Best cookware: a chef prepares chicken thighs in a stainless steel skilletStainless steel is extremely durable, nonreactive, and easy to care for.

  • Choose from open stock and assemble your own kitchen cookware set.
  • Kitchen cookware sets are not always a good deal.
  • Stainless steel cookware is the best choice.

Be careful about shelling out big bucks for top-shelf cookware sets. You’ll tie up a lot of money in pots and pans that do nothing but sit and collect dust on that top shelf. Besides, that 10-piece cookware set is probably only 5 pots and pans — plus their respective lids. Make sure the set you plan to buy really has what you need.

A cookware set isn’t necessarily the wrong way to go about stocking your kitchen, but even with the best cookware sets, you could end up with items you don’t need, and you’ll still be without a few pieces you do need. Add up the cost of what you won’t use and what you’ll still have to buy, and you’ll discover that there’s no savings in a set.

There are plenty of cookware brands vying for your attention and money. The most popular brands are actually part of large corporations. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means the competition may not range as much as you think. Meyer, for example owns and manufactures, Anolon, Circulon, Faberware, and Rachael Ray brand cookware. Meanwhile, All-Clad and T-Fal recently joined Mirro, Regal, and WearEver to become part of a cookware company known as Groupe SEB.

It’s better to buy just the pots and pans you will use repeatedly. You might find a cookware set that hits the spot. Otherwise, focus on quality pieces that make sense for the kind of cooking you do. Consider buying open stock cookware in lieu of or in addition to a cookware set. This approach gives you the opportunity to make individual selections. It also means you can take advantage of the right type of cookware material that rewards you with the best results. Here’s what you need to know to decide what to buy.

What to Look for When Buying Cookware

There are a number of things that contribute to the quality and the price of cookware. Here’s what to factor into your consideration.

Heat Conductivity

Certain metals used in making cookware conduct heat better than others. The heat from your stove or oven has to pass through a pot or pan to cook the food. Some metals, such as copper are very efficient at passing through — or conducting — heat. Copper cookware is a popular choice by professional chefs who need a pot or pan to quickly change temperature. Professional chefs are also paid well for their expertise, so they can afford to pay the premium prices for this type of cookware.

Durability

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your cookware to maintain its dashing good looks, especially if you proudly display them out in the open on a hanging rack. If you want cookware constructed for longevity, stainless steel is a good choice.

Maintenance

Copper and cast iron are popular choices for cookware, but both need regular maintenance. Copper needs frequent polishing, and cast iron must be carefully cleaned and regularly seasoned. Factor in this extra time for upkeep. The durability of stainless steel cookware makes it a better choice.

Reactivity

Cookware metals can react with certain foods. The most common example is the reaction between aluminum cookware and acidic ingredients like tomatoes, vinegar, or citrus. There are no health concerns, but when you prepare these types of foods in aluminum cookware, it can alter the flavor and appearance of food. Avoid the concern by choosing a nonreactive material such as stainless steel, for your cookware.

Cookware Types

Best cookware: pasta going into a stainless steel stockpotPasta needs the ample room of a stock pot for cooking.

The hat makes the man, and the metal makes the pan. A copper pan will perform differently than an aluminum one when you’re poaching eggs and trying to reach that not-quite-boiling water temperature. Here’s what you need to know about the most common types of metals found in cookware.

Aluminum

Aluminum cookware is lightweight and usually reasonably priced. It’s an efficient heat conductor, but it can discolor light foods and impart a bitter taste to acidic dishes.

Most cookware made of this metal is made of anodized aluminum. Anodization is a process that creates a tough, nonreactive coating of oxide on aluminum’s surface. This helps prevent changes in flavor and appearance. Because aluminum is lightweight, it can dent and scratch easily.

Copper

Copper cookware is known for its beauty and quick, even cooking. You’ll have excellent heat control, so you can do a high-heat sear and rapidly drop to a gentle simmer. Heavy-gauge copper cookware is also expensive. Some home cooks prefer copper cookware because of the attractive stove-to-table presentation.

Like aluminum, copper dents easily. It also will take on a dull patina that requires removal with a special cleaner. Copper is a reactive metal, so copper cookware is usually lined with a nonreactive metal such as stainless steel or even tin. Copper cookware will not work with an induction cooktop, and it is not dishwasher safe.

Cast Iron

This cookware is durable and heavy. The heft alone lets you know it’s up to the task of putting a high-heat sear on a steak, and that it’s got no issue with being put in the oven at a temperature that’s considered unsafe for cookware with nonstick surfaces.

A cast iron skillet harbors no aspirations of attractiveness, but it’s likely to win a longevity contest. This type of cookware is durable and retains heat, but the cooking surface can be difficult to clean and must be regularly seasoned.

Enameled Cast Iron

Add a coating of enamel for a ceramic-like surface and you transform cast iron cookware into a beautiful vessel that can take anything from oven temperatures of 500 degrees to a daylong super-low temperature braise.

