When it comes to all of the various types of pots and pans available, the list is long. Do you need them all? Probably not. But, understanding what each one is for and how it’s used, is the best way to decide what you need in your kitchen and what you don’t.
Cooking in restaurants for the past 11 years has allowed me to use every type of pot and pan imaginable. I’ve been able to use those experiences to understand how each type of pan works, and if it would be useful in my own kitchen collection.
I hope that by learning a little about each piece of cookware, and what to look for when buying them, you’ll also be well equipped to choose the most useful types of pots and pans for your home.
A fry pan or frying pan has a wide, flat bottom, with shallow, sloped sides. They come in a variety of sizes ranging from 6-inches on the small side, all the way up to whopping 14-inch models. Technically, a skillet and frying pan are the same thing, but “skillet” is more commonly used when referring to cast iron.
Fry pans are best suited for fast cooking with relatively high-heat. Things like eggs, stir-fries, and searing meat are all perfectly suited to the large surface and shallow sides.
Stainless and carbon steel pans are two of the best options. They are both extremely durable and can handle high-heat on the stove and in the oven. Nonstick options are good for eggs, but they’re much less durable and have fewer uses.
The name skillet and fry pan are both interchangeable, but skillet is commonly reserved for cast iron, so we’ll do the same here. A cast iron skillet also has a wide, flat bottom, but the sides are straight rather than sloped.
It’s the material that makes this type of pan so special. It distributes heat evenly and consistently, so you can get the most out of the large surface. A skillet is one of the ultimate multitaskers in the kitchen.
They are great for searing, sauteing, baking, and frying, plus they can take a beating and will last forever, but they are never dishwasher safe. Also, keep in mind that cast iron is very heavy, so when it comes to tossing a stir-fry, a light-weight frying pan is probably better suited for the job.
Sauté pans are similar to frying pans but with tall straight sides. This is a great multipurpose pan that can do almost everything a fry pan or skillet can, but with even more uses.
The wide, flat bottom of sauté pans are great for sauteing and searing, and the higher sides allow you to cook dishes that need more liquid. It’s a great option for shallow poaching or frying, but I think one of its best uses is for braising meat.
The large cooking surface allows you to get a good sear, then you can add vegetables, deglaze with some wine or stock, pop the lid on and throw it in the oven. That’s an easy, one-pan meal that you wouldn’t be able to accomplish in a fry pan.
Heavy-bottomed or fully clad stainless steel sauté pans are the way to go for both versatility and durability.
A saucepan is an all-purpose pot with straight sides that ranges in size from a half-quart all the way up to 4-quarts. The smaller sizes are great for making and heating up sauces, while the larger varieties can be used to cook vegetables, grains, and soups.
A tight-fitting lid is a great addition to consider. It will allow you to both increase the internal temperature and control moisture and evaporation.
A good saucepan will distribute heat evenly from the base all the way up to the rim. So, look for fully clad stainless steel models, or better yet, copper cookware.
A stockpot is often the biggest piece of cookware in the kitchen. It will have tall sides, a tight-fitting lid, and sturdy handles.
As you probably guessed, this is ideal for making stocks, but it’s also great for soups, and anything else that requires large amounts of liquid. It’s what I use for boiling water for pasta, potatoes, whole-lobsters, or for blanching vegetables.
A thick bottom that distributes heat well will help minimize the risk of scorching. You can also buy models that include a strainer basket, which is especially helpful for pasta and seafood.
Braiser and Rondeau are interchangeable names for a pan that is like a giant sauté pan. It has a very wide, flat cooking surface with straight sides and a tight-fitting lid.
This is a great pot for cooking large quantities of meat, vegetables, or grains. One of my favorite uses for a braiser is to cook all three of those at the same time, for an impressive one-pot meal.
If you braise meat in your rondeau, the wide surface area allows you to quickly reduce the cooking liquid to make delicious and easy sauces.
Stainless steel rondeaus are perfect for starting a dish on the stovetop and finishing in the oven. But, if it’s in your budget, Mauviel makes a beautiful copper model that is an excellent heat conductor and would be a stunning centerpiece for any meal.
A griddle is a large, flat pan without raised sides. Most griddles are rectangular and are large enough to straddle two burners on the stovetop. When it comes to cooking breakfast for a crowd, this pan is hard to beat. Walk into any diner and they’ll be slinging bacon, eggs, and pancakes off of giant, built-in griddles.
A griddle with a nonstick surface is convenient and easy to clean, but I prefer cast iron models that can handle high temperatures. This gives you the flexibility to use them for searing meat, and even using them outdoors on top of your grill or over an open fire.
Lodge makes an excellent griddle that’s affordable, and it even doubles as a grill pan.
This is a pan that has raised ridges so that you can “grill” indoors, on the stovetop. This is good for searing meat, vegetables, or panini-style sandwiches.
You can choose small grill pans that use an individual burner. Or, pick a large rectangular model that uses two burners, for larger quantities of food.
A grill pan should be oven-safe, and able to handle high heat. For that reason, I would stick almost exclusively to cast iron models. You can find grill pans with a nonstick coating, but you won’t be able to get good “grill marks”, and they don’t have the same level of durability.
