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How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

By trk

Last Updated: December 22, 2023

buying guide, cast iron, clad stainless, cookware, nonstick

We discuss the many aspects of how to choose cookware that's right for you, including budget, health and safety, cooking style, the best sizes to get, sets vs. open stock, where to get the best deals, and more. 

By the end of this article, you will have a good grasp of the cookware market and what cookware will work best in your kitchen.

How to Get the Most Out of this Buying Guide

The first section below has a link to a printable worksheet you can use to help you figure out what you want to buy. It includes considerations like budget, type of stove (most important for induction), cooking style, how much cookware you need, cookware size, cookware type (e.g., stainless, cast iron, nonstick), and extras to consider.

You don't have to print it out and fill it out, but doing so will really help you to clarify your wants and needs. 

But before you do that, read the rest of the article. It will talk you through all the important considerations when buying cookware, including cookware safety, pieces of cookware, different types of cookware, buying sets vs. buying open stock, and how to find the best deals. 

We also look at some cookware to avoid so you can stay away from some of the buying traps that are easy to fall into. 

As you read this, you may want to take notes: There's no way you can remember everything without notes, and when you go shopping, you'll have all the info right there in front of you if you write it down. 

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Printable Cookware Buying Worksheet

Here's a printable worksheet that will help you buy software.

If you don't want to print it, you can just open it and answer the questions--but writing them down will be a huge help. (There's a lot to remember.)

Cookware Buying Worksheet 

Cookware Health and Safety Considerations

Here are some of the health and safety issues to be concerned about when buying cookware. For a deeper look at cookware safety, see our article Safe Cookware: The Definitive Guide to Healthy, Non-Toxic Cookware.

Aluminum cookware: If the cooking surface itself is aluminum, then there are concerns about aluminum leaching into your food. Aluminum intake has been associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's, however, this claim is unsubstantiated. However, aluminum can impart a metallic taste to your food, especially acidic food, which is a good reason to avoid it. 

Most aluminum cookware has a coated cooking surface. If the cooking surface is coated--such as with a nonstick coating--then the health and safety issues for that coating apply. 

Anodized aluminum cookware: Anodized aluminum is much more durable and much more stable than un-anodized aluminum. However, most anodized aluminum cookware has a different cooking surface, usuallt nonstick--so go by what the cooking surface is. (There may be cookware with an anodized aluminum cooking surface, but we haven't found one yet.)

Cast iron cookware: Iron will react with acidic foods causing an off flavor, but it is not considered unsafe unless you have a condition that makes it hard for your body to break it down (hemochromatosis). 

A well-seasoned cast iron pan won't react with foods unless you're using it for long braises or highly acidic foods (like tomatoes).

Carbon steel cookware: Carbon steel is very close to cast iron in composition and has the same issue: acidic foods can cause iron to leach. Thus the same rules apply: good seasoning prevents iron leaching, but long cooks of acidic foods can destroy the seasoning. 

Clad Stainless cookware: Clad stainless cookware is extremely stable and non-reactive, so it's one of the safest cookware choices on the market. However, stainless steel can leach minute amounts of nickel into food, so if you or someone in your family has a nickel sensitivity, you may want to avoid clad stainless cookware.

There are brands that are nickel-free, however, nickel-free stainless isn't as corrosion resistant as other stainless steel so you may be disappointed with its longevity.

Probably the highest-quality option for people who want to avoid nickel is Hestan NanoBond, which has an extremely inert, and thus very safe, cooking surface.

Copper cookware: Copper can also leach into food, but since most copper cookware has a stainless steel or tin cooking surface, you should be more concerned about those. Tin is stable and non-reactive, though it has a low melting point and needs to be re-applied occasionally (which is expensive). Stainless steel is generally a safe and stable cooking surface with no health and safety concerns. See above for more info. 

Enameled cookware: Most enameled cookware has a cast iron base with an enamel cooking surface. Some enamel can contain lead or cadmium (both toxic to humans), so it's important to buy a reputable brand of enameled cookware (such as le Creuset). Also, some colors are more likely to contain toxins than others. 

The thing is, if there are any toxins in the enamel, it's almost always found on the outside. The inside is a different color--either beige or black--and it almost certainly does not contain any toxins. So overall, enameled cast iron is probably very safe, stable, and non-reactive--but it's important that you buy a reputable brand to avoid any possibility of toxins in the enamel.

Nonstick cookware: Both types of nonstick cookware--ceramic and PTFE--contain potentially harmful chemicals. Specifically, PTFE cookware can break down at high heat (above about 400F) and release toxic fumes that can make humans sick and are lethal to birds. Ceramic nonstick cookware contains titanium dioxide nanoparticles which have been associated with cancerous tumors; the jury is still out on this, however, so we can't say for sure that ceramic nonstick cookware is actually unsafe to use. This is a fairly new discovery and there isn't s lot of information to be found about it.

Nonstick cookware has the shortest life span of any other cookware, and while it can often be recycled, it most often ends up in landfills. If you want to be a good steward of the planet, you should figure out how to recycle your old nonstick cookware, or perhaps avoid using it altogether.

Finally, PTFE nonstick cookware has polluted the planet with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals. The label "PFOA-free" sounds like the cookware is safe, but it now uses a similar compound to PFOA. There are few regulations on these chemicals so makers are still polluting water supplies around the world with them (including the USA). It's an unethical industry, and we encourage people to avoid buying PTFE nonstick cookware.

For more information, see our article What Is PFOA? A Guide to Nonstick Cookware Chemicals.

