Jan 09, 2024

The Best Cookware Sets for Your Kitchen

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By Caroline Lange

A quality cookware set is among the crown jewels of a wedding registry—but it's not just for newlyweds. Whether you’re wanting to refresh your current cookware collection or assembling pots and pans for your first real kitchen, it's an investment that can transform your cooking.

As with all investments, there are important factors to weigh. Cookware brands, both heritage companies and market-disrupting newcomers, abound, and it's hard to gauge the differences from their product marketing and word of mouth alone. On top of that, cookware sets come in a range of materials, price points and assortments. (Are eight pieces enough, or should you choose the better-value set of 12?).

To help you buy a long-lasting one you’ll actually use, and love to use—we sought guidance from experts and ran a battery of cooking tests to surface the standouts. These are the three that are a cut above the rest.

$700 at Amazon

The D3 is our favorite set of pots and pans for its even heating, ease of use and durability.

The D3 line might be the least flashy of All Clad's offerings—in comparison with other sets, it has the most basic construction and the lowest price tag—but it offers exactly what most home cooks need. Its tri-ply construction (aluminum sandwiched between heavy-gauge stainless steel) makes it sturdy, as well as quicker to heat, and more even in its heating than the comparable tri-ply sets we tested. Despite this heavyweight construction, the pans feel quite light in the hand. The 10-inch frying pan, for example, was the lightest of all of the pans we tested, at just 2 pounds, 4 ounces. It was a cinch to move around the stove and to carry from kitchen to dining room.

This 10-piece set also offers the ideal assortment of pots and pans, according to the experts we spoke with, especially for people cooking for one or two:

If you cook regularly for a larger group (say, your family of four), you might want to add a 12-inch frying pan to the mix, but otherwise this assortment would meet your needs and then some, our experts say.

These pros also universally recommended All-Clad as pans they’ve cooked with in professional settings (or wished they’d been able to), and now cook with at home. We tested three different 10-piece All-Clad cookware sets to determine which works best for everyday use: the D3, with its tri-ply construction; the D5, which is 5-ply, alternating layers of stainless steel and aluminum; and the Copper Core, also 5-ply, with a central layer of copper, which is known for its rapid and responsive heating.

Their assortments are nearly identical; the only distinction is that the D5 set has a 1.5-quart saucepan rather than a 2-quart one. And each can be used on any kind of cooktop, as well as go into the oven up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit (and under the broiler). But while the Copper Core and D5 sets did heat a few seconds faster than the D3, they all held heat evenly, and the Copper Core and D5 handles were significantly less comfortable than those of the D3 set. The D3 handles are relatively flat, with rounded edges and a slight dip for the thumb. The other All-Clad sets we tested had more severe edges and a much deeper valley for the thumb to sit in, making them somewhat awkward to hold. The D5 and Copper Core pans are heavier too—the Copper Core 10-inch frying pan was the heaviest of all we tested, at 2 pounds, 12 ounces—and with this weightiness, the sharper edges press into your palm.

Price factored in too. The D3 performed almost equally to the D5, but costs $200 less—and a staggering $800 less than the Copper Core set. At $524, it falls right in the middle of the price range of all the pans we tested, while also heating faster than the majority. It was also easier to clean. All stainless pans require some elbow grease from time to time, especially when oil cooks on; scrubbing with a little bit of baking soda makes light work of it. But the All-Clad's pans, with their high-quality steel construction and gently sloped edges (rather than the rounder, bowl-like shape of other pans) stood out.

$225 at Goldilocks

These almost-perfect pans have comfortable handles, heat evenly and are well-priced, though the set includes only 8 pieces.

If you want a reliable, good-looking stainless steel set without the hefty price tag typically associated with stainless sets, the Cookware Set Plus from Goldilocks, a startup kitchenware brand, is a solid choice. It has the same tri-ply construction as our top pick from All-Clad, which offers durability and even heating, and it comes with a good assortment of essentials (lacking only a sauté pan).

