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The five

What are the five key points I need to look at?

Brand names

Avoid deeply discounted Brand X cookware sets and listen for brand recommendations from friends, celebrity chefs or food magazines and choose one that comes up a lot. Having a brand in mind lets you keep an eye on prices and tell a truly good deal from bargain quality store specials.

Price

Unless you’re in the running to be “Top Chef,” plan to spend between $175-300 for good quality starter sets and better quality open stock pieces you can add to as time goes on. Spend too little and you’ll replace your cookware often; spend too much and you may wind up with pieces you don’t use or not being able to take advantage of next year’s cookware innovations.

Materials

Stainless steel with a copper and aluminum core is the choice of today’s professional chefs for its durability, ability to go from stovetop to oven and relatively easy cleaning. It’s a bit pricey, so you purchase the pieces you’ll use most, then consider adding other materials to your collection depending on what you cook, like a non-stick for eggs and pancakes.

Sets vs. open stock

Sets are nice, but limit your options. Purchase open stock pieces in the sizes and shapes you know you’ll use and add to as needed. You’ll get more pan for your money up front and you won’t waste cabinet space on pieces you’ll never use.

Care and maintenance

If you won’t commit to proper care, skip copper and cast iron cookware and invest your dollars in stainless steel or titanium. For any non-stick pieces, purchase a separate set of plastic, wood or silicone utensils that can extend the life of these pieces.

Shop talk

What are the terms and definitions I need to know about?

Anodized

A process used to increase the thickness of certain metals.

Aluminum

A light and inexpensive metal that retains heat well. Will dent or scratch easily because it is a soft metal and is reactive to certain food. For that reason, many manufacturers use the anodizing process.

Cast Iron

Heavy, inexpensive metal that retains heat well. Must be seasoned before use and maintained to avoid rust.

Calphalon

A brand name for a line of cookware featuring an anodized non-stick coating infused with the top layer of metal.

Copper

A heavier, expensive option that heats evenly, but tarnishes easily and is reactive to food, affecting taste and color.

Non-stick

A cookware coating that releases food without use of oil or spray and generally wipes clean.

Stainless steel

An inexpensive cookware made of thin-gauge stainless steel, prone to hot spots and warping over high heat unless the bottom is reinforced with a core of copper or aluminum.

Titanium

Strong but lightweight alternative to stainless steel, notably wear resistant, and corrosion-resistant.

Teflon

Dupont’s trademark for its non-stick polymer coating.

What’s in a brand name?

If you're equipping your kitchen for the first time or need to replace a full set of cookware, you’ll find a number of quality brand name sets to consider for under $300. But with all the cookware available today, which cookware brand do you choose? Your first impulse might be to hit the closest Big Box department store and select the prettiest cookware you can find for under $100, but not so fast. Pinching pennies at the cash register now could cost you later when your favorite sauté pan is dented, scratched or otherwise not holding up. Steer clear of Brand X sets and individual pieces sold at a deep discount. Although they may look good and feature enamel paint that matches your kitchen, there's nothing worse than losing a handle (or two) to faulty construction when you’re moving hot soup from stove to tureen or watching that tiny scratch across the center of your fry pan turn into a wound that can’t heal.

Instead, when you’re shopping for cookware, stick with brand names you know. No matter what material you want your cookware to be made of (see our section on Materials and Surfaces below), you’ll find a brand name that excels in manufacturing the cookware you want. All Clad is hard to beat when it comes to stainless steel consumer cookware, while the colorful Le Creuset line of cast iron puts the fun in function. If you’re interested in purchasing non-stick cookware, WearEver and Calphalon have been in the market a long time, but if you’re a brand loyalist you can find non-stick options from traditional cookware manufacturers like Cuisinart. It’s okay to be brand loyal, but don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit. Above all, you want to purchase the right pieces for the cooking you do that will also stand up to wear and tear.

How much is too much?

If you’re a gourmet or aspire to have high-end, high-performance cookware, these pieces (and sets) come with the price tags to match ($300+). A good rule to follow is to avoid both price range extremes, so even though it's quite possible to invest several thousands in cookware that promises to do the work for you, it may not be the wisest decision. If you’re considering high-end or professional-grade cookware, you need to decide if you’re willing to make a long-term commitment to your cookware. Cookware technology has changed a lot in the last 10 years, bringing all kinds of improvements, from Calphalon to silicone. If you invest heavily now, it may make it harder to upgrade to the next best 21st-century culinary breakthrough that comes along.

Our advice? Most shoppers will find that their needs and budgets are best served by sticking to mid-range priced cookware where the widest array of features is available and available in endless colors, a variety of weights, different metals and a bevy of sizes. Unless you're stocking a professional kitchen, you’ll get exactly what you want and need without breaking the bank or having to replace your cookware in a year.

Materials and Surfaces

Cookware can be fashioned from a variety of metals and choosing one could be overwhelming without taking a moment to understand the pros and cons of the different materials used in cookware manufacturing. We’ve listed the most common cookware materials below but for you, the cook, what you choose will boil down to ease of use, budget, and how much time you want to invest in caring for and maintaining your cookware.

