Ask any chef to name his or her must-have tools and the list may start—and even end—with several good pots and pans and a few sharp knives.

As you gear up for holiday cooking, take stock of your cookware. Are handles broken or missing? You’re playing with fire. Are pans warped? That creates hot spots that burn food. Are some of your pots and pans so old and banged up you'd rather guests not see them on the stovetop?

It's probably time to upgrade your cookware—or to simply supplement what you have on hand.

"More people are buying a piece of cookware at a time instead of buying the whole set," says Marion Wilson-Spencer, a market analyst at Consumer Reports. "It's cheaper, and you wind up buying exactly what you need."

The discounts and rebates available this time of year make it a great time to buy cookware. And great pots and pans may be the perfect gift for anyone on your list who loves to cook.

How to Shop for Cookware

Step 1: Choose Your Pieces
Typically you’ll want several saucepans of various sizes, plus skillets, stockpots, and lids. Skillets have curved sides; sauté pans have high, straight sides and wide bottoms for browning more food at once. Worth noting: Manufacturers count a lid as one of the pieces in a boxed set, and one lid might fit several pots and pans in the set. 

Nonstick cookware is the most popular type, but a cast-iron frying pan comes in handy when browning meat and can withstand oven temperatures well above what's considered safe for nonstick pans.  

Especially this time of year, a Dutch oven is a nice extra that’s ideal for braising meats and cooking stews.

More for Your Kitchen

Step 2: Consider Your Cooktop
Any cookware will do if you cook with gas. Radiant electric smoothtop ranges have ceramic glass cooktops, and flat-bottomed pots and pans are needed because they make better contact with the surface. You can choose from a number of materials, but cast iron isn't recommended because a rough spot can scratch the cooktop.

Electric induction cooktops also have glass cooking surfaces, so you’ll need flat-bottomed cookware, but it has to contain magnetic material. If a magnet sticks to the bottom of your pots and pans, they’ll do. 

Step 3: Handle the Pots and Pans
Shopping online is convenient, no doubt, but it’s important to go to a store to see how cookware feels in your hand. (Or read the return policy to make sure you can return items you buy online.)

If a pot or pan is heavy, imagine how much heavier it will feel when it’s full of food. How do the handles feel? They should be sturdy and easy to grasp.

Consumer Reports' 2017 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. And be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide.

Lab Tested for Your Kitchen

Our lab kitchen heats up when our experts put nonstick and uncoated cookware to the test. We evaluate cooking evenness and how well nonstick surfaces release fried eggs when the pan is new and then again when scratched.

Nonstick cookware remains the big seller—and plenty of us have scraped these pans with metal utensils. That's why we test nonstick durability with a machine that rubs steel wool over the nonstick coating until it has worn through or for up to 2,000 strokes, whichever comes first. 

We also time how quickly a pot takes to bring 4 quarts of water to a near-boil. Testers measure how hot the handle gets during heating and use an instrument to access its sturdiness. A big part of nonstick's appeal is easy cleanup, so we note how difficult it is to wash away a sticky bechamel sauce. 

You'll see over two dozen brands in our cookware ratings. We buy and test brands that you're familiar with, such as All-Clad, Calphalon, Circulon, Cuisinart, Faberware, KitchenAid, Lodge, and T-Fal. Rachael Ray and Pioneer Woman—as seen on TV—are there, too, along with Copper Chef and Red Copper. Going green? Then check out GreenPan and Orgreenic, among others.

We shop where you shop, which is why we've tested cookware that's only sold at Costco, JCPenney, Macy's, Sam's Club, Target, or Walmart. For a serious swipe of the credit card, take a look at Le Creuset, Scanpan, and Swiss Diamond. You may think of knives when you hear the name Zwilling J.A. Henckels, but the brand's frying pan is new to our ratings and made an excellent first impression.

Best Pots and Pans from CR's Tests

Nonstick Frying Pans 

Nonstick Cookware Sets

More Choices Ahead
See our cookware ratings for more options, including uncoated cookware. And check our cookware buying guide, which highlights the pros and cons of different cookware materials.