Good news for your wallet: not every kitchen tool is worth a premium price. The bad news? Some wares most definitely are. Here’s why, along with recs.
Le Creuset 5.5-Quart ($340)
Why: A good barometer to consider the value of a high cost item is its potential longevity — will you be using this thing 10, even 25 years? Premium Dutch ovens are not cheap, and they are probably marked up beyond what is a totally fair price. But the best will last you decades.
In general, what separates the more frugal options (like Lodge, Cuisinart and Cuisinox) from the premium category is the enameling. The way in which it’s applied, in how many layers and the quality of the porcelain all matter. When done right, this enameling will survive the odd encounter with a metal spatula (please, use plastic or silicone), rapid cooling (this can cause “crazing,” or cracks in the enamel) and anything else you might throw at it.
Unfortunately, you’ll be hard pressed to find information on enameling methods, quality control standards and whatnot from the brands themselves, but from our testing three brands stand out (including one you’ve likely not heard of).
Ones to Buy: First, do not under any circumstances buy an oval Dutch oven — your burner is not shaped like an oval, and so your cookware shouldn’t be either. The industry is ruled by two time-tested French brands.
The first and larger brand, Le Creuset ($340), has been making Dutch ovens for nearly 100 years, and vintage pieces from those early days are still in use. Staub ($325) is the other, and it sports a heavier, tighter-fitting lid (this means moisture doesn’t evaporate as easily). The last, Milo ($95), is something of an anomaly. It has not been available long enough for us to know if it will last as long as our two other suggestions, but the samples we’ve been testing since day one haven’t shown any signs of wear and tear.
Mac Professional Series Chef’s Knife ($145)
Why: For less than one subpar block of knives (of which you’ll use two or three, tops), you can get a great chef’s knife that will serve you well for as long as you take care of it. It is the most used and abused tool in the kitchen, and buying a good one not only improves the precision and consistency with which you prepare meals, but also safety.
A quality chef’s knife — be it carbon steel or stainless steel — will be sharper for longer. Generally, if you want something with great staying power, lean stainless, and if you’re looking for the sharpest edges (and an easier time bringing that edge back into cutting shape) go carbon. With either, though, best practice is to wash them by hand, even if it advertises itself as dishwasher-safe.
Ones to Buy: Unlike Dutch ovens, there are many great knife makers. Mac’s Professional series chef’s knife ($145) is a great mix of a thin, Japanese-style blade and weighty western handle design. Global makes a really great chef’s knife called the G-2 ($100), which is a hardy, high-chromium stainless steel knife with a smart one-piece design (it’s weighted perfectly, and there’s no area where materials merge to create room for corrosion). For those who prefer a weightier, pure Western-style knife, Zwilling Henckels Pro series knife ($120+) is perfect, as its wicked sharp carbon steel blade attaches to a handle that prioritizes the pinch grip above all else.
Stainless Steel Cookware
All-Clad 3-Quart Saute Pan ($220)
Why: You know that stainless steel skillet you use that always wobbles a bit when it’s heating up? Or the oil always slides down one side? Or maybe food refuses to release from it, no matter how much oil you put down beforehand? These are common issues that stem from cheaping out on your stainless steel cookware.
And no matter how much ground cast-iron cookware, non-stick, carbon steel or whatever else thinks it’s gaining on stainless steel, none will ever supplant its status as the do-it-all cookware. Good stainless steel doesn’t warp and wane so easily (this is usually caused by either overheating a pan or putting a screaming hot pan in water too quickly). It heats quickly and holds that heat more effectively (this is primarily due to metal bonding, which allowed stainless steel cookware to sport fast-heating aluminum cores). All of these attributes are paramount to cooking consistency.
Ones to Buy: For a very long time All-Clad ($75+) has made the best stainless steel cookware on the market, and that hasn’t changed. The company’s founder literally invented bonded cookware, and the company has since perfected it — the pans hold their heat better than cheap skillets, distribute heat better than cheap skillets and somehow release food better than cheap skillets.
Made In Cookware ($59+), based in Austin, Texas, makes a more affordable, similar set of bonded stainless cookware. The only notable difference I’ve found between the two is that All-Clad tends to retain heat more effectively when food is initially placed in it.
Tramontina ($40+) makes similar skillets to Made In, in that they don’t quite match All-Clad’s all-around performance, but are far, far superior than those that come in big box sets at department stores.