If you’d rather start with a few basics, you’ll be able to cook a lot with just a 2-quart saucepan, a 12-inch skillet, and an 8-quart stock pot. In our tests, the All-Clad pans heated evenly, were comfortable to hold, and tackled every cooking job without any hiccups.
Though the largest skillet measures only 10 inches instead of 12, this set will outfit your kitchen with all the other pots and pans you’re ever likely to need. And if you’re partial to keeping your cookware bright and shiny, note that in our tests this set was one of the few that looked like new after cleaning.
Collapse all Additionally, I’ve read reviews in Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required), and I also looked at cookware sets in person at stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, JCPenney, Macy’s, SUR la Table, Target, Walmart, and Williams-Sonoma. All told, I’ve spent more than 100 hours researching and testing cookware sets for this guide.
As a staff writer at Wire cutter, I have written reviews for all kinds of kitchen equipment and gadgets, including skillets, knife sets, and cutting boards. And prior to joining Wire cutter, I spent over 10 years working in various facets of the food and restaurant industry.
(We make a thorough case for switching from nonstick to stainless steel cookware in our blog post How to Keep Food From Sticking to a (Not-Nonstick) Pan.”) Buying a set of cookware is a convenient and affordable alternative to tracking down pots and pans one piece at a time.
Stainless steel is more versatile than nonstick cookware because you can cook over higher heat without damaging the pan, which is critical for getting a good sear on meats. Stainless steel allows you to cook over higher heat without damaging the pan, which is critical for getting a good sear on meats.
Photo: Michael HessionOne thing this guide doesn’t include is a cheap, basic cookware set that you might use to outfit a rental or vacation home, or to send with kids to college. Hugh Rushing, former executive vice president of CMA, told us, “You get about what you pay for when it comes to cookware.
If you want to spend less or don’t intend to cook often, we’d recommend getting only the essential pieces of cookware for your kitchen: a skillet, a saucepan, and a stockpot. Most cookware sets include smaller pot and pan sizes, so they aren’t the best option for the experienced home cook who wants to prepare large meals.
Though cookware costs more when sold separately, purchasing it this way allows you to acquire specific pieces that suit your exact cooking needs (see our guides to the best skillet, cast iron skillet, nonstick pan, saucepan, roasting pan, and Dutch oven). Photo: Michael HessionBecause cookware is the cornerstone of any kitchen, we wanted to find sets that included the most useful pot and pan sizes.
Most manufacturers cut corners by including smaller pot and pan sizes in a set to reduce the overall price. It might be a little more expensive this way, but space is a commodity in my tiny kitchen, so I choose what I need wisely.” Janet Crandall, a Los Angeles private chef and cooking instructor, agreed, saying, “I prefer to buy individual pans.
We found that most skillets in sets are only 8 to 10 inches, but we prefer 10- and 12-inch versions because they offer a larger surface area for cooking more at once. You can always purchase other essential pieces, such as a Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, and a nonstick pan, in addition to your main set.
However, most of our testers preferred skillets that weighed between 2 and 3½ pounds, which were still light enough for tossing ingredients in a pan without placing too much torque on their wrists. We took the advice of our pros and looked at many cookware sets in person before testing, to get a feel for the weight and the actual size of the pots and pans.
Some skillets, such as this Viking Contemporary Frying Pan, have sharply angled sides that make tossing vegetables while sautéing difficult. Unlike aluminum, stainless steel is nonreactive to acidic ingredients like tomatoes or vinegar, so it won’t leave behind a metallic taste.
And unlike nonstick cookware, you can use stainless steel pans over high heat and move them directly from the stove top to the oven. In addition to making triply cookware, most high-end manufacturers produce sets that are made from five or more layers of stainless steel, aluminum, and sometimes copper.
Fully clad triply stainless steel is the best option for both pros and home cooks because of its even heat distribution. We did our best to avoid sets that aren’t fully clad, meaning the aluminum core doesn’t extend up the sides of the cookware, because they’re prone to scorching.
In our experience, sets with encapsulated bottoms performed better than those that had just a single layer of stainless steel, but we still wouldn’t recommend them. Photo: Michael Session Aluminum is reactive to acidic foods and can give them a metallic taste.
It can also be more difficult to clean than stainless steel because it’s harder to see if you’ve scrubbed off every bit of burned-on oil. Nonstick sets aren’t ideal for high-heat cooking such as searing and have a shorter life span than regular stainless steel, because their coating wears off within a few years.
Carbon steel, like cast iron, requires more upkeep to maintain the cooking surface and can rust if not properly seasoned. We dismissed sets with plastic handles, because even those made to withstand high temperatures can deteriorate over time.
Ideally, we wanted cookware that could safely withstand oven temperatures of at least 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which ruled out most plastic components. Several members of our staff have also seen plastic handles crack after spending time in the dishwasher.
Side handles are best for larger saucepans (those over 4 quarts) and stockpots, which have a bigger volume and require two hands to lift. Many sets include a pasta insert or steamer basket for stockpots, but these pieces are superfluous.
They do this primarily to avoid competition among big-box stores, such as Target and Walmart, that sell similar items. Rushing said, “No retailer wants to have a directly comparable product to another retailer that’s their competitor.” For instance, one store may sell a set of cookware with a saucepan that has a stick handle, and another store might sell the same set with a saucepan that has two side handles.
If you want to avoid the hassle of searching multiple retailers for these variations in an attempt to find the most useful set, take heart: We’ve already done that for you. We like the Tramontina Gourmet 12-Piece Triply Clad Cookware Set for its even heat distribution, durable construction, and affordable price.
