What the best cookware has
- A useful assortment of pieces According to experts, the most-used cookware pieces in the kitchen are 10- and 12-inch skillets, 2- and 4-quart saucepans, a Dutch oven and a stockpot. Most cookware sets come with an 8-inch skillet and no Dutch oven. However, 8-inch skillets are great for smaller families and for singles, and a 12-inch skillet can easily be added to your set (we review 12-inch skillets in their own report). Still, be sure you understand what you're getting in each set.
- Good cooking performance. Pots and pans should heat evenly and consistently so there are no hot spots where sauces scorch, or cool spots on skillets where parts of food end up less cooked. Also, the entire pan should heat up, not just the part that touches the burner.
- For nonstick cookware, a surface that is truly nonstick. In professional tests, some pans did an excellent job of releasing food cleanly, while others were just so-so. Some ceramic and stainless pans claim to be nonstick, but we found little evidence to back up those claims. Stick with known names for the best results.
- Comfortable weight and balance. Pots should be heavy enough to hold heat and to keep from warping or denting. When you pick them up by the handle, they should not feel like they pull overly to one side or another and they should sit flat and firm on the burner.
- Well-designed handles. They should be sturdy and comfortable to grip. If you want your pan to go from stovetop to oven, look for steel handles. If that's not important, rubber or silicone handles tend to be very comfortable to use and grip. Stay cool handles are nice for the stovetop.
- Durable construction. This means thick bottoms, securely attached handles, fully clad construction for stainless cookware (meaning the aluminum core extends up the sides of the pan) and a durable nonstick surface for nonstick cookware.
- Versatility. Nonstick cookware is the least versatile choice as it can only be used on the stovetop and sometimes in the oven at lower heats -- it's usually not recommended for use under the broiler. Stainless steel works on the stovetop, in the oven, and sometimes on a grill or smoker. Cast iron can be used in all of the above, and over an open campfire.
Know before you go
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. Cast iron is superior for baking and extended braising. If you need to a lot of different kinds of cooking, plan to buy extra pieces to supplement your cookware set.
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. Most cookware sets are available in a variety of assortments, from eight-piece sets to 12- or 14-piece sets. Also, be warned that manufacturers count every single piece in a set as a piece, even lids, so you may be buying an eight-piece set that includes only four pots or pans and four lids. Be sure you fully understand what's included.
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, cast iron, 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.) We discuss this topic further in the introduction to this report.
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 and help them last longer. If you plan to use a dishwasher anyway, read the fine print carefully to make sure your cookware can be safely cleaned this way. Be aware that, regardless of claims, dishwasher use can shorten the life of non-stick cookware.