Choosing a Cookware Set
Purchasing a multi-piece cookware set typically costs significantly less than buying each piece individually. The trick is to find a set with the pieces, features, and performance you want within your budget. Well-burnished names such as All-Clad, Le Creuset, Calphalon, and Swiss Diamond are aspirational, gourmet brands that can easily cost well over $700 for a set. It's possible, however, to get a good set of cheap cookware that features elements of the upmarket sets and bears a brand name such as Farberware or T-fal. We found cookware sets for less than $80 that can help home cooks turn out good-tasting, good-looking food.
Before making a purchase, consider what kind of cookware is right for your range. This is particularly important with a smooth, ceramic-glass or conduction stovetop, because some cookware can't be used on those heating elements. Also take account of your cooking style: What size pots and pans do you prefer? Do you want to start a dish on top of the stove and then pop it in the oven for a while? Do you want to peer into a covered pot through a glass lid as a dish bubbles away? Do you prefer metal spoons and spatulas or plastic, wood, or silicone? Do you mind washing by hand? Also, pay attention to the handle: Will the vessel be comfortable to hold when full? Will the handle get hot to the touch? You might try stopping in a nearby store to physically check out the goods: feel the weight, hold the handle, and inspect the finish.
Pricey vs. Cheap Cookware.
Surely a soupcon of snob appeal partly accounts for the sky-high prices affixed to gourmet cookware. But the difference in build quality -- the material components and how they're put together -- is the primary factor that distinguishes cheap cookware sets from the rest. The rap on low-cost cookware is that food scorches, pots have hot spots, the bottoms warp, the finish stains, and the nonstick coating flakes off. Pricier cookware is heavier, far more durable, and -- holding the cook's skills constant -- likely to deliver better results. These pans transmit heat evenly and quickly, so food cooks faster at lower temperatures; seared meats and caramelized vegetables are easily accomplished.
The component materials of choice in the mid- and upper ranges of the market include cast iron, aluminum, copper, and stainless steel. Some higher-cost cookware features a nonstick finish, but many pieces have a stainless steel or anodized aluminum interior crafted in a way that makes it easy to clean. Cast iron can be finished with an enamel coating. Consumers who buy high-end cookware undoubtedly figure they're making a long-term investment.
Most budget cookware is made from aluminum, carbon steel, or stainless steel. The interior cooking surface may be the same metal as the exterior, but cheap aluminum and carbon steel cookware usually features a chemically-based nonstick finish, although less toxic, more eco-friendly options are becoming more widely available, even in the Cheapism price range. After looking at both nonstick and uncoated cookware, we chose the best cheap cookware and one good option in each of the following categories: stainless steel, nonstick aluminum, and ceramic-coated. We also researched a few other choices that might be worth a little extra.
Nonstick Cookware.A nonstick coating applied to a metal pot or pan helps it release foods easily and clean up quickly. With a nonstick surface, users can cook without adding any fat to the pan. This makes nonstick cookware the most popular choice among home cooks. But keep in mind that a nonstick surface doesn't brown or caramelize foods very well, and the coating can scratch off if you don't treat the pieces with care. We read reports from users saying the nonstick surface of some low-cost cookware degrades quickly, raising concerns about the release of potentially toxic compounds. Bottom line, according to experts: Avoid temperatures higher than 500 degrees, and if the nonstick coating starts chipping off, it's best to toss the cookware. While many people have expressed concern about chemicals from nonstick cookware leaching into food, most newer nonstick surfaces are PFOA-free.
Stainless Steel Cookware.Although the Food and Drug Administration has found no risk to humans, the health concerns surrounding nonstick cookware prompt many consumers to seek out other materials. With that in mind, we looked at a relatively easy-to-use alternative available on a budget: stainless steel.
Stainless steel is dense, does not hold smells or tastes, and is highly resistant to pitting or staining. It is also strong and nonreactive, which means that acidic foods such as tomatoes won't damage it. Unlike aluminum, the basis of many low-cost pots and pans, steel is magnetic (as is cast iron) and will work on an induction stovetop. However, steel is not as good at conducting heat, so the best cheap stainless steel cookware incorporates an aluminum or copper disk at the bottom for better heat diffusion. Some cookware sets also let users keep one foot in each world, by combining stainless steel pots and nonstick aluminum skillets in the same set.
