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Choosing the Best Cookware Set

By Lisa McManus Published

Our advice has always been to skip sets and just buy the pans you need. But new brands offering practical cookware packages compelled us to take another look.

If you want to cook with confidence—or help a novice cook get a solid start—quality cookware is essential. You don’t have to spend a ton of money; choosing well is key. We usually insist that you buy cookware piece by piece so you pay for only what you need. To help keep track of everything, we've put together a comprehensive guide to stocking a kitchen with cookware, featuring both essential items and a few handy extras. Even so, people continue to ask us about cookware sets. There have been some interesting developments since the last time we tested cookware sets, so we decided to take another look, buying eight sets priced from about $160 to about $560, including the winning and Best Buy sets from our previous testing.

What’s Wrong with (Most) Cookware Sets

Cookware sets are different from most kitchen products in that manufacturers typically customize the contents of sets for retailers, meaning that two 10-piece sets from the same brand at different stores can contain different pans. Some sets also contain oddball additions such as colanders to plump up the total number of pieces and make a set seem more valuable. (Lids count as pieces, too.) What’s worse, manufacturers often cut costs by shrinking the pans. As a result, it’s rare to find what we regard as “full-size” cookware, such as a 12-inch skillet, 4-quart saucepan, or 8- to 12-quart stockpot, in a set. Too-small, crowded pans tend to boil over, steam instead of sear, and take longer to accomplish some cooking tasks because they require cooking food in batches.   

    Frankly, quality can also be an issue: We’ve seen cookware sets for astonishingly low prices, but too many consist of a pile of flimsy, nonstick-coated aluminum pans. They’re not capable of transmitting heat uniformly—and they’re not durable. It’s false economy if you’re constantly fighting your pans just to cook a good meal and you replace them every few years.

Tastings and Testings Executive Editor Lisa McManus makes angel hair pasta in stockpots from different cookware sets.

However, we recently found new brands that take a different approach. They focus on construction quality, sell directly to consumers to reduce prices, and offer standard combinations of pans, with some even featuring practical pieces of full-size cookware. We rounded up five of these sets, as well as an innovative set launched by a brand we’ve liked in the past.

What’s in Cookware Sets?

Nearly all the sets we bought contained the following pans (all slightly smaller than we preferred): a 10-inch skillet, a 3-quart saucepan, a 3-quart sauté pan (a deep, lidded frying pan with tall sides), and a 5-quart (or larger) stockpot. Most sets had additional pans, but we focused our testing on the four they had in common to help us compare set to set. In the skillets, we seared steaks, made pan sauce, and browned beef for shepherd’s pie. In the saucepans, we browned butter and boiled and mashed potatoes to top the shepherd’s pies. In the stockpots, we seared batches of beef for stew and tried to cook 2 pounds of angel hair pasta to test their capacity. In the sauté pans, we shallow-fried Swedish meatballs, pouring off the hot oil and building the creamy sauce with the fond, and sautéed heaps of chopped kale. We asked additional testers to try the pans and then finished with abuse-testing to gauge the durability of each skillet, since that’s the hardest-working pan in most kitchens. Throughout testing, we hand-washed the pans and rated them on how easy they were to handle and maintain.

Form Equals Function in Cookware Sets

We were pleased that every set contained fully clad cookware composed of three or more layers of aluminum and stainless steel bonded together. In previous testings, we’ve found that fully clad pans benefit from the qualities of the combined metals to heat more evenly and brown foods more uniformly than pans made of other materials or by other methods. Not surprisingly, then, every set produced acceptable food and most seemed solidly built.

That said, we did have preferences among the sets. Design features such as uncomfortable handles or handles that heated up on the stovetop made pans less easy to use. Handle angles mattered, too, especially when hoisting heavy stockpots or sliding skillets full of shepherd’s pie under hot broilers to brown the potato topping. Dutch ovens and skillets that provided larger cooking surfaces allowed us to brown meat in fewer batches and speed up cooking. Wider openings on saucepans and stockpots helped us see and keep food moving, which was helpful when stirring browned butter; lower, more flared (rather than cupped) sides on skillets helped steam evaporate and food brown evenly. The balance of a pan’s weight, an underrated design element that affects cooking efficiency, became particularly evident when lifting handled skillets and saucepans. Some sets’ pans felt off-balance, clunky, and harder to lift and maneuver, whether we were sautéing foods or scooping out sauce.