Stone/Glass/Enamel cookware: Here we're talking about 100% pure glass and stone cookware such as Corningware Visions or Xtrema. Though these are technically different substances, they are all inorganic, stone-based materials that are extremely inert (they do not react with food at all). Many health bloggers promote stone/glass/enamel cookware as the safest on the market. However, all of these cookwares may have the same issues as enameled cast iron cookware above--that is, they may contain small amounts of lead or cadmium. However, this is unlikely to be a problem as long as the cookware is manufactured by a reputable maker.

For more information on nonstick and stone/glass/enameled cookware, see our article Stoneware Cookware: What to Know Before You Buy.

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The 5 Basic Pieces of Cookware (That Almost Everyone Needs)

Now things start to get interesting! If you're not sure where to start, here are the 5 basic pieces of cookware that almost every cook needs. Other cooking and kitchen sites have a different list of basics, from as few as 2 to as many as 10.

We think these 5 pieces allow you to cook pretty much everything, even if they aren't perfect for every single task (e.g., you can stir fry in a skillet if you don't want to invest in a wok).

Here are the 5 basic pieces we think every kitchen needs.

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Skillet. You need at least one skillet and ideally two or three in different sizes/materials: For example, you may want a nonstick skillet for eggs, a cast iron skillet for searing and deep frying (and possibly to replace a nonstick skillet for eggs, which we recommend), and a large clad stainless skillet for the vast majority of daily cooking tasks.

If you only have one skillet, it should be large enough to use for anything--we think a 12-inch is the most versatile size, but if you're only cooking for one or two people, you can get by with a 10-inch.

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Sauce Pan. You need at least one sauce pan for boiling pasta, making rice, steaming vegetables, oatmeal, heating food, making small batches of soup or stew, and a thousand other tasks. Along with your skillet, you'll find that your sauce pans are your most used pieces.

Ideally, you should have one large (3 qt or larger) and one small (2 qt or smaller) for large and small needs. You do not need a nonstick sauce pan.

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Dutch Oven. A Dutch oven is for braises, big pots of soup, chili, spaghetti sauce, stew...you will use it frequently in cold months, both on the stovetop and in the oven. It can double as a stock pot if you don't have one, so is an extremely versatile piece of cookware. (Conversely, a stock pot can NOT be used as a Dutch oven, which makes the Dutch oven our choice if you can only have one.)

The best Dutch ovens are enameled cast iron, for reasons we explain in this article. You will often get a Dutch oven (or small stockpot) in a set of clad stainless or nonstick cookware, and while great for many things, you cannot beat enameled cast iron for long oven braises. 

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Roasting Pan. A roasting pan--or other large, deep baking pan--is an essential tool for everyone who isn't a vegetarian. You need a pan to roast large cuts of meat, not to mention the Thanksgiving turkey. You will also use this pan for casseroles, lasagna, and perhaps baking cakes and bars. 

We like clad stainless for its durability and versatility, but since this is an oven pan, its heating properties aren't as crucial as they are for stovetop cookware, so get what you like (you don't need a top-of-the-line roasting pan). 

Avoid nonstick roasting pans. Yes, they're easy to clean, but high oven temps take their toll on the nonstick coating, so they don't last very long.

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Baking Sheets. Baking sheets are cheap and super versatile. You should have a few in half and quarter sizes. From sheet pan meals to catching oven drips underneath a pie to roasting meat in a pinch, you'll be amazed at how often you reach for one. 

***

Note that while skillets and sauce pans are always found in sets, and quite often Dutch ovens, you will never find a set that contains a roasting pan or baking sheets. So you will almost never get everything you need in a set. So plan your budget accordingly. (More on sets vs. open stock below.)

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A Few Specialty Pieces (That You Might Need)

Other pieces that are handy (depending on what you like to cook) include:

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Sauciér: A sauciér is a curve-sided sauce pan. Sauce pans and sauciérs are considered interchangeable for most uses, however, a sauciér is specifically designed for whisking and faster evaporation, while a sauce pan is designed more for cooking liquids in general. See our article about choosing sauce pans for more information. 

If you are a serious sauce maker, a sauciér is a necessity. If not, then you can choose a sauce pan or a sauciér. 

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Sauté pan: A sauté pan is a skillet with straight, slightly deeper sides. They can be used interchangeably, with sauté pans being better for braising vegetables and other tasks that require liquids. (See our article on the differences between sauté pans and skillets for more information.)

Skillets are measured by their diameter across the top, and sauté pans are measured by volume. A 10-inch skillet is equivalent to a 3- or 4-quart sauté pan and a 12-inch skillet is equivalent to a 5-quart sauté pan.

Some people prefer sauté pans to skillets because they have more cooking surface. But they are also heavier and bulkier, so they're not right for everyone. 

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Wok: If you like Asian cooking or do a lot of stir frying, a wok is a great tool to have. The best woks are carbon steel and are generally inexpensive; you don't need to spend a small fortune on a clad stainless wok, and you certainly don't need a nonstick wok--a wok you can't use high heat with is not a good purchase.

Like any carbon steel pan, the wok should be well seasoned and rinsed and dried thoroughly after every use; use soap sparingly. If you're using it on a stove top (not a wok burner) be sure to buy a flat-bottomed wok. For more information, see our article How to Buy the Best Wok for Your Kitchen.

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Chef's Pan: A chef's pan is a large, versatile pan you can use for many different types of cooking, including frying, stir frying, sautéing, braising, steaming, and more. You may also see it called an essential pan or an everything pan.

If you routinely cook for large groups or like to meal prep, a chef's pan is a great option. We like clad stainless for its versatility, but you can find chef's pans in many different materials. 

