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Equipment: The 7 Most Essential Pots and Pans

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out our updated pots and pans guide here!

So it's a new year, and you're ready to start outfitting your kitchen with the right gear. Where to start?

You could spend thousands of dollars outfitting a kitchen with the best pots and pans in the world. I know, because I've easily spent that much in my lifetime and have worked in kitchens equipped with everything from top-of-the-line septuple-layered, copper-lined pans to the simplest, lightweight aluminum cookware from the Chinese restaurant supply store. You'd be surprised at the number of expensive pans that fare not much better than the cheap ones.

Here are the 7 pots and pans that I turn to the most. The ones that hang by my stove and get used almost every day. A good cook never blames his tools, but outfit your kitchen with these, and you'll have absolutely no excuse.

Wherever applicable, I've included two versions: the money-is-no-object best, and a budget-minded alternative.

1. The All-Clad 12-inch Skillet with Lid

A large skillet is the true workhorse of the kitchen. It's perfect for rapidly browning large quantities of vegetables or meat. Pan-roasting a whole chicken? This is the pan of choice. Need to brown a pork tenderloin or a 3-rib beef roast? No problem. It's also excellent for braising and reducing sauces. It has a tight-fitting lid and is oven safe, which means you can brown your short ribs, add the liquid, cover and braise in the oven, then reduce the sauce on the stovetop and serve all out of a single pan.

Why is tri-ply construction important? Stainless steel is heavy and can retain a lot of heat, but it's a slow conductor. Aluminum is lightweight (and retains less heat per unit volume), but transfers heat really fast. Combine the two in a single pan by sandwiching the aluminum in the center, and you've got a skillet that can retain heat for maximum browning, and will distribute that heat evenly over its entire surface, eliminating hot and cold spots.

The Best: the All-Clad Stainless Skillet with Lid ($99.95). It's really expensive, but it's massive size and perfect thermodynamics are worth the extra bucks if you are willing to spring for it.

On A Budget: Sorry, in this category, none of the cheaper models I've tried have come close to the All-Clad. If only Tramontina would come out with a budget 12-inch skillet!

2. A 10-inch cast iron skillet

Any time you want intense heat that lasts and lasts, the cast iron skillet is your pan of choice. It excels at cooking pizzas, frying chicken, crisping bacon, giving golden-brown crusts on apple pies and corn bread, searing steaks, paddling troublemakers, looking really good in the kitchen, and being an all-around bada*s.

Contrary to what many people say, taking care of a cast iron pan is not all that difficult. All it requires is a bit of training, an ounce of loyalty, and a modicum of respect. Here's our complete guide on the subject.

A 10 to 11-inch model will give you plenty of space to work in, and won't be so heavy that it requires a forklift to move.

The Best: If your grandmother had one, you're lucky. The rest of us can find old-fashioned Griswold or Wagners off of eBay. Look for models that are completely smooth from reputable buyers, and expect to pay upwards of $100 for a high-quality, well-seasoned skillet.

On a Budget: the 10 1/4-inch Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet from Lodge. Despite its claim to being pre-seasoned, you'll still have to season it yourself before it achieves true non-stick qualities, but at $16.98, the price can't be beat.

3. A 10-inch non-stick skillet

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Ok, so if your cast iron skillet is perfectly seasoned, it should be completely nonstick. But for the rest of us mortals, a non-stick coated pan is a useful tool to have on hand for guaranteed results with omelets, pancakes, frittatas, and the like—things which you don't want to get stuck to the pan halfway through a precarious flipping step.

Unlike with stainless skillets, a non-stick pan should never be heated up until it's smoking hot; The non-stick finish has a tendency to vaporize and can be harmful to your health. What does this mean? Well it means that you don't really need a super-thick pan designed for retaining heat. A pan that manages to distribute heat evenly with a minimal weight is all you're looking for, and that means that aluminum is the ideal material. I like having one with a cover so that I can steam my fried eggs and omelets whenever I feel the urge to.

And we all know not to use metal utensils on non-stick surfaces, right?

The Best: the 10-inch Covered Omelette Pan from Calphalon ($36) is sturdy, made of hard-anodized aluminum, and comes with a heavy, tight-fitting glass lid. It's everything you want in a non-stick skillet, and inexpensive to boot.