The Goldilocks handles stay cool while cooking, though they’re not as comfortable as the D3's handles. This set is also on the heavier side (the 10-inch skillet clocked in at 2 pounds, 9 ounces), and while its performance is good, it's not as strong as the D3 and some of the other high-end sets. The Goldilocks heated a few seconds slower than the D3, and when we fried eggs, there was a little bit of sticking—tradeoffs for a set priced at less than a third of the cost of the D3.

$700 at Hexclad

$1000 Save $300

These scratch-resistant nonstick pots and pans are made of sturdy tri-ply and safe to use with metal utensils.

HexClad claims to provide "the cooking experience of stainless steel, nonstick and cast iron in a single pan." What they mean by this is that these nonstick pans have the quick and even heating capabilities of stainless steel and can cook on high heat, on the stove and in the oven, like cast iron can. (As a general rule, most nonstick pans are not supposed to be used over high heat because higher temps degrade the coatings and can release chemicals.) The 13-piece set was a high performer in our testing overall and, in fact, the HexClad pot brought water to a boil a full 20 seconds faster than any other brand we tested.

HexClad's set is both tri-ply, meaning very solidly constructed with even heat distribution, and classic PTFE nonstick, so it's very slick. The pans are free of PFOAs and PFAS, the chemical coatings that make old-school nonstick pans so slippery and which have been outlawed in the USA since 2015. PTFE is considered nontoxic by the Food and Drug Administration and is still used on most pans that call themselves nonstick. (Aside from PTFE nonstick pans, the other nonstick pans you see most often are "ceramic," meaning the coating is silicone and free of PTFE, PFOA, and PFAS.) PTFE is extremely nonstick-y; in our testing, a fried egg slipped out onto a plate with barely any effort. Unlike with other nonstick pans, you can use metal utensils with these, thanks to their construction: Stainless steel "peaks" protect the pans’ nonstick "valleys" underneath from abrasive cooking tools, the company says.

The pans are pleasant to use, with comfortable handles that stay cool while cooking, but they do require a quick seasoning first (a thin layer of oil over medium heat for two minutes). Cleanup is a breeze, though. Even after frying an egg on high heat, no residue remained—all it took was a quick swipe with a soapy sponge to wipe the surface clean.

In addition to being a serious home cook, I’m a food stylist and a professional recipe tester for various cookbooks and publications—both jobs that can mean cooking as many as 10 recipes a day—with nearly 10 years of experience. I’ve been testing and reviewing cookware for various publications for more than five years. I have also worked as a private chef, which has given me an education in all kinds of cookware, home kitchens and cooking needs.

As part of my research for this piece, I spoke to three experts: Barbara Rich, lead chef of culinary arts at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City; Erick Williams, James Beard Award-winning chef-owner of three restaurants in Chicago; and Neel Kajale, test kitchen manager of Haven's Kitchen in New York City. In addition to testing nine sets of cookware for this piece, I also consulted other reviews of cookware sets from various reputable sites and read hundreds of consumer reviews on e-retailer sites.

I looked for pots and pans that would stand up to frequent cooking from both legacy brands in the cookware industry, like AllClad, Calphalon, and Cuisinart, and newcomers like direct-to-consumer brands Goldilocks and Made In.

I narrowed the field before beginning to test based on my interviews with the experts. Following their advice, I limited my search to sets that had roughly the assortment they recommended (more on that below), and I also gave preference to stainless steel sets because of their reputation for being exceptionally versatile, and long-lasting. (I did, however, also include some nonstick options for people who prioritize cookware that is easy to clean.)

To test these cookware sets, I timed how quickly it took to bring water to a boil in each 3-quart pot. I sprayed each 10-inch skillet with nonstick cooking spray and coated them with a layer of flour, then toasted that flour over medium heat to determine how evenly the pan heated. (I also took a photo using an infrared camera of the preheated pan.) I fried an egg in ½ tablespoon of olive oil in each 10-inch skillet—eggs are one of the most common foods home cooks make and one of the stickiest. I paid close attention to what it was like to handle the pans, whether the handles stayed comfortably cool to the touch, how easy it was to remove the fried egg (and how much food residue was left behind), and what cleaning the pans entailed.

