For anyone who has ever perused the cookware aisles at Macy’s or Bed Bath & Beyond looking to purchase a new set of pots and pans, you know how overwhelming it can be. First you have to contend with all the different brand names and price ranges, and then decide on the spot if you’ll go home with stainless steel, aluminum, or copper cookware. With this cookware buying guide, you’ll be able to parse through a lot of the confusion and, in the end, find the perfect cookware set (or single pot or pan) for your home.
Cookware set vs. open stock
Do you need a full set of cookware or do you really only need to replace a few items from a set you purchased a few years ago? Buying pots and pans a la carte, so to speak, can take the process from a 10 to a two on the frustration scale. So if you simply need a new saucepan or have to replace a dinged-up Dutch oven, then the term you’re looking for is open stock.
Open stock refers to when a store keeps merchandise (such as cookware sets) in stock so that customers can purchase and replace only the pieces they need. Brands like Analon, Farberware and Rachael Ray have cookware sets and open-stock sets.
Even if stores don’t carry your exact set, some shoppers are OK with buying new pieces of cookware that only resemble their pots and pans from home because it will save a fortune. For example, replacing your frying pan can run anywhere from $19.99 for a stainless steel Cuisinart pan to $485 for a Merpa Toscana copper fry pan. And an entire cookware set can start around $112 and go up into the mid four figures.
While buying open stock is obviously the more economical option, no one will fault you for wanting a full and complete set of matching pots and pans.
Cookware buying guide: terminology
Here are some terms you will encounter when shopping for cookware. This guide will help you make more informed cookware-buying decisions.
Base: this is the bottom of the pot or pan. Options include a flat or magnetic base
Body: refers to the materials used to make cookware. Some common choices are stainless steel and cast iron
Cladding: layers of metals fused together
Cookware surface: refers to the non-stick, stainless steel, or stick-resistant cooking surface of the pots
Core: the disc on the bottom of the pan is the core and is aluminum, copper, or a combination of both. Cookware with a thick core distributes heat better.
Handle: Handles are metal, wood, or coated with silicone. Only metal and silicone-coated handles are oven-safe, and wood handles stay cool to the touch when cooking.
Rim: This is the lip of the cookware. A rolled rim makes it easier to pour liquids. Pots with a straight edge are best for tossing ingredients.
Rivets: these are the bolts that connect separate parts of pots and pans, like the handle to the pan. Some cookware fuses parts together or uses screws.
What’s in a cookware set
Dutch oven: This versatile large pot has a heavy bottom and tall sides. It goes in the oven and on the stovetop. It’s used for making soups, stews, frying and baking bread.
Frying pan: This rounded-sided skillet is one of the most popular pans. It’s used for frying meats and vegetables, frying eggs, and cooking hamburgers.
Nonstick griddle: This flat, nonstick pan with very short sides has more surface area than a frying pan. It’s used for quick and easy cooking jobs, like grilled cheese, pancakes, hash browns, and frying eggs
Roasting pan: This is a large rectangular pan with a flat bottom and low sides. These pans are used for roasting meat. Like a Dutch oven, it can easily move from the oven to the stovetop.
Saucepan: Saucepans come in a lot of different sizes and have tall, straight sides. They’re used for making sauces and soups, cooking pasta and rice, and poaching eggs.
Saute pan: Since it has higher sides than a frying pan, it’s also known as a deep skillet. Saute pans are used for reducing liquids, braising meats, and steaming. Some cooks are comfortable deep-frying in a saute pan.
Stockpot: This is a very large, deep pot used for making soups, stocks, and stews. It’s also large enough for sauteing or browning meat and then adding liquid later.
Cookware buying guide: types of cookware
Most pots and pans have a combination of metals. But do you know what makes aluminum cookware better or inferior to cast iron or copper? Here is a rundown of common cookware materials.
Stainless steel, an iron alloy, is the most popular cookware. The metal earned its “stainless” moniker because it’s resistant to rust, stains, and corrosion and won’t crack, warp, or chip. Well-cared-for stainless steel cookware can keep its shine for years.
Pros: Stainless steel cookware is affordable, durable, dishwasher safe, and won’t make recipes taste funny, not even the most acidic sauces or cheese casseroles.
Cons: Steel does not conduct heat very well and can cook food unevenly.
Tips: By spending a few more dollars on stainless steel cookware with an aluminum (like Potluck) or copper core base, sidewalls, or both, pans will conduct heat more evenly. Potluck has a stainless steel cookware set with a layer of aluminum. And KitchenAid’s stainless steel cookware has a copper core.
Consider the durable 18/10 stainless steel cookware, which contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel.
Home chefs love lightweight aluminum pots and pans because they’re affordable and conduct heat pretty well.
Pros: Aluminum is durable and cooks food evenly.
Cons: Because aluminum is soft, it can warp, scratch, and dent more easily. Aluminum can also react badly to some types of foods.
Tips: Anodized aluminum cookware is when the aluminum surface has an aluminum oxide coating. While it will up the price of the cookware, it also makes the pots and pans scratch resistant and much less reactive with foods.
The most attractive cookware out there are copper. It’s also the cookware of choice for professionals because the metal heats fast and adjusts quickly to changes in temperature. Today, a lot of copper pots and pans have stainless steel lining, which improves durability and makes maintenance easier.
Pros: The biggest advantage of having copper cookware is the control it gives chefs over the cooking process because it distributes heat so evenly. “A copper pan will heat up twice as quickly as an aluminum pan and 20 times as quickly as a stainless steel pan,” says the Cookware Advisor.
Cons: It’s expensive. Also, acidic and alkaline foods have a metallic taste after cooking in copper. These pots and pans need a lot of maintenance, including regular polishing.
Tips: If you enjoy making candy, this is definitely the cookware for you. According to the Kitchen Professor, “Their superior heat conductivity…will prevent unsightly crystallization, resulting in a higher quality candy.” For best thermal conductivity, buy copper cookware that’s at least 2.5mm thick.
Mauviel has a sugar saucepan with a copper handle that’s perfect for candy makers.
Cookware buying guide: 5 considerations
Here is everything you’ll need to consider when buying a home cookware set.
- Price: The amount you want to pay for cookware will likely determine whether you’ll go home with stainless steel, aluminum, or copper. “Using the best you can afford makes all the difference when it comes to getting a crispier sear, a more evenly distributed heat, and food that isn’t burned,” says Architecture Digest writer, Katherine McGrath.
- Maintenance: If price isn’t an issue but spending hours on cookware maintenance is, then consider paying more. Pots and pans made with titanium-bonded stainless steel, or a set made with layered stainless steel and aluminum.
- Reactivity: Aluminum and copper pots heat more uniformly. But they can make your grilled cheese taste like a tinfoil sandwich. “So, compromises have been developed, says Diana Rattray from the Spruce Eats. Namely, enamelware, which is a non-reactive coating for metal pans. “As a result, you get a pan that heats more evenly, yet does not react with acidic foods.” Consider anodized aluminum or tin-lined copper pans. Tin and neutralized aluminum release fewer metal particles into food. “Even if the foods are acidic,” says Rattray. “They make a barrier between the acid of the food and the reactive metal of the pan.”
- Durability: Stainless steel cookware is the most durable. You have to replace this cookware set for another one or two decades.
- Heat conductivity: If you’re going for perfection, then you can’t go wrong with copper cookware. If cost is an issue, consider higher-end stainless steel clad with copper or aluminum. “The stainless steel provides the cooking surface, while the aluminum or copper improves the heat conductivity,” says Mike Speights, The Foodery co-founder.