Cookware: your hardest-working and most-frequently-used kitchen tools
If yours is a typical family, you likely cook something at least once a day, using at least one pot or pan. Most people probably cook even more often or use multiple pans to prepare a meal. This makes cookware among the most often-used items in your home. The good news is that in the past few years manufacturers have started making high-quality cookware sets without the high-end prices you used to have to pay. Of course, there's still pricey options like All-Clad, but there are also plenty of choices that give All-Clad cookware a run for its (or your) money.
Buying a set of cookware costs less than buying individual pieces. Cookware sets are great for initially equipping a kitchen, or to replace a set that's outlived its useful life. If you do buy a set, you'll most likely use some items in your collection more than others; you also might want to add other, specialty pieces that aren't typically included, such as a Dutch oven or roasting pan. Many people also like to purchase an additional, 12-inch skillet since they are so versatile and can be used as everyday pans for one-pot dishes, or just for preparing larger batches of food; we cover 12-inch skillets in a separate report.
The three most popular types of cookware
Stainless steel cookware is what most professional chefs use, and it's a popular option for the home cook as well. Stainless cookware wrapped around an aluminum core (or "clad") heats evenly and does a superior job of browning food. On the downside, it can be more difficult to clean, and you'll need to use more oil or fat to keep some foods from sticking. It also has a bit of a learning curve, but avid cooks say once you get it, you'll never go back. Stainless cookware can also scratch or become discolored when heated to temperatures beyond 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nonstick cookware, which prevents foods from clinging so you can cook with less fat or oil, is the most popular with home cooks. It saves on clean up time and, if you're watching your fat intake, can cook almost any food without a lot of fat, and without sticking to the pan. Nonstick cookware ranges from extremely cheap, thin metals with an obvious coating to higher-quality, more expensive types like anodized aluminum.
Cast iron cookware is the most versatile cookware out there as it can go from stovetop to oven, to grill, to smoker, to campfire. We would venture to guess that nearly every kitchen has at least one cast iron piece for baking cornbread or stovetop grilling. If you don't, you should. Cast iron needs to be seasoned and you should go very light on the soap (hint: you don't need to use soap at all), but a well-seasoned cast iron pan will have a naturally stick-resistant surface and can last forever. The drawbacks to cast iron are that it can be very heavy, and, while it holds heat well, it does not heat as quickly as some other types of pans. You also have to allow plenty of cool-down time.
Cookware for induction/glass cooktops. This is not a type of cookware, per se, but as manufacturers of electric stoves move away from coil technology and into smooth cooktops, it's important to be sure you choose cookware that works with your cooktop. For example, induction cooktops will only work with cookware that has a layer on the bottom with induction properties. Stainless steel and cast iron work with induction cooktops, copper and glass will not. Some aluminum pans will work if they have a magnetic layer -- the best way to tell if a pot or pan is induction compatible is to see if a magnet will stick to the bottom. If it does, it will work with an induction stove. Smooth glass cooktops are not always induction cooktops and will work with any type of cookware, but you need to be a bit more careful when using heavy pans, like cast iron, as they may damage the glass cooktop if you scrape the hot pan across the cooktop.
Cookware safety and health issues
In recent years there has been a lot of focus on the possible harmful effects of cookware, particularly those with nonstick coatings. We are not going to dive into this contentious debate because our research has found that there are people worried about every single type of cookware out there -- not just nonstick. Short of cooking over a fire with a stick (which has its own safety issues), there's no way to completely avoid your food touching something that has been manufactured.
One big problem with some of the hype surrounding the safety, or perceived lack thereof, of all these types of cookware is that some "experts" are using questionable science as a platform to sell their own "safer" products. We find that to be a particularly ubiquitous issue with ceramic pans; we do not recommend any ceramic cookware in this report because they get dismal feedback in user reviews and in unbiased professional tests. The same holds true for so-called "green" or "healthy" cookware pieces as they often get very poor reviews for performance and many of their claims of being healthier options have been debunked, or simply have not been proved satisfactorily.
Instead of worrying, do this: Purchase the best cookware you can afford. Avoid cheap coatings that might decompose, emitting potentially harmful chemicals into your food or the air. Use the right cookware for the right task. Do not cook at super high heats; there is no reason to do so unless you're making a stir fry, in which case we recommend a wok. Do not put your pots and pans in the dishwasher. If your nonstick cookware is scratched or damaged, replace it. It's as simple as that.
How we found the top cookware
Some manufactures make dedicated cookware sets and you can find a good number of reviews for them. Others don't make or sell cookware sets, rather, they package individual pieces into sets, then sell those sets exclusively at various retail outlets. This is why you can't always compare set to set, but you can compare how the pieces themselves perform individually, and extrapolate the performance and value of each set from there.
Our top-rated cookware sets are chosen based on cooking performance, ease of use, durability and appearance. To evaluate cookware performance and ease of use, we consulted professional tests conducted by Cook's Illustrated, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, ConsumerReports.org, SweetHome.com and Chowhound.com. Then, to gain insight into long-term durability that can't be measured in a test lab, we analyzed thousands of user reviews from retail sites such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Macys.com. The result of our research is the best cookware on the market; one of these is sure to help you release your inner chef.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best stainless steel cookware | Best nonstick cookware sets | Best cast iron cookware | Buying guide | Our sources