If you already have most of the pots and pans you need, there's no point in buying a whole set just to get the few pieces you're missing. However, if you're stocking a kitchen from scratch, buying your cookware in a set will cost a lot less than purchasing individual pots and pans. You may not get all the pieces you want in a set, and you may be stuck with a few extraneous pieces, but you can still save money by buying a set and adding extra pieces to fill in the gaps. Which pots and pans you need depends on how you cook. Experts say that for the majority of home cooks, the most useful pieces are a 10-inch nonstick skillet, a deep-sided 12-inch skillet or sauté pan, 2-quart and 4-quart covered saucepans, a Dutch oven and a large stockpot.
Most cookware sets fall into one of two categories: traditional (usually stainless steel with an aluminum core) and nonstick. Each has its pros and cons, but professional chefs prefer traditional stainless cookware for most tasks. That's because stainless-steel 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 foods such as eggs are likely to stick without the added fat of oil or butter. Stainless cookware can also scratch or become discolored when heated to temperatures beyond 500 degrees Fahrenheit. More importantly for most, these sets are also an investment: the All-Clad Tri-Ply Stainless 10-piece Cookware Set, which is the top performer in one professional test, sells for $700 at Williams-Sonoma. However, you don't need to spend this kind of money to get decent cooking performance. In fact, the stainless cookware set that got the best recommendations in our sources cost less than $200.
Nonstick cookware, which prevents foods from clinging so you can cook with less fat or oil, is the most popular with home cooks. We found far more user recommendations for nonstick cookware sets than for stainless-steel cookware. However, nonstick coatings are a drawback when you want food to stick -- usually to create the pan crust known as fond that experts say is the key to great flavor in some dishes. Nonstick cookware also isn't as durable as stainless steel. Its coating tends to wear off over time, requiring replacing pans every year or so. However, some brands hold up better than others. The best-performing nonstick cookware costs between $250 and $300 for a 10-piece set, but we also found budget-priced sets that offer decent performance for under $150.
Traditional nonstick coatings, such as Teflon, are made chiefly of a substance called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This chemical -- along with a second chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used in producing Teflon -- is the subject of health and environmental concerns. Though most scientists say nonstick cookware is perfectly safe when used correctly, a growing number of manufacturers are making nonstick cookware with alternative coatings that avoid the use of PFOA and/or PTFE. These alternative coatings are typically silicone- or ceramic-based. The performance of first- generation PTFE-free (aka "green") nonstick cookware has greatly improved in the past year or so. As this video from ConsumerReports.org shows, while the green nonstick pans they tested varied greatly in quality, the best of them actually outperformed traditional Teflon cookware.
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 magazine, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, ConsumerReports.org and The Wall Street Journal. 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, Cooking.com, Walmart.com and Macys.com. The sets with the highest ratings all have positive reviews from at least one professional source and one user-review source.