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Help me choose cookware!

I'm an experienced cook and have, for the past twelve years or so, been cooking with a tiny repertoire of not great (but not terrible) pots and pans, which are now, essentially, destroyed and must be replaced. I now finally have a big, new kitchen, and a bit more money, and can buy some decent pans, but I'm making myself crazy trying to figure out what to get. (Though I'm planning on doing a LC dutch oven, purchased from one of their outlet stores.) Would any of you be able to help me? Here's what I definitely need:

-- 12-inch frying pan
-- 12-inch saute pan
-- pot for boiling pasta
-- two smaller saucepans
-- dutch oven (5-quart?)

Here's what I think would also be good to have:

-- 8-inch, and 10-inch frying pan
-- nonstick pan
-- saucier

I can't spend thousands and thousands, but I could spend perhaps 500-600 bucks (though would love to spend less), and I want to make sure I'm using the money in the best way. I can't figure out which of the following I should do, to maximize my budget, and get pans I'll love (trouble is that I've never used All-Clad or any of the All-Clad knock-offs, so I feel a bit lost about what to choose). Here are the things I've been considering:

1. A Cuisinart Multi-Clad Pro set (I believe there's a 10-piece set for about $300). I've read reviews of this line and some are great, but some are bad (or say, "not as good as All-Clad"). Has anyone used it? Would this be a good option for me? (Considering that I need basics, like saucepans.)

2. An Emeril/All-Clad set (again, a 10-piece set is about $200). Hereagain, I've read some bad reviews and some good. It's hard to figure out if these will be good or not. (I don't mind the glass lids, by the way.) Anyone tried them? I worry that the handles are not stay-cool, as I have little kids (and you just never know with them).

3. A set of Calphalon Contemporary Stainless Steel. These, I know nothing about, but my destroyed set is Calphalon and there was much that I liked about it.

4. A non-set option: Buying a couple of All-Clad Copper-core pans from the All-Clad outlet (12-inch fry, $150 bucks; 10-inch fry, $95), and then figuring out less expensive options for everything else (any ideas would be most welcome!). One worry: The handles on All-Clad pans seem a little uncomfortable to me (maybe because I'm used to the rounder, Calphalon handles). Has anyone found this to be the case?

5. Another non-set option: Buying a couple of Sur Le Table SS pans (12-inch fry, $90), and then, again, less expensive options for everything else. Has anyone used these? Do you like them?

Okay, I apologize for the length of this note. As I said, I'm making myself a little crazy trying to decide about this (I suppose because money feels so precious right now; I fear making a mistake). If anyone has any thoughts or advice for me, I'd be so grateful.

Many, many thanks,
BrickLane

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  1. BrickLane, were I you, I would forget the sets. You save money compared to what you would pay buying all of the individual pieces alone, but you never would buy all of those pieces alone, so the comparison is specious. Do not be swayed by advertising budgets (Cuisinart, Emeril, All-Clad, Calphalon: you do not need to pay for their advertising) or impressing-the-neighbors bling; think of function and pay for the cookware, not the advertising.

    First, think about your heat source. Sooner or later you will have induction. (Hues and cries expected to come from people who have not used induction or who wrongly think that gas is faster or more powerful.) Anyway, trust me, just as eventually you will have no incandescent light bulbs in your home, eventually you will be cooking with induction, and if you get induction-compatible pots and pans now, you will not need to replace them when the inevitable time comes. But this is no hardship: most pots, including both cheap pots and very high-end pots, work just fine on induction and -- with the possible exception of flexibility to choose among types of wok -- for any type of pot you want, either it already is induction-compatible, or there is one just as good at an equivalent price that is induction-compatible.

