How to: Shop for Cookware

If you follow me on social media (especially Instagram or Twitter) then you’ll know that I recently purchased my first set of cookware in about 15 years. It was a major purchase and I put a lot of thought and research into the decision, so I wanted to share the process with all of you. As I’ve learned over the years, the quality of your cookware makes a BIG difference in the outcome of a recipe.

Open UPS Box

Although this post does contains affiliate links, I was NOT paid by any brand, manufacturer, or retailer to mention their products or stores. These are my pure, unadulterated opinions. 

The Old Stuff…

A big portion of my decision was based on my experiences with the cookware that I already own, so let me start with that. I bought my first set of cookware at the dewy age of 20 (or was it 21?). I didn’t know much about cooking or cookware, so I simply went to Target, found a set that looked sturdy, and bought it. The set I bought was the older version of the Simply Calphalon 8-piece cookware set. Despite being a hasty, uninformed decision, the set has served me very well over the years.

Old Sauce Pot

This is my old sauce pot. It has seen better days.

They’ve been beat up, stained, and slightly abused, but have held up surprisingly well. Here is what I liked and disliked about this set.

Pro’s: Heavy, thick, one-piece construction that conducts heat evenly. Glass lids that allow seeing the contents without letting out heat or steam. Dishwasher safe. Non-stick surface was surprising durable and did not flake, peel, or scrape (no metal utensils were used).

Con’s: Not oven safe due to the plastic handle and non-stick surface. Non-stick CAN scratch if misused. Non-stick’s safety is questionable. The outer surface stains easily.

The pro’s definitely outweighed the con’s, IMHO. It was a good set, but they’ve seen better days.

I also received a set of stainless steel cookware as a gift from a friend who had received them free for subscribing to some magazine or something. They’re shiny, pretty, good for blog photos, but terrible for cooking. They are as thin as paper and have a “bonded” bottom for heat conduction, rather than being one solid piece.

Bonded Aluminum Bottom

 

See that extra layer stuck to the bottom? It’s a thicker piece of metal meant to help conduct heat. The problem is that it doesn’t conduct heat up the sides and around food. Womp, womp. The metal on the walls of the pot are only 1/32 inch thick. Seriously, paper thin and terrible for cooking.

Thick Walls

Compare that to my Calphalon set, which is 1/8th inch thick and all one piece. MUCH better. The heat flows easily and evenly from the bottom of the pot up the sides and all around the food. That’s how you get even and reliable results when cooking.

In addition to these two complete “sets”, I’ve also purchased a few individual pieces over the years, like my Lodge 10″ cast iron skillet. I use that one a lot because, unlike the Calphalon set, it can go from the stove top to the oven with no damage. You can literally use it as bakeware OR cookware.

So, after comparing what I liked and disliked about the sets and pieces that I already own, I made a list of “must haves” for my new set of pots and pans.

Must Haves:

  • Thick, solid, one-piece construction
  • Glass lids
  • Oven safe
  • Dishwasher safe
  • Stainless Steel
  • Set must include a deep skillet with lid (perfect for “skillet meals“)

To Non-Stick or to Not Non-Stick

My first decision was whether to buy another set of non-stick, or opt for stainless steel. While I enjoyed the ease of my non-stick cookware, I kind of felt like the teflon was a safety net that I no longer needed. Now that I’m more experienced and understand the cooking process better, I know how to keep food from sticking without the help of Teflon. I no longer need my training wheels. Plus, I wanted the flexibility of going from stove to the oven or broiler, or using metal utensils without the fear of scratching. (I might keep one small non-stick skillet for fried eggs, though. ;) ) If I had decided to stay with non-stick, I may very well have just purchased the very same set of pots and pans again, except the bigger set that includes this deep skillet with lid. I liked them that much.