More specifically, the search focused on these factors:

Assortment: Based on my own cooking experience as well as the guidance of the experts I consulted for this story, I homed in on sets that were at least 10 pieces and no more than 12 pieces (including lids). Some sets I considered had more than 20 pieces, which might seem like a good value, but, as the experts I spoke with emphasized, a pan you’re not going to use can't earn its keep.The range of 10 to 12 pieces was generally enough to offer an assortment of pan types that most home cooks would find useful most of the time while still being lean and mean. The general consensus was that a set with the following will work for most home cooks:

Material(s): A set of cookware is a big purchase you’ll use almost every day, so it should be durable and versatile. I considered how sturdy a pan was, the quality of its construction, whether it would scratch or dent easily (and what kinds of cooking utensils you could confidently use with it). On the versatility front, I looked for pans that could move from the stove to the oven, as well as pans that were compatible with all cooktops—gas, electric and induction.The most durable and versatile material would probably be cast iron—but while a cast iron skillet is a handy addition to your kitchen's stable of cookware, a full set of cast iron (or enameled cast iron) cookware is too heavy for most folks’ daily cooking routines. I also chose not to test any sets that included pots and pans with plastic parts, which could potentially melt over the stovetop and would preclude the pans from going into the oven at all. Most of the pans I tested were stainless steel, which has a reputation for being scratch-resistant and is typically ovenproof to very high temperatures; most can be used on any cooktop as well.I also wanted to be sure to include nonstick pans in the mix. Nonstick pans are enormously popular, thanks to how easy they are to clean. They’re also notorious for getting scratched easily, so it's important to factor in the need to replace a nonstick set every 3 to 4 years or so (or whenever the pans get scratched) when you consider the price.

Crucially, scratches in nonstick pans can bring your food into direct contact with chemicals. For these reasons, I chose pans that were free of PFOA and PFAS, the chemicals historically found in many nonstick coatings. (Per the FDA, PFOA and PFAS have been phased out of cookware in the U.S. since 2016. But it's still worth checking, especially when considering pans not made in the U.S..) Many nontoxic nonstick pans available on the market are "ceramic"—that is, not actually ceramic, but coated with very fine silicone.

I chose not to test any classic copper cooksets. Not only do they tend to be heavy and expensive, but they also require frequent maintenance.

Finally, a note on construction. A lot is made of the layers of a pan—the ply. The fewer the layers, the more quickly the pan will heat, and the more responsive it is to changes in heat. The more layers there are, the more evenly the pan will heat and the longer it will retain the heat. Most pans are at least "tri-ply," or aluminum (lightweight and heats quickly) sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel (durable and heats evenly).

Comfort of use (weight, handles, etc.): A pan should feel good in the hand and easy to maneuver, since you’ll be using it just about every day, sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes filled to the brim with very hot water. I took into account how heavy the pans were, whether the handles (of the pans and of the lids) stayed relatively cool during cooking, and how easy it was to hold them one-handed, as we so often are in the kitchen. I also gave bonus points to larger pots and pans that had a "helper handle" in addition to their primary handle, which aids in handling heavy dishes.

Evenness of heat distribution: The experts I spoke to consistently prioritized how evenly a pot or pan heats. Without even heating, a dish will cook at different rates, leaving tomato sauce scorched and skin-on chicken thighs unevenly browned. The evenness of a pan's heating also suggests thoughtful, high-quality construction in general.

Ease of cleaning: The urge to shuffle all the pots and pans you’ve just used into the dishwasher is understandable and strong—but most cookware companies don't recommend it in order to prevent scratches and warping, and to prolong the pans’ general longevity. I looked for pans that cleaned easily with just a basic dish soap, scrubby-sided sponge and dish brush.