Watching cooking shows may whet more than your appetite: It could leave you hungry for new kitchen cookware. But don’t think the most expensive cookware sets are best.
The allure of owning top-shelf cookware is enticing. But faced with a smorgasbord of cookware styles, materials, and prices—from cast iron and stainless steel to nonstick enamel and copper—it’s wise to be well-informed. Use this guide to sharpen your shopping skills before buying.
Take inventory of the pots and pans you own to determine what needs to be replaced or what is missing from your cookware arsenal. Individual pieces—or “open stock”—are widely available. If you only need to swap out a scratched frying pan, open stock is a cost-saving way to go, and what’s popular now.
Dutch ovens are versatile, moving from stovetop to oven to your table. A Dutch oven can brown, braise, boil, and bake bread. It has high sides, and when made of enameled cast iron, it holds heat well, making it a good choice for deep frying.
Consider Your Cooking Style
Think about what you cook frequently; this will influence your choice of materials. For example, if you sear meat often, cast iron pans will facilitate even browning. If you like to cook stews or sauces low and slow, consider a Dutch oven.
Match Your Cookware to Your Cooktop
Finally, consider how your new cookware will pair with your cooktop. Flat-bottomed pans—overwhelmingly the most popular type—are essential for a smoothtop range. Round-bottom woks will need a vented ring placed on top of a burner to support the wok. If you have an induction cooktop, cookware with magnetic properties is a must. Bring along a magnet when you shop. If it sticks to the bottom, it’ll work with an induction cooktop.
Choose Your Pieces
If you’re building a set of a cookware from scratch, depending on how you cook and how many people you cook for, you will want an assortment of skillets and pots, a stockpot, and lids. In boxed sets, manufacturers count a lid as a piece, and it might fit more than one piece of cookware in the set. A set that contains more pieces might not be the smartest choice if you use only a few and the rest take up space in your cabinet. Note: Utensils and even a cookbook can count as pieces of a set.
Pick It Up
We all shop online, but it’s essential to handle the cookware at a retailer. See how it feels in your hand. If it’s heavy, think how much heavier it will feel when it’s full of food. Make sure that the handles are easy to grasp and that the pot or pan is well-balanced. Check that handle attachments are tight and sturdy. Read the packaging to see whether the cookware can be cleaned in a dishwasher.
These allow you see what’s going on inside the pot without having to lift it off, letting steam escape. But they add weight and can break, which could be a problem in a household with young kids.
From Stove to Oven
If the box says the cookware is oven-safe, be sure to check the specifics. What temperature can this cookware safely be used? Some cookware can be used in ovens set to 350°F, while others can withstand higher heat—up to 500°F.
Picks & Pans: Cookware Types
Choose a cookware material that suits the cooking technique. For example, sautéed foods turn out best in pans that transmit heat quickly, braised foods need pans that retain heat over long periods, and you shouldn’t cook white sauces or tomato sauces in unlined copper or aluminum cookware because those ingredients react with the metal.
Long-lasting, classic, uncoated stainless steel is a good choice for browning and braising. Often sold in sets, stainless cookware can be the kitchen workhorse, tackling everything from pickling to pasta sauce.
Pros: Durable, easy to care for, does not react with foods. Provides rapid, uniform heating. Often magnetic and compatible with induction cooktops. Dishwasher-, oven-, and broiler-safe (depending on the handle material).
Cons: Sometimes tougher to clean. If you choose uncoated, you might still want a nonstick pan or two, and vice versa.
Durable nonstick coatings effortlessly release even delicate foods, including eggs and pancakes. Because little or no oil is needed, nonstick pans are a good choice for low-fat or nonfat dishes.
Pros: Exceptionally easy to clean. Need less oil for cooking, which eliminates some fat from your diet. Depending on the primary material, most pieces are ideal for use on any type of cooktop, including induction. Most pieces are oven-safe to 500° F, but take into account the handle material.
Cons: Some, but not all, nonstick pans are now safe for use with metal utensils. But it’s still smart to take care not to scratch or gouge the surface material. Many, but not all, pieces are dishwasher-safe. Also, food doesn’t brown as well in a nonstick pan.
Enameled Cast Iron
Great for searing, sautéing, browning, and frying, these classic, colorful pieces transition seamlessly from stovetop or oven to your dining table. Covered pieces are also perfect for braising, stewing, slow-cooking, and roasting meat.
Pros: Heats slowly and evenly and retains heat well. Durable coating doesn’t react with acidic ingredients. Dishwasher-safe, corrosion-resistant, and oven-safe to 500° F.
Cons: Heavy, and they get even heavier when filled with food. Small handles can make transport from stovetop to oven a bit cumbersome. Enamel can chip.
Uncoated Cast Iron
A great alternative to nonstick cooking surfaces. Lodge, America’s oldest family-owned cookware manufacturer, has refered to its cookware as “natural nonstick.” Cast iron is extremely durable and can be preheated to temperatures that will brown meat. It will also withstand oven temperatures well above what is considered safe for nonstick pans.
Pros: Durable, classic. A Dutch oven, which keeps food warm for a long time, is a handy piece to have.
Cons: Some frying pans cook unevenly. Tough to clean and impractical for everyday cooking. Not dishwasher-safe. Must be seasoned (rubbed with multiple coats of oil) and maintained. Will rust if left in damp environment.
Carbon-Steel & Blue Steel
These pans are favorites in professional kitchens because they’re extremely durable and efficient, and designed for high-performance cooking.
Pros: Ideal for use on any type of cooktop, including induction, and the preferred material for woks, omelet pans, and crepe pans. Wipes clean with paper towels (avoid washing).
Cons: Often single-purpose pan design. Not dishwasher-safe. Must be seasoned (rubbed with multiple coats of oil) to avoid rusting. Hand-wash only with mild soapy water and soft brush.
Real copper cookware provides quick and even cooking, and cools down quickly, providing maximum control. Look for heavy-gauge copper (1⁄16 to 1⁄8 inch thick) for longest wear.
Pros: Ideal for everything from high-heat searing, sautéing, and frying to gently simmering delicate sauces. Offers nice kitchen-to-table presentation. Heavy models with iron or brass handles are safe for oven use.
Cons: Pricey. Can dent easily. Copper is a reactive metal but today’s pans are typically lined with a nonreactive metal such as tin or stainless steel that make them safe to cook in. Not compatible with induction cooktops. Copper can take on a patina over time that requires removal with a copper cleaner. Hand-wash only.
Aluminum cookware is an excellent heat conductor, as well as reasonably priced and lightweight. It is, however, prone to staining and can discolor light-colored foods and sauces, and can make them taste bitter. As a countermeasure, anodized aluminum is coated to prevent such side effects.
Pros: Affordable, lightweight, and strong.
Cons: Can discolor some foods and impart a bitter taste.