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Deep Sauté Pan: A deep sauté pan is the straight-sided equivalent to a chef's pan, and we think it's even more versatile. Whether you think of it as a large sauce pan or a small stock pot, you can use it for all the things you can use a chef's pan for (although it won't be great for stir frying), plus it doubles as a stock pot. Get one that's at least 6 quarts for the most versatility.

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About Cookware Materials 

Now we look at all the cookware materials you can find. Above we discussed their safety. Here, we discuss their pros, cons, and uses.

Aluminum (Non-anodized)

Volrath Wear Ever Aluminum Sauce Pan

Example: Vollrath Aluminum Sauce Pan

Pros: Lightweight, inexpensive, excellent heating properties (if thick enough)

Cons: Scratches easily, bare aluminum can leach into food, not induction compatible unless paired with a steel plate (such as T-fal Professional skillet).

Typical Uses: Inexpensive non-coated cookware (used mostly in restaurants), as a base for nonstick-coated cookware, as an interior layer(s) sandwiched between steel in clad stainless cookware.

Aluminum is the most popular type of cookware in the world. It's an inexpensive metal that provides great heating properties, so it is found in many different types of cookware, including nonstick cookware, clad stainless cookware, and inexpensive, non-coated aluminum cookware (as in the image and link above). 

We do not recommend bare aluminum cookware for home use. Aluminum reacts with acidic foods (like tomato sauce), and there is some evidence that aluminum ingestion is associated with Alzheimer's, though this has largely been debunked.

Most cookware made for the home market has a nonstick coating, which we talk about below. (The cooking surface is what matters, not the exterior.)

You will also find cookware made from anodized aluminum, but this is typically only the exterior. Most anodized aluminum cookware has a nonstick cooking surface, and you may find a few brands with a stainless steel surface (like the now discontinued All-Clad LTD2). Anodized aluminum is much more durable and stable than regular aluminum, but since it is rarely used as a cooking surface, we won't talk about it any further.

Cast Iron

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Example: Lodge cast iron skillet

(See also our article Cast Iron Skillets: How Much Should You Spend?)

Pros: Extremely durable, inexpensive, induction compatible, holds heat well so great for high-heat searing and deep frying, and when well-seasoned, the surface is almost as slick as nonstick.

Cons: Spreads heat slowly and unevenly, heavy, can react with acidic foods to impart metallic flavor.

Typical Uses: As a nonstick pan, for high heat searing, deep-frying, and other tasks that require holding heat. Many people love them as an all-around all-purpose skillet. They're also great for using over campfires as the fire won't discolor them.

Cast iron is an iron alloy with a carbon content of more than 2% (from Wikipedia). It is one of the oldest cookware materials in existence, and as such, you may already own a hand-me-down cast iron piece from your parents or grandparents. 

Cast iron needs to be seasoned. This is a simple process. It's not really a drawback, but if you or someone else in your home neglects to care for the pan properly after each use--e.g., little or no soap, drying thoroughly, and applying a thin coat of oil to the cooking surface--the pan will rust and require re-seasoning. 

Most home cooks benefit from owning at least one cast iron skillet. Their mass allows them to hold heat really well, so they're excellent for high heat searing (think crispy, juicy steaks). deep frying (fried chicken, anyone?), and oven baking where you want a nice crisp crust (corn bread, pizza, etc.).

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

When well-seasoned, they also have an almost nonstick surface. Not as slippery as Teflon, but the fact that they last forever more than makes up for that. If you're anti-nonstick, cast iron (or carbon steel, see below) is almost as good (again, when properly seasoned).

But for daily use, we recommend them only if the weight and bulk isn't an issue for you, if you're on a tight budget, or if you really dislike stainless steel for some reason. 

See lodge cast iron pans on Amazon

Carbon Steel

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Example: Matfer-Bourgeat Carbon Steel Frying Pan

Pros: Thinner and lighter than cast iron (though still heavy), inexpensive, durable, induction compatible, can have an almost nonstick surface when properly seasoned.

Cons: Like cast iron, heats slowly and unevenly, but holds heat well. Like cast iron, requires seasoning.

Typical Uses: Everyday skillet, "nonstick" skillet for people who hate nonstick and prefer the lighter weight of carbon steel to cast iron.

Carbon steel is cast iron's thinner, lighter cousin. It is composed of steel that is up to 2.1% carbon by weight (from Wikipedia). Like cast iron, carbon steel is durable and should last forever. Its lighter weight is sought out by people who don't want to use Teflon or cast iron. It's hard to find carbon steel in any cookware other than skillets.

Carbon steel can make a nice egg pan, but for an all-purpose skillet, it lacks some desirable qualities. It has the slow, uneven heating properties of cast iron, and doesn't hang onto heat as well (though still pretty well). 

If you prefer the lighter weight, pick carbon steel over cast iron. The performance is close.

For more information, see our article The Best Carbon Steel Pans.

See carbon steel pans on Amazon

Copper

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Example: Mauviel M'heritage 250B Copper Cookware

Pros: Excellent heating properties (the best available!), beautiful, durable.

Cons: Very expensive, requires polishing to keep its shiny appearance (although oxidation will not affect cooking properties), most brands are not induction compatible.

Typical Uses: Used by serious home chefs and professional chefs because of its optimal heating properties.

See also: How to Pick the Best Copper Cookware, Mauviel Copper Cookware Review.

Copper has the best heating properties of any cookware material, second only to silver, which is not typically used in cookware due to its expense. Julia Child is reported to have only used copper cookware with a thickness of not less than 3 millimeters--an amount you'd be hard-pressed to find today. Today, copper cookware is used by discerning chefs the world over, if they are lucky enough to be able to afford it.

