I thought I would make this post something that would be simple, so let's get to the REAL basics of cooking...COOKWARE!! After all, without it, how are you going to cook? There are several styles, sizes, and materials to choose from...some are cost friendly, some are not.
I'm going to cover the pros and cons of your more commonly found pots, pans, bakeware, and utensils in this post, so without further ado, here we go!!
Let's start with POTS. Arguably, these will probably be the most versatile item in your arsenal. In a pinch, you can even use one of these as a skillet and fry an egg in it. So, for the average everyday Joe, any type of pot will pretty much work, right? Well, believe it or not, it's not that simple.
First you have to determine what your most commonly made item is, then choose from there. If your idea of a meal is to make a box of mac & cheese, then a medium (2-3 qt) saucepot would certainly suffice. If you enjoy making chili, stew, or other meals that tend to produce large amounts, obviously a pot that small just won't cut it. So, what's the best option for a starting cook? Well, in my opinion, I would recommend your primary pot size to be around 5 qts. That's small enough that it won't take up a ton of room, and large enough to handle some bigger things...and, as I mentioned, you would certainly have enough room to flip an egg or burger if you used it for that purpose. If you wanted more versatility, then to that initial 5 qt pot, I would add the following...a small saucier (usually holds about 2 cups), a 2 qt pot, and IF you think you'll need it, an 8 or 12 qt stockpot. Those 4 items will allow you cook pretty much ANYTHING a typical cook can come up with!!
Now...on to TYPE. By that, I mean aluminum, Teflon coated, stainless steel...you get the idea. That's where your cost is going to come in. You can usually buy an aluminum pot cheap (ranging from $4 for the small saucier to $20 for the stockpot). Sounds great, doesn't it? Lots of versatility for few bucks? Not so fast. Aluminum is relatively flimsy, and doesn't hold up with average household use for very long. If you're only cooking 1-2 times a week, you'll get a couple of years out of it...maybe. But, if you're like me and cook 6-7 times a week, you'll be replacing those pots on average of at LEAST once a year. GAH!!!
So what about Teflon? Sure, it's great...nothing sticks to it, it's easy to clean...but ONLY if you take REALLY good care of it. That means that you can never use a scrubby on it, use any metalic utensils to cook in it, or put it in a dishwasher. The reason for these restrictions is that Teflon is an APPLIED coating, and will scrape off easily. These type of pots are also higher priced, typically $10 to $50 at least. That's ALOT of money for something that isn't going to last if you don't treat it like it's fragile!! There's also one other added issue with Teflon that many don't know about...when you are first breaking it in (the first 10 times you cook with it), the heating makes it give off an invisible gas that's DEADLY to some pets, like birds. So...no.
Stainless steel, perhaps? NOW we're talking!! It's MUNDO durable...short of whacking it with a baseball bat, it will withstand daily use with aplomb!! In fact, if you watch alot of those cooking shows, you'll see that most professional chefs use stainless regularly. It heats fast and efficiently...cleans like a dream (you can scrub it til the cows come home, and never leave a mark, even with steel wool), and it won't tarnish. But, even steel can have some drawbacks, sad to say...it's costly (typical prices range from $15-$75 PER PIECE), and if the handles aren't coated with silicon, they get HOT as sin!! Best have an oven mitt handy. Still, for me, stainless is the way to go, and what you invest in it will pay you back with years of use.
Of course, there is still one more type I haven't covered here...cast iron. That is the most expensive (I've yet to find a piece that costs less than $20), but even a train can't do much damage to it. The higher priced pieces that are enamel coated...nice, but don't bother. It just adds to the price without any real advantages. Of course, what I just said only applies to cast iron POTS...we'll get to pans (or skillets, if you prefer) shortly.
Back to the stainless...for my money, you can't do any better. So, with an eye towards stainless as your basis, what brands are worth the money?
I currently own a complete set of Tramotina pots ranging from the saucier to a 16 qt stockpot. Overall cost? About $250 total. BUT...I've had all of them (with the exception of the big one) for about 5 years now, and they are still in the same condition as when I bought them. Yes, it's an investment...but one that you will appreciate as time passes. They ALL have lids to fit, too. I've evaluated RevereWare, Mirro, T-Fal, Farberware...even the Walmart brand, Mainstays...and I've ALWAYS returned to my Tramotina. It costs less than the higher end brands (RevereWare, T-Fal), far more durable that the lower end brands (Mirro, Mainstays) and cheaper but better than Farberware. Plus, if you keep an eye on the prices, they go on sale often enough that catching a bargain isn't too hard to do...BONUS!!
Now, on to pans. The same principles apply with those that apply with the pots...you want durability. Stainless gives you that, and yes, if you use cooking spray (PAM or it's equivalent), are pretty well non-stick. As for sizes, most I know keep an 8 inch and a 12 inch pan on hand...that should cover all your needs. Cast iron is another fantastic recommendation for pans...just ALWAYS remember that you can NOT put it in a dishwasher, or while washing by hand, use soap. Both of those cleaning methods will destroy the finish, or "seasoning", that make cast iron pans so wonderful!! To clean, simply use a clean scrubby, and clear warm water. Once clean, dry them immediately, and that's IT!!
So what about other "specialty" items, like colanders (strainers)? While I still would recommend stainless, you can skimp here...heavy plastic will work fine for straining things like noodles and veggies. The only area where stainless is a MUST would be for steaming...plastic will NOT hold up under temps like that.
On to utensils...
All right...show of hands...who here hasn't, at some point, grabbed a fork or spoon from the drawer to cook with? I know I have...more than I care to admit!! But, from a regular cooks point of view, that's supposed to be a NO NO!! So, what material is best?
Cost wise, it would have to be Melamine, hands down. You can pick up a full set of those (spoon, slotted spoon, spatula, etc) at your local Walmart for about $8 MAX, and they hold up to most applications. They won't melt if exposed to higher temps like plastic will, and are not easy to break (though, believe me, they can!!). They handle dishwasher temps well without warping, too. Stainless utensils work the same, but cost alot more. I know there were some issues with Melamine in the news, but it wasn't concerning cooking utensils. You CAN invest in silicone covered utensils, too...a little pricier than Melamine, cheaper than stainless, and VERY durable. I usually only get silicone for baking utensils, though...real handy when mixing batter, cause nothing sticks to them.
Next, let's turn our attention to bakeware. Cake pans, baking sheets, muffin tins...you name it, there's probably a specialty item just for it. But, in my opinion, you only need 4 pieces (well, actually 5, but 2 are the same). For this, I would recommend Teflon...you don't get the issues with baking items that you do with pots and pans, as long as you always care for it properly (see above). For baking needs, you need the following...2-9 inch cake pans, 1-9x13 inch cookie sheet, 1-12 cup muffin tin, and 1-9x13 inch pan with 3 inch sides. These simple items will pretty much cover ANY baking needs you might have. The only addendum...add a 15 inch pizza pan to the list IF you make pizza often enough. Done...wasn't that simple? Total cost for all the pans will run you around $50.
There are alot of options, but I hope I've simplified a few things for those of you who have walked into the kitchenware section of your store and thought "What am I doing...what is ALL this stuff"? It's not as confusing as you might have thought!! ENJOY!!