“cheapism helps you find the cheapest "best buys"” — lifehacker

Cheap Cookware Buying Guide

We found several cookware sets for less than $80 that can help home cooks turn out good-tasting, good-looking food. T-Fal Signature Total 12-piece nonstick cookware set (starting at $63) is almost universally praised in cookware reviews online, as is the Cook N Home 12-piece stainless steel set (starting at $58).

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The WearEver Admiration 12-piece (starting at $50) and Farberware Classic 10-piece (starting at $70) are two other good budget options from brands that are longtime favorites of many consumers.

An even cheaper set may be appealing -- at first blush. The Sunbeam Armington 7-Piece (starting at $20) comes in attractive colors, and the Chef's Du Jour 32-piece set (starting at $25) includes lots of extras for someone setting up their first place, but the quality is so low, these collections are unlikely to last through the next move.

Before making a purchase, consider what kind of cookware is right for your range. This is particularly important with a smooth, ceramic-glass or conduction stovetop, 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 a covered pot through a glass lid 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, and inspect the finish.

Surely a soupcon of snob appeal partly accounts for the sky-high prices affixed to gourmet cookware. But the difference in build quality -- the material components and how they're put together -- is the primary factor that distinguishes cheap cookware sets from the rest. The rap on low-cost cookware is that food scorches, pots have hot spots, the bottoms warp, the finish stains, and the nonstick coating flakes off. Pricier cookware is heavier, far more durable, and -- holding the cook's skills constant -- likely to deliver better results. These pans transmit heat evenly and quickly, so food cooks faster at lower temperatures; seared meats and caramelized vegetables are easily accomplished.

The component materials of choice in the mid- and upper ranges of the market include cast iron, aluminum, copper, and stainless steel. 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 it easy to clean. Cast iron is often finished with an enamel coating. Consumers who buy high-end cookware undoubtedly figure they're making a long-term investment.

What We Looked For

Most budget cookware is made from aluminum, carbon steel, or stainless steel. The interior cooking surface may be the same metal as the exterior, but cheap aluminum and carbon steel cookware usually features a chemically based nonstick finish (sets with eco-friendly, nonchemical coatings are priced above the Cheapism niche). After looking at both nonstick and uncoated cookware, we chose the best cheap cookware of each type and one good set in each category. We also looked for features that make some cookware sets a better value than others.

Review continues below

Nonstick Cookware.

A nonstick coating applied to a metal pot or pan helps it release foods easily and clean up quickly. With a nonstick surface, users can cook without adding any fat to the pan. This makes nonstick cookware the most popular choice among home cooks. All our picks except the Cook N Home set have at least some nonstick pieces.

Keep in mind that a nonstick surface doesn't brown or caramelize foods very well, and the coating can scratch off if you don't treat the pieces with care. We read reports from users saying the nonstick surface of some low-cost cookware degrades quickly, raising concerns about the release of potentially toxic compounds. Bottom line, according to Good Housekeeping: Avoid temperatures higher than 500 degrees, and if the nonstick coating starts chipping off, it's best to toss the cookware.

Stainless Steel Cookware.

Although the Food and Drug Administration has found no risk to humans, the health concerns surrounding nonstick cookware prompt many consumers to seek out other materials. With that in mind, we made sure to include a relatively easy-to-use alternative available on a budget: stainless steel. Although good cast iron sets are also available in the Cheapism price range, they are heavier, higher maintenance, and less suited to everyday cooking. If that doesn't deter you, we've seen a Lodge Logic 5-piece set (starting at $64) available from Amazon or Walmart.

Stainless steel is dense, does not hold smells or tastes, and is highly resistant to pitting or staining. It is also strong and nonreactive, which means that acidic foods such as tomatoes won't damage it. Unlike aluminum, the basis of many low-cost pots and pans, steel is magnetic (as is cast iron) and will work on an induction stovetop. However, steel is not as good at conducting heat, so the best cheap stainless steel cookware incorporates an aluminum or copper disk at the bottom for better heat diffusion. One example of this is the Farberware Classic 10-piece set. This cookware also lets users keep one foot in each world, by combining stainless steel pots and nonstick aluminum skillets in the same set.

Oven-Safe Cookware.

Some cooking methods, such as braising, call for a dish started on the stovetop to be transferred to the oven. While cheap aluminum and stainless steel pans are typically oven-safe, the temperature they can withstand depends largely on the handle material. Consumers appreciate "stay-cool" handles made of silicone, plastic, or Bakelite (a type of resin), because they don't require potholders, but most max out at about 350 degrees. Some nonstick pans also can't go in the oven. Although all our recommendations are oven-safe, be sure to check the manufacturer's directions before attempting to put a nonstick pan in the oven. For example, the Cook N Home stainless steel cookware is safe up to 500 degrees unless the lid is on.

Useful Pieces.

What comes in a set of cheap pot and pans? That all depends. Expect to get a combination of saucepans, skillets/fry pans (with slanted sides) or saute pans (with straight sides), a stockpot or Dutch oven, and a few lids. Larger sets usually come with a bonus of some kind; the T-Fal Signature Total 12-piece set includes a griddle. Match our picks against the way you cook and what you really need.

Review continues below

A cookware set may contain as few as three pieces or more than 30. Note that those numbers often include lids, cooking utensils, and other miscellaneous items in addition to pots and pans. Price is not an indicator of the quantity of pieces that make up a cookware set. The Chef's Du Jour 32-piece set is one of the cheapest we researched.

The size of the pieces seems to be a bigger issue than the size of the set. The Chef's Du Jour set has a 3.25-quart Dutch oven, for example, compared with at least 5 quarts among the cookware we recommend. Consumers are often surprised at the relatively small size of any cheap 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.

Cookware Reviews

In choosing the best cheap cookware sets, we relied heavily on reviews by home cooks on retail sites such as Amazon, Wayfair, and Walmart. Expert sources such as America's Test Kitchen tend to evaluate individual pieces with high price tags. Most of the cookware sets tested by Consumer Reports and the Good Housekeeping Research Institute also exceed our $80 price ceiling, and the handful of budget options in those tests generally did not perform well. The only one that made our cut was the WearEver Admiration 12-piece, which didn't measure up to the expensive sets Good Housekeeping assessed but has a lot of pros for the price. For more detail about the performance and features of this cookware set and the others we researched, click on our picks at the top of the page.

In general, user reviewers want cookware that makes the cooking process uncomplicated and the cleaning process speedy. Nonstick cookware can usually be washed with a regular sponge, a big part of its appeal. Stainless steel pans might be a bit harder to clean but shouldn't rust or stain. The cheap cookware featured here is dishwasher-safe, but manufacturers and experts recommend washing by hand.

Consumers who use nonstick cookware are adamant that the coating should be truly nonstick. It should also be durable and not scratch or come off easily. Scorch-free bottoms and proper-fitting lids are also important. Reviewers are somewhat divided on glass lids. They're useful because you can see what's going on in the pot without lifting it, but consumers with small children or clumsy hands may worry about breakage. Our top picks have tempered-glass lids, which will shatter if broken, rather than breaking into dangerous shards.

Ultimately, shoppers want good quality cookware that performs admirably. The best cookware evenly distributes heat along its bottom so food doesn't get burned. Foodies may assert that only expensive cookware can produce gourmet meals, but the cookware reviews we read suggest that frugal cooks are more than satisfied with the dishes that come out of their cheap cookware.

by Elizabeth Sheer (Google+ Profile)

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Cookware Sets
  2. Discount Cookware Features Comparison Table
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