What is in a Cookware Set? Know Your Pots and Pans!

Lids. Lids come with cookware sets. I’ve had pots and pans I thought were so great until I needed a lid and I didn’t have one that fit. You don’t think you’re going to need that lid until one day, you do, and you end up trying to crimp a piece of foil over the top of your pan, and burn your fingerprints off. It doesn’t work. Get the pan with the lid to go with it.  But I digress…and you need to know what is in a cookware set, so here we go!

When you’re shopping for sets, you should note that lids are considered a “piece” in a set, so when you see a 10-piece cookware set advertised, you’ll need to look carefully to find out how many pots, pans, and lids you’re actually getting. You’ll also want to consider what size pots and pans you think you’ll use most often. Manufacturers offer loads of choices, but my minimum for anything you could call a set would include at least one covered sauce pan, one skillet, and a sauce pot with a lid that also fit on the skillet. That would constitute a 5-piece set (3 pans, 2 lids). You can get sets with upwards of 25 pieces, but before we go there, perhaps it would be wise to take a closer look at the various pots and pans, their shapes and sizes, and what you’re going to do with all those pieces!


A saucepan is defined as a deep cooking pot with one long handle and a lid.

1 or 1.5-quart covered sauce pan: I use mine almost exclusively for rice, but you might find you like it for sauces, gravies, or melting butter. Nice to have.

2 or 2.5-quart covered saucepan: This is the one you use all the time. You can hard-boil six eggs, make a box of macaroni and cheese, whip up a white sauce, or boil water for tea. You need this.

3-quart covered saucepan: Generally just a little taller than that 2-quart, but with the same size opening at the top. Use this to make a whole box of rotini, a small batch of soup, or to heat up boil-in-a-bag, frozen dinners. I like mine, but if hadn’t come in the set, I might not have bought it.

4.5 or 5-quart covered saucepan: Great for cooking spaghetti, making chili, boiling up a few servings of corn on the cob. I don’t personally own one; it’s big and when it’s full, it’s going to be too heavy to move with that one long handle that defines it as a “saucepan.”

Sauce pots

A sauce pot is deep and has two handles on either side, plus a tight-fitting lid;

not to be confused with a stock pot or a Dutch oven

3 or 3.5-quart sauce pot: Because the opening is wider than a saucepan, you could use this for spaghetti, soup, corn, chili, or stews.

4.5 or 5-quart sauce pot: I have this particular piece of cookware, and I really like it. Although I think it’s better suited for soups than stews, I have been known to use it when I want to make something that requires long, low-heat. There are definitely alternatives, but I wouldn’t want to be without mine!

6-quart (or more) sauce pot: Here is where I’m going to draw the line between a sauce pot and a stock or soup pot. The terms seem to become interchangeable at a capacity of around 6 quarts of liquid, so let’s just say, you can get this deep, two-handled pot with a lid, and use it to make large quantities of food. Call it what you will! My soup pot holds 6 quarts, and is distinguishable from the rest of my pots and pans because it is blue, and was not included in my everyday set. I use it for making vats of soup that lasts for days unless we have company, and my husband takes it to his club on hot dog night. If you don’t think you need one now, you can get cookware set without it, but I’m betting you’re going to want one eventually!

Stock Pots

A large, deep pot used for making soup stock

A stock pot can go from 6 quarts all the way up to 24 quarts or more. I can’t think what you would do with a 24-quart stock pot in your every day kitchen, but you are the one doing the cooking here! I will say that many cookware sets do include stock pots that range in size from 8 to 10 quarts, which is plenty in my book. Unless you really are boiling up bunches of bones and leftovers so you can freeze a year’s worth of soup base, you probably won’t need more than that.

Dutch Oven

A deep, heavy pot with a lid used for long, slow cooking

The key word here is heavy! I do not own a Dutch oven; I make do with my crock pot – or my pressure cooker if I’m in a hurry. But my mom has one, and she uses it often to make soups and stews. She doesn’t have a crock pot. A Dutch oven usually holds around 5 quarts, and you can find cookware sets that include them. You can also buy one later if you aren’t sure you want one just yet. Do you absolutely need a Dutch oven? I say no, but I’m sure you could find a lot of people who will disagree with me. In the end, I’d say they’re nice to have, but not essential.

Pans and Skillets

Pan: a wide, shallow, container with a long handle, used for frying, sauteing, other cooking

Skillet: British for pan; see above

4-6” frying pans: You might think of these as more adorable than  practical because they’re so small, but in fact I love mine for flipping a quick grilled cheese, or heating up small amounts of mushrooms or onions to go with my main dishes.