    Next, consider how many people you will be cooking for on a regular basis, emphasis on regular. Worry about the special-purpose very occasional pieces, like roasting pans large enough for a 20+ lb. turkey or stock pots large enough to make soup for 30, at some later date and concentrate first on what you will use at least twice a week. We are empty-nesters, usually cook for only two, and, although we do entertain for dinner fairly frequently, we almost never entertain for more than two other couples, a total of six diners. We have only one (1, uno, itci) pot larger than 3.2 liters, and do not miss the larger pots. The one big pot, an ancient single ply West Bend, is only about seven quarts, but the only times we have occasion to use it is in situations where we basically begin by boiling a large quantity of water (making jam from berries, boiling the turkey carcass after Thanksgiving for turkey soup), and there is no need for anything other than a cheap simple pot for such chores. Imagine what you might need large pots for and conjure if your situation will be any different. Two 3½ quart pots usually will be of much greater utility than one 7 quart pot.

    Third, consider what each pot primarily will be used for. If the pot has straight vertical sides, then almost certainly you will get a better performer if it has a thick disk on the bottom to distribute heat efficiently and evenly there, and steel-only sides, to retain the heat inside the pot rather than absorbing heat from the liquid inside the pot to transfer it efficiently out of the pot to the kitchen; you don't need another radiator in the kitchen. If the pot has curved sides, like an evasee (saucier), then its purpose probably will be better served by a clad construction for efficient heat conduction up the sides.

    For pasta, usually you start with a largish boiling pot, straight sided. For up to six people, we have found that the Demeyere Apollo Mussel Pot (item 10821) is just right for pasta: we do not end up heating more water than we need to, but its pasta capacity always has been sufficient for our needs. In addition to being relatively inexpensive, the mussel pot has a unique top that we continue to find new uses for: it is a flat-bottom bowl with handles, and it is the perfect vessel for breading cutlets before frying, for example.

    Another very versatile pot that we use all the time is a Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker frying pan. You think that you do not need a pressure cooker? Maybe not yet, but put that aside for a moment. Just used as a frying pan/saute pan (it is about the same shape as a saute pan), it is an excellent performer, with or without its top. Nowhere is it written that one MUST use the top of a pressure cooker when one uses the bottom of a pressure cooker, and the Kuhn-Rikon is built like a tank, in most sizes it has helper handles, and it goes straight into the dishwasher. If you have one, you will find yourself using it for everything. And before you know it, you learn how corn on the cob and artichokes really always should be cooked (atop a trivet inside the pot above the boiling water, with the pressure top on, but not necessarily employing pressure).

    That Kuhn-Rikon -- if you get only one -- will satisfy your need for either the larger frying pan or the saute pan and maybe both. But it is a bit large for scrambling two eggs or making up a mess of corned beef hash for two. For that, you want the 9.5-inch Iwachu Nambu frying pan which currently is under discussion in another topic on this board, here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/615264

    Do not let your getting a 9.5 inch frying pan cause you to stay away from getting an even smaller enameled cast iron, curved bottom, frying pan: the kinds of things you cook in small frying pans in small quantities also tend to be the kinds if things you want to tease up the sides of a curved surface to give a variety of heat, and things cooked in butter, and butter seems to work better on enameled cast iron than on "naked" seasoned cast iron.

    For the saucepans, you want disk bottoms, and the best disk bottoms are encapsulated (so they can go in the dishwasher) copper-disk bottoms; you are looking at Demeyere Atlantis or Sirocco there. They are not cheap, but they are very very good, and that may be where a big chunk of your budget ends up.

    For the cast iron wall-less skillet, there are so many threads on this board, it would be fatuous to reprise them. Suffice it to say, you will want one.

    Hope this helps.

    1. option 4 sounds pretty good.

      as i type, i'm watching my wife applying a second coat of "bar keepers friend" to the base of her all clad non-stick fry pan.

      at the end of the day, one or two cast iron skillets, some inexpensive ss pots and pans, one or two (big and bigger) lc dutch ovens and maybe a fancy all clad 12" guy plus the 10" non-stick guy should do you. maybe add a big old aluminum lobster pot because lobsters cooked at home beat the daylights out of restaurant stuff (thanks, jasper white).

      the all clad handles fit my large hands well. deb's small hands, too. lifting the large lc stuff and the cast iron stuff will tone your abs, biceps and prepare you for swimsuit season.

      pots and pans decisions are pretty subjective. call it the way you cook. best of luck on your journey.

