The Basics …
Rule #1: Whenever possible, do not buy open stock (individual pots and pans), buy sets. And when you buy sets, make sure you’re not missing out on special deals. Manufacturers frequently offer free items when you purchase sets of cookware. This is especially true when you are creating a gift registry (like when you’re getting married). Sometimes they’ll give you free stuff just for adding a certain value of product to a gift registry. The obvious exception is specialty items that aren’t included in most sets. This generally applies to things like roasting pans, Ebelskiver pans, couscoussiers, … basically the kind of stuff in the next section.
Rule #2: To quote The Joker from Batman: “Think about the future!” When I bought my first pots and pans, I was in college and all I could afford was the crappy, non stick IKEA starter kit. in 1987, it cost $25, but now it’s up to $40. It lasted me through college when I was mostly on a meal plan, but started to fail pretty miserably when I had to use it on a regular basis. I started having to replace things about 4 years later which means if you buy the current version at $40, you would be paying about $10/year but you would have to go out and buy new stuff every 4 years. In addition to the inconvenience of losing a day to an IKEA trip every four years, there is no guarantee that your new pots and pans will give you the same results. IKEA does not guarantee that they will perpetually use the same materials, the same densities, etc. for the same product from year to year. At one point a handle broke clean off of the large frying pan and I had neither the time, nor the funds available to haul my butt out to IKEA so I ended up using a vice grip as a handle which did wonders (not) for the teflon coating. That was the moment I vowed that someday I would buy a decent set of cookware. So, using today’s price, IKEA=$40 for 4 pots 4 years = $2.50 per pot per year.
Fast forward a decade to the day I finally landed a significant freelance job that left me with $500 after paying my rent, phone bill, credit card bill, power bill, etc. I immediately ran to Williams Sonoma and bought the biggest set of the bottom of the Calphalon line I could afford. It was on sale so it set me back about $200. These days, the same thing would cost about $350 when it’s on sale. After about 15 years, the anodization started to pit exposing the bare aluminum and I told myself that at some point I was going to need to upgrade to something non aluminum since “they” have now determined that cooking on bare aluminum is also bad for us. Using today’s price: Low end Calphalon= $350 for 6 pots for 20 years (though I actually still use the frying pans in a pinch so really more) = about $2.90 per pot per year with the added benefit of not containing teflon which is apparently very bad for us.
About 5 years ago, I came to the point where I needed to replace three of my Calphalon pots and looking at prices, it became clear that buying a whole new set of pots and pans was actually going to cost less than just buying those three pieces (ergo, rule #1). After scouring the internet, I settled on a set of “last year’s model” of stainless steel Analon with copper cored bases that I found on Overstock.com for $199. I purchased these assuming that, since they are not non stick, I was consigning myself to a lifetime of scrubbing but told myself that it would be worth it. The reality is that cleaning stainless has proven to be far less arduous than cleaning the “non stick” pieces I’ve had in the past. This is probably due to the fact that I learned somewhere along the line that if you start with a hot pan and add cold fat and then quickly add your food, so stuff doesn’t actually stick unless you are consistently burning things. I anticipate these will be the last pots and pans I will ever need (though not the last ones I will ever want) but based on the life of my last set of pans, let’s say 20 years again. Assuming a thrifty shopper: $200 “Last year’s model” Analon = $200 for 6 pots for 20 years = $1.66 per pot per year.
Stuff That Should Come in Sets but Doesn’t
Roasting pan with a rack: You can make do with a pyrex baking dish and a heavy duty cooling rack in a pinch, but a roasting pan is a worthwhile and recommended purchase. It will have higher sides which will keep some of the splattering fat from getting all over your oven and it will make it easier to save drippings for gravies, sauces, etc.
Do get the largest roasting pan that you can afford that will fit in your oven. It is no big deal to fit a 3 pound chicken in a roasting pan that can accommodate a 25 pound turkey. But, trying to put a 25 pound turkey in a roasting pan designed for a 3 pound chicken will present some unique challenges, which is a polite way of saying it’s not going to work.
I you choose a gleaming, beautiful, stainless roasting pan, know that it will not remain so pristine without a ridiculous amount of work. First of all, you are going to be putting this thing in an oven at temperatures in excess of 400º coming at it from every direction so the goal of achieving even heat distribution as you would be doing with a copper cored pot that’s going to be sitting directly over a flame is moot. Additionally, a chicken that sits in an oven at 425º for any amount of time is messy. Fat drips and splatters all over the place and burns onto the surface of the pan like tar on a road. If you use it regularly (we roast a chicken pretty much every week), this piece of cookware will eventually look like it’s been through a couple of wars. My experience has been that the rack will fail way before the pan gives up the ghost.
Big Ass Stock Pot: Most sets will come with a “stock pot” somewhere in the 6-8 quart range. For practical purposes, that’s really more of a soup pot that you would use so that you have more to freeze for another day. A stock pot should be able to accommodate 3-5 chicken carcasses, a broken down turkey carcass, or a stack of bones along with the assorted vegetables that go into a stock. You want something in the 20 quart (5 gallon) range though it’s worth considering going as high as 6.5 gallons if you have any interest in home brewing. In that case, rather than buying a stock pot, you should go ahead and buy a decent brew kettle. Either way, a thicker base is something that you should be looking for as it will diffuse the heat over the bottom of the pot better. If you are going to use your brew kettle as a stock pot, do not get one with a spigot. Just get a plain brew kettle with no holes and know that you are going to have to use a siphon to rack your wort. The siphon is going to be a bitch to clean after making stock and will provide an awesome breeding ground for all kinds of nasty little bugs that will screw up your beer.
Beyond Basics …
Wok and Steaming Baskets: Buy a big, cheap wok. You’ll need to season it (heat up oil to the point where it polymerizes and forms kind of a natural non stick coating) but nothing beats a wok for being able to get smoking hot and fry some stuff. Steaming baskets are super useful for making dumplings and you can usually find a wok and a steaming basket as a set for around $25
Dutch Oven: This is really just a big pot with really thick walls and a tight fitting lid. You can get by using an oven safe pot with a lid (I did for a long time), but there actually is a difference. There are really two options: a LeCreuset type enameled metal style, or a cast iron style. I went with an 8qt. Lodge cast iron monstrosity that weighs about the same as, but is an order of magnitude uglier than, my truck, and is equally fun to clean. Heavy, iron, and ugly is, in the case of a dutch oven, a good thing.
Grill pan: Especially if you do not have a grill. A grill pan can be as simple as a large slab of cast iron or a frying pan with raised parallel bits of metal that make grill marks on whatever you’re cooking. I went with the slab of cast iron because it has a grill pan on one side and a griddle on the other. Which brings us to …
Griddle: A big, flat slab of metal that you can use to make lots of pancakes, bacon, etc. Look for one that can span 2 burners on your stove. Not a lot more to say about a big, flat slab of metal.