Right out of the gate, nothing compares in beauty or performance to copper, but it requires constant care to avoid tarnishing, is pricey and reacts with acidic foods, transferring off tastes and colors. If you’re attracted to the looks, but you cook with lots of acid you’d do best to pass it by. Aluminum is the lightest and often least expensive cookware option. It offers quick, even heating, but can be reactive with acidic foods. It’s also prone to dings, dents and scratches. Manufacturers have made aluminum more durable through the process of anodizing, which reinforces the metal surface. If physical weight is an issue for you or this is your first set of cookware and you’re not really sure what you want, aluminum is a good place to start, especially if you don’t know how often you’ll use it. If you’re purchasing your first set of cookware but intend to do a lot of cooking, you’re better off investing in non-reactive metals like stainless steel or cast-iron.

Stainless steel is, hands down, the material of choice for most chefs these days, but only when the cookware features bottoms reinforced with copper and aluminum for improved heat conduction. This non-reactive surface is durable, reliable and, depending on the brand, can also withstand oven temperatures ranging as high as 400-550 degrees Fahrenheit—a big plus if you cook a lot of recipes that start on the stovetop and finish in the oven. Cast iron cookware (au natural or with exterior enameling) will always have a special place in the hearts seasoned cooks. Known for its heft, cast iron cookware heats evenly and stays hot, and can't be beat when it comes to browning or searing purposes. It's not for the carefree cook, however. Cast iron cookware needs to be properly “seasoned” prior to use and occasionally over the life of the cookware, which, if you do it right, might see your cast iron cookware outlive you. Lastly, titanium, a newcomer to the cookware market, has lot going for it: it's stronger than stainless, lighter in weight than cast iron and naturally non-stick, but you’ll pay top dollar for this high-performance medium.

Chefs and other culinary experts turn their noses up at non-stick cookware, but non-stick still accounts for a large percentage of cookware sales. Although there are a variety to choose from, remember all non-stick surfaces are not created equal. Some are sprayed on (coated) while others are infused into the metal itself, which affects durability along with what kind of metal the cookware’s made from.

The benefits to non-stick include reducing the amount of fat you need in the cooking process (fat helps food release from the pan). Non-stick cookware is also a breeze when it comes to cleanup (never put it in the dishwasher though). The downside to non-stick cookware is it’s not immune to damage from spatulas or other cooking utensils and one scratch on a non-stick surface eventually results in slow but certain death to your non-stick surface. For searing and browning, stick to traditional surfaces and save the non-stick for omelets, pancakes and other sticky dishes.

Sets vs. open stock

Watch an episode of Iron Chef if you want to know the secret of stocking the world's most competitive kitchen. You’ll see pots and pans in every shape, size and material to match any task the chefs are given. Before you go and invest in a 15-piece set, consider purchasing a strategic selection of open stock pieces. If you purchase your cookware from open stock, you’ll retain the flexibility to add to your collection and you won't have obsolete pieces collecting dust in your cabinet. Garanimal logic works fine when it comes to outfitting your toddler in a matching ensemble, but in the kitchen you should feel free to mix it up with non-stick surfaces for skillets, stainless steel for all-purpose pans, then saucing up your kitchen arsenal with a reinforced copper pot or two and, finally, investing in a top-shelf ceramic-glazed cast iron fry pan as your pièce de résistance. In other words: if cooking is your passion, invest in the pots and pans for the jobs you do all the time.

If you decide that buying a multi-piece set is the right decision for you, you’ll still want to consider how much bang you’re getting for your buck or whether you’re just getting a lot of cookware distractions. Factors to consider when you’re looking at cookware sets are how versatile the pieces are. Can your three-quart saucepan moonlight as a double-boiler/deep fryer, for example, or can your saute pan sear a single serving of salmon? Again, think about what you do in the kitchen and what you really need your cookware to do.

Care and maintenance

Copper pots are a sight to behold and for some, a fright to keep looking beautiful. If you’re not willing to spend the time to make them gleam, you won’t be happy with your investment and likely won’t use your cookware as often (the same goes for cast iron if you’re not going to commit to initial and periodic seasoning). Nothing beats a sturdy pan that wipes clean and while stainless sets require a good bit of elbow grease, they don't call them stainless for nothing. A sparkling clean, well-made (and well-scrubbed pan) is reward enough for the effort required to maintain this popular choice in cookware. But care and maintenance isn’t just about washing your cookware after you use it—it’s also about what you use with it, especially if you’ve chosen pieces with non-stick coatings which can last longer with plastic, wood or silicone utensils.

Experts say

  • CookingCache.com - “Consensus is that All-Clad Stainless Cookware is the best high-end cookware. Reviewers point to All-Clad's heavy aluminum core, which extends up the sides of the pan for its great heat conductivity. A good choice for use with gas ranges, since flames often extend up the sides and can burn food.” Source: CookingCache.com
  • Reluctantgourmet.com - “I suggest you acquire the best stainless steel set you can afford plus a few specialty pieces, (non-stick, cast iron, copper, etc.), for unique items best suited to these materials,” – Food writer and chef, Mark R. Vogel. Source: Reluctantgourmet.com
  • Consumeraffairs.com - “When you start out, you should spend no more than $300-$400 for a set of cookware,” says John Kinsella, president of the American Culinary Federation. “And you can get a great set of cookware in that price range.” Source: Consumeraffairs.com

Research Central

We've compiled this group of information links to help you further your research: