Top picks in Cookware

There are gizmos galore that will make your kitchen fun and the worst consequence of picking the wrong brand is you toss away a couple extra dollars. Then there are the basics, where you can easily toss away twice as much money for the same quality. We're going to focus on the essentials, or at least what most people consider to be the common items for household cooking, where there is quality to be found at a reasonable price. If you have to have a certain name stamped on your pan, have at it. I'd just like to show you what you can get to ensure you have a great setup of similar (sometimes better) quality without going to the top dollar tier.

Everyday Pans

Despite the diminutive Amazon image, Cuisinart is the big choice for all purpose pans. Cuisnart and All-Clad are neck and neck in quality, but as you'll see in any search for pots and pans you pay big for the slight materials difference in All-Clad. What you'll see when you get them home and cook with both is just about zero visible difference in usability, heat retention, cool handles, or ease of cleanup. As an everyday item, you could do a lot worse. Feel free to meander through all the Cuisinart variable lines, but the MultiClad line offers a great cost/benefits ratio. And of course most of Cuisinart's stainless lines are oven safe, which is a requirement for me. I don't want to start out in a pan and then transfer to a baking dish. I want to start and finish in the same pan. The numbered skillet version pictured has a handle for balancing in and out of the oven and is set at a very competitive price against lines without the handle. It's my favorite everyday pan in the house. All the brand names at this price level and above are bonded with thick bottoms for even heat distribution, at least over 12". I just can't see spending the extra money for essentially the same product. I am not a no-stick pan guy. A well cared for stainless will not stick if you prep it before throwing the food in and I'm just too impatient to worry about which spatula I need to use for my pan to be happy and undamaged. At $60+ a crack, I want it to do what I tell it without instructions to me in return. That's just me. If you want to go non-stick, even if you're like me but want to have one around just in case, the Simply Calphalon line comes in at around the same price as the Cuisinart, similar quality, and with more options for materials and coatings. They otherwise maintain a pretty basic profile with oven-safe handles, though only to 400 degrees so no broiling. T-fal caters a little more to the OXO style grip-handle crowd, which is again fine, and if you need a padded handle and aren't concerned with oven-safe, the price point is excellent for the quality of the pans. I know, it says oven-safe, but oven-safe to 350 degrees is not oven safe in my opinion. The only thing I do under 350 degrees is bake. Finally, I think everyone should have a cast iron skillet. Certain things just don't come out the same using anything else. This should require you take the time to learn how to care for one too, because there is no benefit to a cast iron pan that is scrubbed down to factory condition after each use. Lodge is the go-to name for cost effective cast iron, hands down. Keep in mind that these notes apply to all the product lines. This isn't a recommendation for the exact pan pictured, but for everything in those lines. If you want to get a whole set, we went through those and you're getting as good a cost/benefits ratio with a whole set of any of these compared to a whole set of the others as you are with the single pans shown.

Dutch Ovens

Even a small chicken in anything less than a 5 quart Dutchie is a squeeze, so we're starting there. I'd prefer a 6+, but had to make an exception for the cast iron Lodge as both the availability and pricing on bigger cast iron options just didn't suit the review requirements. Given its shape, it will do. There's a reason the porcelain/ceramic coated are the popular choice and they remain my choice for most uses. If you're a person who deep fries a lot or does a lot of southern style stovetop-to-oven casseroles, or crusts, there are benefits to the cast iron. For most of us, it's a kitchen extra, but certainly worth noting. Go with Lodge again for great prices and a quality experience, as we did with the pans. For the rest of the mainstream choices, that's right, there's no Le Creuset. Not a popular opinion, I know, but the rest of the world has caught up on quality and Le Creuset is just too expensive. I've done side by sides with Le Creuset and my Batali by Dansk and I'll be honest and say the Le Creuset does barely edge out the Dansk, but not enough to justify nearly twice the price. I'm somewhat disappointed in what you'll have to pay for the Batali by Dansk to tell you the truth, because I got mine for $65 when they first came out and I guess weren't selling as quickly. Supply and demand. Still, compared to what's out there both above and below in price, this is my happy spot. Coming down in price from there, Lodge isn't quite the be all and end all in coated Dutchies that it is in pure cast iron. Given how these things are made, I can't say why. You'd think Lodge would be a slam dunk. But, the usability is commensurate with the drop in price. It's a good little pot at a price most people would hope to pay. If this is your price point, you shouldn't be disappointed. There's only one in the budget arena to consider, and that's Tramontina. Tramontina has some great stuff. This isn't great, but more part of their "good stuff/good price" area. It's not as wide as I'd like for the capacity, so for a lot of applications you need to leave the top on for heat retention. If you're a person who only needs to have a Dutchie in the kitchen for infrequent use and pot pie creation though, the quality of this piece for the price is pretty hard to beat. I use my Dutchie all the time. Knowing most people don't, I'm going to throw this cost effective compromise in the ring when I usually wouldn't go quite this far.

