Emeril Lagasse's pans made under the Emerilware brand by All-Clad, for instance, include an ergonomic thumb rest on the handles. Rocco DiSpirito's pans have pourable spouts, locking lids, and soft-grip handles. Daniel Boulud's new DBK Generation line features different core metals for different uses: copper inside saute pans, carbon steel inside fry pans.
Unlike the highest-cost cookware, which includes a combination of bonded metals throughout the pan, most of the celebrity-named pots and pans are stainless steel with a thick disk of bonded metal on the bottom for conductivity and even heating. The tradeoff, though, is a bottom-heavy pan that is anything but nimble on the stovetop -- and even harder to carry on and off it.
I put six celebrity pieces through their paces, using them to make a couple of dishes to demonstrate speed of heating and cooling, ease of handling, evenness of heat, and cleanup. In five of the cases I tested the largest saute pan available; in the sixth, Jamie Oliver's Professional Series pan by T-Fal, a misunderstanding with the manufacturer led to my testing a fry pan instead. But it is very similar to the line's saute pans, except for a slight slope to its sides and the lack of a lid.
I fired up six batches of chicken chicharrones, a Mexican dish that requires high heat and quick cooling and creates a sticky mess in the pan. Then I made pancakes the diameter of each pan, checking for even browning.
Most of the pans performed adequately, heating up and cooling down quickly enough to keep from burning the chicken. Most displayed an acceptable evenness of heat, and even though none are nonstick, they all released the pancakes easily with a film of oil spray underneath.
But there were some standouts, good and bad. The "Rocco's Kitchen" pan not only had the most uneven heat, but it's so large as to be positively unwieldy, and the same material that makes the handles soft and comfortable also renders this pan the least oven-ready of the bunch. It would be a nonstarter for those times when you want to sear pork chops on the stovetop and finish them in the oven: Go over 350 degrees, and this pan is toast.
I liked the DBK Generation pan, a real looker, but its performance didn't match its hefty price tag. I had high hopes for this one, especially given its construction: a copper core throughout underneath stainless steel, with no heavy disk on the bottom to weigh it down. It's almost as easy to use as my own favorite saute pan, which is in All-Clad's regular line (and, truth be told, costs even more), but the DBK is annoyingly hard to clean.
On the other end of the spectrum, Wolfgang Puck's Bistro pan is hard to beat for a mere $30. There's nothing unique about the design, which is just fine when a piece of cookware is such a good value. It does have the thick-disk bottom, but it is lighter than others that use this design, such as Emerilware and Martha Stewart Everyday, and it heats and cools quickly.
The comfort and ease of Oliver's T-Fal pan was also impressive, if the pan itself felt slightly too heavy. Like Puck's, this pan is $30, but add a lid and change the shape to a classic straight-sided saute, and the price doubles. Compared with many pans out there, though, $60 would still be a steal.
Joe Yonan can be reached at email@example.com.