      3 Replies
      1. re: steve h.

        Le Crusette, Stainless Cookware - absolutely pristine - no contest. The durability, performance, design and engineering surpass anything out there. I would rather purchase ONE piece per year than settle for anything else. Whatever you purchase will reap huge rewards and last a lifetime. NO regrets.

        1. re: Writeher

          Writeher, Le Creuset stainless is made in the Peoples Republic of China as a cheap alternative to cookware that is made in parts of the world that pay a living wage. It embodies no technological innovations; it certainly does not advance the state of the art. Cuisinart Stainless is decent cookware, and the price is attractive. But "... no contest. The durability, performance, design and engineering surpass anything out there" is way, way over the top.

          1. re: Politeness

            Oops: the second time I wrote the brand name in the message above, my brain thought "Le Creuset" but my fingers typed "Cuisinart." I apologize if I caused somebody else to become as confused as my fingers apparently were.

      2. great, detailed reply from Politeness above.

        Can you confirm how many people you are cooking for? Because a family of five will have different needs from a couple.

        I'm also part of a two person household (starting out, not winding down), and we rarely make food for more than four. We have and regularly use:
        2litre stainless saucepan (heating milk/stock, poaching/boiling eggs, soup for one)
        6 litre stainless saucepan (soup for two, pasta, rice, beans)
        massive stainless stockpot (used maybe twice a month, for stock or pasta for 4 or more, or jam/chutney making)
        small cheap nonstick pan (frying one egg, toasting nuts, saute for one)
        28-cm jamie tfal frying pan (pretty much everything)

        I like to invest in Le Creuset enamelled cast iron, which are heavy to handle but great for stove to oven, etc.
        I have more than I need (embarrassed admission) but I'd say the following are essential:
        5-6 litre oval or round pot with lid (oval can fit a chicken for pot roast, but round heats more evenly on the stove - braising, sauces, even layered bakes)
        big buffet dish - this is slant-sided and quite shallow, has a lid, is great for braising, roasting, curries, stirfries. Can be used as a giant skillet or as a baking dish. Having this has made me not miss having a SS frying pan for three years, although I might invest in that later in the year.
        I also have and use a rectangular roasting dish, but not sure if you're looking for just pots or not

        In terms of brands, just go for what feels right in your hand. Ones that come with lids are very useful, although I find the lids are sometimes interchangeable (and you can always put a dinner plate on top of a pot). Usually you can tell whether something is sturdily made just by shaking it (handles should be welded tightly, bottom of the pot should feel heavy).

        Enjoy shopping!

        8 Replies
        1. re: Gooseberry

          First of all, thank you, all of you, for these incredibly helpful and detailed responses. Let me answer some of your questions:

          * We're a young family. Right now, I'm cooking for three, but we have a baby, so within six months, I'll be cooking for four. We do tend to entertain pretty regularly, which generally means cooking for eight or so. (But I already own some of the big, rarely-used pieces for entertaining, like a giant ss roasting pan, and a massive pot for lobsters and/or turkey stock.) I cook dinner six days a week, generally, and regularly cook breakfast and/or lunch, so these pans will be heavily used.

          *We just renovated our kitchen, putting in a pretty expensive stove (Bertazzoni), which we plan to have for the long haul (since we'll never be able to afford to do this again!), so induction isn't the first thing on my mind.

