Skip the Cookware Set. Here are the 5 Pieces You Really Need in the Kitchen.

    Before spending hundreds on a bunch of pots and pans, think about your storage space and cooking style

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    various types of cookware pieces (pots, pans, colander, grater) hanging from pot rack Photo: John Walsh/Consumer Reports

    Like many newlyweds, I bought a cookware set when I was first married—a shiny 10-piece stainless set made in Italy with stylishly curved handles.

    It came with a generous stock pot, two saucepans, and two frying pans. Decades later, I use some of the pieces almost every day. But a few of the pans are just as pristine as the day I took them out of the box.

    Except for the precious space the unused pieces take up in my cabinet, I don’t regret buying the set. The pans I do use heat up quickly, the handles are sturdy, and they’re a dream to clean—all attributes we value at Consumer Reports. And unlike many cookware sets, every piece in my set is a pan or a lid.

    "The number of pieces may include utensils or even a cookbook," says Tara Casaregola, who oversees our cookware tests.

    While I’m an avid home cook, I’m no trained chef. Over the years I’ve tailored my cookware collection to my cooking style: nonstick skillets for delicate foods, cast-iron frying pans for searing meat, Dutch ovens for slow braises, and woks for risotto, pasta sauces, and yes, the occasional stir-fry.

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    But my style may not be for everyone. So I asked our in-house experts as well as pros from "America’s Test Kitchen," Food 52, and the DeGustibus Cooking School to recommend must-have gear for any home kitchen.

    “Buy a couple of key pieces that you’re really going to use for the rest of your life,” says Lisa McManus, the executive testings and tastings editor at "America’s Test Kitchen." “Pans in sets can be doll-sized, but ultimately a larger pan is better for most recipes. For example, we design our recipes to serve four to six people.”

    So if you don’t have the storage space, opt for a larger size, such as a 12-inch skillet rather than storing an 8-, 10- and 12-inch. You can always cook a smaller amount in a larger pan, but not vice versa.

    Here are five pieces that every home cook should have, followed by some nice extras if they suit your cooking style and you’ve got the storage space. And if a set is really what you’d like to have, check out two stellar ones from our cookware tests.

    The Basics

    These five items are all most home cooks need for cooking and baking.

    Saucepan: Look for one that’s 3 to 4 quarts. “It’s not just for sauces,” says Kristen Miglore, founding editor and creative director of Food 52’s Genius Recipes. “In a lidded saucepan, you can steam rice and vegetables; boil pasta and potatoes; cook soups and oatmeal and polenta and tomato sauce. Some days, you might even wish you had two.”
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    Nonstick skillet: “For delicate ingredients like eggs and fish, nonstick pans will save you a lot of stress—and dinner that would otherwise be lost to the pan,” Miglore says. Select a size depending on your family and needs. Miglore has three: an 8-inch (“for eggs for my toddler”); a 10-inch (“for eggs for the whole family”); and a 12-inch (“for salmon fillets”). You don’t have to spend a lot to get a good nonstick skillet.
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    Cast-iron frying pan: These are super-versatile and last for generations. When Consumer Reports’ test engineers evaluate cast-iron pans, they bake cornbread, sear steaks, and brown scallops. But you don’t have to stop there. You can transfer a cast-iron skillet from the stovetop to the oven when you’re cooking pork chops or any other thick cut of meat. Or use it to bake deep-dish pizza. Delicious.
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    Dutch oven: Salvatore Rizzo, owner and CEO of the DeGustibus Cooking School in New York City, owns five Dutch ovens. (“I have a lot of cookware,” he admits.) His favorite? The 7½-quart Le Creuset. “Seeing how evenly it cooks always makes me smile,” he says.

    In our Dutch oven tests we brown meat, bake bread, caramelize scallops, simmer tomato sauce, and time how long it takes to bring four quarts of water to a near boil. You can do all those things at home, which means you don’t need a stockpot to make soup or boil pasta.

