like for eggs, I like Swiss Diamond.

            The issue with sandwich bottomed cookware is that once the heat reaches the edge of the pan, it has nowhere to go. If this is in a cheap stockpot, you'll get scorching in anything thicker than a stock.

            I could go on and on about this subject...as a matter of fact, that's my job. Looks like you are on the east coast and I'm in California, but once you figure out what type of things you need, I'm happy to talk to you through EM about it. My email is Stuart@MyToque.com. Also, if you like to make risotto a lot, check out the Gourmet Standard Chicken Fryer...it's like a 12" 7 Qt saute pan with high sides...perfect for stir frying or risottos.

            2 Replies
            1. re: StuartHMB

              I am also in the never buy a set camp and I used to work in a kitchen shop. Buy what you need. Check out not only garage sales, but thrift shops (got my favorite cast iron skillet in on for about $2.00), TJ Maxx and the like. You can make that $200 go a long way.

              1. re: StuartHMB

                Maybe it's me, but I have never had a problem cooking on gas or ceramic or electric with the heat having "nowhere to go". It sounds like the clad aluminum marketing group has managed to instill that fear into everyone rather than teaching them to TURN THE HEAT DOWN

              2. Your choices are good. Your $200 will go a long way and leave you $ to buy other things. Get one or two items at time--stainless Chefmate from Target or Walmart to start with for a few pots and pans. Get that large, inexpensive stockpot that others have recommended. Get a cheap non-stick or anodized pan for things like eggs and fish.

                1. Put down the cookware sets! I got one back when I was in college, and I think a couple of the things in there got used maybe twice. You're much better off getting individual pieces.

                  Start out with two 12 inch skillets, one nonstick and the other traditional finish. The nonstick will be your kitchen workhorse, doing everything from scrambled eggs to stirfry. The traditional is best for pan-seared meats. You get little bits stuck to the pan when you cook meat in there, and you want these. Once you take the meat out of the pan, cook some minced shallots in the meat's fat (add a little oil if you need to). Then, add wine and chicken stock and reduce by a little more than half. Whisk in cold butter a tablespoon at a time, season to taste, and you have a pan sauce worthy of the finest restaurants. If you find that you regularly cook for just a couple of people, it will be worth your while to add in 10 inch skillets as well.

                  Next up, you want a big pot. An 8 quart pot is a good starter size. You can do soups, stews, pasta, all sorts of things. A wide, shallower pot (often called a Dutch oven) is much more versatile than a narrow, deep pot (often called a stockpot); Dutch ovens can do everything a stockpot can, but stockpots can't do everything a Dutch oven can do. A couple of smaller sizes of pots will come in handy, one around 4 quarts (Target has an enameled cast iron one for under 40 bucks that works like a champ), and then if you have the budget for another one, get a 2 quart. You might want to make the 2 quart one nonstick (much easier to clean when you've made rice).

                  1. Hi AnjLM... just a very small note in favor of (limited!) sets... when I moved into my first apartment by myself and started grad school, my mom bought me a set of Belgique. It consisted of two saucepans, a large saute pan, and a large pot, which could use the same lid as the saute pan. All stainless steel. Ten years later, I'm still using them (hoping to upgrade soon, though!). I've moved four times with this set, put it through the dishwasher almost every day, and still everything works great. Might be worth thinking about as a "starter kit."

                    1. Thanks for all the advice so far. Based on the advice I think I will buy pieces individually. I do already have a cast iron skillet and an 8" stainless steel skillet that has worked well for me. Now I'm planning on adding a dutch oven (for stocks, soups, stews, and risottos), a small and large multi pli saucepan, a large multipli skillet, and a 10" non-stick skillet.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: AnjLM

                        Ah, the dutch oven. An enamel/cast iron dutch oven is expensive, but it's something you can definitely pick up at garage sales or places like Goodwill. Or watch for sales/close outs. Make sure you get one that's big enough, though. Mine is 3.5 or 4 quarts, and it's really too small for a lot of things. On the other hand, a seven quart that's full is really heavy, so take that into consideration as well!

                      2. Mark Bittman had an article in the N.Y. Times in May on stocking a kitchen for $200 (including more than pans) and highly recommended buying from a restaurant supply. store If there's not one near you, there are many on the Web. Just browsing, for instance, I found at 10-inch frypan for $11.84 from a company called Macomb, Since much of what these places sell is not useful to the home cook, I'd suggest being specific when searching -- e.g., "restaurant supply pans" (no quotes).

                        Unfortunately, the Bittman article may be available from the archive only to TimesSelect subscribers, but as examples he found a Dexter Russell chef's knife for $10, a sheet pan for $6, a colander for $7, and five pots and pans of various sizes for $68. Have fun!