Essential cookware for the vegetarian kitchen

December 25, 2009 at 4:05 pm (Equipment reviews)

Now that Christmas is over, it seems the perfect time to talk about purchasing pots and pans!  What cookware should you buy if you’re just starting out as a cook, or you have some extra cash (or someone itching to spend money on you) and you want to rebuild your cookware set from scratch?

Cook’s Illustrated reports their ideal cookware set, and it includes seven items:

  1. 12-inch stainless steel skillet
  2. 10-inch nonstick skillet
  3. 12-inch cast iron skillet
  4. 2 quart saucepan
  5. 4 quart saucepan
  6. 7 quart dutch oven
  7. 12 quart stockpot

To me this list seems a bit long.  Perhaps if you cook meat and fish you need more pans than if you’re vegetarian.  For comparison, I checked Peter Berley’s list of essential cookware in the Modern Vegetarian Kitchen. Surprisingly, it’s even longer!

  1. 8-10 inch stainless skillet
  2. 8-10 inch cast iron skillet
  3. 10-inch stainless saute pan (3 quarts)
  4. 1 quart stainless saucepan
  5. 2 quart stainless saucepan
  6. 8 quart stainless stockpot with steamer insert
  7. 3-4 quart pressure cooker
  8. 2 quart enameled cast iron pot for porridge
  9. 3 quart enameled cast iron pot for soups and stews
  10. 4 quart oven-proof earthenware casserole for baking and oven braising
  11. 5-6 quart cast iron Dutch oven for bread baking and stews

Now, I have a pretty large collection of cookware, but my list of “essential” cookware is much smaller.  I think I could manage pretty well with just five pans:

  1. 12-inch nonstick or cast iron skillet, with a lid!  I have a 12-inch nonstick pan, and it’s definitely the most used pan in my kitchen.  I always leave it on the stove.  If you don’t like non-stick then a 10- to 12-inch cast iron pan would work as well, but it will be heavy.  I have an Emerilware pan made by All-Clad.  It’s big and heavy, heats evenly, and is easy to clean.  It didn’t come with a lid so I use a lid that came with a cheaper 12-inch Calphalon anodized skillet.  I use it for all sorts of stir-fries, to crisp up tofu cubes, for any dish where I want to saute or brown vegetables (like broccoli and garlic or cauliflower curry), for hash browns, pancakes, etc.  Derek uses it for scrambled eggs.  He doesn’t mind the large size, even if he’s just making two eggs for himself.  Sometimes I actually wish the bottom diameter of the bottom of the pan was slightly wider, e.g. when making something that needs to be cooked in a single layer, like greek potatoes with lemon or pan-fried brussels sprouts.  But I don’t have a really big burner, so a wider bottom probably wouldn’t help because the edges wouldn’t get hot.  Already with my current pan the outer edges are much cooler than the middle of the pan.
  2. 2 quart saucepan, with lid.  I have an All-Clad pan.  I hate that it doesn’t have a lip, but otherwise it’s a very nice pan, with a nice thick bottom and sides, and a handle that stays cool.  I use this pan to make grains (rice, quinoa, oatmeal,…), sauces (pasta sauce, applesauce), hot chocolate, carrot halvah, etc.
  3. 3.5 – 4 quart pan, ideally a saucier, cassoulet, or other wide, rounded-edge pan.  Currently I have a 3-quart all-clad cassoulet pan and a 4-quart multi-clad cuisinart sauce pan.  The 3-quart pan is a tad shallow and the sides are a bit thin, but the shape is great for making risotto, polenta, or stews.  It’s great whenever you have to stir a lot.  I also use the pan for making charmoula tempeh.  I used to have a slightly taller, slightly deeper 4-quart cassoulet pan that I much preferred, but I had to toss it because the non-stick finish was coming off.   I haven’t replaced it because a rounded-edge 4-quart pan is very difficult to find (see below).  I recently bought the 4-quart sauce pan, and I like it well enough.  I use it for cooking beans, soups, and larger amounts of grains. Ideally, however, I’d just have a 4-quart rounded cassoulet or chef’s pan.
  4. 5.5 quart stockpot with steamer insert.  Currently I have a tall, somewhat narrow 5-liter German WMF Diadem Plus stockpot with deep steamer insert.  I use it quite often. I use this pot when making pasta for two people, when making large amounts of soup or beans, for steaming vegetables and seitan, etc.  I like that it’s very space efficient, light, and has pretty curves.  However, the sides are a little thin and the bottom burns relatively easily.  I like that it comes with a quite deep steamer insert and a glass lid, so you can watch your veggies as they steam.
  5. 8 quart stockpot.   I have a cheap Cuisinart 8 quart stockpot, which works just fine.  I use it most often to make large amounts of pasta, to make vegetable broth, and to boil corn-on-the-cob.  I’ve also used it to make ricotta.  When I make a pasta dish (like the recipe for harissa pasta with greens and olives), I often drain the pasta, add the rest of the ingredients to this pan, and then throw the pasta back in to make it a “one pot” dish.

