My personal "essentials" lists evolve slowly over time based on not only minor refinements in selection or new product availability, but also on my own cooking style. It's impossible for me to tell you that the pots and pans that I use the most will be the same as the pots and pans you'll use the most. But I can tell you this: I cook a lot, and I cook a wide variety of things, and with these pots and pans in my arsenal, I never find myself saying, "man, I wish I just had [insert pan X here]. Nearly every recipe on this site can be cooked in a kitchen equipped with these bad boys, so if you or a loved one has been extra nice this year, listen up!
Wherever applicable, I've included two versions: the money-is-no-object best, and a budget-minded alternative.
A 10 1/2- or 12-inch Cast Iron Skillet
What it's good for: Heavy cast iron might take a while to pre-heat properly, but once it's hot, it'll sear a steak like nothing else. Pan-roasting or deep frying chicken? Reach for the cast iron. Frying latkes or potato pancakes? You guessed it.
Which one?: Vintage cast iron from a brand like Wagner or Griswold has a smoother, slightly more non-stick finish than modern cast iron, and if you can find it online or in an antique shop, I'd highly recommend it. That said, a good modern brand like Lodge will do you just fine. Check out our Guide to Cast Iron Care for tips on how to clean, season, and maintain a cast iron pan.
A Large Enameled Dutch Oven
What it's good for: Anything that requires some heavy searing followed by gentle, even cooking—slow-cooked braises like pot roast, carne adovada, or better-than-Chipotle's barbacoa. It's also handy for soups, like spicy pork, green pepper, and pork soup, hearty escarole and barley, or roasted cauliflower and barley. And, of course, it's great for chili! Like the best chili ever, or Texas-style chile con carne, or vegan chili, or chile verde or...you get the picture. It's a chili machine.
Which one?: You can't beat the durability, good looks, and cooking power of a French-made Le Creuset. It heats the most evenly, sears the best, and lasts the longest. At over $300, it's not a cheap toy, but it'll last you or your lucky giftee a lifetime. Upgrade it with a stainless steel replacement handle to make it oven safe at high temperatures for recipes like no-knead bread
Best Buy: Lodge makes a fine enameled Dutch oven that consistently scores well in professional reviews and I've met many happy Lodge users. On the other hand, those reviews often neglect to account for longevity. I've personally seen two Lodge dutch ovens with heavily cracked and chipped enamel after only a few years of use. If you're willing to play a bit of roulette to save a couple hundred bucks, this may be the pot for you.
A 12-inch Straight-Sided Sauté Pan
What it's good for: Unlike a skillet, a sauté pan has tall sides set at a right angle to the base, which makes for a larger bottom surface for searing, better protection against splattering, and plenty of volume. A sauté also features a tighter fitting lid, which makes it great for slow-cooked braises or in-the-oven cooking. Want to wilt a whole mess of greens? This is the pan for you.
It excels at searing or frying large batches of food, like a whole chicken's worth of parts. Reducing sauces. Braising enough food to feed four to six hungry adults. It's especially good for dishes like this braised chicken with Hatch chiles and white beans or these red wine-braised turkey legs where its wide surface area means you can fit in plenty of beans or sauce while still leaving the surface of the meat exposed, allowing it to crisp as it stews.
Which one?: All-Clad is the gold standard here with a relatively lightweight pan that still manages to pack in the power. Better design and construction helps it heat faster and more evenly while still delivering plenty of searing power.
Best Buy: The Tramontina 5-Quart Tri-Ply Clad Sauté Pan available from Wal-Mart perform nearly as well as the All-Clad at just about a third of the price. The All-clad heats faster and cooks a little more evenly, but most folks will be perfectly satisfied with the performance of this more economical option.
What it's good for: Whether you stir-fry or not, a wok is one of the most versatile tools in the kitchen. 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 can also smoke, braise, and steam in it. (Check out Wok Skills 101 for more info.)
You may have heard elsewhere that on Western stoves, a skillet is a better stir-frying vessel. 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 the 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 in a flat skillet).
