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Cheap Cookware Buying Guide

What comes in a set of cheap pot and pans? That all depends. The best cookware sets can contain as few as three, and as many as 30 pieces -- lids, cooking utensils, and other miscellaneous items included.

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The best cookware sets max out at 12 pieces, which gets you some combination of saucepans, skillets, stockpot or Dutch oven, a few lids, and maybe a deep saute pan. There's value for your money with these sets -- buying each piece individually would cost significantly more -- but consumers are often surprised at the relatively small size of the cookware; a two-quart saucier is just not as large as you might think. If you routinely cook for a crowd, you'll probably need to augment your cookware set with larger open-stock pieces that may or may not match.

A set of cheap cookware can be had for as little as $25 and for as much as $1,000. Surely a soupcon of snob appeal accounts for part of the sky-high prices affixed to cookware bearing well-burnished gourmet names. But the difference in build quality -- the material components and how they're put together -- is the primary factor distinguishing cheap cookware sets from the rest. Most budget cookware sets feature a chemically-based nonstick finish on the inside cooking surface (sets with eco-friendly, nonchemical nonstick coatings are priced above the Cheapism niche). Other sets of cheap pots and pans have a stainless steel inner surface and some discount pots and pans are coated with enamel. Inexpensive cookware is made with aluminum, anodized aluminum, carbon steel, or stainless steel; steel conducts heat poorly so the best cheap stainless steel cookware sets incorporate an aluminum or copper disk on the bottom for better heat diffusion. Handles are metal, often hollow, or heavy-duty plastic. The rap on low-cost cookware is that food scorches, pots have hot spots, the bottoms warp, the finish stains, and the non-stick coating flakes off.

Pricier cookware is heavier, far more durable, and, holding the cook's skills constant, likely to deliver better results. These pots transmit heat evenly and quickly so food cooks faster at lower temperatures; searing meats and caramelizing vegetables are easily accomplished. The component materials of choice in the mid and upper ranges of the cookware market include cast iron, aluminum, copper, and stainless steel. Cast iron is often finished with an enamel coating, while the metals are usually bonded together in layers, either solo or in combination. 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 them easy to clean. The handles are typically solid metal and sometimes coated with silicone. Consumers who buy higher-cost cookware undoubtedly figure they're making a long-term investment.

If you don't have several hundred dollars to spare, you can still cook in style. We found a few cheap cookware sets for less than $85 that can help you turn out good-tasting, good-looking food. Of course, remember to consider what kind of cookware is right for your range; this is particularly important with smooth ceramic-glass stovetops because some cookware can't be used on these 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 the covered pot as the 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, inspect the finish.

Taking all these factors into account, here are our picks: the 10-piece T-fal Basic Nonstick Easy Care (starting at $59) is a best cheap cookware set because of its value pricing, size assortment, durability, and heft; the 10-piece Cuisinart Advantage Nonstick (starting at $70) likewise tops our list for its attractive design and even heating. In the runner-up category we're partial to two cheap stainless sets: a JC Penney 12-piece cookware set (starting at $39), which is a decent starter set that comes with three utensils and pots and pans sized for daily use, and the 10-piece Farberware Classic (starting at $70), which heats and cleans well but includes pots and pans on the small side. We found several cheap cookware sets that draw more criticism than praise from consumers, although they aren't heavily reviewed; the Bialetti Fusion (starting at $59) comes with nine pieces but apparently suffers from build quality issues and the 32-piece Chef's Du Jour Kitchen Combo (starting at $25) is faulted for its lightweight uselessness.

by Maralyn Edid (Google+ Profile)

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