Get the essential pots and pans to start your cooking journey.

By Briana Riddock
February 13, 2018
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Credit: Amazon

So it’s finally time to get your “adult” on and throw out the hodge-podge of random, scratched, semi-nonstick, and wobbly-handled pots and pans that you’ve acquired over the years.

A quality cookware set is an essential component if you plan to get healthier by cooking more at home (here are 10 More Products That’ll Help You Eat a Little Healthier in 2018). If you’ve recently made the promise to yourself to actually try making a few of those Pinterest pins and magazine recipe cutouts, stocking your kitchen with the right tools will make your cooking goals absolutely accomplishable.

While a good set can be expensive, the right cookware set does not have to put your checking account in the red. Simply consider your general cooking needs and how much you realistically have to spend to help you make the right decision. Keep in mind that you want a set that’s really going to last, so investing a few bucks more than the bare minimum is likely going to be worth your while in the long run.

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At the minimum, a solid cookware set should include a 10-inch skillet, a 1-quart saucepan, a 2-quart saucepan, a 3 quart-sauté pan, and a 6- to 8-quart stock pot. Many of sets will come with additional pieces such as cooking spoons, but I think those 5 cookware pieces with the accompanying lids are the most important. Also, sizes for the pots and pans may vary slightly, but the range should only differ by about ½- to one quart.

What to Look For

If you’re not all about washing dishes by hand, making sure your cookware set is dishwasher safe is important. Also, consider whether you might ever start certain dishes on the stove and finish them in the oven (hint: you probably will); if so, your cookware should specify if it’s oven-safe. The most common materials that cookware sets are made from include stainless steel, aluminum, hard-anodized aluminum, and coated nonstick surfaces. You may also see some cookware described as “cladded.” Cladded cookware features a combination of metal layers fused together for better heat conductivity. For example, a skillet can have an outer and inner layer of stainless steel surrounding a center, base layer made from copper or aluminum.

Generally, I recommend looking for stainless steel cookware. Stainless steel is a non-reactive metal, which means you won’t have to worry about it reacting to acidic ingredients. It’s also durable, dishwasher-safe, and usually oven-safe (depending on the handle material). Most of the sets on this list will be made from stainless steel.

Non-stick surfaces are easy to cook with (especially for beginners) and they release food from the pan with little to no oil. That said, they’re not the greatest option for achieving a good sear on foods, and they often aren’t pieces you want to put in the dishwasher or oven. If you do go with nonstick cookware (be it a whole set or just an auxiliary skillet for frying eggs), be sure to avoid using utensils that could scratch and damage the surface of your cookware; using wooden and plastic spoons are you best bet. Also, be on the lookout for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) surfaces. There are reports that this chemical, commonly found in Teflon nonstick cookware, could possibly be harmful in the long run. The research on this is still a little fuzzy, but it’s a factor to be mindful of.

Aluminum and hard-anodized aluminum cookware conducts heat really well. However, uncoated aluminum pots and pans react to acidic ingredients, imparting an off-putting taste to the food in the pan. If you choose an aluminum surface, make sure it is anodized; this means it is hardened and processed to be nonreactive. Aluminum cookware is also often coated in enamel—it’s attractive, but the enamel coating is prone to chipping.

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Our Picks

Now that you’re armed with a few general buying tips, here are 5 recommendations for affordable, reliable cookware sets:

Ringing in right under $150, this is the priciest set that makes the cutoff in terms of affordability. It has a mirror polish finish with a cladded aluminum core surrounded by 18/10 stainless steel (which means it made up of 18% chromium and 10% nickel). This combination of metals makes this set ideal for even cooking and heat distribution. This set is also suitable for all major cooking surfaces. The only thing missing from this set is a skillet or frying pan, which is not included. Depending on the nature of how/what you cook, this may work for you.

  • Price: $141
  • Primary Material: Stainless steel
  • Dishwasher Safe: Yes
  • Oven Safe: Yes, up to 500°F

This cookware set has over 11,000 ratings on Amazon and includes all the essential pieces that you’ll need to get started in the kitchen. The set works on all major cooking surfaces such as gas, electric, induction and glass ceramic. The sleek design has a mirror finish and functional handles that allow for easy handling during cooking, and also balances the pans to prevent them from tipping.

  • Price: $133
  • Primary Material: Stainless steel
  • Dishwasher Safe: Yes
  • Oven Safe: Yes, up to 500°F

With a nonstick finish, the set claims to also be scratch resistant and can withstand the use of heavy metal utensils. Though this set’s stock pot is slightly smaller than what I recommended, the 5-quart pot can still hold at least one pound of pasta at a time (for frame of reference). A unique feature on this cookware set is a nifty thermo-heat indicator in the middle of the pots that allows you to gauge when the pot is heated and ready to cook. The set’s non-stick coating is PFOA-free.

  • Price: $104
  • Primary Material: Hard-anodized aluminum
  • Dishwasher Safe: Yes
  • Oven Safe: Yes, up to 400°F

The set is made with stainless steel that has an impact-bonded aluminum base for even cooking and quick heating. The interior is also coated with a PFOA-free nonstick surface. This set has all of the pieces you need without any unnecessary additions. And given that the oven-safe temperature on this set is so high (for nonstick cookware), there’s a wide range of stovetop-to-oven cooking that you can accomplish with the skillet and 3-quart sauté pan.

  • Price: $103
  • Primary Material: Stainless steel
  • Dishwasher Safe: Yes
  • Oven Safe: Yes, up to 500°F

As the most affordable set on this round-up, the Cook N Home brand gives you true bang for your buck. This set is made with an 18/10 stainless steel metal mix, along with a an aluminum-disc bottom, that works well on all major heating surfaces. The set does seem to be a bit light in weight (13 pounds) compared to the other sets, which means that they likely aren’t as durable, but in this price range, it’s a great set of starter pot and pans.

  • Price: $52
  • Primary Material: Stainless steel
  • Dishwasher Safe: Yes
  • Oven Safe: Yes, up to 500°F