Kitchen Cookware
Buying Guide

Photo of a full set of clean kitchen cookware.
Kitchen Cookware Buying Guide

Getting Started

The spate of cooking shows on TV or a recent kitchen remodel might tempt you to replace your tired pots and pans. But don't think the most expensive cookware sets are always the best. And despite some famous names, the chef-endorsed sets weren't that impressive in our cookware tests.

To find the best cookware for your needs, first do an inventory of your present pots and pans to determine what you're missing. Individual pieces—or "open stock"—are usually available and, if you only need to replace a scratched frying pan, it might be the way to go. Think, too, about what you like to cook, which will affect your choice of materials. If you fry a lot of meat, for example, you'll probably veer toward at least one uncoated pan.


What We Found

Consider Your Cooktop
Flat-bottomed pans are essential for a smoothtop range. (Nearly every set out there is flat-bottomed, but double-check with a straight edge.) If you have an induction cooktop, magnetic stainless steel is your best bet (bring along a magnet: If it sticks to the bottom, it'll work with an induction cooktop).

Choose Your Pieces
You'll want an assortment of skillets and pots, a stockpot, and lids. Manufacturers count a lid as a piece, and it might fit more than one piece of cookware in the set. Don't overbuy. A set that contains more pieces might not be the smartest choice if you use only a few and the rest take up space in your cabinet. And note that utensils and even a cookbook can count as pieces of a set.

Pick It up
You might be tempted to buy online, but it's essential to handle the cookware at a retailer. See how it feels in your hand. If it's heavy, think how much heavier it will feel when it's full of food. Is the handle easy to grasp, and is the pot or pan well-balanced overall? Check that handle attachments are tight and sturdy. Read the packaging to see if the cookware can be cleaned in a dishwasher.

Learn the Lingo
You'll see pre-seasoned on labels of cast iron cookware. It usually means a wax-based coating has been applied to prevent rust while the pans are in the warehouse or on store shelves, according to the Cookware Manufacturers Association, a trade group. But some pans may actually be pre-seasoned so they can be used right away. If not, look for the manufacturer's instructions.

Hard-coat anodized is a fancy way of saying the soft surface of nearly pure aluminum has been changed to a hard surface. It has nothing to do with the nonstick coating. And all the chatter about clad—ultra typically means the pot is made of separate pieces of metal that were fused together. So while the outer and inner sides of the pan are stainless, the inside layer is aluminum or copper, or another material more conductive or magnetic. Clad can also mean a material was added to the bottom of a stainless-steel pan, enhancing heat transfer.

If the box says the cookware is oven safe, be sure to check the handles. Metal, not plastic, are the only truly safe handles for oven use. Silicone handles are usually safe up to a certain temperature, so check the manufacturer's instructions.


Cookware Types

Most cookware sets are made of either nonstick or uncoated materials, and the main product types (material products are made of) are aluminum and stainless steel. Some types of cookware are also made of cast iron and copper.

Nonstick Pans
These are best for simple cleanup. They need less oil for cooking, which eliminates some fat from your diet. But they're more easily scratched than uncoated cookware, so avoid using metal utensils. Also, food doesn't brown as well in a nonstick pan.

This is your best choice if you do a lot of browning and braising. But this type of cookware is much tougher to clean. If you choose uncoated, you might still want a nonstick pan or two, and vice versa.

Cast Iron
This is probably impractical for everyday cooking, but you might want a piece or two, such as a Dutch oven, which keeps food warm for a long time. But frying pans that we tested in this material cooked very unevenly Cast iron can have a nonstick cooking surface or be uncoated, which takes extra elbow grease to clean.


Cookware Features

Will a $500 set of cookware make your meals twice as tasty as a $250 set? Not according to our tests of nonstick and uncoated cookware. But there are some cookware features you should consider.

Glass Lids
These let you see what's going on inside the pot without having to lift it off letting steam escape. But they add weight and can break, which could be a problem in a household with young kids.

Infused materials
Calphalon cookware uses infused anodized aluminum, in which the cookware's nonstick treatment "penetrates below the surface, into the pores" of the metal, according to the packaging. When we intentionally abraded the product's nonstick surfaces to simulate years of wear, the Calphalon held up quite well, but so did five other brands without the infusion technology.

Handles are typically made from tubular stainless steel, cast stainless steel, heat-resistant plastic, or silicone. Metal handles enable you to go from stovetop to oven, so you have one less pan to clean. Solid metal handles are unwieldy but sturdy. Solid or hollow metal handles can get hot but can go from stovetop to broiler without damage. (Check the label first; some can warp or discolor when used that way.) Lightweight plastic handles won't get as hot as metal ones, but can't go in ovens above 350 degrees F and they occasionally break. Silicone handles stay cool, are dishwasher safe, and can go in the oven up to a certain temperature so check the manual. Handles are either welded, screwed, or riveted onto cookware. Riveted handles are the strongest.

If you're the absent-minded type who leaves pots on the stove and then forgets about them, you might be interested in the results of our test in which we left an empty pot on the burner. In less than a half-hour, stainless-steel pots discolored.

Celebrity Endorsement
The imprimatur of a celebrity chef is no guarantee of superior performance. In fact, our latest tests founds they most were merely so-so.


Cookware Brands That Matter

The cookware industry consists mostly of large corporations that manufacture several brands. For example, the Meyer Corporation manufactures Anolon, Circulon, Farberware, and Rachael Ray brands. The industry has seen several consolidations in the recent past as the Global Home Product brands Mirro, Regal, and Wearever became part of Groupe SEB, which also includes All-Clad and T-Fal. Use these profiles to compare cookware by brand. 

All-Clad Is among the highest-priced brands. All-Clad produces mainly stainless steel and copper core products. These products are distributed mainly in upscale department and specialty stores. There is also a line that is endorsed by the chef Emeril Lagasse called Emerilware.
Anolon and Circulon brands are manufactured by Meyer Corporation and both feature nonstick products. Many Circulon products are nonstick on the inside and outside of the products. Both brands are upper midpriced, and offer a half dozen or so lines each. Products are available at department stores, specialty stores, mass market, and wholesale clubs.
A mid-to-high-end brand that is available in various materials-anodized aluminum, nonstick and uncoated, and stainless steel. It's sold in almost all department stores, specialty stores, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, and numerous online retailers.
Anolon and Circulon brands are manufactured by Meyer Corporation and both feature nonstick products. Most Circulon products are nonstick on the inside and outside of the products. Both brands are upper midpriced, and offer a half dozen or so lines each. Products are available at department stores, specialty stores, Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Sears.
Cuisinart is a high to midpriced brand that offers products in stainless steel, hard anodized, and multiclad materials, nonstick and uncoated. Cuisinart's Green Gourmet Cookware line uses ceramic rather than petroleum-based (claimed PTFE and PFOA free) surfaces. The products are sold in Bloomingdale's, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Macy's, specialty stores, and numerous online retailers.
Another Meyer Corporation brand that is aimed at the mid-to-lower-priced market. The brand offers products in uncoated and nonstick stainless steel and aluminum. Products are available at department stores, specialty stores, Target, Kmart, Meijer, Walmart, and numerous online retailers.
A relatively new cookware brand in the midpriced sector. Available in various materials—anodized aluminum, nonstick, and uncoated, and stainless steel as well as cast iron. It's sold in Walmart, department stores, specialty stores, Bed, Bath Beyond, and numerous online retailers.
A low-end brand, Wearever sells products in nonstick aluminum and uncoated stainless steel categories. Products are sold through a retailers such as Sears, Target, and Walmart.