How we tested
We’ve never liked cookware sets. Most bundle together a lot of pans we don’t need and not enough of the ones we do—the five or six hardworking multitaskers that we turn to every day. Besides pans in impractical sizes (1-quart saucepans good for little more than melting butter or 8-inch skillets that are only useful if you’re cooking for one), these sets typically feature limited-use “specialty” cookware. Why clog your cabinets with sauté pans (skillets with high, straight sides), sauciers (rounded saucepans with wide rims), or “chef’s” pans (saucepans shaped like woks with domed lids) if you’ve already got a Dutch oven and other basic pans that can do anything they can do and more? And if you think you’ve found an incredible deal on a “14-piece” assortment, beware: Manufacturers count each lid and anything else that isn’t riveted on as a separate piece.
That said, buying pieces one by one gets expensive—particularly with high-end brands. If we could find a set that was a truly good value for the money, offering durable, high-quality construction and a selection on a par with our needs, we’d happily recommend it.
Seeking Out the Sets
Our natural starting point was All-Clad, a brand that has consistently topped our ratings over the years. We like its line in fully clad, stainless steel “tri-ply,” a style boasting three layers of metal fused together and extending from the bottom of the pan all the way up to the rim. Such construction helps to ensure even cooking and a steady transfer of heat. Our ideal set would include a roomy 12-inch traditional skillet (or fry pan—we use the terms interchangeably) that’s big enough to fit four chicken breasts; a 10-inch nonstick skillet for cooking delicate omelets and fish; a 12-inch cast-iron skillet for frying and searing; a 4-quart covered saucepan for vegetables and other side dishes; a 2-quart covered saucepan for heating soup or cooking oatmeal; a 6- or 7-quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven for braising, deep-frying, and even baking bread; and a large stockpot that can do double-duty for pasta, lobster, or corn on the cob.
The downside of All-Clad, of course, is the price: It’s one of the most expensive brands on the market. A cursory search unearthed a 14-piece assortment that included four of the pans on our list, along with four others that definitely were not, and all for an outrageous $1,899.95. We also found a 10-piece All-Clad set (offered exclusively by a single retailer—an irksome trend with sets) that had four of the pans we wanted (the 12-inch skillet, the 2- and 4-quart saucepans, and a reasonably large 8-quart stockpot) and just one we didn’t (a 4-quart sauté pan). This was a definite improvement, but we were still stuck with the sauté pan and a total cost of $799.95. Could we do better?
One fully clad, tri-ply set offered eight pieces that were mostly undersized (8- and 10-inch skillets, 1½- and 2½-quart saucepans, and a 6-quart stockpot) and sold for a much more reasonable $299.99. We put it in our lineup. More searching revealed an amazing find: a fully clad 8-piece tri-ply set costing just a hair under $145. Again, the assorted sizes were not ideal (8- and 10-skillets, 1-quart and 2-quart saucepans, and a 5-quart Dutch oven)—but given its attractive price, we had to test it.
To get other sets priced under $200, we’d have to abandon our desire for fully clad tri-ply and go for the next best thing: disk-bottom pans. Here, manufacturers duplicate the three-layer effect on the pan bottom by attaching a disk of aluminum to the underside of a stainless steel pan, then covering it with another layer stainless steel. We found three sets worth considering. A 10-piece set from a popular manufacturer had the usual too-small pans (8- and 10-inch skillets and 1- and 2-quart saucepans), but it did offer an 8-quart stockpot, and its price ($179.99) was reasonable. For just a bit more ($189.95), a similarly composed 10-piece set caught our eye with its bright orange silicone handle grips and unusual convex design. Finally, another 10-piece set (8- and 10-inch skillets, 1- and 2-quart saucepans, a 6-quart stockpot, plus a 3-quart sauté pan and a steamer insert for the 2-quart saucepan) seemed worth a look at $159.99.
Into the Fire
Not surprisingly, the disk-bottom pans performed the worst in each of our cooking tests—and fell into the bottom half of our rankings. Their biggest downfall? Confining the heat-controlling layers to the bottom of the pan allowed heat to blaze around the perimeter and up the sides; onions, fond (browned bits for pan sauce), and caramel all scorched.
Particularly problematic were the pear-shaped pieces of one cookware set. Bulging sides made it that much easier for heat to bypass the thick, heat-regulating bottom and singe food along the thin, overhanging edges. While the pans suffered from other problems (overheating handles and too-deep skillets that made food steam before browning), this design flaw put the set in last place.
But another set of pans was hot on its heels. A lightweight stockpot not only scooted around the stove as we stirred a batch of chili but ran so hot that the mixture boiled, even after we turned down the heat. Meanwhile, a skillet singed, rather than sautéed, a piece of sole. Protruding handle rivets in the skillets got sticky with sauce, needing extra elbow grease to scrub clean.
As for the final set, it fell victim to the same uneven heating as the other disk-bottom sets. Its low, open saucepans were a plus, but we didn’t like its high-sided skillets. And the handles became very hot, despite silicone grips that tricked us into skipping the potholder. (Plain stainless steel handles on the other cookware sets actually stayed cooler to the touch.)
An Astonishing Bargain
What of the fully clad cookware? The All-Clad set aced every test, earning a perfect score. Its pans are well designed: Skillets have generous cooking surfaces and low, flaring sides that prevent steaming for better browning, while the stockpot and saucepans are solid enough to maintain a gentle simmer but light enough for easy maneuvering. Even with the unwanted sauté pan in the mix, this set was still a great bargain over its open stock price (for items sold individually), saving us more than $300.
Despite its small pan sizes, one set performed admirably, passing each of our cooking tests with ease. The pans are well shaped, with low-sided skillets and low, wide saucepans that aced delicate tasks like stirring pastry cream and finicky caramel. Our only real complaint? Its tempered glass lids. The supposedly helpful clear windows into the pan’s contents steamed up and blocked our view (the glass lids in two other sets behaved similarly). What’s more, the glass is only heatproof up to 450 degrees. But at $299—less than half the price of the All-Clad set—it’s not a bad deal.
At the end of the day, the cheapest set of the lineup landed remarkably close behind the vaunted All-Clad. Priced at just $144.97, it is an astonishing bargain. Remarkably similar to the All-Clad in weight, shape, and design, this set transferred heat evenly, was well balanced and simple to maneuver, and ranked so close to the performance of the All-Clad that we recommend it enthusiastically. Its highly polished skillets released both fish and frittatas with an even golden color and no sticking, earning comments of “Perfect!” from testers. Its rounded handles are even slightly more comfortable than the harder edges of the All-Clad handles. The 5-quart Dutch oven, though on the small side, was big enough to cook chili, and its handles were easy to grip.
The only slight difference between the two brands: The cooking surfaces of these “Best Buy” pans are a little smaller in diameter than the All-Clad pieces (the 10-inch skillet, for example, measures 7 inches across the bottom, versus the 10-inch All-Clad’s 7 5/8 inches.