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Cookware: your hardest-working and most-frequently-used kitchen tools

If you're an average 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 oft-used items in your home. The good news is that in the past few years -- even since this report was last updated -- 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'll also want to add other, specialty pieces that aren't typically included, such as a dutch oven or roasting pan, which are covered in their own ConsumerSearch reports. 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, like breakfast for a crowd, and we have a separate report on those as well.

The four 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, which is what we recommend.

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, but a well-seasoned cast iron pan will have a nonstick 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 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. These cookware pieces often get very poor reviews for performance and many of their claims of being healthier options have been debunked.

Instead of worrying, do this: Purchase the best cookware you can afford. Avoid cheap coatings that might decompose, emitting potentially harmful chemicals into the air, or your food. 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 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 Chow.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, Cooking.com, Walmart.com and Macys.com. The result of our research is the best cookware on the market; one of these is sure to make your kitchen chores a bit more fun.

Elsewhere in this report:

Stainless steel cookware
A favorite of professional chefs and home cooks alike, they are top performers.

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.

Buying Guide
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.

Our Sources
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.

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