Pots and pans are the most important tool you bring into your kitchen. I’d never truly understood the vast array that existed (and that the quality can vary so drastically), so when it came time for me to invest in some new pieces, the choices felt daunting.
The cookware market is so oversaturated with celebrity chef endorsements, I decided to ask people I actually knew: friends, family, coworkers, really anyone who cooked. The few professional chefs in my orbit were intensely interrogated. I also read every review I could get my hands on and watched hours of YouTube videos about pots and pans.
The suggestions I received were across the board and highly personal. No answer felt entirely wrong, and I began to realize the only answer that would feel entirely right was the one that was right for me. I ultimately made my decision based around my own priorities: longevity, material quality, toxicity, and my modest budget.
When I first set out to get “the best” possible top-of-the-line cookware, my search led me to All-Clad Copper Core (From $821.51, originally $899.99, Amazon) — what my most serious chef friend suggested without hesitation — but it was way out of my price range. I ended up purchasing a full set by Cuisinart ($197.99, Amazon) made of stainless steel with a pure aluminum core. This felt safe as my first foray into clad cookware and the best I could get for $200. I also ended up getting two All-Clad Hard Anodized pans ($59.95, Amazon) because they are just so durable and easy to use.
After all of my research, I realized that a pan is never just a pan — it’s a whole creation of science. Here are some of the things I learned and for you to consider (and research!) before making your next cookware purchase.
1. Your Cooktop Range
You should first figure out which pots and pans are compatible with your range, whether you have a gas, electric, or induction cooktop. Gas ranges can leave burn marks on light-colored cookware. You can only use magnetically charged cookware with induction; and because it could scratch, you probably don’t want to use cast iron on a glass top electric range. So choose accordingly.
2. Heat Distribution
The heat distribution — the ability to cook food evenly — of your pots and pans is some complicated science that I didn’t realize affected my meals so much. Copper responds to heat changes best, but as a precious metal, it literally costs a pretty penny. Luckily, aluminum is a close second and is much more affordable. Like mine, stainless steel pans often have an inner core made of copper or aluminum, or a copper- or aluminum-clad bottom. (When it comes to stainless steel, an important factor to gauge is the chromium and nickel ratio, which should be listed as 18/10 or 18/8.)
Touted as non-stick and non-toxic, not to mention aesthetically beautiful, ceramic is the latest addition to the cookware lineup — and claims to also be the most environmentally friendly. But with my previous (notably not high-end) ceramic pans, I found that they weathered too quickly. Though I often drool over the beautiful color options and sleek designs, the lifespan is what kept me away. Non-stick in general doesn’t last very long (unless you try anodized aluminum), so an easy way to get around this is investing in a more durable set, while keeping a few non-stick pieces that you can replace around. Cast iron is the most durable, and stainless steel can last a lifetime.
4. Ease of Use
No question, your basic non-stick is the easiest: easy to cook, easy to clean. Another chef friend prefers cast iron over all other cookware — they are workhorses. But the seasoning process, all the temperature particulars, and the weird way to clean them is beyond my skill level. With stainless steel, you have to heat BEFORE adding the fat, and it has to be at the right temperature, which is always a guessing game (despite the water ball test). For me, my two hard anodized aluminum pans —with their even-heating, non-stick quality, and durability — proved to be the middle ground solution. When I don’t know if I can master my meal on stainless steel, I sheepishly reach for them.
The toxicity of non-stick pots and pans is a complicated subject that’s often debated. I began this journey desperately wanting to buy a full non-stick set, they are so easy — and is Teflon really that bad? It turns out it is safe, but it’s made of PTFO, a plastic polymer that can exude toxic fumes that can lead to flu-like symptoms if used improperly. It might also contain small amounts of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which is present in many things, but has possible links to several types of cancer.
These chemicals can only leach into your food if the cookware is heated above its temperature threshold (around 500 degrees) or if the protective surface is scratched. Still, the idea of any all caps chemicals potentially causing harm wasn’t going to work for me. Aluminum can also raise some questions. If you want to eliminate toxicity all together, stainless steel, glass, and ceramic cookware are your answer. If you choose anodized, it’s safest to choose high-grade, which is why I went name brand.
6. What You Cook
Not all cookware can handle high heat. If you’re cooking steaks every night — first of all OK, wow — you should probably use a cast iron. Stainless steel is great for chicken and fish that are cooked at medium heat. Vegetables are great in non-stick or stainless steel. If you like to use cooking spray, you can’t use anodized cookware. If you’re cooking eggs, just play it safe with the non-stick. Yes, there are countless YouTube videos on how to cook eggs in every pan, but let’s be honest, they don’t really work. Never purchase cookware in the hopes that you’re going to use it more (here’s looking at you, KitchenAid mixer!), get it based on your regular routine.
At first, I was terrified of cooking with stainless steel pans because I feared the food would stick and they would be impossible to clean. But I hand wash them with a soft sponge, soap, and water, and hand dry them every time. I also polish them with Bar Keepers Friend Soft Cleanser ($9.89, Amazon). Yes, I wish I could just throw them in the dishwasher, but that brand-new shine revealed every time motivates me and ensures my investment is going to last. If you don’t like maintaining your cookware at all, get a set that’s easy to replace.
I now have my pots and pans, but I still desire to someday attain the best possible ones for my fictional dream kitchen. My chef friend told me he once had a set worth thousands of dollars that he’d lost in a breakup. My mind was blown: I could never imagine spending so much — and if I did, no one would ever be able to rip them from my cold, dead All-Clad hands. When I asked him how a regular person with a small budget could obtain a full dream set (besides inheriting them in a breakup with a chef), he said to slowly collect them piece by piece. It may take years, but they last a lifetime.
So, out with the junky pieces that don’t last and in with the investment pieces that do. The best way to buy is to be honest with your needs and capabilities, read, and research. If materials are not explicitly listed, I wouldn’t trust the brand. If you’re curious about a specific type of cookware, buy one small piece first. And when you do make that choice, follow ALL the rules. Don’t exceed temperatures, don’t use utensils that scratch, hand wash and dry if you need to, and store with protective materials if you plan to stack.
Treat them like your precious babies. These are the items we use to truly interact with our food — the food which enters our bodies, the food which fuels us for life.
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