For most uses, chefs prefer stainless-steel cookware to nonstick cookware. When stainless steel is wrapped around an aluminum or copper core, it will heat evenly on gas or electric stovetops. Experts also say it does a superior job of browning food -- and the resulting fond (which is French for "base," and refers to the little brown bits that stick to the pan bottom) can be used to create delicious sauces.
Still, stainless does have some drawbacks. Since these cookware sets are not nonstick, cooks have to use more fat or oil to prevent foods from clinging. There is also a learning curve to stainless steel, experts note, but once you have it down it becomes much easier to use. Because food sticks more easily, stainless-steel cookware can be harder to clean. Most experts recommend using either baking soda or Bar Keepers Friend. From personal experience, we can tell you that filling the bottom of the pot or pan with hot, soapy water and then letting it soak for an hour or so makes cleanup easy-peasy. Still, if you prefer the absolute least amount of hassle (and who can blame you?), you'll want to shop for nonstick cookware.
In professional tests of stainless cookware, All-Clad is the absolute top performer. All-Clad does not make cookware sets, per se, but they do sell sets to various retailers under different names and model numbers. The All-Clad 501853 Stainless Steel 10-Piece Cookware Set (Est. $700) is one of the top-rated stainless steel cookware sets on Amazon.com, and, while there are no professional tests of the set, individual pieces made of the same construction are top-ranked in expert reviews and we can extrapolate those results to this set, especially with the high praise it receives from user reviewers.
Owners say these pans aren't just pans -- they're an investment, which makes sense if you do the long-term math. If you figure you'll use them every day for 30 years or more, and then pass them along to your children, you'll more than get your money worth. Avid cooks say these pans make any cooking task easy, with excellent, consistent heating, claims that are bolstered in professional testing. Even those who describe themselves as average cooks say these pans take their cooking up a notch. All-Clad gets particular raves from those with induction ranges. Owners say the long handles on this particular set do not get hot and they are attractive enough to leave out on display. The set includes an 8-inch fry pan, 10-inch fry pan, 2-quart sauce pan with lid, 3-quart sauce pan with lid, 3-quart sauté pan with lid, and an 8-quart stock pot with lid. Experts say these offerings are on the small side for a normal-sized family, but we saw no complaints about the set's contents from users.
In spite of All-Clad's universally glowing reviews, not everyone can afford to spend that kind of money on cookware. The great thing is you can get pretty close to All-Clad quality without paying All-Clad prices.
It's a fraction of the price of All-Clad, but the Tramontina 8-piece 18/10 Stainless Steel TriPly-Clad Cookware Set (Est. $140) does nearly as well as All-Clad in two professional tests. It matches All-Clad in cooking performance, design and construction. Its biggest drawback is that the pans get more complaints about food sticking than with All-Clad, and one professional testing organization gives it poor grades for both performance and ease of cleaning. However, most owners are very, very happy and don't see the sticking issue as a problem. The set is primarily sold at Walmart, and it gets very high ratings in hundreds of user reviews there -- including for ease of cleaning in spite of the professional testers findings. In many of the more negative reviews we saw, it was apparent that the users did not allow for the learning curve that stainless steel requires. Overall, the vast majority of reviewers give the set 5-stars, and 96 percent would recommend it to a friend.
The Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 8-piece Cookware Set (Est. $275) performs comparably to All-Clad and Tramontina in professional tests, but gets slightly better reviews from customers than the Tramontina for ease of use and cleaning. This cookware comes with glass lids, which experts say are less durable than stainless-steel. However, many owners consider glass lids a plus because they can keep an eye on food as it cooks. The Calphalon cookware receives dozens of positive reviews on retail sites. Owners praise the pots' tri-ply construction, even heating and good looks. The very few complaints are of sticking and that the cookware is hard to clean, but most are very pleased
Another option that gets even better ratings in hundreds of owner reviews is the Cuisinart MCP-12N MultiClad Pro Stainless Steel 12-Piece Cookware Set (Est. $235), however we did not find it included in any professional tests. Amazon.com reviewers make it one of the top-rated stainless steel cookware sets on the site, saying it's a great value for a great set of cookware. Most are very pleased with the heavy-duty construction and general ease of use. Like all stainless, it gets its fair share of complaints about food sticking.
So, with the great reviews and great value behind our budget picks, why buy All-Clad? Because it's made in the U.S., so the quality is likely to be high, and U.S.-based customer support is available if you have questions or if something is not up to snuff. Also, professional chefs, expert cookware reviewers and amateur foodies agree that you should always have the best tools you can afford. So, if you can afford All-Clad, you should get it and then pass it along to your children. If not, the Tramontina set just squeaks by the other runners up in professional tests to take our top spot as a great budget choice.
Elsewhere in this report:
The five best cookware sets
The best cookware sets you can buy today as identified in reviews and our editors' analysis.
Nonstick cookware sets
The most popular type of cookware, makes cooking and clean up a breeze.
Cast iron cookware
A perennial favorite and kitchen workhouse, cast iron will last a lifetime.
Don't go shopping for a cookware set without learning what you need to know first. Our Buying Guide explains what to look for the best cookware.
Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top cookware sets, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.