Price

The second thing I had to decide was how much I was going to spend. I’m not quite as broke as I was when I started this blog, but I still don’t want to drop $500-$600 on a set of pots and pans, even though I know they will last me another couple of decades. I just don’t have it in me. After shopping around a bit, I felt that I could get a pretty good quality set with the basic pieces that I needed for around $300, and that price point didn’t give me an anxiety attack. :P

Comparing Sets

I was so impressed with my first Calphalon set that I went straight to their website to see what else they offer. I found this awesome comparison chart of their different stainless steel cookware sets, which helped a lot. It had columns for most of the items on my “must have” list (they have a similar chart for their non-stick cookware sets). Simply looking at the chart helped me understand what I wanted and what I should be looking for, regardless of the brand. From that chart, I was able to see that the only Calphalon set that met all my “must haves” and was within my price range was the Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel set. Unfortunately, the smaller 10-piece set did not have all the pieces I wanted (I NEED that deep skillet with lid) and the large 13-piece set was out of my price range. How did I plan to fix that? A coupon.

Look for Deals

When making big purchases, it always pays to look for sales, coupons, or any other deals that you can get your hands on. I looked around at several online retailers, but that set had pretty much the same price point everywhere I looked. I did see that Bed Bath & Beyond was running a special $50 gift card promotion for Calphalon, so that caught my attention. THEN I remembered that BB&B prints 20% off coupons like they grow on trees. So, I got my hands on one of those and made sure that Calphalon wasn’t one of the brands excluded from the coupon. Bingo! It was eligible for the coupon! That makes a $399 set only $319, which is just slightly above my target price. So, I marched off to the physical store to check out the goods…

Well, when I was at the store I locked eyes with this Stainless Steel Pro set by Oxo Good Grips and it was love at first sight:

OXO Cookware Set

It had all the things on my list that I wanted: stainless steel, one-piece construction, glass lids, oven/broiler safe, dishwasher safe, AND the deep skillet with a lid. They have the same tri-ply construction as the Calphalon set and the lids seemed like they fit a little better. They also had a few extra bells and whistles, like volume marks on the insides of the pots, and a gorgeous rounded shape, which they claim is easier for whisking and stirring, but I just like because it’s pretty. I’m a very visual person, so the beautiful shape totally sealed the deal. All that and they were the same exact price as the Calphalon set. Moral of the story? Always check out the product in real life, even if you plan to purchase online.

Box Top

I am the most excited about this deep skillet with lid. Can you tell by how many times I’ve mentioned it in this post? Over the years I’ve found this to be the most versatile piece of cookware and if I were only allowed to buy only ONE piece, this would be it. End of story.

The Oxo set was out of stock at all the Bed Bath & Beyond stores in my area, so I ended up ordering them online. The print 20% off coupons are only eligible for in-store purchases, but I was able to sign up for their text message alerts and get a coupon that works for in-store AND online purchases. The text message alerts can be cancelled at any time, so it was totally worth it (they don’t send the coupon for about a week, though, so be patient).

In the end, I got an amazing 13-piece stainless steel cookware set for about $320. That is a steal! (Or steel? No? Bad joke.) I love them. They’re beautiful, sturdy, and from what I can tell so far, cook very well. I win!

Other Options

If I had a smaller budget, I would have probably purchased one of the hard anodized aluminum non-stick sets, like my old Calphalon set simply because they’re still thick and heavy, but cost much less than the stainless steel. OR, I would have checked out a stainless set that had the bonded bottom, but made by a more reputable brand. I have a feeling that not all bonded bottoms are quite as bad as the free set I was given, so that would be worth looking into.

If you have a very tight budget, consider looking in thrift and consignment shops for cookware. A good set of cookware can last generations, but people usually don’t keep them that long just because they want or are given something new. You can score big on some very durable used stainless steel or cast iron pieces. Even if a piece of cast iron looks rusty and shot, it can sometimes be restored with a little TLC. Also check out restaurant supply stores. They carry bare bones, sturdy cookware that gets the job done well, without the celebrity/brand names or the bells and whistles that can hike up the price.

That was my experience, what’s yours?

Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice about buying pots and pans in the comments below. We can all learn from each other!