          *The reason I was considering a set is really because I actually could use all the pans included in, for instance, the Cuisinart set. (Though, of course, it doesn't include the thing I need most: A 12-inch pan.) But it seems like everyone is saying that I could buy relatively inexpensive saucepans, as open stock, and then spend more on the important things. (And Politeness, it seems like you're saying I don't need clad saucepans, that it would be better to choose ones with disks at the bottom, yes?)

          That list of the pieces I thought I needed comes from years of cooking with almost no pans (or, a 10-inch and an 8-inch frying pan, a 1.5 and a 2.5-quart saucepan, an 8-quart pot, and a butter-warmer), and slowly assessing what would make my life easier, and make certain dishes much better (or, simply, possible).

          I realize now, reading your responses, that what I'm really confused about is simply what brands are going to serve me well, particularly with regard to the frying pans and saute pans (though Politeness seems to be saying I don't actually need those, but should get a pressure cooker instead; I'm slowly trying to wrap my brain around this...) I have a few friends who are very, very serious and experienced cooks, and they've all essentially said "All-Clad copper-core." But it's just so much money. I keep wondering if Cuisinart Multi-Clad Pro or SLT or suchlike wouldn't work just as well. Gooseberry, it sounds like you're saying that any of these would be fine. That the important thing is that the handle and pan feels comfortable to me. Is that right?

          And then, with regard to saucepans, if I can get away with something inexpensive, that would be great, but in terms of inexpensive brands, I don't know what's good. (Every time I go into a kitchen supply shop these days, I almost have a panic attack.)

          Gooseberry, thank you for your thoughts on LC. My plan was to get a round and an oval 5 quart, but the buffet dish is a great idea.

          So, thank you all, again, and if anyone else has thoughts on specific brands, I'd be very interested in hearing them.

          Also, please let me know if I can tell you anything else that will help you advise me.

          Many, many thanks,
          BrickLane

          1. re: BrickLane

            Bricklane, you do not need "ALL CLAD COPPER CORE" to cook well. I don't own a single piece of it, and I'll put my dinner parties up against most. I happen to own a little bit of most brands, the the reason I have stayed away from the All Clad Copper Core is because, at those prices, I would rather buy Falk copper. This is what happens to people who only know how to shop at WS!! AC Copper Core is a fine make, from what I have seen, but it is sure pricey and demands more care.

            Think a little bit about practicality. With small children and dinner parties, and I remember the small children time of my life well, it might be nice to cheat a little and be able to put your pot in the dishwasher without worry. For that you need stainless steel, period. I usually wash my pots by hand, mostly because they are special to me and some require handwashing, but of the brands I own, the expensive ones that can go into the DW include your basic All Clad stainless steel (no copper showing, no anodized aluminum, could be Master Chef), Sitram, Paderno Grand Gourmet, Demeyere, Cuisinart and Tramontina. Just look for 18/10 stainless steel. If you cook on a ceramic cooktop, go for disk bottom construction and not clad. If you use gas, you can and should mix it up a bit. For example, one of my favorite pots is a conical sauteuse from Demeyere, which happens to be clad instead of the usual disk bottom.

            If you are trying to save money, check out Tramontina and Cuisinart Multi Clad. They are very good values for the money. Get stainless for your basic 5-7 quart stockpot or rondeaux (Dutch oven shape), your 1 to 3 quart sauce pans, your saute pan.

            Go get a 12 inch cast iron skillet, learn how to care for it and you will use it for everything. Get also at least one LeCreuset or Staub round or oval Dutch oven in 6 to 7 quarts (this will be your most expensive piece). Alternatives to LC are Mario Batali. You will have to wash any cast iron or enameled cast iron by hand, of course, no matter what everyone else tells you.

            A cheap nonstick pan for your breakfast items is the order of the day. I've used T-fal, Circulon, and lately, Calphalon, with few complaints. My only issue with Calphalons is that they don't sit very flat on my smooth cooktop.

            Whatever you do, avoid glass lids as much as possible. A disaster waiting to happen with children.