The downside: A wok will not work very well on an electric or induction burner. Take note.
Which one?: To be honest, any 1 1/2- to 2 mm gauge carbon steel wok will do the job, including the $15 chinatown kitchen supply versions, but the Joyce Chen Class Series comes with a domed lid (great for protecting yourself from particularly intense frying jobs) and a wooden spatula. You can ignore the 1-star comments on Amazon complaining of rusting. So long as you follow our care and maintenance guide, your wok
should will achieve a deep black, lustrous non-stick sheen within a few uses.
A 3-quart Saucier
What it's good for: A slope-sided saucier performs all of the functions of a straight-sided saucepan, 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 four to six servings of soup. It'll hold a couple bottles of wine for reducing, but is still a reasonable enough size that you can reduce those bottles down to a cup or two without having to switch over to a smaller pot.
If you like using the low-heat, low-water method of cooking pasta, this pot'll do for that, as well. Cook the pasta, drain it, and add your sauce directly to the pot and heat to combine, for a no-mess, no-fuss cleanup. Oh, and it's a good friend to have for boiling and poaching eggs.
Which one?: The All-Clad 3-Quart Stainless Steel Saucier Pan is ultra-sturdy with superb heat distribution and weight balance. It's got a tight fitting lid for retaining heat as well.
Best Buy: The Calphalon Tri-ply Collector's Edition 3-Quart Chef's Pan with Lid is about $100 cheaper but is a decent performer. It doesn't heat quite as evenly and has steeper sides that make looking into it a bit tougher, but with a saucier, you're stirring and shaking for most cooking tasks anyway, so it's not a huge issue. The biggest downside? A kind of dinky handle that feels like it was designed for a smaller pot.
A 10-Inch Non-Stick Skillet
What it's good for: 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, Spanish tortillas, frittatas, rösti and the like—things which you don't want getting stuck to the pan halfway through a precarious flipping step.
There are things you can do to maximize a non-stick skillet's lifespan—never use metal utensils, only wash it with a soft sponge, refrain from using very high heat, don't store it with other items stacked inside—but no matter how good you are at caring for them, non-stick pans are going to eventually lose their coating. Stay away from the expensive models, unless you have money to burn.
Which one?: The Anolon Advanced Anodized Nonstick Skillet is my new favorite for its extremely durable coating and fast, even-heating all-aluminum heavy-gauge construction.
A Large Stockpot
What it's good for: Every kitchen should have at least one big-ass pot for big-ass 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 large 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 aren't much of a concern. Just make sure that the metal is thick enough that you won't burn whatever is resting right against the bottom surface.
Which one?: The Farberware Classic Stainless Steel Covered Stockpot is tall and narrow, so it does big jobs without taking up too much stove space. It's got a rolled rim for easier pouring (great for divvying that stock into freezer-size containers), and a tight-fitting metal lid. What more could you ask for?
Rimmed Baking Sheets and Cooling Racks
What it's good for: I use rimmed aluminum baking sheets (in the industry we call them "sheet pans," and I use half-sized pans) for the vast majority of my oven tasks, whether it's baking off a tray of cookies, crisping up a tray of potatoes or broccoli, or even roasting a whole turkey or chicken. They're lightweight, inexpensive, and durable. Just be aware: you'll want to keep a separate set of pans and racks for high temperature roasting and for baking, as the ones used for meats and vegetables tend to get a bit beat up.
A Large Casserole Dish
What it's good for: Since they're intended both for cooking and serving tableside, a good casserole dish should be both functional and attractive. A good one should be made with high quality glazed ceramic, so not only do they heat foods evenly (and more importantly, store that heat so your food stays hot while you're trying to corral the family to the table), but their smooth glaze is practically non-stick, making them simple to clean up afterward, even with gooey foods like this Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna.
Which one? The Le Creuset Stoneware looks as beautiful as it performs.
Best Buy: The Pyrex 9- by 13-inch Oblong Baking Dish might be lacking in the looks department, but it's a fine choice for casseroles if pure performance is your only concern.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.