One of the important things in cooking for one is to have the right size pan for the quantity you are cooking. Small-time cooking with big-time flavor doesn’t happen when you have one chop in as 12-inch skillet! This may mean that you don’t buy that prepackaged set that is more appropriate in size for a family of four, but buy smaller pans as your needs are likely to be different. Cook’s Illustrated has a great article on “à la carte” selection of cookware. When cooking for one, you won’t need the sizes, but pans with the same functionality will give you a lot of flexibility and room for you cooking to evolve. To stretch you dollars, you want to look for multifunctional cookware. If you are really going to enjoy cooking for one, you do need the best pans that you can afford and it is better to have a few good ones than many not-so-good ones, or even good ones in the wrong sizes. It’s worth saving for good pans (or you drop all sorts of hints to friends and relatives, if not to give you the pans you want, at least to give you the means to purchase them).
At the time I needed to make the decision about cookware, I was fortunate to be working in a gourmet food store with an excellent kitchen ware department, and I was able to have hands-on experience with top-line cookware (All-Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset, Emile Henry, and others). I was able take advantage of employee discounts so I started with All-Clad cookware. I cook for one (and a cat) most of the time; but do like to have friends come for meals when I cook something special (like roast goose and stuffing) that is not just for one. I bought standard starter set of All-Clad stainless steel cookware that had nothing huge in it, but did cover even making stock (for one). That set consisted of a 10-inch fry pan, a 2-quart saucepan, a 6-quart sauté pan, a 6-quart stockpot, and a 4-quart casserole with lid. I got a bonus of an 8-inch nonstick fry pan with the set. That was so many years ago–but I’m still hooked on the All-Clad cookware.
Over the years, I’ve added various other pieces to fit my cooking needs–from the steamer insert, and double-boiler insert (with rounded bottom corners that make it easy to stir with a whisk) that fit the 8-inch saucepans or the casserole, a smaller sauté pan (2-quart), a larger, tall stockpot with pasta/colander insert. Even cooking for one, I use all these–the smaller ones more frequently than the larger. I’ve been using this cookware now for more years that I am going to admit to publicly–but it has performed well, so that I’ve never questioned where to go for additional pieces.
The latest piece that I have added is the 1-quart open saucier pan. I added that because I frequently do reductions of stock or sauces and make custards over direct heat–which means that the rounded bottom edges of this pan don’t let custards stick and curdle in the squared off corners as they would in a sauce pan. I had to make a decision on whether to add a Windsor pan or the saucier–difficult because the both have their uses, but I opted for the saucier. (I was given a saucier pan as a gift–from another manufacturer–and it is languishing in the back of a cabinet somewhere because it did not heat evenly, and it was easy to see why just by the heft of the two pans.
My very first high-end cookware was a great set of Le Creuset, enameled cast iron (a gift). Looked great, cooked great–I really liked it, but it was heavy. After I had used All-Clad, so much easier to lift, and found out how well it did, I decided that I’d rather have the advantage of lighter weight, easier care, and great performance. I passed on my Le Creuset saucepans and fry-pans to a friend, and got the All-Clad. I confess that I kept the Le Creuset dutch oven for a number of years even though I always reached for the equivalent All-Clad since it was so much easier for me to lift into and out of the oven when filled with stew or stock. When I was convinced that the All-Clad performed as well as that, that particular piece also went to join its mates with the same friend.
So where do you start if you’re going to purchase cookware? I’d start with Cook’s Illustrated website (unless you’re a subscriber to the Cook’s Illustrated magazine) since they do some pretty stringent and objective tests of cookware (Note that there is no advertising in the magazine). Then, I would go to a brick-and-mortar store that carries different brands, e.g. All-Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset, and look, lift and see how the pieces look and feel. I think that it’s important, just like I advised with knives, that you actually handle the different pieces and brands. But, don’t commit to buying yet! Think about it, sleep on it. It’s not quite like buying a car, but it is an investment. After you’ve thought about it, I’d go online to Cooking.com. They have customer reviews which are helpful to read; look at the pieces you think would make sense for you, check prices and compare.
Think about your favorite foods–what you’d like to cook for yourself. I like to do soups and stews in the winter, but don’t always want huge quantities, so the small covered casserole (4-quart) which can function like a small stockpot, or dutch oven (oven or stove-top) is a necessity for me. It’s the workhorse in my kitchen. Another that I reach for a lot is the small sauté pan–just the right size for one or two chops.
There are other things to consider in your choice of cookware: What is the manufacturer’s recommendation about putting it in the dishwasher? Can the pans (with lids) go from stove-top to oven cooking? This last is the much more important consideration (at least for me) since in order to cook with minimal attention I use the oven a lot for finishing stews, making stocks–anything that requires long, slow cooking.
Dishwasher safe if less important when cooking for one. The All-Clad stainless steel is dishwasher safe, but other finishes are not. Stainless steel is my preference for appearance–and for the fact that it can be used with induction cooking. Copper clad is beautiful–if you don’t mind the maintenance–I ogle a friend’s copper All-Clad enviously, but know that mine would never look like that! For other information you can go to the manufacturer’s FAQs.
As you cook more, it’s likely you’ll want to add other pots and pans. I’ve got a couple of All-Clad pans on my wish list: Right at the top of my wish list is the petit braisier. I have (as a gift) a Calphalon 12-inch “everyday” pan. It performs very well, but it’s too big for many of the things that I cook as single servings. It can function is so many ways–skillet, brasier, omelet pan, and the short handles make it ideal for things that go from stove-top to oven. Another on my wish list is the round dutch oven for one. I use my pans directly from oven/stove-top to table–and not because I’m cooking only for myself (and the cat). I think that the rounded bottom corners and the domed lid would be great–and besides, aesthetics do count, too; it’s a great looking pan.
I’d love a domed lid to fit my sauté pan (if possible), rather than buying another pan. The flat lids that I have fit so well and have handles that can go in the oven, but every once in a while, that domed lid would be great since it give you a bit of extra capacity. Then there is the French brasier…another to the wish list! There are times when the stainless steel rack would be wonderful….
You might be wondering why I’ve not mentioned nonstick cookware. I do have two nonstick pans–which are very infrequently used. For dishes that may go stove-top to broiler, I’d be concerned about the temperature effect on the nonstick coating. For frying, I often want to use high heat, so for me, nonstick is out. The two places where it is useful are an omelet pan and a pan in which you sauté delicate fish. Generally, I think that if you have good cookware that distributes heat well, you warm the pan before adding oil, and let your oil heat before you put anything in, any pan is nonstick! Nonstick cookware has the disadvantage of not forming fond as well–which can keep pan sauces from being as flavorful as when it develops well. If you like to do quick sautés and make pan sauces, then you might not want nonstick; however, you cookware needs to fit you style of achieving big-time taste with small-time cooking. To help you make that decision, I’d recommend the Cook’s Illustrated article on nonstick cookware.
Shop carefully, compare prices. It’s possible to find even some of the high-end cookware at special prices, so check prices. Have to love the Internet. Just to give you an example, I did price comparisons for that petit braisier that tops my wish list: I found it ranging from $99.99 to $179.95. The lowest price (excluding shipping–don’t forget that) was from Cooking.com (and that was with free shipping and a coupon code given)! I think I just found the Christmas present that Keiko, the cat, is going to give me!