Cookware Communities

Many of the new cookware set manufacturers such as Great Jones, Made In, and Brigade Kitchen make the experience of buying their products feel like joining a community, from the messaging you get when you order to the special celebratory and/or eco-friendly packaging when it arrives. These brands offer education about the cookware and how to care for it, ongoing support, active online communities, recipes, blogs, and more. We enjoyed these features and think that they could be especially helpful for novice cooks.

 

So, Do Sets Have All the Pans You Need?

One of the attractions of a cookware set is the idea that someone wiser has preassembled the most functional combination of pieces for you. That’s not always the case: Two of the sets in our lineup had no stockpot or Dutch oven; their largest vessels topped out at 3 quarts, not big enough to cook 2 pounds of angel hair pasta or to make our beef stew recipe. These sets lost points for lacking the pans we deemed necessary for a foundational package of cookware. (One of these sets included a santoku knife instead; we’d rather have additional cookware in our sets.)

ATK Core Cookware Sets

Besides spending our days testing all kinds of cookware, we are also home cooks who have collected our own customized sets of cookware over the years. After reviewing what manufacturers offer in their sets of cookware, we met to decide which cookware we think belongs in a core cookware set—the smallest number of essential pieces that lets us make the widest range of recipes. We’ve assembled three sets: one featuring the category winners from our kitchen testings and one more-affordable set of our Best Buy winners in each category. We then put together a list of second-tier pieces and a wish list of things that might not be essential but are wonderful to have. After all, a cookware set is ideally a curated selection of pans to provide maximum versatility.

 

When comparing similar pieces from each of the sets, too-small or oddly shaped cookware was an issue. One of the 10-inch skillets tapered down to just 7 inches of available cooking surface, barely enough room for a single steak. Browning ground beef for the shepherd’s pie in this pan was frustrating, since pieces were constantly falling onto the stovetop if we didn’t stir very carefully. It was interesting that all the sets included sauté pans: We don’t find them essential and typically reach for a 12-inch skillet or 7-quart Dutch oven instead. Stockpots were a major issue; two sets didn’t have them at all, as we noted above, and at least two more sets had pretty liberal definitions of the term: One set contained a miniature pot that claimed to hold 5 quarts. It did, technically, if filled up to the rim, but at just 8.5 inches in diameter (rim to rim) with sides 5.25 inches tall, it was barely bigger than our favorite large saucepan, which is 8 inches across and 5 inches tall. We could cook a single pound of angel hair in it, but it took work to prevent the pasta from clumping.

An innovative “compact” set from a familiar brand had a different version of a 5-quart stockpot: It was as flattened and low-sided as a sauté pan. Again, we barely managed to cook just 1 pound of pasta in it, and water splashed everywhere as we frantically tried to prevent clumping.

The Best Cookware Set: All-Clad D3 Tri-Ply Bonded Cookware Set, 10 Piece

None of the new sets bested our former favorites. Our top-ranked set was the 10-piece All-Clad D3 Tri-Ply Bonded Cookware Set. This fully clad cookware is hard to beat with its clean, “Goldilocks” design of sturdiness without heaviness, its outstanding cooking performance, and its remarkable durability. It costs about $560, but when you consider that the 8-quart stockpot it includes costs nearly $340 on its own, this set is a comparative bargain and a worthwhile investment that will last a lifetime. Our runner-up, the Tramontina Gourmet 12-Piece Tri-Ply Clad Cookware Set, contained an astonishing number of full-size pans and is moderately priced at about $230. Slightly less well-balanced and well designed than the All-Clad, it nonetheless performed admirably and is durable to boot. Of the new sets, we did have a favorite: For an inexpensive set with an excellent selection of well-designed, fully clad pans, the Potluck Cookware Set, which costs about $160, pleasantly surprised us. We were heartbroken when the skillet warped during our final round of abuse testing, making us realize that this set probably won’t hold up as long as our top two picks, but for a starter set, it’s a decent choice. Finally, if you'd rather build a set yourself using our favorite models from our exhaustive equipment reviews of individual pieces of equipment, we suggest viewing our guide to building your own cookware set

Equipment Review Cookware Sets

Our advice has always been to skip sets and just buy the pans you need. But new brands offering practical cookware packages compelled us to take another look.