Pots, Pans, and More: How to Choose the Best Cookware Set

Published on 06/17/2023 · 14 min readLooking to choose your first cookware set or upgrade your current set? Kitchen Expert Jacob Cummings gives you everything you need to know to pick the best set for you.
Jacob Lewis, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Jacob Lewis

All photos by Jacob Cummings

It is easy to see why people want to own the best cookware sets for them. Finding a set of cookware that perfectly meets your needs regarding prep style, headcount, and your unique kitchen space requires considering these elements both individually and together. This can be overwhelming, and sometimes we don’t always know what exact combination of pans and skillets will check all the marks! It can be a long process of trying options that look interesting and testing how they work out. It’s okay for this process to be trial and error, that’s what’s fun about cooking, right? But if you’re looking for a little clarity on what pan sets will best suit your needs, read on or reach out to a Kitchen Expert here on Curated.

For the last nine months, I have been traveling the United States in an old Toyota pickup with a 1970s camper strapped to the back. Inside, it’s no chef’s kitchen, and it doesn’t have an induction cooktop. But, it’s enough to comfortably meet the needs of one to two people. If I’m feeling rowdy, this little kitchen can serve a dozen people.

Photo by Jacob Cummings

When I left Oregon in December 2021, there was snow on the ground, and I was dreaming of all the meals I would be preparing with veggies from the warm California farmer's markets. I craved sunlight, high-quality avocados, and citrus. As I fantasized, I sorted through potential cookware to bring along. Mostly all of my kitchen equipment is meant for larger spaces and bigger crowds, and thus got packed away. Unfortunately, both instant pots went into my storage space, along with the Calphalon stainless-steel cookware set and glass lids. I focused on what will offer the most fun and easy cooking experience while still allowing me to go all out on complex recipes—versatility in every sense of the word!

Only full-size, metal kitchen accessories were packed. Next, I added the large cutting board and a Henckels three-piece knife set. All that was left was to decide on pans...I’d been preparing for this moment for a long time.

I grew up with a stainless Calphalon sauté pan, saucepan, and an enamel stock pot. As an adult, my favorites have been the joys of the fast-heating copper bottom All-Clad pans. Eventually, I made a preferential switch to Analon pans which I feel have more comfortable handles.

Photo by Jacob Cummings

For now, the cheapest and most durable cookware material also happens to be my favorite to cook with on the road. I settled on bringing my oldest pans from college: a Lodge cast-iron dutch oven and a Lodge cast-iron skillet. Between these two, I have the flexibility to sauté onions, sear bacon, quick boil pasta, bake a chicken or a loaf of bread, and stew anything with all of the durability and heat distribution I desire. I can make soups, sauces, grains, legumes, popcorn, cake, and grilled cheese for days. This last weekend up in northern Vermont, I was able to use both of these pans to serve six people dinner and breakfast, all with easy cleanup. While a cast iron pan has notable drawbacks, I find it’s the most fun to cook with and met my needs while traveling.

With your space and needs in mind, let’s have a look at each type of material and some of the sets that are beloved by cooks around the world.

Photo by Jacob Cummings

What to Know About Cookware Sets

Cookware sets are worth it for anyone who knows they want every included pot and pan in the set. If there’s any question about a pot in the set not getting much use, then I recommend looking for an alternate set or individually selecting pieces.

Cookware sets can come in many arrangements, but it’s most common to see them centering on a medium-sized skillet and saucepan. For example, a three or four-piece set will most often include a skillet, saucepan, and one or two lids. Other cookware sets might focus on stock pots and strainers—it depends on what you’re looking for.

Less common are specialized two-piece sets like the Lodge Combo Cooker that uses a saucepan and a skillet to combine into a dutch oven. Do keep in mind that the number of pieces listed in a set can be confusing. A ten-piece set will often have five total pots and pans with accessories like a steam basket, strainer, and an assortment of lids as the remaining pieces. While this coverage of options can fill a conventional range top enough to feed a dinner party, it’s also often more bulk in the cupboards than what smaller households need. My preference for smaller households is to forego aesthetic consistency and select each implement.

Nonstick Cookware

Nonstick cookware is amazing for eggs and other delicate foods. While nonstick cookware is not required in the kitchen, it can reduce the need for copious amounts of cooking oil and save you the frustration of stuck food. Nonstick works best as a skillet, sauté pan, griddle, or saucepan, and they are often made with stainless steel, a great material for induction cooktops.

Low-cost nonstick might be made with aluminum, and while these pans will be more lightweight, they will not be compatible with an induction cooktop. The PTFE or ceramic coatings in modern nonstick cookware has been tested repeatedly and is considered to be generally safe for cooking, although it’s still important to use lower temperatures as the coating can become damaged with excessive heat.

