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 -- the resulting fond (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. Additionally, stainless-steel pans are prone to scratches or a discoloration known as rainbowing; many users note that Bar Keepers Friend cleanser or lemon juice can help restore the pots' original shine.
In professional tests of stainless cookware, the absolute top performer is the All-Clad Tri-Ply Stainless 10-piece Cookware Set (*Est. $700). This set earns top marks in tests conducted by a leading cooking magazine where editors rave about the pans' generous size, solid construction and even cooking performance. However, because the set is sold exclusively by Williams-Sonoma, there are very few user reviews to support this professional opinion. The two reviews we found at Williams-Sonoma.com are both lavish in their praise, saying the pans perform beautifully, are exceptionally well made and clean up nicely with the help of Bar Keepers Friend. We also found enthusiastic reviews for a similar 10-piece All-Clad set (which is no longer available) at Macys.com. This set has a 3-quart saucepan in place of the 3-quart casserole, but is otherwise identical. Owners praise its fast, even heating and easy cleanup. Their only quibbles are that the pieces are a bit heavy and the long handles make them hard to maneuver.
This does not mean, however, that you must spend hundreds of dollars for top-quality stainless cookware. A more budget-friendly set -- the Tramontina 8-piece 18/10 Stainless Steel TriPly-Clad Cookware Set (*Est. $130) -- does nearly as well as the All-Clad in the same professional test. Described as "an amazing bargain" by editors, it matches the All-Clad set in cooking performance, design and construction. Its biggest drawback is that the pans are on the small side, making the individual pots less versatile. However, most consumers at Walmart.com (the only retailer selling this cookware set) do not find the smaller pans to be a big drawback. In about 350 reviews, they award this set an overall rating of 4.7 stars out of 5, and 96 percent say they would recommend it. Owners love its even heating, stay-cool handles, attractive looks and low price tag. Their main objections are that food sticks to the pans (a problem with any stainless cookware) and that the skinny handles are awkward to use, especially when pouring.
A third contender in the same cookware test is the Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 8-piece Cookware Set (*Est. $310). This mid-priced cookware set performs comparably to the All-Clad and Tramontina sets. Its 6-quart stockpot is larger than the 5-quart pot provided with the Tramontina set, but still not as roomy as the All-Clad's 8-quart stockpot. This cookware comes with glass lids, which editors say are less durable than the stainless-steel lids of its competitors. However, many users consider glass lids a plus because they can keep an eye on food as it cooks. The Calphalon cookware receives just a handful of Amazon.com user reviews, but they are uniformly positive. Owners praise the pots' tri-ply construction, even heating and "strikingly beautiful" looks.