The Tramontina skillets produced perfectly brown chicken pieces with nice fond development, and the saucepans and stockpot simmered liquids without scorching. Though this cookware discolored over high heat, the effect was common among all the sets we tested in this price range.
Photo: Sarah Obtain our tests, the Tramontina 3-quart saucepan made perfect caramel without burning, though some of our testers found they had to swirl the pan more to distribute the heat evenly. To compare, this wasn’t the case with the Cuisinart Chef’s Classic stockpot, which required frequent stirring to prevent the sauce from burning.
Photo: Sarah KobosOur testers also liked the weight of the pieces in the Tramontina set, which felt durable enough to withstand the rigors of daily cooking. The handles on the stainless steel lids were big enough to grab onto, even when we used a side towel or pot holders.
We’ve long-term tested an older (now discontinued) version of this set for two years, and all the pots and pans continue to distribute heat evenly. The skillets have become a bit more discolored after searing meat over high heat, but their performance remains the same.
Although we easily removed burned-on oil and food bits using a combination of baking soda and warm water, the pans retained a noticeable tint after cleaning. The pots and pans have the perfect weight, and they cooked food more evenly than our top-pick set due to their superior heat conduction.
This cookware set was one of the few ones that turned out spotlessly clean after washing, even when coated with burned-on oil. And although this set is much more expensive than our main pick, we think it’s worth the extra cost for its durability and proven longevity.
The only drawback to this set is that it doesn’t include a 12-inch skillet, but we don’t think this omission is a deal breaker, because you can always grow your collection by adding that piece down the road. Photo: Sarah KobosMost of our testers liked the angle of the stick handles in the All-Clad set, which have a rounded bottom that fits nicely in your hand even when you’re holding a dish towel or pot holder.
We also found the handles on the lids easy to grab, unlike those of the Marvel M’cook set, which were tiny. Our testers liked the angle of the stick handles in the All-Clad set, which have a rounded bottom that fits nicely in your hand.
When we prepared caramel, the dissolved sugar bubbled uniformly across the bottom of the All-Clad 3-quart saucepan, which wasn’t the case with the other sets we tested. Though burned-on oil or grease can be more challenging removing with just regular dish soap or a run through the dishwasher, Bar Keepers Friend or a slurry of baking soda and warm water applied with a nonabrasive sponge (and a little elbow grease) gets the job done.
Chef Candy Argondizza, vice president of culinary and pastry arts at the International Culinary Center at the time of our interview, said, “Both professionally and personally, I use All-Clad.” Janet Crandall, a Los Angeles–based private chef and cooking instructor, told us, “They are expensive, but worth it because of their durability.” Members of our own staff have owned or worked with All-Clad cookware for years, including writer and Wire cutter test kitchen manager Lesley Stockton, who said, “My oldest All-Clad is nine years old, and it’s as good as the day I bought it. Photo: Sarah KobosAll-Clad offers a wide range of cookwares outside the main set, so you can grow your collection.
(To learn more about how All-Clad cookware is made, check out David Levitt’s blog post about his factory tour in Pittsburgh.) For difficult-to-remove items like burnt-on oil or lime deposits, Bar Keepers Friend applied with a sponge usually does the trick.
In the Wire cutter test kitchen, we often remove burnt-on oil or discoloration using a slurry of baking soda and warm water along with a sponge and a little elbow grease. Never clean your stainless steel cookware with harsh chemicals, such as oven cleaner, that could cause permanent damage.
It’s industry standard for cookware manufacturers to advise against cooking over high temperatures to avoid liability for damage caused by misuse. For information on how to prevent food from sticking to your stainless steel cookware, check out our blog post on the subject.
Also, the largest pot in this set is only 5 quarts, which isn’t big enough for boiling a large batch of pasta. We opted not to test the Five Two Essential Cookware 11-Piece Complete Set because it comes with glass lids and the stock pot is only 6 quarts.
The Cuisinart Multicar Pro Stainless Steel 12-Piece Cookware Set was our previous runner-up pick. The Cuisinart manual says to never use the cookware over high heat, recommending instead, “a low to medium setting for most cooking.” Many cookware manufacturers have the same recommendation, but our picks haven’t warped like the Cuisinart, even after years of cooking over high heat.
The single layer of stainless steel around the perimeter of the pan is too thin to evenly distribute heat and causes food to burn. We think that if you’re on a budget, you’re better off getting fewer, higher quality pieces of cookware that will give you better results and last longer.
(Tramontina, our main pick, sells pieces from the set we recommend open stock at Walmart.) For one, after testing the Great Jones Saucy for our guide to the best small saucepan, we found the company’s loop-shaped handles uncomfortable to hold.
On top of that, the lids have tiny handles that we found difficult to grasp, and the set comes with only one skillet. In our tests, the copper-core cookware heated up so fast we had to swirl the pan more when making caramel to prevent it from burning.
Unlike the triply All-Clad set we recommend, the Copper Core skillets discolored badly over high heat. We tested the Heston 12.5 Open Skillet to see if its Nanobot Technology made it less prone to discoloration than other cookware.
The pan discolored slightly in our tests, but was easy to clean with the Heston brand stainless steel cleaner. However, because the skillet concentrated heat in the center of the pan, we opted not to try the full Heston 10-Piece Set.
Piecing together your own cookware set gives you the freedom to customize your collection and allows you to buy only what you need. Expertly braising, searing, and roasting meat takes finesse, and the right gear will set you up for success.
New Year's Day Prices shown here are updated frequently, but may not reflect the price at the pump at the time of purchase.