Some copper cookware has a bare copper cooking surface and is used for specialized tasks such as candy making; you don't want this for everyday cooking because, like cast iron, it can react with foods and impart a metallic flavor (and in high enough amounts, toxins).

Traditional copper cookware is lined with tin, which is nonreactive with food, but also soft, so it requires re-tinning every few years. This is expensive and a dying art, so though you can still find tin-lined copper cookware, we don't recommend buying it. 

Most modern copper cookware is lined with stainless steel, which is durable, non-reactive, and low maintenance. 

Copper spreads heat roughly twice as fast as aluminum, depending on the alloy, so you need approximately half as much to achieve similar results. Proper copper cookware will always disclose the copper thickness. For example, the Mauviel M'heritage 250B has a copper layer of approximately 2.5 millimeters (the "B" is for the handle, which is bronze; you can also get it with stainless (S) or cast iron (C) handles). Mauviel makes a M'heritage 150 line, which is approximately 1.5 millimeters of copper. (When you pay this much for cookware, you want to know exactly what you're getting.) 

All-Clad Copper Core, which is stainless steel cookware lined with copper, has about 0.9mm of copper. Copper Core is good quality cookware, but if you want true copper performance, you can buy Mauviel M'150 for about the same price, and get about 50% more copper.

Be careful: there are a lot of copper imposters out there! Some cookware has a layer of copper that's too thin to have copper's excellent heating. And some cookware is only copper-colored, containing no copper at all. (Copper Chef, we're looking at you.) This is easily discernible by the price: if it's in the Mauviel price range, then it's real copper. If it's not, then it probably contains miniscule amounts of copper, if any at all.

Is copper cookware worth it? Honestly, clad stainless with a thick aluminum core can be almost as good, and is easier to maintain. But if you have an unlimited budget, love the beauty of copper, and don't mind the maintenance, then it's a great choice. 

Just remember that most copper cookware is not induction compatible. (There are some new lines of copper that are induction compatible--see our Mauviel review for an example.)

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide
How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Example: le Creuset Dutch oven (expensive), Amazon Basics Dutch oven (inexpensive)

Pros: Durable, great for jobs that require holding heat, won't react with acidic food (like non-enameled cast iron does), induction compatible.

Cons: Slow and uneven heating (though very good once heated, making it especially good for long oven or stove top braises), heavy, some brands can be very expensive, the enamel may chip (especially on lower-priced brands).

Typical Uses: Enameled cast iron Dutch ovens can be used for thousands of kitchen tasks and should be your go-to pot for many of them. They are an excellent all-purpose piece you can use for soups, stews, stocks, and, because of their heavy lids that keep in liquid, are especially great for oven braising (e.g., pot roast, short ribs, etc.). They are also great for baking projects like boulés, corn breads, and other goodies when you want a crisp exterior and tender interior. 

You can also find enameled cast iron skillets and other pieces--even whole sets--but you really only need the Dutch oven. This is the piece that makes the best use of cast iron's mass and heating properties. 

Even if you own a clad stainless or nonstick Dutch oven that came in a set you bought, you should do yourself a favor and get one in enameled cast iron, especially if you like to do long, low oven braises and/or bread baking. Enameled cast iron is ideal for these cooking projects because of its heat retention properties and heavy lid (that doesn't let liquid escape). You will find yourself reaching for it all winter long.

Is the le Creuset or Staub worth paying 5-10 times what you'll pay for a Lodge or Amazon Basics Dutch oven? That depends on your cooking style, your budget, how much you'll use it, and (we suppose) how much you care about the color choices (the le Creuset offers at least two dozen different colors, while the less expensive brands do not). But if you can afford it, we really recommend the le Creuset; America's Test Kitchen did a review of enameled Dutch ovens, and they found--as we did--that the le Creuset was not only sturdier and more resistant to the enamel chipping, but also lighter weight; not a small thing when you're talking about cast iron.

Why is le Creuset so expensive, you ask? Because it's still made in a small factory in France, largely by hand. But be careful! This is only true for their enameled cast iron cookware, as their stainless cookware and ceramic bakeware is almost as expensive, but made in China.

The truth, though, is that not a lot has changed in cast iron cooking technology in the past century or so, so if you choose to go with a cheaper brand, you will get roughly the same cooking performance as you will with a premium brand. However, there's no doubt that if you go with le Creuset or Staub, you will get a higher quality pot, less prone to chipping, with superb customer service in the unlikely event that something does go wrong.

On the other hand, you can buy 5-10 Amazon Basics Dutch ovens for the price of 1 le Creuset or Staub, so there's that. 

Much as we love le Creuset and Staub, and adore the old world craftsmanship you get with these brands, a less expensive choice is smart, especially if you're on a tight budget. 

How to Choose Cookware (That's Right for YOU)
How to Choose Cookware (That's Right for YOU)

Example: Corningware Visions

Pros: Extremely inert substance with no inherent dangers to human health.

Cons: Poor heating properties, poor browning, expensive, brittle, not induction compatible.

Typical Uses: Corningware Visions made a splash in the 1970s-80s, but it was in the wake of the success of its bakeware. Since then, glass and stone-based cookware is used primarily by people who are concerned about "toxicity" in other types of cookware. While we believe that all cookware is safe when used and cared for properly, if you have an allergy or sensitivity to some materials (such as nickel, which is found in minute amounts in stainless steel), you may want to consider glass, ceramic, or stone cookware. 

