Great cookware makes cooking easier and more enjoyable—and sometimes makes food taste better, too. Five crucial cookware pieces, starting with the most ­important…

Six- or seven-quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven is what professional chefs call the one piece of cookware that they can’t live without. It’s versatile—use it to cook soups and stews, deep-fry, bake bread, boil pasta and much more. Cast iron holds and distributes heat very well, and an enameled surface makes it easy to care for. A round Dutch oven will heat more evenly on a burner than an oval one. Best overall:* Le Creuset 7¼-Quart Round Dutch Oven,
recently $320 online. Best lower cost: Cuisinart 7-Quart Round Covered Casserole, $130.

12-inch stainless steel skillet is ideal for searing, sautéing, browning, pan-frying and simmering. Choose one that features the excellent heat distribution of aluminum bonded between layers of durable, easy-to-care-for stainless steel. Best overall: All-Clad D3 Stainless 12-inch Fry Pan with Lid, $220. Best lower cost: Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad 12-inch Fry Pan, $53.

Four-quart three-ply bonded aluminum/stainless steel saucepan is appropriate for cooking soups, sauces, pasta and much more. And it’s less likely to boil over than a small one. As above, pick one that has a layer of aluminum sandwiched between layers of stainless steel. Also, favor straight, vertical sides—food is less likely to overheat or burn than with angled or curved ones. Best overall: All-Clad ­Stainless 4-Quart Sauce Pan, $245. Best lower cost: Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad 4-Quart Covered Sauce Pan, $63. 

12-inch cast iron skillet is great for searing and frying, and it can be safely used on a range, in an oven or even over a campfire. Cast iron holds heat wonderfully, lasts for generations and brings rich flavor to food. Best: Lodge 12-inch Cast Iron Skillet, $32. Best lower weight: Matfer Bourgeat 117⁄8-inch Black Steel Fry Pan. Cast iron is very heavy. This carbon steel pan offers very similar cooking characteristics but is much lighter. $66.

12-inch nonstick skillet is great for delicate items such as fish or eggs…and for easy clean-up. Keep in mind, however, that nonstick coatings typically wear off in three to five years. Best: OXO Good Grips Non-Stick Pro 12-inch Open Frypan is free of the potentially dangerous chemical PFOA. $50 with a glass lid and $32 without.

*Product recommendations are based on performance and durability tests conducted by America’s Test Kitchen.