Quality cookware isn't about price or celebrity-chef endorsements. Our tests of both nonstick and uncoated pots and pans found good performers at all price ranges, with and without the star treatment.
Economical cookware, meanwhile, is all about buying by the set. Buying individual pieces (or open stock) is considerably more expensive, though you might want to purchase the odd specialty piece separately. Here are some suggestions on how to sort through cookware sets, either for yourself or for someone on your holiday gift list:
¢ Match materials to needs. Most sets consist of either nonstick or uncoated pieces. Uncoated cookware is best for browning, braising and deglazing for sauces, but it can be a killer to clean. Nonstick cookware offers simple cleanup, but it's more easily scratched than uncoated. (For that reason we advise against using metal utensils, although some manufacturers say it's OK.) Foods also do not brown as well in nonstick pans as they do in coated ones. On the plus side, nonstick requires less oil than uncoated when cooking, so you can cut a bit of fat from your diet.
¢ Principal pieces. Most people's must-haves include saucepans, skillets and a stockpot. Makers count lids as separate pieces in sets, and lids that fit saucepans or stockpots also may fit comparably sized skillets. Most sets include both large and small pans and skillets. A stockpot often is part of even the smallest sets. (Though you may never even consider making homemade soup, the stockpot could prove its worth when cooking pasta for a crowd.) Bear in mind that more pieces don't always mean better value, particularly if the set includes items that you won't use but will have to find space to store.
¢ Get a grip. It's easy to buy online these days, but it's a good idea to handle the cookware at a retailer. Check the weight: If a pot feels heavy when empty, think how much heavier it will be when it's full of food. Consider handle comfort and balance. Make sure that the handle attachments, often rivets, are tight and sturdy. Read the instructions to see whether the cookware can be cleaned in a dishwasher.
Our tests of cookware sets focused on evenness of cooking; nonstick durability; handle safety, comfort and sturdiness; and ease of cleaning. We think most everyday cooks will do well with a basic set of nonstick cookware. Our top performer in that category was the 14-piece Kirkland Signature set (Item 783634) from Costco. (At just $150, it's a CR Best Buy.) Cooking was very even, and the nonstick surface was very durable. However, the pieces are not dishwasher safe. For those on a tighter budget, there's the Wearever Excellence 8-piece set ($100) or the 9-piece Bialetti Fusion 45459 set. The Bialetti is the lightest - and at just $50, the least expensive - set we tested. Both sets cooked very nicely and are dishwasher safe, although neither has particularly sturdy handles.
For the best value in uncoated cookware, we recommend the 11-piece Member's Mark Tri-Ply-Clad set (Item 955462) from Sam's Club. This $130 set includes a small-diameter frying pan and a steamer. Cooking was very even in our tests, and the handles safe and comfortable, although they could be sturdier. Cleaning was fairly easy, for an uncoated set, and the pieces are dishwasher safe.
If you want to mix nonstick and uncoated in the same set, consider the 8-piece Simply Calphalon from Calphalon ($150). Its stainless-steel-over-aluminum pieces include uncoated saucepans, and large and small nonstick frying pans with glass lids. The set scored excellent for evenness of heating, and the coating performed reasonably well in our test of nonstick durability. All the components except the frying pans are dishwasher safe.