Performance-wise, there is nothing worse than glass, ceramic, or stone cookware. These substances are insulators rather than conductors of heat. They are designed to slow the flow of heat rather than enhance it. If you consider copper to be number one on the list of heat-conducting cookware, you can consider glass, ceramic, and stone cookware to be dead last, behind everything else. 

(The same is not true for bakeware, for which these materials are excellent--the insulating properties can provide gentle heat and protect baked goods from burning.) 

We have not tested any of it, so if you're interested in learning more about this cookware, you'll have to look elsewhere for a review. But we will say that, if you're decided on this cookware, Xtrema seems to be a high quality choice, as is Corningware, if you can find it.

Be careful! There are a lot of brands out there with words like "stone" and "stoneware" in their names that are actually not made of stone. (Most of these are aluminum pans with a PTFE nonstick coating. The "stone" reference is for the durability of the coating, and is pure marketing, as all PTFE is pretty much the same.)

For more information on nonstick and stone/glass/enameled cookware, see our article Stoneware Cookware: What to Know Before You Buy.

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide
How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Example: All-Clad D3, Demeyere Atlantis, Demeyere Industry 5, Cuisinart Multiclad Pro.

Pros: Durable, long lasting, excellent heating properties (if you buy a good brand), easy to care for, a wide array of options and pieces available at many different price points, most has a lifetime warranty, most is induction compatible.

Cons: Can be expensive, food can stick to it if not used properly.

Typical Uses: Clad stainless cookware comes in every imaginable size and shape and is the most versatile all-around cookware for the home chef. 

If you've read other articles on our site, you know that clad stainless steel is our favorite all-around cookware. It's durable, easy to care for, and has the best heating properties you can buy for a reasonable price. Yes; it's more expensive than cheap aluminum cookware, but it's also more durable: even the cheapest stainless cookware will outlive aluminum cookware. It resists both corrosion and warping, and it provides a good experience in the kitchen. 

Good clad stainless cookware is also going to outlive other kinds of cookware. The exception is cast iron, but clad stainless is lighter, more versatile, and has better heating properties (e.g., faster and more even), so it outperforms cast iron for most purposes. And no seasoning.

While there isn't room to go into a lot of detail here (we have many other articles that do), the basics that you're looking for are high quality stainless exterior and a thick enough interior layer of aluminum and/or copper to provide good heating properties. Being the first, All-Clad is still the gold standard in the US for top quality clad stainless cookware. A couple of brands are as good or better, but most are worse--far, far worse. 

For more information, see our Cookware Archives, where you'll find a number of detailed reviews of clad stainless cookware (All-Clad, Tramontina, Demeyere, Cuisinart). You can learn all you need to know about cladding, how much a good set will set you back, which brands are our favorites (and why), and just about everything else you need to know to buy wisely.

The good news is that if you're on a budget, you can still get good quality clad stainless cookware. All of the brands listed here are recommended brands. They range from top of the line (All-Clad, Demeyere) to high quality affordable brands (Cuisinart Multiclad Pro, Tramontina). 

Be careful when you're purchasing, especially the Tramontina and Cuisinart MC Pro: these companies make several lines of cookware that vary greatly in quality. We recommend the Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad and the Cuisinart Multiclad Pro only

We also recommend the All-Clad D3 over other lines of All-Clad, but for a different reason: all of All-Clad's cookware is top quality, but D3 is the most reasonably priced. You can spend more on D5 or Copper Core, but you won't get a significant bump in performance to justify the added cost (though there may be reasons to buy other lines--again, see our Cookware page for detailed reviews of Copper Core, D5, and more).

How to Choose Cookware (That's Right for YOU)
How to Choose Cookware (That's Right for YOU)

Example: Anolon Nouvelle Copper skillets

Pros: Easy to clean because food doesn't stick, most brands are inexpensive.

Cons: Nonstick coatings are short-lived and need to be replaced every few years; PTFE nonstick has to be babied to get as long a life as possible out of it--so no high heat, no metal utensils, no abrasive scrub pads, and no dishwasher.

Typical Uses: Loved by home chefs who hate washing other types of pans. While you can buy entire sets of nonstick, we strongly recommend buying only one or two nonstick skillets for eggs, fish, and other delicate foods (or better yet, foregoing nonstick altogether and using cast iron or carbon steel). Because nonstick coatings are so short-lived, and because it's not safe to use scratched or peeling nonstick pans, you will have to replace every nonstick pan you own every few years.

Thus, only use it for what's necessary, which is a dedicated egg/fish/delicate foods pan. This more than anything else will guarantee you get the maximum life possible out of your nonstick skillet.

We also recommend that you buy cast or forged aluminum pans with nonstick coating. These are thicker than stamped pans and usually only slightly more expensive (e.g., $30 instead of $20).

Our two favorites--All-Clad HA1 and Anolon Nouvelle Copper--are both cast aluminum, making these pans inexpensive, yet both have an aluminum body that's thick enough to provide truly excellent heating properties and a steel base for induction compatibility (also helps prevent warping). Both of these pans are about $30 each when bought as a set (or $50 each if you get the larger sizes). That's a bargain, and you will definitely get your 2-3 years of use out of them.

Furthermore, the Anolon Nouvelle Copper has a 0.5mm thick layer of copper in the base as well, putting it in the heating performance stratosphere as far as nonstick pans go. (See our Anolon Cookware Review for more information.)

You can get clad stainless pans with nonstick coating, but don't do it! They're expensive, and the coating will wear out long before the rest of the pan does--frustrating!

Some clad stainless sets have nonstick skillets, but buying nonstick pan separately is the smartest budget choice.

