Picks and Pans
Whether you're a chef or a dabbler, the right cookware set can keep things from boiling over
By Charles Passy

(MONEY Magazine) – It used to be fairly simple. If you wanted a cookware set, you went over to the housewares section of your local department store. There were usually three grades of pots and pans: not-so-fancy, fancy and obscene.

Nowadays, things have gotten more complicated. Even if you rule out the nonstick variety--and most dedicated home chefs do, since nonstick does not provide the ideal surface for searing--you are still left with a range of choices. Do you want stainless steel, aluminum or copper? Stainless steel (which refers only to the surface--most steel pans have layers of aluminum or copper under the surface, since those materials conduct heat far better than steel) is tough to clean, but it's the pick of most experts. Aluminum can react with foods, and copper is ridiculously expensive.

Manufacturers have also been pushing anodized (or hardened) aluminum as a kind of middle ground between nonstick and uncoated, offering the easy-to-clean quality of the former with the searing ability of the latter. Anodized is also said not to react with food the way aluminum can. Then there's the celebrity-chef angle: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and other men with toques have lines that claim to give home cooks a professional advantage.

And just when you thought you were in the clear, you have to determine how big a set you want. Most pros suggest sticking to the basics--a fry pan, a covered sauté pan, a saucepan/pot and a stockpot--but not all sets come configured that way. Some of the cheaper sets have more items (Wolfgang Puck's gargantuan 37-piece set costs $330), while some of the more expensive ones have fewer (an 11-piece Viking set costs $1,100). You may be tempted to think that bigger is better (more versatility, right?), but tests show that you get what you pay for: Let the buyer beware-or possibly be prepared for a fool's feast.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Calphalon's cookware set had three big advantages over the competition.

• Comfortable handles that stay cool and don't strain your hands

• Cooking surfaces that heat evenly so there are no hot or cool spots

• A quick cleanup when washing it by hand under a faucet (food slid right off)

HOW WE DID IT Food scientist Shirley Corriher recommended a series of challenges: Sear a chicken breast, boil water, warm up some canned chili and clean all pieces by hand.

TIP Copper cores and heat-resistant handles are nice, but you know what really counts? The lid. Make sure yours are sturdy and heavy, so that all the heat stays inside--where it's supposed to be.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.