Cookware Sets

Published May 2009

How we tested

We’ve never liked cookware sets. Most bundle together a lot of pans we don’t need and not enough of the ones we do—the five or six hardworking multitaskers that we turn to every day. Besides pans in impractical sizes (1-quart saucepans good for little more than melting butter or 8-inch skillets that are only useful if you’re cooking for one), these sets typically feature limited-use “specialty” cookware. Why clog your cabinets with sauté pans (skillets with high, straight sides), sauciers (rounded saucepans with wide rims), or “chef’s” pans (saucepans shaped like woks with domed lids) if you’ve already got a Dutch oven and other basic pans that can do anything they can do and more? And if you think you’ve found an incredible deal on a “14-piece” assortment, beware: Manufacturers count each lid and anything else that isn’t riveted on as a separate piece.

That said, buying pieces one by one gets expensive—particularly with high-end brands. If we could find a set that was a truly good value for the money, offering durable, high-quality construction and a selection on a par with our needs, we’d happily recommend it.

Seeking Out the Sets

Our natural starting point was All-Clad, a brand that has consistently topped our ratings over the years. We like its line in fully clad, stainless steel “tri-ply,” a style boasting three layers of metal fused together and extending from the bottom of the pan all the way up to the rim. Such construction helps to ensure even cooking and a steady transfer of heat. Our ideal set would include a roomy 12-inch traditional skillet (or fry pan—we use the terms interchangeably) that’s big enough to fit four chicken breasts; a 10-inch nonstick skillet for cooking delicate omelets and fish; a 12-inch cast-iron skillet for frying and searing; a 4-quart covered saucepan for vegetables and other side dishes; a 2-quart covered saucepan for heating soup or cooking oatmeal; a 6- or 7-quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven for braising, deep-frying, and even baking bread; and a large stockpot that can do double-duty for pasta, lobster, or corn on the cob.

The downside of All-Clad, of course, is the price: It’s one of the most expensive brands on the market. A cursory search unearthed a 14-piece assortment that included four of the pans on our list, along with four others that definitely were not, and all for an outrageous $1,899.95. We also found a 10-piece All-Clad set (offered exclusively by a single retailer—an irksome trend with sets) that had four of the pans we wanted (the 12-inch skillet, the 2- and 4-quart saucepans, and a reasonably large 8-quart stockpot) and just one we didn’t (a 4-quart sauté pan). This was a definite improvement, but we were still stuck with the sauté pan and a total cost of $799.95. Could we do better?

One fully clad, tri-ply set offered eight pieces that were mostly undersized (8- and 10-inch skillets, 1½- and 2½-quart saucepans, and a 6-quart stockpot) and sold for a much more reasonable $299.99. We put it in our lineup. More searching revealed an amazing find: a fully clad 8-piece tri-ply set costing just a hair under $145. Again, the assorted sizes were not ideal (8- and 10-skillets, 1-quart and 2-quart saucepans, and a 5-quart Dutch oven)—but given its attractive price, we had to test it.

To get other sets priced under $200, we’d have to abandon our desire for fully clad tri-ply and go for the next best thing: disk-bottom pans. Here, manufacturers duplicate the three-layer effect on the pan bottom by attaching a disk of aluminum to the underside of a stainless steel pan, then covering it with another layer stainless steel. We found three sets worth considering. A 10-piece set from a popular manufacturer had the usual too-small pans (8- and 10-inch skillets and 1- and 2-quart saucepans), but it did offer an 8-quart stockpot, and its price ($179.99) was reasonable. For just a bit more ($189.95), a similarly composed 10-piece set caught our eye with its bright orange silicone handle grips and unusual convex design. Finally, another 10-piece set (8- and 10-inch skillets, 1- and 2-quart saucepans, a 6-quart stockpot, plus a 3-quart sauté pan and a steamer insert for the 2-quart saucepan) seemed worth a look at $159.99.


Into the Fire

Not surprisingly, the disk-bottom pans performed the worst in each of our cooking tests—and fell into the bottom half of our rankings. Their biggest downfall? Confining the heat-controlling layers to the bottom of the pan allowed heat to blaze around the perimeter and up the sides; onions, fond (browned bits for pan sauce), and caramel all scorched.

Particularly problematic were the pear-shaped pieces of one cookware set. Bulging sides made it that much easier for heat to bypass the thick, heat-regulating bottom and singe food along the thin, overhanging edges. While the pans suffered from other problems (overheating handles and too-deep skillets that made food steam before browning), this design flaw put the set in last place.

But another set of pans was hot on its heels. A lightweight stockpot not only scooted around the stove as we stirred a batch of chili but ran so hot that the mixture boiled, even after we turned down the heat. Meanwhile, a skillet singed, rather than sautéed, a piece of sole. Protruding handle rivets in the skillets got sticky with sauce, needing extra elbow grease to scrub clean.

As for the final set, it fell victim to the same uneven heating as the other disk-bottom sets. Its low, open saucepans were a plus, but we didn’t like its high-sided skillets. And the handles became very hot, despite silicone grips that tricked us into skipping the potholder. (Plain stainless steel handles on the other cookware sets actually stayed cooler to the touch.)

An Astonishing Bargain

What of the fully clad cookware? The All-Clad set aced every test, earning a perfect score. Its pans are well designed: Skillets have generous cooking surfaces and low, flaring sides that prevent steaming for better browning, while the stockpot and saucepans are solid enough to maintain a gentle simmer but light enough for easy maneuvering. Even with the unwanted sauté pan in the mix, this set was still a great bargain over its open stock price (for items sold individually), saving us more than $300.

Despite its small pan sizes, one set performed admirably, passing each of our cooking tests with ease. The pans are well shaped, with low-sided skillets and low, wide saucepans that aced delicate tasks like stirring pastry cream and finicky caramel. Our only real complaint? Its tempered glass lids. The supposedly helpful clear windows into the pan’s contents steamed up and blocked our view (the glass lids in two other sets behaved similarly). What’s more, the glass is only heatproof up to 450 degrees. But at $299—less than half the price of the All-Clad set—it’s not a bad deal.

At the end of the day, the cheapest set of the lineup landed remarkably close behind the vaunted All-Clad. Priced at just $144.97, it is an astonishing bargain. Remarkably similar to the All-Clad in weight, shape, and design, this set transferred heat evenly, was well balanced and simple to maneuver, and ranked so close to the performance of the All-Clad that we recommend it enthusiastically. Its highly polished skillets released both fish and frittatas with an even golden color and no sticking, earning comments of “Perfect!” from testers. Its rounded handles are even slightly more comfortable than the harder edges of the All-Clad handles. The 5-quart Dutch oven, though on the small side, was big enough to cook chili, and its handles were easy to grip.

The only slight difference between the two brands: The cooking surfaces of these “Best Buy” pans are a little smaller in diameter than the All-Clad pieces (the 10-inch skillet, for example, measures 7 inches across the bottom, versus the 10-inch All-Clad’s 7 5/8 inches.

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The Results


Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.


Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.


Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.


Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.


Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.


Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.