Here's the Martha Stewart pan I bought today. It's on Amazon also, and Amazon is matching Macy's price. That's handy if you don't live near a Macy's or if you can't get there quickly enough to take advantage of the sale. But just so you know, full price is still a good price for this item. You'll use it FOREVER.
Here's the Amazon link for the Cuisinart pan. This is the one that CAN be put in the oven up to 500 degrees F, lid and all. If you have to choose between the Martha Stewart pan and this pan, pick this one.
But THIS is the pan I use constantly.
It's a Tools of the Trade 12" sauté pan. I've only ever seen it at Macy's, and I got it seven or eight years ago for $10. They have stacks of them at every Macy's I've ever been to. I use mine DAILY. It is the world's best pan for bacon, it has enough room for asparagus, it can pan-cook a whole cut-up chicken, and it gives sautéing mushrooms plenty of room to brown. This is the pan that I always have to wash because I used it cooking my last meal, and it's still dirty. I LOVE this pan. It's one of two pans that made the cross-country move to California. It's on special this weekend at Macy's for $14.99. :D
Note the blackening on the bottom: that's a good seasoning coat built up from years of use. You can see that blackening inside the pan also, in the scratches in the corners of the pan. This is good. Seasoning from built-up coats of carbonized cooking oils creates a non-stick surface which is natural and safe. Basically, nothing will stick in the edges of this pan. If I wanted to, I could season this whole pan and make the whole thing non-stick. I still might. But that's another post.
So all of these pans have one thing in common: they're shiny stainless steel. Why stainless steel? Well, there are apparently lots of possible ways for non-stick coatings to poison us. Since manufacturers are under no obligation to label a manufactured item with potentially nasty chemical coatings or additives, you just don't know what's in the non-stick surface, or if it's truly safe to use with food. The other, more important thing is that non-stick coatings are NOT designed for high-heat cooking. The compounds in the coating are known to break down above 500 degrees F, and that temperature can come and go in a real hurry. I didn't know that before, so these new pots are for me to replace my lovely Calphalon dutch oven for higher-heat uses. I'm going with the better safe than sorry route, personally, but here's a nice article that talks about cookware materials. It's your choice, but there are green and safer non-stick surfaces available. Anodized aluminum is the best choice for non-stick, but it is pricier. For the most part, I'll stick to stainless steel and cast iron, but you don't have to.
Basically, stainless steel pans with heavy bottoms cook more evenly than cheapo pans. They're easy to clean up. They're pretty. They can be affordable. Many professionals choose stainless. For these reasons, I'm sticking with stainless when I'm not using cast iron.
It's beginning to look like cast iron needs its own post.
Another thing: notice the all-metal construction? That means they can go from stovetop to oven. This is a very useful feature. You may not realize it now, but you'll need that feature someday, at least on one pan. Trust me.
To summarize, if you have $35-$40, you can get the Cuisinart pan and the Tools of the Trade big sauté pan. You'll be able to make most everything you need with these two pans. They'll serve you well for many years. They're easy to clean, they can be on the stovetop or the oven, and you'll love them. You'll see them in many upcoming posts.
Check back for posts on cast iron, utensils, and updates on good places to purchase cookware, not to mention recipes and cooking tips on tasty, inexpensive food.
Until then, sayonara!