This is a question I get asked a lot, especially by friends who are getting married and registering for gifts. I've been cooking in the Test Kitchen for 8 years and have made thousands of meals. In that time, I've whittled my must-have cookware list down to these 5 basic pots and pans:
1. Stainless 3-quart saucepan
2. Stainless Dutch oven (preferably about 8 quarts)
3. Stainless 12-inch skillet
4. 10 to 12-inch cast-iron skillet
5. 12-inch nonstick skillet
Kitchen Tip: Your nonstick skillet does NOT have to be expensive. These must be replaced more frequently than just about anything else in your kitchen because the non-stick surface will wear down over time.
If you want other opinions about kitchen essentials, check out this story, where fellow TK staffers weighed in with some tips on choosing pots and pans.