The state of the cookware industry
Cookware is one of those commodities that you used to buy once and use for life. But nowadays, I find myself buying an entire new set once every five years or so. It’s not uncommon for pots and pans to split apart at the seams, develop rust and stains, and warp. And don’t get me started on non-stick surfaces.
But of course, every pot and pan set has stellar reviews on Amazon. Why? Because the cookware company just needs to impress people for the first few weeks. After a year (conveniently when the warranty runs out in most cases), that’s when things start falling apart. And as consumers, we’ve just gotten used to it. Unlike our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through the Depression, subsequent generations have become accustomed to using things and dumping them in landfills so they can go on to (literally) the next shiny object.
I was pleased, though, to find a handful of brands who still “get it”. These include iconic brands like All-Clad and Le Creuset.
The cookware industry is an excellent microcosm to understand how entire categories of American manufacturing have been lost to China. Typically, you have a market leader who invented the category or brought the most innovation to the category (think All-Clad). In some cases, these brands brought life to entire communities and cities across the United States.
Once the 1990s and 2000s hit, things changed. Brands that were subpar or which were owned by big corporate behemoths (think Cuisinart) couldn’t compete on quality, but by offshoring manufacturing they realized that consumers would trade off perceived quality for price. So they sent all their designs, their manufacturing knowledge, and their intellectual property to China. And sure enough, that started to level the playing field. “Why should I pay $200 for an All-Clad pan, when I can get a Cuisinart for $100”. That started a race to the bottom that no American company can win, because eventually people will say, “Why should I pay $100 for a Cuisinart when I can buy a COLIBYOU for $50?”
How did you choose the best?
To identify the best of the best cookware not made in China, I scoured dozens of review sites and looked for cookware sets that seemed to come up over and over again on “best of” lists.
The first thing to do was to knock out all the brands that clearly sent most of their production over to China. That list includes Cuisinart, Rachael Ray, Greenlife, Greenpan, Ninja, Bialetti, HexClad, Kenmore, Gotham Steel, Zwilling, T-Fal, Blue Diamond, and of course, Amazon Basics. Calphalon sadly looks like it’s on its way to moving all production overseas judging from the increasing number of people reporting “Made in China” on pieces that one were made in the USA. Anolon was hit-or-miss–their manufacturing was distributed between Thaliand and China, but it’s tough to identify specifically for any particular product (this is where Country of Origin labeling would be nice). And of course, I had to get past the fake China brands like COLIBYOU, HITECLIFE, GRANITE STONE, KUTIME, and so many more.
That left a handful of brands. But what was left was usually the best of the best, at least in categories where manufacturing had at one point been done outside of China (sadly, for newer technologies like non-stick, American companies did the R&D but by offshoring manufacturing basically funded China’s rise to dominance–and their co-opting of their own intellectual property.
For now, I’ll keep one post dedicated to identifying the best of the best across multiple types of cookware. Scroll down to find what the best brand for your preferred type of pots and pans is.
Best Cookware Not Made in China – Quick Ranking
1. All-Clad D3 Stainless Cookware Set – Best Stainless Steel
All-Clad is perennially listed on the “best of” cookware lists, including being named as the “gold standard” by Food Network, “best splurge” by AllRecipes, and best “upgrade pick” by Wirecutter. New York Magazine named various pieces as the top choice of professional chefs.
All-Clad was founded in 1971 in Canonsburg Pennsylvania, toward the end of the era when America was the manufacturing powerhouse of the world and nearby Pittsburgh was the undisputed steel capital of the world. It was founded by John Ulam, who’d originally started the business to sell bonded metals (including metal used for coinage for the US Mint). Ulam made a pan for his personal use. The name “All Clad” refers to the process that they use to sandwich layers of metal together in a way that results in (literally) a fully-bonded and seamless pot or pan.
The cooking surface uses Type 304 stainless steel that is certified to meet ISO 9000 and ASTM A240 standards for food use.