If you're concerned about using PTFE, or have people in your household incapable of using it correctly (e.g., no high heat, no dishwasher, no metal utensils, no cooking spray), ceramic nonstick is a viable option. But know that you will be replacing any nonstick pan frequently.

How to Choose Cookware (That's Right for YOU)
How to Choose Cookware (That's Right for YOU)
How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Example: Green Pan (see our GreenPan review)

Pros: Easy to clean, most brands are inexpensive (buy the aluminum, not the clad stainless).

Cons: Nonstick coating probably won't last very long, titanium dioxide nanoparticles (used in the coating process) may pose health risks.

Typical Uses: Ceramic nonstick cookware is used mostly by home chefs who are trying to avoid PTFE cookware. Some of the pans are of good quality, however, the ceramic nonstick coating is notoriously short-lived; usually even shorter than PTFE. Ceramic nonstick can take more abuse than PTFE, which is good, but it will lose its nonstick properties faster no matter how well you care for it. And just like PTFE, high heat is a big no-no.

And just as with PTFE, we recommend only getting nonstick skillets, as the coating isn't necessary for other types of pans. Also, we recommend aluminum or anodized aluminum over clad stainless as they are less expensive. 

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What Are the Best Sizes to Buy?

The ideal-sized pans will vary according to individual needs, but we believe that bigger is usually better--but not too big.

For example, a 12-inch skillet is more versatile than a 10-inch skillet. It has more flat cooking surface and can mean the difference between having to fry chicken breasts or burger patties in batches, or being able to do them all at once. 

But bigger isn't necessarily better, because anything larger than 12 inches is going to have trouble heating evenly on most burners, which have too small a diameter to heat anything larger than 12 inches evenly.

As for sauce pans, a 3-quart is probably the best all-around size for most people. This is large enough to cook a half pound of pasta, but not so large that it's hard to handle.

Smaller sauce pans are good for other tasks, but not so good for the common tasks of boiling pasta and making rice. (If you are cooking for several people, you will probably want a 4 quart sauce pan instead.)

This leads us into the next section about buying sets. Sets tend to come with smallish pieces; this is how makers can offer several pieces at low prices. A set can look great on paper, but always make sure the pieces are the size you want--if you don't, you may end up with too-small pieces and have to buy larger pieces down the road (which are always more expensive).

ALWAYS check the size of the pieces in any set you're considering buying. Some sets have great pieces, but many sets have small, "filler" pieces that you won't get a lot of use out of. 

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Buying Sets Vs. Buying Open Stock: The Pros and Cons of Each

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

If you're looking for cookware, you are probably trying to decide whether you should buy a set or get the open stock pieces you know you need. There are pros and cons to each.

Pros and Cons of Buying Sets

Pros

  • You can save by buying in sets
  • You can get a lot of cookware in one purchase
  • All your cookware will match.

Cons

  • You may get pieces that are the wrong size (most sets have smallish pieces)
  • You may get pieces you won't use
  • If you don't like one or two pieces, you can't return them
  • No set is going to have all the pieces you need
  • Your cookware may not match.

Pros and Cons of Buying Open Stock

Pros

  • You get exactly what you want, no settling
  • You can invest in the most important pieces (e.g., skillet, sauté pan) and save on pieces that don't require excellent heating (e.g., stock pot)
  • You can return pieces if you decide you don't like them
  • You can buy specialty pieces you won't get in a set (e.g., sauciér, chef's pan, wok).

Cons

  • Buying open stock is usually more expensive
  • Your pieces won't all match.

Start with a Smallish Set (Or a Large One, IF It Has Pieces You'll Use)

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

If you're just starting out and need a lot of pieces, our recommendation is to buy a small set with pieces you know you'll use, then supplement with the open stock pieces you need.

For example, a good way to get essential basics is to buy a 5-piece or 7 piece set with a skillet or two, a sauce pan or two, and a Dutch oven or stock pot. Buy the largest set that has pieces you know you'll use.

It can be tempting to get a "kitchen sink" set, but quite often, these larger sets have filler pieces that you don't need. For example, a large set may have a 1-quart, 2-quart, and 3-quart sauce pan. You probably won't get much use out of the two smaller ones; rather, you'll use one of them frequently, while the other one gathers dust in the cupboard. 

Also, most sets come with an 8-inch and a 10-inch skillet; these are both on the small size. You may get use out of them both, but many people prefer a 12-inch skillet, which is a better, more versatile size. 

You will also never find a set that contains a roasting pan or baking sheets, both of which we consider essential pieces of cookware (as discussed above). And if you like to do long braises, you will definitely want an enameled cast iron Dutch oven at some point. So no matter what set you buy, you're almost certainly going to have to purchase more cookware.

Thus, buying a smallish set and planning to augment with the other pieces you need is the smartest way to get all of the cookware you want, and avoid cookware that you don't want or won't need.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule: Not all large sets are full of filler pieces. The Demeyere Industry 5 10 piece set is large, but every piece in it is a useful size (no filler pieces at all). And the Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad 12-piece set is also large, but it comes with a 12-inch and 10-inch skillet, plus large sauce pans and a big stock pot--all great pieces.

So if you need that much cookware and know you'll use it, go ahead and buy that big set. Just make sure it has the pieces you want and will use.

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Cookware to Avoid

Finally, here's a section on cookware that we believe you should specifically avoid. 

Super Cheap Cookware (With a Few Exceptions)

"Super cheap" means different things to different people, but in general, don't buy poor quality cookware from unknown makers. You really do get what you pay for, and if you want durable cookware that's going to last, you have to be willing to invest a little bit. 

