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Martha Stewart: Stock your kitchen with essential pots, pans

Thick, heavy ones are the most durable and distribute heat evenly

By choosing individual pots and pans rather than purchasing them in a matching set, you will be able to select the sizes and materials that best suit your needs.
By choosing individual pots and pans rather than purchasing them in a matching set, you will be able to select the sizes and materials that best suit your needs.
Jay Zuckerkorn

Dear Martha: What are the most important pots and pans to have?

Answer: The essential pieces for any home cook are a 10-inch skillet, saucepans in 2- and 4-quart sizes and a large stockpot (about 8 quarts). You might also invest in a saute pan with a lid for braising meat; a Dutch oven for slow-cooking pot roast, lamb or the like; and a roasting pan for red meats and other large items, such as turkeys.

Consider purchasing individual pots and pans rather than a matching set. This way, you can select the materials and sizes that suit your needs. In general, thick, heavy pots are the most durable and distribute heat the best. When it comes to materials, choices abound.

Aluminum and stainless steel are good options for everyday cookware. Look for aluminum that has been anodized, or treated to make it harder, as well as stick-resistant and nonreactive. The latter means you can use it with acidic ingredients, such as wine, vinegar or tomato sauce, which take on a metallic taste when cooked in untreated aluminum. Stainless steel is the only metal that is dishwasher-safe. Choose pots that have an aluminum core, as these will heat more uniformly.

Cast iron retains heat well and is ideal for searing but should not be used with acidic foods, which can acquire a metallic flavor. It also must be properly seasoned with oil to prevent rusting and to create a nonstick finish. Cast iron coated with enamel offers the benefits of untreated cast iron but does not need to be seasoned and can be used to cook all foods. However, enamel is prone to chipping and is not nonstick like regular cast iron.

Copper pots, which are lined with stainless steel or tin, heat and cool very quickly, making them a good match for delicate sauces. They must be polished frequently to maintain their shine.

Dear Martha: How do you keep raccoons and skunks off your property?

Answer: Raccoons and skunks have adapted to suburban life and love to feast on food scraps in garbage cans and compost heaps as well as on pet food and vegetables in gardens. The best way to keep the animals away is to make the items that attract them off-limits.

Store trash cans in a closed garage or secure the lids with bungee cords. Keep compost in an enclosed bin. And feed cats and dogs indoors, away from pet doors, so raccoons and skunks aren't tempted to follow the food scent inside. (If pests start using a pet door, consider switching to an electronic door that opens only when it receives a signal from a transmitter on your pet's collar.)

The type of skunks that are likely to pillage a vegetable garden dig but don't climb. To discourage them, employ a low fence that has a barrier, says Russell Link, an urban wildlife biologist and the author of "Living With Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest" (University of Washington Press; 2004). Create the barrier by placing lengths of 2-foot-wide galvanized hardware cloth from a hardware store on the ground in front of the fence.

Raccoons are expert climbers. To keep them out of fenced gardens, Link suggests backing up fencing with two strands of electrified wire, 12 and 18 inches from the ground. Make sure the openings in your fence are no more than 3 inches wide. Otherwise, young raccoons may be able to squeeze through.

If raccoons and skunks persist, or if you often see the nocturnal creatures out during the day or acting erratically (signs they may be diseased), contact a wildlife trapper.

Dear Martha: What's the best way to remove labels from jelly jars?

Answer: There are several ways to go about it. The one you choose may simply depend on what you have on hand.

Begin by soaking the jars in warm, soapy water, then try peeling off the labels. If adhesive remains, apply a commercial adhesive-removing solvent (available at hardware stores), following the manufacturer's instructions. Acetone nail polish remover, turpentine and cooking oil — such as olive or vegetable — will also remove adhesive: Dab the residue with a cotton ball dampened with any of these. Use a razor blade to scrape off any adhesive that doesn't dissolve.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036. Questions may also be sent by electronic mail to Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit

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