Another alternative to traditional nonstick cookware isceramic cookware, which releases foods just as easily but is nontoxic and distributes heat more evenly. It’s also non-porous and non-reactive, so there won’t be any residual smells, and users can cook acidic foods like tomatoes without the worry of leaching chemicals.
Despite its health benefits, ceramic cookware may just be too finicky to suit everyone’s taste. While one of the benefits of a nonstick surface is that added fats are not needed, the directions on most cheap ceramic cookware expressly caution users not to use olive oil or cooking spray, because these oils burn at a low temperature and can carbonize, adding burnt spots to the pans. Users are also admonished to use ceramic pans only on low to medium heat. High heat can cause foods to stick and damage the surface. Like regular nonstick cookware, ceramic has a coating that makes it sensitive to scratching, so users should avoid metal utensils.
Some reviewers say that, although they follow the rules for care and usage assiduously, pans still become scratched and discolored. Some also lament the inability to get a good, dark sear on meats using this type of pan. And since the exterior of ceramic cookware is aluminum, it can’t be used on induction ranges.
Cast Iron Cookware.
While it’s hard to come by cast iron cookware on the cheap, it has a number of advantages. Cast iron is good for searing foods like steaks, because it can get screaming hot with no adverse effects, although it can take a while to heat up. It can go in the oven at any temperature and cleans very easily (a well-seasoned cast iron pan is, for all intents and purposes, nonstick). For the price, there is probably nothing more durable; cast iron is practically indestructible. Some people have cast iron cookware that was passed down from their grandmothers and will certainly be around for future generations. There are no chemicals that could potentially leach into foods, although some iron may be absorbed if the pan is not well-seasoned (this could actually be a plus for people who are anemic).
On the downside, there’s no getting around the fact that cast iron is really heavy; lifting a full pot is a two-fisted job. Handles are not coated, so oven mitts are a necessity. Because it’s porous, cast iron can hold smells such as fish or garlic, and tomato sauce cooked in a cast iron pot can come away with an off color and a metallic taste. Finally, cast iron can’t go in the dishwasher -- in fact, even using soap is not recommended, because it can wear away that hard-won seasoning.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Cookware Reviews: What We Considered
Expert sources such as America's Test Kitchen tend to evaluate individual pots and pans with high price tags. Most of the cookware sets tested by Consumer Reports and the Good Housekeeping Research Institute also exceed our $80 price ceiling, and the handful of budget options in those tests generally did not perform well. In choosing the best cheap cookware sets, we relied heavily on reviews by home cooks on retail sites such as Amazon, Wayfair, and Walmart.
Ultimately, frugal shoppers want good quality cookware that does the job competently. Consumers want a well-rounded set with pieces they'll actually use. Oven-safe pieces are a particular boon. The quality should be good enough that the pots and pans don’t burn easily and the lids should fit properly. Reviewers who use nonstick cookware are adamant that the coating should be durable and not scratch or come off. The best cookware, whether nonstick or stainless steel, evenly distributes heat so food doesn't get burned. Cooking and cleaning should both be easy. Foodies may assert that only expensive cookware can produce gourmet meals, but the cookware reviews we read suggest that frugal cooks are more than satisfied with the dishes that come out of their cheap cookware.
Pots and Pans.What comes in a set of cheap cookware? That all depends. Expect to get a combination of saucepans, skillets/fry pans (with slanted sides) or sauté pans (with straight sides), a stockpot or Dutch oven, and a few lids. Larger sets usually come with a bonus of some kind, such as a griddle. A full set can be a bargain, especially for a first home, but only for someone who's going to use all (or most) of the pieces in it. Consumers should match our picks against the way they cook and what they really need.
A cookware set may contain as few as three pieces or more than 30. Note that those numbers often include lids, cooking utensils, and other miscellaneous items in addition to pots and pans. Also, price is not an indicator of the quantity of pieces that make up a cookware set. One of the cheapest we researched boasts 83 pieces.
The size of the pieces seems to be a bigger issue for reviewers than the size of the set. One cheap set might have a 3.25-quart Dutch oven, for example, compared with the 5-quart size that's typical among the best cheap cookware. Consumers are often surprised at the relatively small size of the pots and pans in many cheap cookware sets; a 2-quart saucier is just not as large as you might think. If you routinely cook for a crowd, you'll probably need to augment a cookware set with larger open-stock pieces that may or may not match.