One exception is nonstick pans, which you should buy cheap--but not too cheap. You can get a good quality, cast aluminum nonstick pan for around $30 (especially if you buy a set of two for about $60); if you go much lower than that, the pan is going to feel flimsy, won't have good heating properties, and could warp during heating. But unless you have an unlimited budget, you will kick yourself for spending much more than that on a pan that you'll have to throw away in a few years. 

Other exceptions are cast iron and carbon steel. You can now find several boutique brands on the market and you can pay a small fortune for them. While you may get a prettier or slightly smoother pan, cast iron is cast iron, and carbon steel is carbon steel, and the overall heating and performance is going to be the same whether you spend $30 or $300. So again, unless you have an unlimited budget, stick to the lower priced brands. (See our cast iron article and carbon steel article for more information.)

So, this rule really applies to more expensive cookware like clad stainless and copper cookware. You will find a lot of brands at price points that seem too good to be true--and they probably are. Cheap clad stainless can rust, corrode, and warp, and it can be too thin and flimsy to heat well. And there's no such thing as cheap copper cookware--if it's cheap, it contains way too little copper to heat well, and possibly no copper at all.

Super cheap cookware is also more likely to contain toxins or otherwise be unsafe for use. 

So stick to a brand you've heard of, with a good reputation, and don't be enticed by super low prices. 

Super Expensive Cookware (With a Few Exceptions, Budget Permitting)

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Conversely, you don't have to spend a fortune to get good quality cookware. As beautiful as copper cookware is, you probably don't want to spend a couple thousand dollars for a set of it. Unless you have a huge budget or are an aspiring French chef, you probably don't need high end copper cookware.

As for clad stainless, the more expensive brands do tend to be better: thicker, heavier, with better heating performance than their less expensive counterparts. But for many people, these high end brands (like Demeyere) are heavy, and can be hard to handle. If you don't mind the weight, this is excellent cookware; but it is not necessary for great performance. 

And while "waterless" brands like Saladmaster are usually terrific quality, they are overpriced--if you can spend that kind of money, you're better off with a set of Demeyere (or high-end copper cookware).

Of course, some people consider All-Clad to be super expensive cookware. And yes, it's not cheap. But it is a great brand, with a lifetime warranty, and we like D3 better than the more expensive lines like D5 and Copper Core. And All-Clad's cost-per-year-of-use is going to be less than cheaper sets you have to replace every few years. 

Having said that, there are cheaper brands like Cuisinart Multiclad Pro and Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad that are almost identical to All-Clad D3. You may sacrifice slightly in performance or durability, but the difference is small. If you can't justify the expense of All-Clad, these Chinese-made brands are worthwhile options.

You will not regret investing in good quality clad stainless cookware, but you do not have to get the most expensive stuff out there to get cookware you can love.

How about enameled cast iron, which has prices all over the map? Well, again, you won't regret buying a top brand (we recommend le Creuset), but if you have a tight budget, you can get good quality for a fraction of the cost. The cheaper Dutch ovens may be more prone to cracking and chipping, but when you can buy five of them for the price of one le Creuset, they may be a better option for many people. (See our Dutch oven review for more info.)

Imported Cookware of Unknown Quality

You can save a lot of money by buying Chinese-made cookware over American-made or European-made, but if you decide to go that route, please, please don't buy a brand of unknown quality. Stick to reputable brands like Cuisinart, Tramontina, Anolon, and GreenPan. 

Sets of Nonstick Cookware

Having one or two nonstick skillets for eggs, crepes, and other sticky and delicate foods is fine, however, we strongly recommend that you do not buy whole sets of nonstick cookware. Nonstick coatings are fragile, and do not last for more than a few years. You can't use high heat with them. And you don't need them for pieces other than skillets and sauté pans. 

Just like we said above, you will kick yourself for buying a set when you have to replace the pieces in a few years.

Disc Clad Cookware

Some clad stainless cookware has aluminum layers welded to the bottom rather than being fully clad throughout the pan. Disc-clad cookware is usually cheaper to make, so a lot of inexpensive brands have disc-cladding.

In most cases, disc-clad cookware has poorer heating properties, with an abrupt discontinuity where the disc ends. This can cause scorching and frustratingly uneven heating.

Makers don't always clearly state if their cookware is disc-clad (sometimes called "bottom clad" or "impact bonded"), but you can tell by looking: disc-clad cookware has a seam around the bottom that fully clad cookware does not have:

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

There are some disc-clad brands that are top quality (Demeyere Atlantis, Fissler). These brands have thick, heavy discs that extend slightly up the sides to prevent an abrupt heating discontinuity, as shown by this Demeyere sauté pan: 

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

These are great pieces, but they're expensive, and they're heavy. We think Demeyere Atlantis is the best cookware in the world, so it's a big exception to the "don't buy disc-clad stainless cookware." But most of the disc-clad cookware is cheap and not very well made, so in general, it's a good idea to avoid it.

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How to Find the Best Deals on Cookware

Our final section is on where to get the best deals on cookware. 

Being an affiliate site, we earn a small percentage on many of the items we link to--so you may not entirely believe us when we say that buying online is the best way to get a good deal on cookware. 

But the Internet has ushered in a true buyer's market because it's made it so easy to compare prices. For this reason, you will often find that the prices across Internet sites are identical: it's hard to overcharge when you can find a lower price with just one or two clicks of your mouse.

