What foods will you cook most? Stainless-steel pans (with an aluminum or copper core) are ideal for browning and braising. However, nonstick pans are better for low-fat cooking, since they allow you to cook foods such as eggs without oil. If you need to do both kinds of cooking, you may want to choose a set with both stainless and nonstick pans -- or buy extra pieces to supplement your cookware set. Also, if you frequently use your cookware in the oven -- for example, to brown a frittata -- you'll need to check its oven-safe temperature.
How many are you cooking for? If you have a large family or regularly cook for guests, you'll need bigger pots. By contrast, extra-small pans, such as 8-inch skillets, are really only useful when cooking for one.
What kind of cooktop do you have? For a smoothtop electric range, flat-bottomed pans are a must. If you use an induction cooktop, you'll need cookware made of stainless steel or another magnetic material. (If you're not sure about a pan's construction, you can test it by sticking a magnet to the bottom.)
How much time are you willing to spend on cleanup? Nonstick pans are generally easier to clean than stainless steel. Some cookware is labeled as dishwasher-safe, but experts say hand washing will keep your pans in better shape. If you plan to use a dishwasher anyway, read the fine print carefully to make sure your cookware can be safely cleaned this way.
Are you worried about the chemicals in Teflon? Newer nonstick finishes are available that do not contain PTFE, the major chemical component of Teflon. Although PTFE is normally inert, when heated to very high temperatures (at least 500 degrees Fahrenheit), it can produce fumes that are deadly to birds and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. Although testers at ConsumerReports.org did not find the emissions from Teflon pans strong enough to cause concern, some consumers still prefer to avoid this chemical. Alternative nonstick finishes, such as ceramic and silicon, are often labeled as eco-friendly.