(this is long, bear with me!)
I recently had these exact same questions and did lots of research, so for what it’s worth, here’s what I found! (please don’t take this as gospel—I am certainly not the expert on this!)
To start with, Stainless vs. Nonstick. What the bridal registry expert at Macy’s told me was essentially if you’re the kind of cook that mostly “warms things up,” nonstick will be fine. It is easy to cook with and easy to clean and many people who aren’t trying to really COOK prefer it.
However, if you’re planning to make sauces, blend flavors in certain ways, or lots of other more “chef-like” tasks, non-stick will not work. Just as its name suggests, food won’t stick to it easily, and this needs to happen to cook certain things. You also have more control over temperature with stainless, and…well, some other chef-ish tasks I can’t remember. J
Stainless also lasts a lot longer. It is really easy to ruin a non-stick pan if you use the wrong utensils, clean it incorrectly, etc, but stainless can last a lifetime. Some people also worry about the non-stick coating leaching into their food if it’s scratched at all, but I’m not sure if this is proven.
So because of all this, we decided to register for stainless. We’re not hardcore chefs yet, but we hope to learn a lot more about cooking in the future!
Next is brand, etc. Yes, brand does matter for quality, as it does in lots of stuff, but whether it matters that much to you is another story. For us, the most expensive cookware set was just not worth it, but it is for some people. We wanted something that would work well, but we didn’t really care about the brand name or that it might perform the tiniest bit better, so I found that some other brands would work perfectly well for us.
All-Clad is generally thought to be the best, but there are other brands that can stand up to it, according to my research. And it’s not just the brand—within each brand there is high end and low end.
The biggest reason the All-Clad is so good is that it is “Clad” or “TriPly,” which means that it has three layers (stainless, aluminum, stainless) that aren’t just on the bottom of the pan, but go all the way up the side for more even heating. The lowest end pans you’ll find don’t have multiple layers at all, or have them only on the bottom.
There are a few brands, though, that are TriPly just like the AllClad, and a couple got really good reviews (almost as good as AllClad) on lots of cooking sites. There are others, but the ones I liked best from reviews were Cuisinart Multiclad Pro and Calphalon Contemporary and Calphalon Tri-Ply (which is the older version of the Calphalon Contemporary). All of these are far less expensive than the AllClad.
We decided to go with the Cuisinart Multiclad Pro because we liked the look of them better than the Calphalon, and the two of them had gotten very similar reviews. We’re also getting one non-stick frypan for things like eggs that just will never cook well on stainless, and a non-stick wok.
Phew! That was long, but I hope it helps someone. (and PS-reviews on cookware online are so helpful. Some cooking sites make you pay to be a part of them—but you can get a free trial, yay!—and Amazon has tons of reviews.) I’m not trying to convince you either way, but knowing all this stuff was really helpful to me, and hopefully it will be for you too. Good luck!