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Purchasing a cookware set is a convenient way to cover most of your bases in the kitchen, often at a steep discount. But just because you can cut corners in building your kitchen arsenal doesn’t mean you should.
After all, do you really need the 27 varieties of pots and pans found in this bafflingly excessive All-Clad cookware set? Even the many 10- to 15-piece sets on the market would overwhelm most kitchen cabinets. So we have to ask: Does it really make sense to buy your cookware this way?
The answer is a resounding no, not unless you’d like to fight through an avalanche of pots and pans searching for your favorite skillet.
Buying your cookware à la carte has a couple major benefits: You can skip any items that you won’t get much use out of, and you can take your pick of materials.
If you ask us, there are just five pieces of cookware you need in your kitchen, and you’d be hard-pressed to find them sold together as a set.
1. Medium Cast Iron Skillet
A 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet is ideal in so many situations, both on the stovetop and in the oven. If you’re looking to give a slab of meat a good sear, or to roast, sauté, fry, or bake any number of foods, you can rely on your trusty cast iron.
It’s durable as can be, retains heat like a dream, and can switch from stovetop to oven without issue. We’re not sure what we’d do without one (other than cook disappointing food, of course.)
2. Medium Nonstick Skillet
Unless it's incredibly well-seasoned, you probably don't want to make eggs and other potentially sticky dishes in your cast iron. That's why it makes sense to have a nonstick skillet waiting in the wings.
Crepes and other delicate foods that require flipping may also do better in a 10-inch nonstick skillet. Just be sure to avoid using metal utensils, and replace it as soon as it gets scratched.
3. Medium Stainless-Steel Sauté Pan or Saucier
There are times when you’ll need the taller sides of a sauté pan or saucier, but not the towering walls of even taller saucepans or pots. A pan that's 10 to 12 inches wide should give you enough volume to reduce sauce or wilt a bunch of greens or simmer a pasta sauce. Plus, the taller sides of the pan should protect your rangetop or cooktop from any splatters when you’re sautéing or searing.
4. Large Stainless-Steel Stockpot
There are some cooking tasks that just can’t be completed without a 12- to 18-quart stockpot. We’re talking about tasks like making broth or tomato sauce, cooking up a whole mess of pasta, or canning pickles. You may not pull it out often, but when you need it, there’s no other type of cookware that could serve as a reasonable stand-in.
5. Large Enameled Dutch Oven
There’s a Dutch oven–sized hole somewhere between your cast iron skillet and large stockpot. There’s simply nothing better for recipes that involve a good sear followed by gentle cooking, like stews and chilis, or braised meats.
Enameled Dutch ovens are made of cast iron, so they can transition from stovetop to oven and retain heat well. Better still, that enamel coating means you don’t have to build up and protect a layer of seasoning.
Are these the only five pieces of cookware you'll ever want? Probably not, but they're all most people will ever truly need. If you want, you can add a wok here, a crepe pan there, according to personal preference. The key is to buy what works for you, rather than a 15-piece set full of pieces you’ll never use.