To some people, a pan's a pan. As long as it heats without torching the house, it's good enough.
At the opposite extreme are cooks who fawn over copper or aluminum pots as though they were Monets.
Most of us fall somewhere between. We've seen the cheap stuff burn food, but aren't sure what makes Calphalon different from Le Creuset. Both sound very expensive.
"People become intimidated," says kitchenware shop manager Louise Houser.
"But once you learn a few basics and know what you're looking at, it's really not as difficult as it first appears," she says. It's a little like sizing up a car and choosing between the sporty coupe and the station wagon.
And quality cookware isn't as hard on your pocketbook as you might expect.
"Calphalon used to be considered the most expensive around," Ms. Houser says. "Now you can buy an eight-piece set (counting lids) for $220."
A seven- to nine-piece starter set of a top brand such as Scanpan or Chantal runs from $180 to $400, says Ms. Houser, with stainless steel and copper at the high end. Better mid-range brands, such as Farberware, run $120 to $150 a set.
But even if you can afford only a discount store bargain set, the same principles apply.
The cheapest cookware usually is thin, which means foods burn easily. (But a cheap stockpot might be just fine for a job such as boiling pasta because it heats up fast.) A cheap non-stick surface is likely to scratch off; cheap enamel may chip.
Either way, you don't need a lot of pieces.
"A basic starting cookware set will be a 10-inch skillet, a 2-quart saucepan and a 5-quart Dutch oven," says Ms. Houser, plus lids.
Now you're free to concentrate on what makes one brand different from another: features such as non-stick or stick-resistant surfaces, colorful enamel or tough stainless steel, cool or oven-friendly handles, plain lids or see-through.
"Good cookware is a good investment," says Chuck Williams, founder of the Williams-Sonoma kitchenware stores. "If it's well taken care of, you'll have it the rest of your life."
Before you visit a store, consider your cooking habits and whether it's important that your pieces match.
If the latter is true, Mr. Williams suggests buying one piece at first, to see if you like the line.
Your cooking habits determine what cookware best fits your kitchen, whether you select a single line or mix them up.
"It's all according to how and what you're cooking," Mr. Williams says.
"I like a small saute pan because I never cook for very many people," he says. He rarely fries foods.
The sides on saute pans are perpendicular to the bottom. "Fry" pans, as experts call skillets, have sloping sides. In cookware lingo, pans have single, long handles; pots have two small loop handles.
You'll also need to determine whether non-stick surfaces are for you.
"If you're going to fry an egg, you want to have a non-stick surface," says Ms. Houser. "But if you're going to boil pasta, it's not as important.
At its most basic, cookware boils down to two things: how it heats and what kind of surface it has. The perfect material and ideal finish are the "holy grails" of cookware, according to Steve Ettlinger in "The Kitchenware Book" (Macmillan, $30).
The perfect base material "conducts heat well, heats up evenly and quickly, . . . cleans easily, is lightweight, doesn't dent, rust or react with any foods, needs little maintenance and doesn't cost much," he writes.
The perfect surface is non-stick and doesn't chip, crack or peel, he says. It resists high heat, doesn't cost much and can be attached to a good heat-conducting base.
Of course, these are holy grails because such perfection does not exist. But cookware-makers come closer all the time.
Copper is the ultimate cookware material against which all others are judged, says Mr. Ettlinger, because it conducts heat so well. But it's also prohibitively expensive, heavy and delicate. Usually copper is lined with silver or tin.
Then there's aluminum, which is inexpensive.
"But even anodized aluminum is porous, so it sticks," Ms. Houser says. Anodizing hardens aluminum and gives it a dark color. It also prevents the surface from reacting with acidic foods, such as tomatoes.
"The person who doesn't want aluminum usually shifts to stainless steel," Ms. Houser says. "Stainless steel is less porous, so things don't stick much." But stainless steel doesn't conduct heat well.
Cast iron also is excellent, but it may retain flavors or react with foods, says Mr. Ettlinger.
Manufacturers solve these problems by combining materials.
For instance, All-Clad combines aluminum for its heat-conducting properties with stainless steel for the surface of the cookware. Cuisinart Commercial sandwiches a layer of copper on the bottom between two stainless steel layers. Le Creuset wraps cast iron in porcelain enamel, and Chantal uses enamel on steel -- both in several jewel-tone colors.
Although not every good surface is non-stick, non-stick technology is cookware's cutting edge.
Among the top brands, today's non-stick finishes aren't prone to scratching and chipping as in the past, Mr. Williams says.
Usually, a non-stick surface is applied to cookware like a coating, says Ms. Houser. Wooden or plastic utensils must be used.
The latest technology produces a finish so strong it will stand up to metal spoons.
Scanpan has "a virtually indestructible finish," says Ms. Houser. "The ceramic and titanium is molded and fired at an extremely high temperature, which makes the entire pan non-stick."
Circulon, with a ridged non-stick surface over anodized aluminum, is good because "you have to physically wear down that surface for it to lose its effectiveness," she says.
"Non-stick is very desirable to have in saute, fry and roasting pans because you do get sticking meat," Mr. Williams says. "It's also a good choice if you cook . . . rice or oatmeal."
Stick-resistant surfaces, such as enamel and stainless steel, require a little more TLC, says Ms. Houser.
"Stick-resistant means you have to warm it up, put ingredients in slowly, treat it somehow, like with Pam [a non-stick spray]," she says.
* Handles. Mr. Williams advocates handles that stay cool when you grasp them. It's not convenient, he says, to have to reach for a pot-holder every time.
But that may limit how you use the pot or pan, Ms. Houser says, and "then it can't go in the oven."
Look for handles that are securely attached. On very cheap pans, they may be fastened only with spot-welding, says Mr. Williams.
* Lids. Most important is that lids be tight-fitting.
* Home vs. "professional" weight.
"The only difference is that it's heavier, the handles are usually very well-constructed, very well-attached to the pot, the lids fit very well," Mr. Williams says of professional weight.
"It's all those little points that make a difference in the quality."
Copper heats best, but it's expensive.
Aluminum heats well, but food sticks. The answer: anodizing or "hardening."
Stainless steel doesn't heat as well, but cleans up easily.
Produce lines often combine metals, such as stainless steel with a copper core.
Non-stick means an egg slides right off.
Stick-resistant surfaces need pampering.
Enamel surfaces come in many colors.
Stay-cool metal handles are oven-proof.
Weight increases durability.
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Here's a selection of lines and key features.
All-Clad Ltd: Aluminum-core bottom and sides, anodized outer surface, stick-resistant, stainless steel inner surface. Stainless steel lids.
Calphalon: Professional thickness, stick-resistant, anodized, non-reactive aluminum.
Chantal: Stick-resistant enamel on steel; six colors. Glass lids.
Circulon: Non-stick, ridged cooking surface on anodized aluminum. Plastic handles.
Cuisinart Commercial: Stainless steel with 1/4 -inch bottom copper disc sandwiched between layers of stick-resistant stainless steel.
Farberware: Stainless steel with aluminum-clad bottom. Plastic knobs and handles.
L Le Creuset: Stick-resistant enamel on cast iron; six colors.
Revere Ware: Stainless steel with copper- or aluminum-clad bottom. Plastic handles.
Scanpan 2001: Non-stick ceramic and titanium surface on aluminum. Glass lids.
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