If you’re confused at all the dizzying options for cookware, the one thing you need to be aware of is that stainless steel is by far the best material to cook with. Stainless steel is generally not reactive with foods, meaning there’s no danger of unpleasant or even dangerous chemicals leaching into your food, as may happen with cookware with glazed enamel or non-stick surfaces. Stainless steel distributes heat evenly, helping make sure your food is cooked to perfection. And it’s virtually indestructible, which explains why so many of them come with lifetime warranties. That’s why almost every professional chef you’ll talk to has a set that he or she uses religiously.
The one gripe people have about stainless steel is that food sticks to it, but that’s generally because they don’t heat the pot or pan sufficiently before they cook on it. But even if food does stick to it, a little Bar Keeper’s Friend takes care of it easily.
All-Clad, of course, makes many different types of cookware, but I’m focused mainly on their Stainless Steel Tri-Ply Bonded pots and pans (all of which are made in the USA). You’ll find that it comes in two types: D3 and D5. This simply refers to the number of layers of bonded metal it has. D3 has steel + aluminum + steel, while D5 has steel + aluminum + steel + aluminum + steel. What’s the difference? In a nutshell, D3 heats more rapidly, while D5 heats more evenly. D5 is also more expensive. All of their stainless steel stuff still comes out of Pennsylvania.
I’ve tried using their Hard Anodized Nonstick cookware, hoping that the kind of engineering that went into their stainless steel pans also helped them make a better non-stick pan. The reality is that I’ve owned a few sets, and each time they only last a few years before the non-stick starts chipping off the surface and into my food. Not surprisingly, all of their non-stick stuff is made in China.
I’ve chosen their D3 Stainless Steel 10-piece set as the very best. It’s the set that most sites have put on their “best of” lists for having a balance of durability, ease of holding, and even heating. And unlike other cookware (or their own non-stick cookware), these are the kinds of pots and pans that you can use for a lifetime, and even pass down generations
2. Tramontina Gourmet 12-Piece Tri-Ply Clad Cookware Set – Stainless Steel runner up
Tramontina is a Brazilian company. It’s also listed on multiple “best of” lists, including Wirecutter and America’s Test Kitchen. As with All-Clad, their pots and pans are impact-bonded with three layers (Steel, Aluminum, Steel). It’s much more affordable than All-Clad: this 12-piece set is nearly half the price of the comparable 10-piece set from All-Clad.
If you’re ordering from Tramontina, ensure that you find a set that’s made in Brazil and not made in China. It looks like Tramontina is offering both now, and so they’re probably testing the waters to see if people care about country of origin.
3. The Non-Stick Set by Made In – Best Non-Stick
If you absolutely need non-stick, check out Made In. You won’t find Made In cookware at Amazon, Target, Walmart, or any other retailer. That’s because they only sell directly to consumers and professionals through their Web site. In fact, their cookware is used in many top-rated three-Michelin-star restaurants such as Alinea in Chicago and Le Bernadin in New York.
Made In has an interesting history. The founders had a 100-year history in kitchen supply, and decided to partner with family-owned manufacturers in the US, France, and Italy to build only the best cookware.
While all their pieces are exceptional quality, to me their non-stick set is–no pun intended–what sticks out. Their non-stick cookware is made in Italy, and their coating is American PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) made without PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). If you’re not sure what this means, bottom line is that Made In is going out of its way to make sure its material is safe–in 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency in the US issued an advisory about the dangers of PFOA after testing showed multiple health problems associated with it, from testicular and kidney cancer to liver damage, thyroid disease, and dangers to pregnant women and fetuses. US-based manufacturers agreed to stop using it in making non-stick cookware.
Can you expect the same from manufacturers in China? I think we all know the answer to this. And yet, I can’t find one instance of non-stick cookware other than Made In that is not made in China. Even companies like All Clad and Le Creuset who carry non-stick outsource their manufacturing to China.
I highly recommend everything Made In has to offer, but their non-stick set is a must-buy for anyone who wants non-stick. In fact, unlike other manufacturers, they’re very clear that you should hand-wash non-stick cookware–if you’re like me and go through a set every few years, that’s important to remember.
4. The Perfect Fry-Fecta Nonstick 3-Piece Fry Pan Set by American Kitchen – Non-Stick Runner-Up
You’ve probably heard of the name Regal Ware; they’ve been around for over 100 years. They have two brands that produce cookware that’s made in the USA: American Kitchen Cookware and Lifetime Cookware.
