The Different Types Of Pots And Pans: What Do You Need?

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Even if you are an infrequent cook, you still need a basic set of cookware. If your cooking repertoire extends beyond the fundamentals, you’ll want to have some specialized pieces to cater to your specific style and favorite foods. For the most basic pieces, buying a cookware set is usually the least expensive way to go. You can then add on other items to suit your specific cooking needs.

Most cookware is metal, with aluminum, cast iron or stainless steel being the most common. Aluminum has the advantage of lower cost, but many cooks prefer cast iron or stainless steel for durability. Nonstick coatings make it easy to clean your cookware after use, but again, personal preference comes into play here, with some cooks preferring to avoid nonstick pans due to health concerns about the coating. For more information on the various materials used to make cookware, and to help decide which one may be right for you, see The Best Cooking Pots & Pans For Your Kitchen.

Start off with the basic cookware, and add on as you require. Cookware is worth splurging on, as good quality pots and pans will stand up to the rigors of cooking for decades, while cheap items will scratch, dent or lose their handles or knobs.

Types Of Pots And Pans

While there are many types of pots and pans available, you can easily get by with a basic set. Many pieces are very similar, and some manufacturers interchange names of common cookware items. The following pieces form a good basic set of cookware that will cover most basic kitchen needs.

  • Skillet Definition: Also called a frying pan, a skillet is a kitchen workhorse. Skillets have gently sloping, shallow sides, a wide bottom, a long handle and no lid. Measured by the size across the top of the pan, an 8-inch and a 12-inch frying pan will cover just about anything you want to fry or sauté.
  • Saucepan Definition: The pot you will reach for over and over, a saucepan is round, with straight sides, a long handle and a fitted lid. A saucepan is perfect for heating and cooking soups, stews, rice, sauces, or vegetables. Saucepans are measured in quarts; a 2-quart and a 4-quart saucepan will cover your needs nicely.
types of pots and pans types of pots and pans
  • Stockpot Definition: A tall, round pot with a fitted lid, stockpots are perfect for large batches of soups or stews, corn on the cob or pasta. Stockpots are measured in quarts; an 8-quart pot is large enough to handle most people’s needs.
  • Baking Dish Definition: A glass pan, usually rectangular, used for baking cakes, egg or potato dishes, and casseroles. Baking dishes are measured in inches; it is useful to have two: one that is 13 x 9, and one that is 11 x 7.
  • Cookie Sheet Definition: A flat metal pan with either no sides or a very shallow lip, a cookie sheet is useful for baking cookies, breads, or other baked goods. Measured in inches, an 11 x 17 inch sheet will be sufficient for a batch of cookies.

Specialty Types Of Pots And Pans

Once you have your basic cookware in place, round out your collection with any of the following items that fit into your cooking needs.

  • Dutch Oven Definition: These are deep, oval pots with a heavy lid. There are usually short handles on each end. A Dutch oven recreates oven conditions on the stovetop, and is great for roasting meat, stews, soups, sauces or casseroles. Capacity is measured in quarts, 6 to 8 quarts is a good size for most needs. If you like to cook meats frequently, but don’t always want to use the oven, or will need it for other foods, then a Dutch oven is the perfect solution.
  • Griddle Definition: Perfect for making pancakes, a griddle is a flat, usually square pan with a very shallow lip or no rim at all. These often have nonstick coatings.
  • Roasting Pan Definition: Heavy metal roasting pans are useful for cooking large pieces of meat, such as a turkey, ham or large roast. Many include a metal rack to elevate the food during cooking, allowing airflow on all sides. Roasting pans are large, but have relatively shallow sides. Heavy loop handles make it easier to lift the pan. Some include a lid. A 16 to 18 inch roasting pan is big enough for most turkeys or roasts. This is essential for anyone who cooks Thanksgiving turkeys or Easter hams.
  • Double Boiler Definition: Consisting of a smaller pan fitted into a slightly larger pan, double boilers are usually used to steam vegetables, fish or meat, or for melting candy or chocolate. The most common size is 2 quarts. These are easily distinguished by their tall silhouette.
  • Sauté Pan Definition: A sauté pan is similar to a skillet, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. A sauté pan has straight sides (skillets have gently sloped sides), a long handle, and sometimes a smaller loop handle on the other side for ease in lifting the pan. Used for sautéing and braising. A 5-quart sauté pan is the most useful size.
  • Wok Definition: Also called a stir-fry, a wok has a flat, round bottom and high, sloping sides. Many woks come with a metal ring stand to hold them slightly suspended above the gas flame. Woks are an essential element in Asian cooking, perfect for stir frying meats and vegetables, and can be used for deep-frying, stews and steaming. Look for a 14-inch wok to fit most needs.
  • Braiser Definition: Very similar to a stockpot, a braiser has lower sides, and may or may not have a lid. Handles on each side make it easy to lift. Braisers are good for slow cooking meat and allowing it to soak in flavor. A 3 to 5 quart braiser is a good size.
  • Casserole Pan Definition: A casserole pan is very similar to a Dutch oven, but often made of glass or ceramic, and used inside the oven rather than on the stove. A casserole pan between 2 and 4 quarts is most useful.
  • Grill Pan Definition: Used for grilling food on the stovetop, a grill pan is similar to a griddle, but has deep ridges for collecting fat and oil, and giving food the distinctive, lined grill marks.

Cooking is more enjoyable, and gives better results, when you have the proper tools to use. A good selection of cookware will serve you well, and last for many years. Think about the main five to 10 dishes you cook most frequently, and which types of pots and pans they would benefit the most from. These will form your basic cookware set. Over time, pick up spare pots and pans to fill any needs you come across. Again, it’s better to spend money on one or two quality pieces, as they will last for years if not decades.

Last Updated: April 23, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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