You don’t need a set of twenty pans, these are our essential five: a large oven-safe skillet (for searing meat, making pan sauces, finishing dishes in the oven), large nonstick skillet (for fish, eggs, pancakes), two sauce pans and a large pot for soups and stews. While you could add a small skillet to the mix, you can do anything in a large skillet that you can in a small. —FW Test Kitchen

Abby Hocking / Food & Wine

Always have the right cooking vessel ready. 

Max Bonem
May 02, 2017

There is a seemingly endless variety of pots and pans to cook with. However, by simply looking at what each type of pot or pan is best suited for, you can make a much more educated decision about which vessel to use when preparing your next breakfast, lunch or dinner at home. 

Skillet/Frying Pan

Skillets are the most commonly used cooking vessels in most kitchens. They’re great for everything from frying eggs to making a pasta sauce to cooking burgers when the weather, or your super, won’t let you cook outside. The three most common varieties of skillets are stainless steel, which is your all-purpose skillet, nonstick, which is perfect for cooking delicate fish like sole or haddock, and cast iron, which can handle everything from a frittata to cornbread to a well-seared steak.

Our picks:
All-Clad Stainless Steel Dishwasher Safe Fry Pan, $120, amazon.com
All-Clad Oven Safe 12-Inch Nonstick Fry Pan, $150, amazon.com
Lodge Pre-Seasoned, 10.25-inch Cast-Iron Skillet, $16, amazon.com

Griddle

When you need the performance of a skillet, but require even more surface area, a griddle is your best bet. Grilled cheese sandwiches, paninis and pancakes are all made even better on a griddle because there’s so much more space to ensure quality browning while also avoiding steaming. 

Our pick: Lodge Cast Iron Reversible Grill/Griddle, $42, amazon.com

Dutch Oven 

A dutch oven might just be the most versatile cooking vessel you ever purchase. Heavy bottomed with higher sides than a skillet and larger than a sauce pan, dutch ovens can move seamlessly from the stovetop to the oven and are great for soups, stews, braises and frying. They can even be used to bake bread inside of in a pinch.

Our pick: Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4-Quart Round Dutch Oven, $370,  amazon.com

Wok

Once you’ve stocked up on the basics, a wok is a great piece of cookware to add, especially if you’re a fan of stir-fry. Woks are traditionally made with carbon steel and as a result, they both heat up very quickly and cook whatever ingredients you include at an accelerated rate. Even if you haven't cooked with a wok before, they're extremely easy to use and, with a little bit of knowhow, you can even turn a wok into a smoker.

Our pick: Joyce Chen Classic Series Carbon Steel Wok, $32, amazon.com

Deep Skillet

Also known as a sauté pan, the deep skillet falls right between a frying pan and a saucepan. The higher sides allow for added liquid to be reduced, which makes deep skillets great for braising chicken legs or collard greens, preparing a curry or cooking up a chutney.

Our pick: All-Clad Stainless Steel Dishwasher Safe 3-Quart Saute Pan with Lid, $224, amazon.com

Sauce Pan

Sauce pans come in every size imaginable and are just as versatile as they are diverse. Specifically though, sauce pans are perfect for preparations that requires a lot of liquid, like blanching vegetables, cooking quinoa or poaching eggs. The very high sides, compared to the overall size of the vessel itself, ensure that the saucepan can handle a lot of liquid without losing much of the volume during the cooking process.

Our pick: All-Clad Stainless Steel Dishwasher Safe 1.5-Quart Sauce Pan, $150, amazon.com

Stock Pot

Once you’ve graduated from your largest saucepan, the next step up is the stockpot. While these large metal pots are great for making stock, they can also be used for making soups, cooking pasta or boiling potatoes. For any recipe that requires a large volume of liquid and ingredients, or if you’re cooking for a large group, the stockpot should be your go-to vessel.

Our pick: All-Clad Stainless Steel Dishwasher Safe 16-Quart Stockpot, $200, amazon.com