Roasting Pans

Most cost conscious people are happy buying a rack and using it in a baking dish. When you see quality roasting pan prices upwards of $200, I can't blame them. It's absurd. But, when you see a proper roasting pan set with a fitted rack, you see an intentional design paradigm that is of great benefit to your roast or bird. The shape matters, as does where your roast or bird sits in that shape. For a whole roasted chicken a couple times per year or one holiday meal per year it might not matter $200+ dollars to you, but at $50 it can matter. Cuisinart is the winner, again. This pure stainless offers sturdy handles and nearly perfect, even heat flow. I wouldn't mind the handles being a little wider, but I have big hands. I can't find any other flaw with this one. The rack shape is good. The price point is great. And, as with the pans, I find properly treated stainless to be a breeze on clean-up. If you can't stomach the stainless and are determined to go non-stick despite my clean-up assertions, Calphalon comes to your rescue. To me, it's a minor sacrifice in quality over this particular Cuisinart, but it's minor and if you want the non-stick enough to pay a bit more, this is a well designed pan. The Calphalon TriPly is an even better choice in design, but it's last in the lineup because you're sacrificing two inches under the Cuisinart in size with no discernible quality difference. Considering the forks, it's not really that bad a deal because you'd probably be paying $20+ for decent ones anyway. I still prefer the Cuisinart. If you're a once a year holiday roaster and want a down and dirty, budget-conscious alternative, there's the KitchenAid. I can't say I love the rack shape. It's definitely geared toward the huge bird or pork shoulder rather than the average family's frequent chicken or small roast beef, but if that's all you're using it for then here's an option that can accommodate your needs usually at a much lower price. If today the price doesn't look that much lower, either forget it or wait a couple days. For some reason this pan is all over the map on pricing from one week to the next. If it were me, I'd wait for it to be under $40 before I felt I was getting a good enough deal to forgo the Cuisinart.

Pasta/Stock Pots

There are only a couple considerations with these guys. You need a thick, heat-transferring bottom for a fast boil, and you need decent quality sides that don't skimp in return and release that heat so you can retain a boil. Here more than anywhere, function is all that matters. Form is pretty much standard throughout all the consumer-quality options. No surprise, it's Cuisinart again. That's the case mostly for the reasons I just mentioned, fast and steady heat-retaining boil, but also because you get all that at the lowest price of any comparable unit. This isn't just the better bang for the buck this time, it's the superior quality bang for anything close to this price range. I will say the nearly generic "Update International" is a surprise. It's only a few dollars more than the Cuisinart, but given the quality of the Cuisinart and the steamer thrown in I really can't put the UI in the same value league. If you've got steamers and are determined to have just a pasta pot and insert though, this is worth a go. If you're surprised to see All-Clad at more than twice the price in here, so was I. I am definitely not recommending this side by side with the Cuisinart or even the UI for value, but there are two benefits to this set for a niche market. You can see by the pictures alone it's a little taller and not as wide. It's not much, but it's enough for someone with a smaller stovetop or burners that don't radiate more than 5 inches or so across. It's a small consideration for the additional price, but if you're tired of hearing me slam All-Clad, make a lot of pasta, and have a compact stovetop, here's your chance to pick All-Clad. If you're on the opposite end of the spectrum and have a high end, high heat range that can handle something this big, and maybe you throw a lot of pasta parties, Winware gives you a taste of the commercial at a consumer grade price. This is how the restaurants do it to turn out individual portions of various pasta and just keep going back. If you're going to do a fun party with six pasta options, here's a toy to consider without much dollar pain.

Grill Pans

With all my other non-stick comments, you'd expect me to say I don't use non-stick grill pans, and you'd be right. I'm not totally against non-stick. I do make crepes sometimes, but not on a grill pan. The usual result of a non-stick grill pan is that you'll get grill marks, and that's about it. The consequence of grill marks means you're getting some of the air flow associated with grilling, but the depth of the ridges on most of them means you're not getting much. Just enough for the marks, not enough for the real texture benefits. That means you're not getting the best part of the reasons you're grilling in the first place. As a close second, you're not adding any flavor with a non-stick. A properly seasoned cast-iron pan isn't going to duplicate an outdoor grill either, but it's going to get you a lot closer. Finally, cast iron is going to distribute your heat more evenly. With the top choice, that's important. It's big and requires two burners. If you're lucky enough to have two burners to span this across where they can be set to the same flame height, you're in great shape. Otherwise, you may have a little moving around of the product to consider, but the end result is still going to be superior to other options if you want to do any volume. You'll be surprised by how well your little burner on high and bigger burner on medium to establish an even heat will work here anyway. Not everything in grilling needs to be the highest temperature, and with cast iron that's often too high anyway. That's the size covered, and there's probably no reason to go into why it's a Lodge given all the references to Lodge above. The next step is a single burner 12", then down from there to a 10.5". You'd be surprised how much the extra inch and a half helps when you're trying to do four patties at a time, and of course you'll notice the sides on the chosen 12" are virtually non-existent. That means even heat from the bottom up as grilling is supposed to affect without cooking the outer sides quicker, which requires a lot more attention, and this design allows easier access for your spatula. If you're concerned about mess and want the sides, I make room for anybody who frequently cooks for just one or two people at a time to say there's nothing wrong with the smaller version with sides. But, try to keep things away from the edges if you really want any grilling benefits out of the pan. Lodge wins again on the 12". Lodge wins again on the 10.5". This time All-Clad gets a mention for the Emeril series only as a good price/quality alternative. While I don't like the height of the sides, I do like the deeper ridges and it's a thick pan for good heat retention.