            I think if you choose wisely, you can get your Dutch oven and cast iron skillet for about $300 total (or much less, if you go with some of the new stuff made in China and not France), and then you can look for great pricing on your basic All Clad or Tramontina or Sitram or Demeyere. Go to Sur La Table to see most of these, or search online for prices.

            Good luck.

            1. re: RGC1982

              RGC1982, thank you so much for this incredibly helpful reply. And for seriously taking into account my concerns about budget, which are serious (this is why I wasn't even considering Demeyere; isn't it even more pricey than All-Clad?).

              In terms of non-stick, my destroyed cookware set, which I mentioned in my original post, is Calphalon (a wedding gift), and I have to say that I've loved it. And also found the company to be amazing. When the nonstick coating on my most-used pan (10-inch fry) began to peel, I called them, and they said, "Send it back and we'll replace it." And they did, within two days.

              Anyway, I'm going to go look at all the lines you mention in person this week and shall report back soon.

              Thank you so much.

              1. re: BrickLane

                Demeyere is very expensive, especially the Atlantis line. You would end up spending $250 to $300 per stainless steel pot, so I didn't suggest it. Part of that reason is that they are made in Belgium. If you are going to spend that kind of money on one good pot, make that the enameled cast iron Dutch oven that everyone tells you about on these boards, and economize a little on the stainless steel. The location of manufacturer greatly affects the price.

                There is an online seller called 125West that carries both Demeyere and Tramontina. You can compare some of the lines right on that web site. Demeyere has another line, Apollo, that is more reasonable, but this line starts to be similar in price to the stainless steel All Clad, not the copper core. It is supposed to be the restaurant line for Demeyere. The Tramontina set is great for the money. I have heard that you can find it at stores, but I have never seen it in a store. There may be other sellers who have Tramontina for less.

              2. re: RGC1982

                Oh, and you're right, I do definitely want to be able to put pots in the dishwasher!

                1. re: RGC1982

                  I've got a large assortment of pans and cook on a DCS gas range (17,500 BTU max); multiple pieces in every shape and size from Cuisinart MC and Chef's Classic, Calphalon Commercial and Professional Hard Anodized (got 25 mostly unused pieces at a garage sale for $10!!!!), Tivoli Clad SS, Tramontina TriPly SS, LeCrueset Enameled CI, Lodge CI, old T-Fal NS and a hodge podge of no-namers. I do have a TON (think almost every type of pan made) of cookware but I use it all and I did not spend more than $500 in total. Shop garage sales, outlet stores, restaurant supply stores and on-line sites.

                  My go-tos? Cuisinart MC 10" NS skillet, Tramontina TriPly 12" SS skillet, LC 6-3/4 qt oval, Cuisinart Chef's Classic 3qt saute, some store brand 5qt dutch oven and most of my Calphalon HA. My rice comes out perfect in my 2qt LC apple.

                  Cookware is really personal; I recommend going to a store and trying out as many pieces as possible. You need to determine how they feel in your hand empty and with weight. Different pans from the same manufacturer will feel different; I kid you not. You just need to find what suits you and your cooking style best.

                  Tramontina TriPly SS can be had via WalMart.com pretty inexpensively. There is a set for about $150 and it is WELL worth the price. You can pick up individual pieces there as well (make sure they are the TriPly!). Amazon.com has some great Friday sale prices and don't overlook the larger Cuisinart sets. I got my DIL a Chef's Classic 17 piece set for $175 around Christmas (it had ALL the pieces she needed). Don't forget Marshall's/TJMaxx/HomeGoods and Tuesday Morning for some bargain pieces. My best buy on a brand new piece (and I had to convince myself to get it) was my 6-3/4 qt LC Oval for $60.

                2. re: BrickLane

                  BrickLane: "I'm really confused about is simply what brands are going to serve me well, particularly with regard to the frying pans and saute pans (though Politeness seems to be saying I don't actually need those, but should get a pressure cooker instead; I'm slowly trying to wrap my brain around this...)"