As for kitchen accessories, make sure to only use those made of silicone or wood. Metal utensils might be approved for some non-stick pieces, but all manufacturers will agree, there is a risk that the metal will scratch the coating. Cleanup is purposefully created to be extra easy with nonstick cookware—wash it by hand with a non-abrasive sponge or in the dishwasher.

Nonstick pans can be broken down into a couple of categories...

Ceramic Nonstick Cookware: These pots and pans are made in a very specific way. Instead of adding a nonstick coating to them, sand is used to create a nonstick surface. To be more precise, silica (aka quartz) is paired with oxygen to create a mineral gel that is applied to metal and then superheated for adherence. When using these cookware pieces in ovens or a broiler, make sure you only use them at or below the listed temperature. This will ensure the longevity of your equipment and will minimize wear and tear.

  • Ceramic and diamond-coated Greenpan Venice Pro cookware sets are stylish, highly durable, and dishwasher and oven-safe like, most other nonstick options.

Hard-Anodized Aluminum Cookware: These are made by oxidizing aluminum to a very high degree, so much so that the oxidation extends a few millimeters into the metal itself. This makes the aluminum become non-reactant with acids and alkaline ingredients, like citrus fruits, dairy, etc. A non-toxic nonstick coating is added to finish the building process. These kinds of pans do well in ovens and on stovetops. Not all anodized pans are safe to go in the dishwasher, so check the instructions when trying a new one out.

  • A very sweet set of hard-anodized aluminum set of cookware is the Viking Hard Anodized Nonstick 10pc Cookware Set. The pieces are a little heavier, but the handling styles are great.

No matter which style suits you best, nonstick cookware is amazing for eggs, roast poultry, and other delicate foods. The best nonstick cookware sets are not over-the-moon expensive so finding one to fit your budget should not be an issue.

Best for…

Nonstick is the best option for no-fuss quick breakfasts and reheating complex leftovers. They make easy work out of eggs, pancakes, and tofu, and they’re a good fit for anyone who doesn’t want to fuss with scrubbing cookware at the dish tub.

Cast-Iron Cookware

Photo by Jacob Cummings

Owning and caring for cast iron requires added maintenance, but the reward is versatile pots and pans that can go from the stovetop to the oven to the campfire for many generations.

Cast iron is not as conductive as stainless or copper, making it slower to heat up. But once heated, it has amazing heat retention. It’s great for keeping food hot at the table for a little longer. It can take high heat temperatures without warping. There is also virtually no risk of overheating this cookware, besides needing to renew the seasoning.

When it’s seasoned well, the surface is comparable to the best nonstick cookware and it’s easy to clean with a chainmail scrubber. Best of all, this ancient material is magnetic, making it the best for even heat distribution on the most high-tech induction burners.

Cast iron cookware that comes with a lid—like a dutch oven—has an impressive tight fit on its lids. The best cast-iron cookware set will feature at least one pot with a lid. With a lid, less moisture is lost during the cooking process which causes the steam to build up in the pot, creating more pressure on the ingredients, and thus tenderizing them. Additionally, you can mimic traditional sushi-rice-making practices in a cast-iron dutch oven. (Sushi rice is traditionally cooked in large bamboo steamers whose lids are weighed down with rocks to create more pressure, yielding a fluffier rice grain.)

The challenge and risk of owning cast iron is making sure you don’t burn yourself on the pan. Always have a surplus of cooking mitts or thick rags to grab the handles. The short helper handle on most skillets is a must-have when shopping for cast iron cookware.

I love cast iron with two handles like the Staub Double Handle Fry Pan to add extra maneuverability when lifting and transporting your skillet. Cast iron is heavy, to begin with, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve burned myself on skillet handles and lids when trying to pick up a full pan. User beware and keep a firm grip on the handles with a dry towel folded a few times.

Cast iron is prone to rust, so rub a bit of vegetable oil over the surface of the pan once cleaned to keep oxygen away from the exposed iron. Hand-wash only! For a lifetime of usage with your cast iron cookware, be patient, steady, and pick the skillet up with both hands!

Best for…

Cast iron is amazing for anyone who’s passionate about cooking and is stoked to own and maintain durable cookware that can provide meals for many lifetimes. They can make some amazing steak with a bit of butter and a bouquet of fresh herbs added to the mix. And even cornbread batter can be easily poured into a nice warm skillet for a long bake over coals or at home in an oven.

