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How to shop for cookware: Choose the best pots and pans

These cookware sets are perfect for every budget.
Woman cooking on her stovetop with her new cookware set
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Nothing in a kitchen is used more than pots and pans. These kitchen essentials can really make or break a meal when it comes to browning chicken skin, frying eggs that don’t stick and even simmering soups all day long.

According to Lisa McManus, executive editor of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews, the pots and pans set you settle on should depend on how you plan to use them. She helped us break down the ins and outs of cookware sets and what you need to know before buying.

What should someone look for in a new set of pots and pans?

“Think about what kinds of foods you like to cook, and for how many people. That makes choosing cookware a lot easier, because it determines the type and number and size of pans you actually need,” McManus told Shop TODAY.

You should also steer clear of pots and pans that are too small for the recipes you like to make. “You’re more likely to boil over a small saucepan than a large one. Crowded skillets steam rather than brown and sear food. If you are trying to save money, get a bigger rather than smaller pan, because you can always put less food in a big pan, but it’s not true the other way around,” she explained. The major takeaway here is to try to find less pots and pans that have a larger volume versus many pots and pans with a small volume.

What cookware is essential for every kitchen?

According to McManus, you really only need a few basics in the kitchen, all of which can be found in various pots and pans sets. “I’d say the absolute basics are a 12-inch skillet, four-quart saucepan and a stockpot or Dutch oven of six to eight quarts,” she said.

Is one style of pots and pans better than another?

Every type of pan has distinct features and benefits. McManus praised stainless steel because of the even heat distribution and heat-holding properties. “We love these very sturdy pans for everything from frying to roasting and even baking. With a metal handle, you can put them right in the oven. It’s a great basic all-around pan that you can cook almost anything in,” she said.

Ceramic pans are a nice nonstick option that don’t have the chemicals that traditional nonstick pans have. “We like these pans for their nonstick coating, especially for fish and eggs [or any other] delicate foods that can stick and break up,” she explained.

As far as cast iron, McManus mentioned, “We also love cast iron and carbon steel, which are very similar to each other in that they gain seasoning as you use them, and become increasingly nonstick. They’re also completely indestructible, but need a little care to maintain the seasoning and prevent rust.”

How should you clean each variation?

For both stainless steel and nonstick pans like ceramic, you can wash them with soapy water and a sponge. Stainless steel can lose its luster after many uses, so McManus suggests keeping a bottle of Bar Keeper’s Friend around to help remove brown spots that can form after cooking things for long periods of time. Nonstick pans lose their coating after a while, so you’re going to want to be gentle with scrubbing too hard.

“Cast-iron pans should be washed with hot water and a stiff brush while they are still warm. You can use a drop or two of soap if you really want, but it’s not needed,” McManus said. “Put them back on the stovetop to heat through in order to dry off any moisture and then wipe with a very tiny drop of vegetable oil, wipe it well with paper towel or an old dish towel until it looks like you’ve removed all the oil and heat it through again on medium to polymerize that oil onto the surface. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit there and cool down before putting it away. That will maintain and build on the seasoning the pan is getting through cooking.”

If you’re on the hunt for the perfect pots and pans set that won’t blow your budget, then you’re in luck. We’ve rounded up some of the best sets in four categories: nonstick, stainless steel, ceramic and cast iron. The best part? They're all affordable options, so you'll have some money left over for other kitchen must-haves.

Best ceramic pans

Cuisinart Advantage Ceramica XT Cookware Set

Cuisinart pots and pans are great for those who've never used ceramic cookware before. This set comes with six different pots and pans, plus a colander and lids. The one downfall to the set is the silicone handles. While they are great for protecting your hands from touching something that can get very hot, they don’t allow the pots and pans to go into an oven hotter than 350°.

Neoflam Midas 9-Piece Nonstick Ceramic Cookware Set

Cook dinner and store leftovers in the fridge with this set. These pots and pans come in a variety of vibrant colors and each one has a detachable handle for easy storage. While everything in the set is dishwasher-safe, your cookware will maintain its nonstick coating if you manually wash with soap and water.

Equal Parts The Cookware Set

While this set is slightly over $300, the extra $25 is worth it. The set meets almost all of the requirements for a basic set of pots and pans from our expert from America’s Test Kitchen. Because the set is coated in ceramic materials, it’s nonstick and doesn’t have any toxins. Every piece in the set can nest inside one another for easy storage, too.

Best cast-iron pans

Lodge Seasoned Cast-Iron Gourmet Essentials Cookware Set

For many, the brand that immediately comes to mind when it comes to cast-iron is Lodge. The brand has been around for over 100 years and has garnered fans around the world. Their essentials cookware set features three pieces: a skillet, grill pan and round griddle. The pans are versatile, easy to use and easy to clean.

Bruntmor Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron 3-Piece Skillet Bundle

Cast-iron skillets come in all shapes and sizes, and most need to be seasoned after you get them. One outlier to this is the Bruntmor bundle, which comes pre-seasoned and with three skillets ranging in size from eight to 12 inches. If you care for these correctly, they will last a lifetime.

Made In Blue Carbon Steel Sets

Carbon steel is the classier, less heavy cousin of cast iron. These pans can do virtually anything a cast-iron pan can do without being bulky and hard to transfer from stovetop to oven, or grill to table. This set comes with three pieces, a wok and two fry pans. Every piece is durable, light and perfectly cast to ensure easy cooking.

Best nonstick pans

GreenPan™ Premiere Ceramic Nonstick 4-Piece Cookware Set

Made in collaboration with Williams Sonoma and celebrity chef Bobby Flay, this four-piece set from GreenPan comes with two fry pans, a sauté pan and a lid. “It is also great for delicate foods like eggs and omelets. It performs like stainless [steel] to get that sear and cast iron to hold that heat,” Flay said in a press release for the brand. The downfall to this set, though, is that the lid is not universal, so you’ll need something else to cover the two pieces it doesn’t fit.

Tramontina 11-Piece Nonstick Nesting Cookware Set

Nesting pots and pans are a great space saver in the kitchen. While this set includes a lot of pieces, we love that everything stacks right into each other, including the lids. The set comes in four colors including navy and sage, allowing you to pick something that matches the rest of your kitchen.

Ninja Foodi NeverStick Cookware Collection

This pot and pan set includes essentials like a stock pot, sauté pan and fry pan. The set is completely nonstick and will keep its coating for a long time if you wash everything by hand. The handles can get hot since they are metal without any type of coating, so be sure to have a hot pad nearby when using these.

Best stainless steel pans

Brandless 6-Piece Cookware Set

At just over $200, this set is ideal for someone on a budget but still looking for quality pots and pans. The pans can take heat from any type of stovetop, and can go into the oven with temperatures reaching 500°. One thing to note about this set, though, is that you cannot use nonstick sprays unless they are 100% oil-based.

Material 29, Your Way

Three essential pieces, all with a copper core, is what makes up this personalized set. Its core helps every piece conduct heat evenly and maintain its temperature. Each set comes with a coated pan (you have your choice of three!), plus a basic stainless steel sauce pot, a sauté pan and lids.

Viking Culinary Copper Stainless Steel Cookware Set

One of the most renowned names in cooking is Viking, and their pans are actually quite affordable for the average home cook. The set comes with two skillets, five pots of various shapes and sizes and a colander for easy pasta draining. This 13-piece set requires a bit of extra work to maintain if you want to keep the copper color, but it’s nothing a bit of elbow grease can’t do.

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