    But the sweet spot for Dutch ovens is braising—cooking low and slow in the oven for hours. That’s the secret to turning a tough cut of meat, like beef brisket, into a meal fit for a family celebration or just dinner. Another plus: If you have a Dutch oven, you really don’t need a slow cooker.
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    Rimmed baking sheets: All three of the experts we spoke to recommend getting one or more sheet pans, preferably at least one with a wire rack that nestles inside. That way you can use it in the oven for roasting or, when it’s cool, on the counter for cooling cookies or resting meat. “A true kitchen workhorse, sheet pans are handy for roasting whole chickens and all sorts of vegetables, toasting nuts, baking cookies, making toast under the broiler, sliding under cakes and pies to catch drips, and, famously, making entire sheet-pan dinners,” Miglore says.

    And Rizzo says you shouldn’t cheap out on sheet pans. “Buy from a professional kitchen store,” he says. “You need the weight and depth, and it needs to be sturdy.” Miglore recommends looking for what’s called a half sheet or “jelly-roll size.” They’re 18-by-13 inches vs. the full-sized pan used in professional kitchens (18-by-26 inches), which are too big for most home ovens. The half sheet is the size typically called for in sheet-pan dinner recipes.
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    The Nice-to-Haves

    While not essential, these four pieces of cookware can add convenience and help you expand your cooking methods.

    Small saucepan. A 3- to 4-cup saucepan, often called a butter warmer, can be a nice complement to a larger saucepan. It’s often more efficient for boiling a few eggs, tempering spices, warming up soups, and preparing a small amount of boiling water, hot coffee, or scalded milk for baking, Miglore says. “And, as the name implies, for melting butter, instead of risking it exploding in the microwave,” she adds.
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    Wok: Both McManus and Rizzo are big fans. “I use my wok for everything,” Rizzo says. McManus has tested them for "America’s Test Kitchen" and heartily agrees. She likes the high sides because unlike a shallow skillet, the wok holds vegetables or whatever else you’re stirring without them tumbling out over the sides. McManus recommends a flat-bottom wok because it can be used on all types of stovetops including gas, smoothtop electric, induction, even electric coil burners.
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    Stockpot: While you can make soup or boil water for pasta in a Dutch oven, if yours is in rotation making the sauce for your pasta or other fare, you might also want a stockpot, a piece that’s high on Rizzo’s list. But they take a lot of space to store, so if you’re just starting out—or you’re tight on cabinet space—you can probably get by with just one large pot and a Dutch oven.
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    Carbon steel skillet: You may not be as familiar with carbon steel pans compared with cast iron or nonstick. But as McManus says: “Carbon steel has some of the properties of cast iron and some of the properties of nonstick. A little bit of everything.” For starters, they’re lighter than cast-iron pans but can do almost anything a cast-iron pan can do (although cast iron performed better in our tests). And because they’re lighter-weight, it’s easier to transfer a carbon steel skillet from the stovetop to the oven.

    If you’re worried that a carbon steel pan will be too difficult to care for, many come seasoned, a process in which oil is bonded to the pan, and like cast iron, develop a patina over time that’s almost like a nonstick-like surface. Win-win.
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    If You Really Want a Set

    If you’re thinking about buying a set for yourself or for someone setting up a house, look for one that’s been well-edited by the manufacturer and doesn’t have a lot of extraneous pieces that will go straight into a drawer or cabinet.

    For example, Made in Cookware’s stainless Starter Kit has five basic pieces: a frying pan, a covered saucepan, and a covered stockpot. The GreenPan Levels Hard Anodized Stackable has six pieces including a covered stockpot and saucepan, a frying pan, and a grill pan.

    In our ratings of cookware sets, we list every piece that’s included. Look under the heading “What’s in the Box” as you’re reading our reviews of each set. If you see a cookware set that strikes your fancy, check the manufacturer’s website to see if the individual pieces are sold in open stock. Many of them are. Here are two starter sets that include just the essentials.

    Mary H.J. Farrell

    Knowing that I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, I decided to spiff up my byline by adding the middle initials "H.J." A veteran of online and print journalism, I've worked at People, MSNBC, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and an online Consumer Reports wannabe. But the real thing is so much better. Follow me on Twitter.