10-12” skillet: You need this! I have one of each that I wouldn’t want to live without. Most cookware sets are going to include one or the other. I’d say, given the choice, go with the 12” size, and make sure there’s a lid!

Saute pans: These are becoming more common in some of the bigger, better sets. The difference between a regular frying pan and a saute pan is the shape: the sides go straight up instead of flaring around the rim. That gives you a little more cooking surface, and works better if you’re simmering liquids. Also, when it comes to size, saute pans are often described by how much they hold rather than by the diameter of the bottom. So your set might include a 3 or a 5-quart saute pan, or it might be called a 9 or 10-inch saute pan. I think it would be nice to have, but I wouldn’t choose it over a skillet, and I wouldn’t pass over a great set of cookware if it wasn’t included.

Open Stock Cookware

Individual pieces of cookware from the same line that is kept in stock for the purpose of supplementing or replacing items in a set

I feel compelled to add a word about “open stock” because of a conversation I had with a buyer early in my copy writing career. I had come across the term, and didn’t understand what it meant, so I asked him. He told me not to worry about it, because the customer already knows. Hey, I shot back, I’m the customer here! So now I’m going to inform you, just in case you were wondering like I was once.

Most manufacturers of things like good cookware or dishes create a product line that they intend to sell for years. They create sets out of some, but not all of the pieces that are available. In fact, while it’s convenient and often a bit less expensive to get an entire, pre-selected set all at once, you can opt to purchase each item by itself, and build your own personal set of cookware a la cart from the open stock pieces that are available. You can also add pieces to the cookware set you already own.

So let’s say you get an awesome set of pots and pans, but it didn’t come with the saute pan that your best friend pinky-swears you can’t live without. If your cookware is available as open stock, you can add that saute pan to your collection and it will look exactly like it came with the set you already own.

Another advantage to buying cookware that offers open stock items is that you can always replace a single pot, pan, or lid that came with your original set. Although good cookware is built to last, accidents can and do happen, and plain old age can take its toll. I have a pan that’s become slightly warped on the bottom, and it wobbles just enough to be annoying on my flat-top stove. I forgive the pan, because it’s 30 years old and I’ve clearly used it to death. But I can replace it – same size, same metal, same handle, same lid – because it’s a brand that sells open stock.


So there you have it.

These are the basic pots and pans that are offered in most sets of cookware. You can go all out or scale it back depending on your price range, your storage capacity, and your personal taste. Or you can buy a basic set and then add to it as you go along with other, open stock items. For the record, my ideal cookware set would include at least two saucepans, two frying pans, and a soup or sauce pot. And of course, the lids to go with!



4 thoughts on “What is in a Cookware Set? Know Your Pots and Pans!

  1. I really like this page. I do the cooking in our house and my wife cleans up the messes I make. I’m a lucky guy.

    Your explanation of all the different sizes, shapes and uses of cookware is very thorough and full of useful information.

    Do you have any preferences as to types of metal, aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron? Just wondering.

    Looking forward to more from you wealth of knowledge.

    1. Hi Frank,

      Thank you for your comment! If you scroll down to my next post, you’ll see that I’ve written about the various types of metals most commonly used in cookware. My preference depends on what I’m using the pan for. My everyday cookware is copper clad stainless steel, but my absolute favorite pan is a Revere Ware 10″ skillet made of stainless steel with a tri-ply disc on the bottom. It’s a little deeper than my other frying pan, and some descriptions actually call it a “chefs saute” pan, but the sides don’t go straight up like most other saute pans. It’s just the right size and weight, and sits nice and flat on the stove top. I inherited it from my grandmother, who was in the business for years!

  2. I’m not that much into cooking. We’re two people at my house, my daughter and myself and we mostly follow a vegetarian diet. For my needs, I’m basically okey with 2 saucepans, a soup pot, which I use for soups and for pasta and one of the smaller 4-6″ frying pans. I can prepare pancakes and omellets and even saute onions in it. I don’t like buying sets of pots and pans because they always come with items I never use. For me, it’s more practical to buy the item individually and every piece must have a lid. I hate having pots and pans without lids.

    1. Hi Chris,
      I’m totally with you about the lids! There’s nothing worse than needing one and not having it. It sounds like you have just the right cookware for your little family, and that’s the whole point. I used to cook a lot more than I do today, because it’s just me and my husband now, but it’s a 365 day a year job for most of us. I’m hoping to help my readers get it right for own personal styles. Thank you for your comment!

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