The gleaming cookware sets in the holiday sales catalogs arriving in mailboxes this time of year stir a cook's fantasy.
You start to imagine the luscious cakes, hearty stews, delicate crepes and sumptuous roasts that you could make if only you had such sleek pots and pans in your kitchen.
But before you write up your Christmas wish list, take a moment to cast a critical eye at your cookware and ask what it is you really need. Selecting the right pots and pans is among the most important decisions a cook can make.
As unglamorous as it sounds, you need to start with some basic understanding of metallurgy before you can select the cookware that suits you.
Aluminum, iron and copper are the best heat conductors, which means pots made from those metals will heat up quickly and evenly. Yet each has advantages and disadvantages:
Aluminum is durable and relatively inexpensive, but it reacts with acidic foods and can impart a metallic taste.
Cast iron holds heat a long time and cooks uniformly, but it is more slow to heat than other metals.
Copper heats and cools rapidly, but is difficult to clean, and copper cookware must be lined to avoid reactions with food, the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion points out.
Stainless steel and glass are noncorrosive and do not interfere with the flavor of food, but they are poor heat conductors and food may not cook uniformly.
Cookware manufacturers have found ways to create pots and pans from a combination of metals that will have the conductivity of aluminum and copper and yet the resilience and easy cleanup of stainless steel. They also have developed pans with durable nonstick coatings, which are great for cleanup but do not brown meat.
The prices can range from a few dollars to more than $100 for a single pot. Sorting through the options can be confusing.
At the Baltimore International College, the cookware of choice is aluminum. Chef Greg Hare, an instructor there, says aluminum pots and pans work well in most circumstances, although when the students need to simmer tomato sauces or other acidic foods, they switch to stainless steel.
The cookware sets, which look so alluring in the ads, may not be the best option, Hare and other experts say. Although they no doubt look nice hanging from a pot rack, the sets often contain pots that cooks rarely use.
"If you cook for four you're not going to use the 1-quart saucepan," Hare says. "The sets are just a ripoff."
Hare cautions cooks against putting too much emphasis on aesthetics when selecting cookware. Most pots at the culinary college don't even have lids, he points out.
A lid "just takes up extra space," he says. If the students need to cover a pot, they craft a lid from parchment paper or aluminum foil, he says.
Hare's advice to home cooks is to start with a few pots and build your stock as your cooking skills and interests develop.
"When you've become good at the basics, you can start adding to it," he says.
Hold the pot. It should feel substantial, not too light.
Inspect the quality of the workmanship. The handle should be welded or attached with rivets, not screws.
Buy the best equipment you can afford. Cheap pots and pans need to be replaced after a few years of normal use.
WHAT THE BEGINNING COOK WILL NEED
Greg Hare, chef at the Baltimore International College, suggests these basic pots and pans for those just starting in the kitchen:
A 10-quart stockpot for making soups and stews and cooking pasta
3-quart and 5 1/2-quart saucepans for cooking liquids
A 10-inch saute pan or skillet for frying
Baking sheets for cookies and rolls