Having said that, you can still find even better deals with a little savvy shopping. Here are a few tips:

  • Look at different sites (not just Amazon), especially kitchen product sites like Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Though prices are often the same, you may run into sales on these sites, or they may be willing to throw in a free piece (often a roasting pan) with the purchase of a qualifying set. 
  • You can also check out discount sites like Wal-Mart. Even if the prices are the same, they may have different (sometimes better) buying options. (This is especially true if you want to save by buying imported clad stainless like Tramontina and Cuisinart.)
  • If you're a first-time buyer on a site, they often offer an additional discount of 10-25% for signing up for their emails. If so, take advantage of this! You'll save a small fortune, and you can always unsubscribe later.
  • Google for coupons and deals for both brands and stores. You might save even more.
  • Always, always buy from a site that offers free shipping. (Most sites these days do, so this isn't as big a deal as it was just a few years ago.)
  • Use a credit card that has a discount for certain purchases and/or a buyer protection program.
  • Don't assume that Amazon always has the best price. And even if they have the same price as other stores, they won't have the potential sales or offers you can find on other sites (like those mentioned above). 
  • If you don't mind imperfect cookware, you can find seconds at discount sites like cookwarenmore.com. We don't make any commission from this site, but it can be a great way to get a deal on All-Clad and some other high-end brands.

Buying in person has its merits, as well: you can compare different brands side-by-side, and you can ask a salesperson for a discount directly. If you find a lower price online, you can bring that with you when you shop, and it will be hard for the salesperson to not match that price. 

For more tips on smart buying, check out our articles How to Buy Online and Can You Trust Amazon Reviews?

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FAQs on How to Choose the Best Cookware

Here are some common questions about how to choose the best cookware.

Does High Quality Cookware Really Make a Difference to Your Cooking?

It definitely can. Cheap cookware is usually too thin to heat evenly or hold onto heat. Higher quality cookware can improve your cooking by allowing more even cooking and better browning. You don't have to get the most expensive cookware in the world for this to be the case, but you should aim for the best quality cookware you can afford.

What Is the Best Type of Cookware to Get?

This depends on many factors, but we think the best choice for most cooks and most cooking tasks is clad stainless steel: it's safe, durable, and versatile. You can use it for any cooking task, it withstands high heat and metal utensils, and most can go in the dishwasher (though hand washing is preferable). Other types of pans are good for certain things, such as cast iron for high heat searing and nonstick for eggs, but you can use clad stainless for everything with good results.

Is Nonstick Cookware a Good Choice?

Nonstick cookware isn't good all-around cookware. You may want one nonstick pan for eggs and other delicate foods, but don't buy a set of nonstick. It wears out too quickly to be good all-purpose cookware.

How Can You Tell if a Pan is Good Quality?

There are a number of ways to tell if a pan is good quality, but one of the easiest is by weight: in general, good quality cookware is heavy, and lower quality cookware is light. You want the weight because heavier pans distribute heat more evenly and hang onto heat better than lighter pans. In general, you should buy the heaviest cookware you can comfortably handle.

You can also look at the quality of the handles (stainless steel is best), the lids (stainless steel indicates higher quality than glass, even though some people prefer glass), the handle attachments (make sure they're tight), and an overall look and feel of quality rather than cheapness. 

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FAQs on How to Choose the Best Cookware

Here are some common questions about how to choose the best cookware.

Does High Quality Cookware Really Make a Difference to Your Cooking?

It definitely can. Cheap cookware is usually too thin to heat evenly or hold onto heat. Higher quality cookware can improve your cooking by allowing more even cooking and better browning. You don't have to get the most expensive cookware in the world for this to be the case, but you should aim for the best quality cookware you can afford.

What Is the Best Type of Cookware to Get?

This depends on many factors, but we think the best choice for most cooks and most cooking tasks is clad stainless steel: it's safe, durable, and versatile. You can use it for any cooking task, it withstands high heat and metal utensils, and most can go in the dishwasher (though hand washing is preferable). Other types of pans are good for certain things, such as cast iron for high heat searing and nonstick for eggs, but you can use clad stainless for everything with good results.

Is Nonstick Cookware a Good Choice?

Nonstick cookware isn't good all-around cookware. You may want one nonstick pan for eggs and other delicate foods, but don't buy a set of nonstick. It wears out too quickly to be good all-purpose cookware.

How Can You Tell if a Pan is Good Quality?

There are a number of ways to tell if a pan is good quality, but one of the easiest is by weight: in general, good quality cookware is heavy, and lower quality cookware is light. You want the weight because heavier pans distribute heat more evenly and hang onto heat better than lighter pans. In general, you should buy the heaviest cookware you can comfortably handle.

You can also look at the quality of the handles (stainless steel is best), the lids (stainless steel indicates higher quality than glass, even though some people prefer glass), the handle attachments (make sure they're tight), and an overall look and feel of quality rather than cheapness. 

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Final Thoughts on Choosing the Best Cookware

How to Choose the Best Cookware: The Ultimate Buying Guide

There you have it, your ultimate cookware buying guide. We hope this has been helpful if you're trying to choose the right cookware to buy.

And don't forget to print and fill out our Cookware Questionnaire--getting it all down on paper is a huge help before you actually start shopping.

Thanks for reading!

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How to Choose Cookware (That's Right for YOU)

About the Author

The Rational Kitchen (TRK) is a collaborative effort, but the founder, editor, and writer of most of our articles is Melanie Johnson, an avid cook, kitchenware expert, and technical communications specialist for more than 20 years. Her love of cooking and the frustrating lack of good information about kitchen products led her to create The Rational Kitchen. TRK's mission is to help people make the best decisions they can when buying kitchen gear. 

When not working on product reviews, Melanie enjoys reading, playing with her dog Ruby, vintage video games, and spending time outdoors and with her family.

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