As with Made In, American Kitchen uses a nonstick surface that’s free of PFOA. Their nonstick surface, which they call “Eterna”, is thicker than standard non-stick surface. Their entire cookware line is made in West Bend, Wisconsin in the USA.
This set of three frying pans, an 8-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch pan, will last for years. They’re made with two layers of stainless steel and an aluminum core, which provides even heat distribution.
5. Lodge Cast Iron Essential Pan Set – Best Cast Iron
Cast iron is not for everyone. It’s heavy and you need to keep it properly “seasoned” to prevent it from rusting–this can be an arduous task of cleaning, drying completely, and seasoning with shortening or oil. A benefit of proper seasoning is that it essentially creates a natural non-stick surface that’s not produced in a lab. Another potential issue with cast iron is that if you cook excessive amounts of acidic food (think tomato sauce), there’s a chance some iron may leach into your food, which of course isn’t a great thing.
That said, there’s no substance on earth that does a better job of heat retention. You can use cast iron anywhere without any asterisks or fine print–on an induction cooker, on a gas or electric stove, in the oven, or in a fireplace or over a campfire. There’s no better way to do things like searing a steak. And cast iron will last forever and with proper care improves with age.
This Lodge Cast Iron Essential Pan Set is a great set of cookware with all the basics. It’s made by Lodge, who’s been making cookware since 1896. They continue to produce all their cast iron out of two foundries in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Although be sure to avoid their enameled products, which are manufactured in China.
6. Le Creuset Signature Cookware Set – Best Enameled Cast Iron
While cast iron cookware has been made since the 5th century BC, it was a relatively recent innovation to introduce glazed enamel to coat cast iron. This layer of coating eliminates the need for seasoning and makes cleaning much easier than with traditional cast iron. It also reduces the amount of leaching for those who want to limit their dietary iron. Proper enameling can produce vibrant colors but resist temperatures of 1652-2336 degrees Farenheit.
Note my use of the word “proper”. If you read my reviews on slow cookers, you’ll see that there was a lot of controversy around glazes used for Crock Pots and virtually every slow cooker made where lead, of all things, was found a part of the enamel glaze. Even worse, it was the way slow cookers worked that ensured that this lead leached into food. Who knows how many people over the years have been hurt by this.
The good news about Le Creuset (as well as Staub enameled cookware, which I’d consider a close second to Le Creuset in the category) is that it’s made in France with strict oversight and quality standards. Le Creuset starts by using sand casting methods to create the cookware, and then after hand finishing at least two coats of enamel are sprayed on the cookware.
Unfortunately consumers are easily fooled. Amazon Basics has a Dutch Oven that looks like a Le Creuset but costs $45 (whereas a similar Le Creuset costs at least $170), and of course Amazon displays it as the #1 result when you type in “Le Creuset”. Type in “enameled cast iron” and you get even more garbage from established brands like Cuisinart and fake China brands like BUYDEEM, Puricon, DIJA and CSK. Bear in mind that you do get what you pay for. These are mass produced in factories with questionable safety and labor standards, generally from brands that couldn’t compete with Le Creuset on quality and/or from China brands that are just looking to dump their cheap products on an unsuspecting market. Don’t fall for it.
This 5-piece set is pricey, but it contains all the basics, including Le Creuset’s iconic Dutch Oven. It will last you for years and years, and you’ll have the peace of mind that it never left the borders of France before it got to you.
6. 360 Cookware Stainless Steel Sets – A Solid Made in USA Brand
You may recognize the 360 Cookware name from my article on slow cookers. They’re literally the only company I can find anymore making slow cookers outside of China.
They also have an impressive selection of cookware, made of surgical grade stainless steel (meaning their manufacturing material and processes are the cleanest you’ll find anywhere). What’s nice about 360 Cookware is not just the quality of their cookware, but the fact that they have resisted outsourcing any of their products to China, and that includes their pots and pans, their bakeware, and their flatware.
Do you know of other cookware not made in China worthy of mention here? Let us know in the comments!