The once simple act of buying pots and pans has become bewildering, thanks mostly to the continuing influx of high-end professional gear...

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The once simple act of buying pots and pans has become bewildering, thanks mostly to the continuing influx of high-end professional gear coming into the home kitchen — and with that the elevation of cookware to status symbol. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by options.

“There is more technology that you need to understand” than for items such as china or stemware, says Sarah Lamb, a 30-year-old Minneapolis resident with a June wedding date. “We researched online. We talked to people in the specialty stores. We got a lot of information.”

Here’s how to make sense of all that information and be sure your pans are as good a match for you as your mate. Maybe better.

The essentials

Last year, Americans spent $3.2 billion on 512 million pieces of cookware and bakeware, according to Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association. That’s a lot of cookware. How much of it was essential?

Experts agree on four must-have pots and pans: a skillet, a saucepan, a Dutch oven and a stockpot.

The skillet — which is used for eggs, pancakes, burgers, and stir-frying — is the most popular piece, accounting for nearly a third of sales. They come in numerous sizes, but those in the 10- to 12-inch range (measured at the rim) are the best-sellers, according to Rushing.

There’s good reason for that, says Lisa McManus, senior editor and equipment tester at Cook’s Illustrated magazine. Most recipes call for large skillets, and she advises people to go with a 12-inch model.

The other kitchen workhorse is the saucepan, which is as useful for heating soups and sauces as for cooking rice. Because the saucepan is used so much, Rushing recommends two of varying sizes, such as a 2-quart and a 4-quart.

Dutch ovens (heavy, lidded pots with double handles and a thick bottom) are used less frequently but are no less essential. They are great for stews (the meat can be browned in the pan before the other ingredients are added) and it can go in the oven.

Most Dutch ovens come in 5- to 8-quart models, but McManus says a 5-quart would suffice for most home cooks.

Stockpots are used for cooking soup, pasta, lobster and vegetables, such as corn on the cob. Many come with colander inserts, which make it easy to drain pasta. These inserts can double as steamer baskets. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck favors an 8-quart stockpot.

The surface

With most cooking surfaces, such as stainless steel, some sort of liquid or fat is needed to prevent sticking. Nonstick pans, which outsell stainless steel 2-to-1, are the exception. These pans have special coatings that make cooking and cleanup easy.

However, nonstick pans have drawbacks. Many scratch easily, which means metal utensils cannot be used on them. And though they have improved in recent years, the coatings still deteriorate over time. Using the pans over very high heat can accelerate that process.

Most manufacturers also recommend against putting nonstick pans in the dishwasher, as the heat can damage the surface. For the same reason, nonstick pans cannot be used with high heat (500 Fahrenheit or more) or left empty inside a hot oven or over a hot burner.

But for some delicate dishes, a nonstick pan is almost essential. Crepes, for example. This is why many experts suggest having one nonstick pan, usually a medium skillet. These also are good for low-fat cooking, as little or no fat is needed

The materials

Quality cookware heats quickly and evenly. How well pots and pans do that depends on what they are made of. Common choices include copper, aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron and enameled cast iron, and each reacts differently to heat.

Copper and aluminum conduct heat best, meaning the heat spreads quickly and evenly through the pan. But copper is expensive and tarnishes easily. Aluminum is soft, scratches easily and can react with acidic foods, such as tomatoes, producing off tastes.

Stainless steel has low conductivity but resists scratches and is easy to clean.

Most cooks will want what is referred to as clad cookware, which is a combination of metals. In the latter, a layer of copper or aluminum is bonded between layers of stainless steel, providing great heating with a strong, easy-to-clean surface.

Another good option is anodized aluminum. These are aluminum pans that have been specially treated with a process that hardens the metal (and gives it a distinctive dark color) and makes it resistant to scratches and dents. Anodized aluminum will not react with acidic foods.

Cast iron and enameled cast iron heat very well. However, both are extremely heavy. And while cast-iron pans are inexpensive, many brands of enameled cast iron are not. The weight of these pans can make them impractical for daily use.

A set or a single?

Though buying cookware piece-by-piece is far more popular than by the set, opinion is divided over which is the better bargain.

While Consumer Reports magazine, which rated cookware in December 2005, says sets generally are the best value, others urge caution. While the price may seem like a deal, shoppers should take care that they are getting everything they need.

Cook’s Illustrated’s McManus, however, says go with the individual pieces.

“We never really like sets. It’s like anything that gets bundled together. You get a bunch of stuff that you don’t really need and you may come out saving money if you bought one-by-one,” she says.

How to buy

Let your hands guide you, says Rushing. When buying cookware, pick up the skillet or saucepan and test how comfortable it is in your hand. Make sure the handle is sturdy, durable and fits well in your grip.

How much to spend? Consumer Reports found that higher costs don’t necessarily equal better performance for basic cooking. In fact, the magazine’s recommended best value buy was a 14-piece set by Kirkland Signature for sale at Costco for $150.

But Consumer Reports’ findings don’t jibe with those who spend their days in the kitchen.

“If you spend a little more you will get something that will perform better and last longer,” says McManus. She is partial to the All-Clad stainless steel, which has an aluminum core. The 10-inch skillet goes for $105, while the company’s 2-quart saucepan runs $140.

“You can overspend on cookware, paying thousands of dollars buying fancy French copper pots,” Rushing says. “But you can also buy a perfectly good set for $39.” The difference is the $39 set isn’t going to last.

“Spend about $175 and it will last for the next 10 years, but not a lifetime,” he says. “So don’t buy the cheapest and not the most expensive. Buy the best cookware you can afford with your budget and try not to be cheap about it.”

If you must go cheap on one pan, make it the stockpot. Because these most often are used to boil pasta or steam corn, quality is less of a concern. Be careful when making soups and stews, however, as cheap pans can leave scorched bottoms.