                  Just think of the Kuhn-Rikon Duromatic as a VERY well constructed, heavy gauge stainless steel frypan/saute pan with a thick aluminum disk fused to the bottom, a pan that -- oh, by the way -- comes with a trick lid. But you need not use the trick lid unless you choose to do so. All of the Duromatic series pots come in standard diameters (20 cm. 22 cm, 24 cm, etc.), which means that you almost certainly already have non-trick lids (from other pots) that you can use in place of the pressure cooking lid.

                  Now, let's talk pasta. When cooking pasta in water, there is a secret. It should not be a secret, because it is simple, foolproof, and better than the common method, but I am astonished that so few people know the secret. Here is is:

                  Suppose the pasta maker says to cook for eight minutes for al dente. Don't. Instead, bring the water in which the pasta sits to a rolling boil, remove the pot from the burner (if you had induction -- which you won't -- you would not need to move the pot, simply turn the induction off), and IMMEDIATELY place a thin cotton towel across the top of the pot, and place a tight-fitting lid atop the towel; then let the pot sit for the requisite time, in this case, eight minutes. At the end of that time, the pasta will be fully cooked and -- unlike pasta "cooked" for eight minutes, where the pour-off water is cloudy -- the water will be perfectly clear when you pour it off. The pasta will be perfect.

                  Now, if you have a pressure cooker, instead of the cotton towel, you use the trick lid to accomplish the same purpose. Technically, you are not using the pressure cooker -as- a pressure cooker, but the seals on the trick lid obviate the need for the cotton towel. And every Kuhn-Rikon Duromatic bottom (not the lids) is completely impervious to anything any dishwasher can throw at it. Heck, it probably would be impervious to anything a medium caliber army artillery piece could throw at it. Come the Revolution, I will shield the bodies of my loved ones behind Kuhn-Rikon Duromatic pans as bulletproof shields.

                  1. re: BrickLane

                    "...induction isn't the first thing on my mind."

                    I see your point, but I think that induction will continue to gain in popularity in the future. Given the choice between induction-capable and non-induction-capable cookware, it seems to me that selecting the former is a no-brainer.

                    Who knows. You might want to pick up a portable induction cookpad in the future. They are *amazingly* handy! Also, you'll be able to pass down your cookware to your kids, who may well be using induction cooktops 20 years from now.

                3. I would decide against going with a set. My mother and I have made that mistake far too many times. You are forced with pieces you may not want or need and then still find yourself purchasing additional cookware later. Almost every brand you list offer those set pieces in an individual option as well.

                  I have a few frying pans from the Cuisinart MP Pro line and a wonderful Chef's Pan from their lower, Classic line.

                  I have not read many reviews of the Sur Le Table pieces or who actually makes them.

                  I do think getting individual bargain pieces of All-Clad will lead to having a great collection. I know Bed, Bath, & Beyond had some AC clearance pieces recently. Plus you have several AC outlet options.

                  Let us know what pieces you end up purchasing.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: cityhopper

                    Cityhopper, thank you. In terms of Sur Le Table, I don't know who makes them, but the salesperson at the shop near my house said, "They're basically All-Clad. But made in China. That's the only difference." I asked if he'd used them and he said no, he uses All-Clad. Not so helpful!

                    Many thanks,
                    BrickLane

                  2. I agree that I would stay away from sets. You've looked at pans. Now which ones feel good in your hands? Which seem balanced? You are going to be handling these babies daily for a long time. And, how do you want to clean them? Do you want to put them in the dishwasher? I honestly don't thing there are right and wrong answers here.

                    When I buy a pan I handle it, and visualize how I would use it. I make sure I am commited to caring for it, and can accept any restrictions there are for its care and use. Several years ago, I did what you are doing. I continuted to pick up other pans as I found them. I think you are going to enjoy using your new pans.