This cookware heats slowly but then retains that heat well. It’s one of the few types of cookware that you might consider giving an occasional ride in the dishwasher. The addition of an enamel ceramic coating on top of the already hefty cast iron makes for additional weight. One of the best pieces of enameled cast iron cookware to invest in is a dutch oven.

Nonstick

This refers to the coating on the cookware and not the construction material. You’ll often find nonstick coatings added to aluminum or stainless steel cookware. The substance itself is usually polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, also known by the brand name Teflon.

Every kitchen needs at least one pan with a nonstick coating to cook delicate foods such as eggs or fish. These pans are meant for low heat. The nonstick coating offers a healthier way to prepare food because you need little or no oil or butter. Nonstick cookware won’t last long — just a few years — before scratches in the PTFE surface will prompt you to replace it. There’s no need to opt for an entire nonstick cookware set. One skillet is probably all you need. Make sure to keep metal utensils away from your nonstick pan and stick with hand washing.

Stainless Steel

While copper or enameled cast iron might win a cookware beauty contest, stainless steel would definitely walk away with the congeniality award. This material is the best all-around choice for cookware. A professional chef might prefer a copper pan to get that perfect temperature so a hollandaise sauce doesn’t curdle, but they’ll likely revert back to stainless steel for nearly everything else.

Stainless steel is extremely durable, nonreactive with foods, and easy to care for. It provides uniform, rapid heating and is a good choice for both braising and browning. It can go from the stovetop to the oven — or even the broiler (check the handle material first).

And the Winner is: Stainless Steel (With Some Additions)

Best cookware: a set of stainless steel cookware in a professional kitchenStainless steel cookware keeps its shape and its shine.

The most versatile cookware is made of stainless steel. It offers more flexibility than other materials, allowing you to start on the stovetop, finish in the oven, and serve from it at the table. Plus, it keeps its shape and its shine. But you’ll want to add a nonstick skillet for cooking delicate dishes, as well as a Dutch oven to make easy work of stews and casseroles.

Quality stainless steel cookware optimizes its ability to conduct heat by sandwiching an inner layer of copper or aluminum between the steel. Each layer of metal is known as a ply. Some cookware will only have a copper or aluminum disk at the bottom of the pan. This is not the same thing as “fully clad,” where the copper or aluminum core extends up the sidewalls of the cookware for even and efficient heat distribution.

Your Stainless Steel Best Cookware Essentials

Best cookware: a chopped up eggplant in a stainless steel sauté panUnlike a skillet the higher walls of a sauté pan reduce splatters and allow you to add more food.

Look for stainless steel cookware sets that will set you up with these essentials. Then extend your collection by buying from open stock.

Fry Pan or Skillet

If the chef’s knife is the workhorse of kitchen cutlery, a stainless steel skillet is the workhorse of kitchen cookware. It’s versatile and oven safe. This one frying pan can handle a sauté, sear, or a braise. You may find the only time you set it aside is when you grab your handy nonstick coated skillet to fry some eggs for breakfast or make a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.

Sauté Pan

Choose this instead of your skillet when it’s time to steam your broccoli instead frying it. Unlike a skillet the higher walls of a sauté pan reduce splatters and allow you to add more food. Our three-quart sauté pan can cook a meal for four without hogging every burner on the stovetop.

Saucier

It’s better than a saucepan, but you’ll use it the same way. It’s not meant for cooking pasta, but the long handle and capacity make it perfect for boiling potatoes, reheating leftovers, and simmering sauces. A saucier features rounded walls and a wider mouth, making it easier to mash those potatoes or whisk your sauce without anything getting stuck in the crease.

Stock Pot

You might be tempted, but don’t use your saucier or saucepan to cook pasta. You need a lot of water, which calls for a stock pot. Go for at least an 8-quart stockpot. The extra capacity of this piece of cookware gives it the versatility to simmer a stew or boil corn on the cob. Bump up its usefulness with a steamer insert — some can double as a colander.

Nonstick Skillet

Stainless steel is already awesome and doesn’t need much help to be more so, but the addition of a nonstick coating pushes things over the top. Even professional chefs turn to nonstick skillets for delicate creations like pancakes, eggs, or flaky white fish fillets that don’t appreciate being tousled and prodded to get them out of the pan.

Building Blocks

It’s not necessary to acquire an armada of pots and pans that vary in size. And your kitchen probably doesn’t need every capacity. You likely won’t use a 1-quart, 2-quart, and 3-quart sauce pan. You’ll just need one.

Build your kitchen collection with the pots and pans you’ll actually use every day. A stainless steel skillet (plus a nonstick one), a sauté pan, a saucier, and a stockpot are the essential cookware pieces you need. Throw in a cast iron pan for stews and casseroles, and you’ll be cooking with gas (or electric or induction)!