For me, this set would be the absolute minimum.  Most of the time I would be able to manage with only a 4-quart or a 5.5 quart pan,  but there are times when I am making several different recipes and really need two mid-sized pan.   If you cook fewer dishes at a time you could probably get away with just a 4-quart sauce pan and 8-quart stockpot or perhaps a 4-quart pan and a 7-quart dutch oven.  Personally, I find the iron dutch ovens very heavy and unwieldy, so for weekly use I prefer the stainless steel stockpot.

I usually cook for two people (with leftovers) and when we have guests I cook for 4-6 most often.  If you’re cooking for larger groups than you’ll obviously need larger pans and/or more of them.

Of course, this isn’t my “ideal” set.  If I could build an ideal set, I’d add to the above list:

  1. 9 inch cast iron skillet. It’s kind of like a nonstick pan if you treat it right, and it’s cheap, heavy duty, and browns great. Plus you can put it in the oven to make cornbread pie, fruit crisp, etc. It does tend to heat more in the center than on the outer rim, though. Also, maintaining the surface can be tricky, especially if you’re like me and frequently forget that you have a pan on high!
  2. 8-inch stainless steel skillet for roasting seeds, nuts, and spices.  You can roast seeds and nuts in a sauce pan, but a skillet is smaller and allows you to watch what’s going on more easily.  Plus this pan is small and cheap so why not get one?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on cookware.  What are your favorite pans?  What pieces do you “essential” and “ideal” cookware sets include?

A few more thoughts…

Cookware I’ve never owned, but I’d be interested in trying:

  • pressure cooker
  • grill pan
  • wok

Even ignoring price, it is difficult to find a well-made, 4 quart, rounded-bottom pan.  All-Clad makes a 5.5 quart saucier pan I might try if it were a little smaller and the handle wasn’t so long.  All-Clad also makes a 5.5 quart stainless dutch oven that has the right rounded shape but it’s quite bulky looking, especially the lid.  Cuisinart makes a 5.5 quart multipurpose pot that has the right shape, but I suspect the sides are too thin.  Here’s another 5.5 quart casserole pan from Sur la Table. This 4-quart Emerilware chef’s pan doesn’t look bad but the reviews say it’s cheaply made.

My current cookware collection is quite large, including a number of items that are not on my “essentials” list:

  1. I have a 1 quart stainless-steel all clad saucepan.  I sometimes use the 1 quart pan to toast seeds, or make hot fudge sauce.  It’s a nice, heavy pan but pretty tiny and not very well balanced.  I used to use it to reheat leftovers when I didn’t have a microwave.
  2. I have a 1.5 quart cuisinart saucepan.  I use it occasionally but prefer the 2 quart all-clad pan, but maybe that’s just because it’s a better pan.
  3. I have 9-inch nonstick and stainless steel skillets, but I almost never use either of them.
  4. I have a medium sized (10-inch?) nonstick saute pan, but I never use it.  What do people use saute pans for???
  5. 6 quart dutch oven.  I got it to make no-knead bread but this thing is massive and extremely heavy, and I rarely feel like wrestling with it.  I sometimes use it to make stews.
  6. 12 quart stockpot.  This is Cook’s Illustrated’s recommend stockpot size, but I find it too big.  I rarely drag it out, unless I’m serving pasta or soup to a very big group or making a huge batch of vegetable broth.
  7. I recently got a 12-inch stainless steel skillet, but I haven’t used it much yet.  I generally prefer my nonstick skillet.

One final note on buying cookware.  Everyone will tell you to buy cookware a la carte rather than in a set, as the sets usually don’t have the right combination of pieces.  But what people never tell you is this:  don’t ever buy cookware at full price.  If you’re patient you can almost always find really good sales on top brands.  Or do as my mother recommends and buy it used.


  1. sabjimata said,

    yeah, i find myself going for the same three pots and pans nite after nite. and will someone please sell a vegetarian knife set! i am just so not needing another steak knife. but a good tomato knife….ahhhh!

  2. austingardener said,

    Pots and pans I use daily are:
    1. small stainless steel frying pan with lid( to saute veggies for one) with lid
    2. TWO cast iron 9 inch frying pans
    3. 10 inch stainless fry pan with lid
    4. 2 qt stainless pot with lid
    5. 4 qt stainless pot with lid

    In addition, these are the ones I use weekly.
    6. 3 qt stainless pot with lid
    7. 5 qt. thick bottomed stainless pot with lid

    And monthly.
    8. 2 qt steamer basket pot with lid.
    9. 8 qt stainless pot with lid

    The cast irons have not a brand.
    The stainless pots I inherited from my mother-in-law. They are Wearever(sp?) with copper bottoms.
    The steamer pot I inherited from my mother.
    And the thick bottomed pot I got at a garage sale.
    None bought at full price or even at sale price for that matter.

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