4. A 3-quart saucier

Saucepans are nice, but I find the squared edges annoying - food gets caught in there, and it's hard to stir or whisk it out. A saucier can perform all of the same functions, with the added advantage of rounded edges that make whisking and combining ingredients a snap. A 3-quart size is just large enough to heat up enough soup to feed 4 to 6 people. It'll hold a couple bottles of wine, but is still a reasonable enough size that you can reduce those bottles down to a cup or two without having to switch out to a smaller pot.

If you like using the low-heat, low-water method of cooking pasta, this pot'll do you as well. Cook the pasta, drain it, and add your sauce directly to the pot and heat to combine for no-mess, no-fuss cleanup. Oh, and it's a good friend to have for boiling and poaching eggs.

The Best: the All-Clad 3-Quart Stainless Steel Saucier Pan ($174.95) is ultra-sturdy with superb heat distribution and weight balance. It's got a tight fitting lid for retaining heat as well.

On a Budget: the Calphalon Tri-ply Collector's Edition 3-Quart Chef's Pan with Lid ($99) is significantly cheaper, and mostly you pay for design. The sides are sloped more steeply, making whisking and stirring just a little bit harder. A glass lid is also less versatile and robust as the all-metal construction on the All-Clad version.

5. A 14-inch wok

Whether you stir-fry or not, a wok is one of the most versatile tools in the kitchen. It's perfect for indoor smoking, braising, and steaming. It's by far the best vessel for deep-frying; its wide shape and large volume make it easy to fit plenty of food in there with minimal contact and oil-use, with virtually no danger of splattering the stove-top with hot oil (or worse, overflowing).

You may have heard elsewhere that on western stoves, a skillet is a better vessel for stir-frying in. This is not true. When tasted side-by-side, a stir-fry that comes out of a cast-iron wok tastes significantly better than one that comes out of a skillet due to its shape, material, and manner in which heat is transferred (a wok has a much larger hot area above and around the actual cooking surface, helping to produce that familiar smoky wok-hai flavor that is impossible to achieve with a flat skillet).

The Best: the 14-inch Flat Bottom Wok from Joyce Chen ($25) features heavy gauge carbon steel, a riveted heat-resistant phenolic-plastic Northern-style handle with a helper handle, and is extremely inexpensive.

6. An enameled Dutch oven

An enamel-coated cast iron Dutch oven is the ideal vessel for slow braises and soups. In the oven, thick walls and a heavy lid make for really great low-and-slow heat transfer meaning your stews and pot roasts will come out more tender and juicy with minimal evaporation during cooking. On the stovetop, tall, wide sides make for easy and splatter-free browning of large amounts of meat and vegetables, with plenty of heat retention.

If you opt out of buying a wok, a Dutch oven is also great for deep frying.

The Best: the Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4-Quart Round French Oven ($274.95) is the benchmark for performance and styling. Large enough to fit a whole chicken (for the classic French poule-au-pot), it'll handle any heavy-duty task you throw at it with the greatest of ease.

On a Budget: the Lodge Logic Enameled Cast-Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven ($72.40) is nearly as functional as the Le Creuset, though sauteing and heat distribution suffer just a little bit, and its capacity is not quite as large. It's also not as pretty to look at, but sometimes really great things come in small, ugly packages (try Dumpling, for instance).

7. A 16-quart stock pot

Every kitchen should have at least one big-a*s pot for big-a*s jobs. Save your chicken and meat scraps and whip this big boy out once a month to make a supply of stock (your cooking will thank you). Need to boil that whole country ham or make enough pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes to last you through the winter? You'll need a really big pot.

Large enough to cook at least 4 to 5 pounds of pasta, it'll also solve all of your crowd-feeding problems, making entertaining a snap. Unlike the enameled Dutch oven, you're never going to be searing or sautéing in your stock pot, so heat distribution and retention are not much of a concern. All you want is to make sure that the metal is thick enough that you won't burn whatever is resting right against the bottom surface.

The Best: the Oneida 16 Quart Stock Pot ($55) has a disk bottom, which makes it slightly less robust (they are known to occasionally fall off during rapid temperature changes), but since a stock pot will generally only get mild thermal-shock abuse, you're pretty safe with this option. It's big, and inexpensive. You could pay a lot more for a fully-clad stockpot, but there's absolutely no need to.

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