A wok is a large, deep pan with a rounded or flat bottom. The sides gradually flare up to a very wide opening at the top. The round design creates multiple temperature zones. Heat is concentrated in the center of the pan, and then gradually diminishes as you move up the curved sides.
This allows you to sear and fry ingredients in the center, or move items higher up the pan for more gentle cooking. The traditional round options require a wok burner or wok ring that can be placed on top of a standard gas stove. Flat bottom varieties are less effective but can be used on almost any cooktop.
Using a wok takes some practice, but it can be an extremely versatile piece of cookware. They really excel at hot and fast stir-frying, but can also be used for boiling, steaming, and deep-frying.
A Dutch oven is a heavy-bottomed pot, with thick sides and a tight-fitting lid. Most models worth buying are built from cast iron, which gives the best cooking benefits. A cast iron Dutch oven distributes heat very evenly and also retains heat for a long period of time. The heavy, tight-fitting lid retains moisture and radiates heat back into the Dutch oven.
All of those characteristics work together for slow cooking tough cuts of meat or stews for long periods of time. All without scorching or losing moisture.
A raw cast iron Dutch oven is functional and inexpensive, but they require some ongoing maintenance to keep them in good working order. Enameled cast iron varieties take all of the same benefits, and wrap it in a durable protective coating. This type of Dutch oven is more convenient and easy to care for, but it comes with a higher price tag.
A saucier is similar to a saucepan except it has rounded sides instead of straight ones. That may seem like a minor detail, but it has big benefits.
The rounded sides create a smaller cooking surface but it eliminates the “corners” in the bottom of the pan and has a much wider opening at the top. Both of these things are really useful for dishes that require a lot of stirring or reducing.
The rounded sides are perfectly designed for stirring things like risotto, oatmeal, or any number of sauces. The wide opening makes reducing liquids fast and efficient.
The saucier is always on hand in professional kitchens but is an often overlooked piece of cookware at home. If you add a good stainless steel saucier to your kitchen, I think it will quickly replace your saucepan for most tasks.
A crepe pan is a flat, round pan with very low or no sides at all. They are designed to cook thin crepe batters, and the low sides allow you to easily flip the delicate crepes. This type of pan was built for a very specific use, but it also works well for pancakes or griddling sandwiches.
Most models are between 9 and 11-inches in diameter, and you can find them made from a wide range of materials. Carbon steel and cast iron are a good material choice as long as you maintain a good seasoning. If not, you’ll have a hard time with crepes sticking and tearing when you try to flip them.
This is one of the few pans where I think a nonstick version makes a lot of sense. You’ll be able to make crepes like a pro, and it’s likely that this type of pan won’t go through too much abuse. That should help you get a long useful life out of the nonstick coating.
A pressure cooker is a pot with a lid that locks and seals so that moisture and air can’t escape. The sealed pot creates high-pressure steam inside which cooks things faster and at a higher temperature than normal.
High-pressure cooking is especially useful for cooking tough pieces of meat or dried beans, both of which are slow-cooking processes in a traditional pot. In a pressure cooker, the cooking times for those items can be dropped to around 30 minutes.
Stovetop pressure cookers have been around for centuries, but modern electric versions are becoming increasingly popular. The electric versions are very easy to use, but sizes are limited. You can find a wide range of stovetop models, including giant ones that are perfect for canning and preserving.
A roasting pan is a rectangular, metal pan with high sides. These are specifically built for roasting large cuts of meat or whole birds. Things like a whole turkey, chicken, or a large prime rib roast are perfectly suited for this type of pan. Most models can also be fitted with a roasting rack so that meat is raised and cooked more evenly from all sides.
The other advantage is that the drippings from the roast will collect in the bottom of the pan, where you can roast vegetables or create a sauce or gravy.
Look for stainless steel roasting pans that have a heavy bottom. This will help keep the pan from warping in the oven, and ensure that drippings and vegetables don’t burn from the bottom.
A paella pan is a wide, shallow pan, with short, sloped sides. Paella translates to “frying pan” in Valencia, Spain, and is used almost exclusively to cook the national dish, by the same name.
The large, shallow pans are designed to cook evenly and quickly evaporate liquid. To cook paella, you first toast rice, then add additional flavorings, meats, and veggies, followed by water or stock. Then the pan works its magic, by cooking everything quickly and evenly.
Paella pans range in size from around 10-inches, to well over 25-inches. Carbon steel is the traditional material used for this type of pan and is still the best and most inexpensive option.
When buying a paella pan, keep in mind that you will need to have a heat source that covers the entire bottom of the pan. So, large models will require a special burner, or to be used over an open fire, which is the traditional method.
But What Pieces Do I Really Need?
As you can see, there are many types of pans to know and choose from. Some are built for specific cooking tasks, while others are better kitchen multitaskers.
You definitely don’t have to own every piece on this list. But, If you’re wondering which pieces will serve you best, check out our guide to the essential pots and pans that every kitchen needs. This core set of reliable pots and pans is all you need to get in the kitchen and cook almost any recipe you can think of.