Enamel Cast-Iron Cookware

Fancy cast iron is covered in enamel! It’s often pretty to look at, which can enhance the appearance of your meals at the table, especially all the colors available from Le Creuset. I don’t own any because I have accidentally damaged other people’s enameled cast iron pans with my carelessness. But if you’re confident in the kitchen and want the even heat distribution of cast iron with some of the reduced maintenance of standard cast iron, then enamel pans easily dress up every meal with their (often) colorful exteriors.

They’re not dishwasher-safe, but an enamel pot is great for baking sourdough in the oven and works amazingly on induction cooktops. Unlike conventional cast iron, the enamel does not build up a seasoning that provides a nonstick coating, so eggs and other sticky foods require some extra care and heat management.

Best for…

Enamel cast iron is best for slow-cooking stews and anything that will benefit from full heat distribution. These pots are the most fun to bring to the table by adding colorful contrast to dishes. Absolutely the best for making a table of hungry guests swoon.

Stainless-Steel Cookware

Stainless steel pots and pans look great, are highly durable, and have handles that usually remain cool to the touch (with exception of the handles on the lids). Because of this, they’re generally easier and safer to maneuver than cast iron. I especially love the handles of the Anolon pans!

Stainless steel can be more work to clean than nonstick or cast iron, but it does clean up easily with steel wool or other metal scrubbing surfaces. Stainless is fun to cook with because it’s so durable and the handles stay cool, but it can be frustrating too. It is perhaps the least nonstick surface of any option available! While you can still cook eggs and pancakes in stainless steel, you will need more oil or butter and heat control than nonstick or cast-iron. These are great as stock pots for pasta and watery dishes, as the pot will not rust or leach metallic flavor into your cooking the way that cast iron sometimes can.

Some of the risks of stainless steel can be making sure heat is distributed evenly. For this, I recommend going for the nicer options. Three-ply, or even a copper bottom mix, will heat quickly and offer even heat distribution. What the terms three-ply and copper-bottom imply is that there are layers to the build of the cookware itself.

Created by Alex Alcarraz

The graphic above shows that aluminum is bonded as a core metal in higher-end pans. This allows for the stainless steel outer layers to share the heat conductivity aspects of aluminum. Copper cores and bottom cores act similarly where a copper layer is added towards the middle of the stainless steel layers to impart higher heat conductivity qualities.

For a nice budget-friendly three-ply set, the KitchenAid 3-Ply Stainless Steel 11-Piece Cookware Set offers a quality cookware set, an aluminum core, a steamer insert, a 3-quart saucepan and a 3-quart sauté pan for a single purchase under 300 dollars.

It is best to stay away from aluminum pans (that is pans that are made from just aluminum). They can warp easily and will lose their appeal very quickly. Not the most ideal for home use.

Best for…

Stainless steel cookware is the best all-around cookware for anyone who loves to cook and wants balanced cooking materials that won’t give any grief (besides being a little more work to clean). They’re durable and versatile to go between the stovetop and oven and are great for frying, sauteing, and boiling water for pasta.

Copper Cookware

The Mauviel M'200 5-piece cookware set

Great as skillets and saucepans, copper is more expensive than every other option, but for good reason. Since copper has the best conductivity of all the conventional cooking materials, it is the very best choice for anyone who makes nuanced dishes with delicate fats and sugars that require the most accurate heat control.

My favorite copper frying pan set is the Mauviel M’200 because it’s great for low-temperature cooking that carefully opens the flavors of fats and sugars. Low-temperature cooking also helps with getting less food stuck to the cooking surface, but generally, copper is not naturally nonstick. It will also not work with induction burners.

It’s best to avoid the dishwasher with copper, which can dull the finish and create a dingy-looking patina on the surface, tarnishing the metal. As long as you use wooden or silicone non-abrasive tools and low heat, this cookware will perform its duties for generations.

Best for…

Copper cookware is the absolute best for anyone working on a gas range who’s committed to the nuances of experimental cooking and exploring what flavors can be produced with exact heat control.

Making Your Choice

Professional chefs are always wanting pots and pans that will help carry on the weight of feeding large groups of people. Practice these steps to get in tune with your inner professional chef!

  1. Take your time and ask yourself what you currently make at home and if you would like to expand on that.
  2. Identify which pots and pans help you achieve your current recipes.
  3. Identify what pots and pans you'll need to make the food you look forward to trying out.
  4. Ask yourself, "Can I achieve that with a full new set or should I singular pieces to my kitchen?"
  5. Buy what you need!

I hope this article has helped you think about what you might want and need for your kitchen! If there’s anything else you might desire assistance with, please feel free to reach out to one of the Kitchen Experts to get some one-on-one advice!

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