Why you need it: A Dutch oven is perfect for braising tough, inexpensive cuts of meat because it traps cooking liquids, in effect self-basting meat until it’s fork-tender. And it’s a workhorse for the time-pressed chef: Not only can you leave stews and soups to cook on their own (no need for constant stirring) but you can also serve right from the pot at the table.
What to look for: A cast-iron Dutch oven, which comes in either matte black or a colorful enameled finish, is the best choice, but it requires a certain degree of muscle to lift. “Heavy materials, like cast iron, cook more evenly than lighter ones,” says New York City–based chef Daniel Boulud. Aluminum Dutch ovens are lighter and thus easier to move, but because they have a thinner cooking base, you’ll have to stir foods frequently so they don’t burn. Look for a bottom that’s about the same thickness as the sides for even heat distribution.
RSpick: Staub’s La Cocotte enameled cast-iron eight-quart round Dutch oven ($260, surlatable.com) is ultra-durable.
2 of 5Jonny Valiant
Why you need it: Use this multipurpose pan to roast or braise vegetables, chicken, fish, and meat (including the Thanksgiving bird); create a water bath for desserts; or put together jumbo portions of lasagna.
What to look for: A roaster with curved corners is easier to clean and “allows you to get into the pan with a spatula without breaking apart what you’re roasting,” says Marcus Samuelsson, chef and co-owner of Aquavit, in New York City. Seek out sturdy handles that can be comfortably gripped with oven mitts, a removable roasting rack (for easier gravy making), and sides at least three inches high. When deciding what size roasting pan you’ll need, consider the size of your oven (there should be at least a two-inch space on all sides of the roaster for optimum heat circulation). Also, choose a pan that has the same thickness all around.
RSpick: The Calphalon One Infused Anodized aluminum 16-inch roasting pan ($150, cooking.com) can go from stovetop to oven and heats up evenly.
3 of 5Jonny Valiant
Why you need it: Also called a stockpot, a pasta pot has tall, straight sides that provide plenty of room for cooking spaghetti without having to break the noodles in half. And its round base conducts heat up the sides while insulating the bottom to ensure that pasta, chili, soup, or stock doesn’t burn.
What to look for: Don’t skimp by buying a pot with a thin bottom, says Samuelsson: “Thickness equals a longer life and a good transfer of heat.” Shop around for a bottom that is thicker than the sides; this will prevent scorching. A 6- to 12-quart size is ideal; it’s large enough to hold rice and beans for four but small enough to be carried easily from stovetop to sink even when full. Stainless steel is your best bet; in addition to being durable, it tends to be lighter than other materials―something to appreciate when the pot is full of scalding water.
RSpick: KitchenAid Cookware’s stainless-steel eight-quart stockpot ($196, marketwarehouse.com) is sturdy yet easy to lift.
4 of 5Jonny Valiant
Why you need it: The wide surface of this pan (also called a skillet or a sauté pan) browns and crisps, making it a good pick for searing salmon, pan-roasting chicken, stir-frying vegetables, and sautéing almost anything.
What to look for: Treat yourself to two versions of this multitasker. Buy one with an untreated surface, which works better for browning meat and caramelizing onions. Get another one with a nonstick surface to make grilled-cheese sandwiches or pancakes that slide off the pan without much oil. Opt for a pan that is 10 to 12 inches in diameter so that ingredients aren’t crowded together. Also, consider one with a hollow handle, which is lightweight and easier to maneuver across the burners.
RSpick: All-Clad’s Copper-Core stainless-steel 10-inch fry pan ($180, amazon.com) heats up quickly. For nonstick, go for the Scanpan cast-aluminum 10¼-inch fry pan ($135, amazon.com), which has a ceramic-titanium finish. It’s oven-safe to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
5 of 5Jonny Valiant
Why you need it: As versatile as they come, a saucepan is an equal-opportunity pot. With its tall sides and thick base, it’s ideal when you want to make anything from a velvety roux to hard-boiled eggs.
What to look for: The pan should feel a bit weighty (at least two or three pounds), but not so heavy that you’ll be struggling to lift it when it’s full of a boiling liquid. Make sure the handles are secure; they should be soldered or riveted onto the base, says Samuelsson. “Opt for long handles―from 12 to 16 inches long,” he adds, “so you won’t burn yourself when you’re pulling the pan out of the oven. And always ask if the handle is heatproof before you buy.” Get a tight-fitting lid to contain sauce splatters (it may be sold separately). Consider a pan with flared sides, called a Windsor pan, which has a wider cooking surface and thus boils water faster and reduces sauces more quickly.
RSpick: The Calphalon Contemporary stainless-steel 3½-quart saucepan has an easy-to-grip handle ($145, bedbathandbeyond.com).