Should you purchase a whole set of pans or buy them one at at a time?
A great question and one that really depends on several things including your cooking needs, level of cooking, and how much you want to spend.
Over the years I purchased a few pots and pans made by Calphalon, still use them today but can also recommend All Clad, Viking and Circulon. Since I bought my pans years ago, they have come up with some great new technology including handles that don't get hot and a better selection of non stick products.
I purchased my pans over time and in the end it has probably cost me more than just buying a complete set. At the time though, I didn't have the bucks to buy a whole set so it didn't matter.
I still enjoy shopping for new pans and love when my wife surprises me on my birthday or during the holidays.
If you don't purchase a complete set, buy a couple of good quality essentials and add to your collection as you go along. Like investing in stocks, you wouldn’t buy your whole portfolio at one time but add to it when the market is right.
The One at a Time Approach
Start with a couple of “Blue Chips” pans and add to your collection. These should include:
Saute Pan - a heavy duty 10 to 12 each saute pan for sauteing steaks, chicken, fish, and vegetables. You can use it instead of a wok for stir-fry. It can even double as a fry pan. Read my article on choosing and buying a saute pan.
Sauce Pan - a heavy bottomed 2 quart sauce pan is perfect for making sauces, steaming vegetables, cooking smaller quantities of pasta or potatoes. It can be used for reheating leftovers, canned soups or just about anything that needs to be reheated.
One of the most versatile pots in my house. For more information on choosing and buying a sauce pan.
Soup/Stock Pot - the third in my trio of important pots and pans for anyone starting out. What size you buy really depends on how many or how much you are cooking.
I love to make big batches of soup or chili in the fall and winter so I have a couple of sizes but anything between 7 & 10 quart should be fine. It can be used for soups, stocks, stews, pasta, big qualities of sauce, corn, lobsters and a whole lot more.
Add To Your Collection Over Time
Later you can augment your portfolio by adding additional sizes and types like omelet pans, double-boilers, roasting pans, etc. Forget about buying cheap aluminum pans or any pan that is thin and light.
They conduct heat poorly and you’ll spend more time cleaning the stuff that burns on the bottom than enjoying your food.
Buy a Cookware Set and Be Done with It
If you find a brand that you like, feels good in your hand and you can afford, buying the complete set isn't a bad idea. This way you are done shopping for pots and pans and you can start thinking about chef knifes, blenders, food processor and the rest.
If you are getting married or looking for a wedding gift, a cookware set is a great idea. Holiday time, birthdays, anniversaries (be careful - the message you send giving a loved one pots and pans may be misunderstood).
What to look for?
You want pots and pans made of stainless steel or heavy-gauge aluminum with non oxidizing surfaces. The base of the pan should be thick and flat on both the inside and out for better heat efficiency.
You also want handles that are riveted to the pan and can be put in the oven(no plastic handles) and well fitting lids. And most importantly, make sure they feel good in your hands. Just because they might be highly touted, doesn’t mean they’re the right fit for you.