If you've ever picked up the molten plastic handle of a frying pan or cleaned a range top after making a marinara in a wobbly pot, you’re ready to learn about good cookware.
The type is one thing—skillet, saucepan, stock pot—but what about the material? Do you choose stainless steel or copper, cast iron or aluminum? If you’re over heavy metals, what does enamel come in and why do many chefs consider non-stick a no-go? Before you invest in good-quality pots and pans, you need to know the best material for the job.
You might already know that you can put a cast iron skillet on the hottest flame you can muster, and it’ll be just fine. Do the same thing with a nonstick frying pan? Your house is going to be full of smoke faster than a barn fire. But, knowing good materials goes beyond how well each can take heat.
There’s also understanding the give and take between cookware that heats evenly and those that impart a slightly metallic taste—and when to use either. That’s because, ideally, we want our cookware to conduct heat efficiently and not cause discoloration or off-flavors in our food. Unfortunately, no single material can do both things.
And, don’t forget to consider whether or not your current cooktop requires a specific material! Finally, there’s how easy various materials are to clean and care for properly, since some materials demand much more TLC.
We’ll help you understand the answers to all the above, and guide you through common cookware materials, in this three-part guide.
What Kind of Cooking Do You Want To Do?
This seems like a relatively simple question, but it’s an important one. When you’re considering getting a new piece of cookware, don’t start with “I want a new skillet.”
Rather, ask yourself, “What do I want to do, that I cannot do with the cookware I already own? What is it about my cookware that does not allow me to do what I want?”
When you’re considering getting a new piece of cookware, don’t start with “I want a new skillet.”
Sometimes it may be something as simple as wanting a skillet that doesn’t have hot spots. Other times it may be more complex, such as a small pan for making delicate sauces like Hollandaise or mounting reductions with butter.
Once you know what you want your cookware to do, then you can identify what might make a pot or pan perfect for performing those tasks. For example, when making sauces or mounting reductions, you would want a pan that can:
- Keep heat absolutely even.
- Respond immediately when you adjust temperature up or down.
- Maintain its temperature when cold ingredients are added.
- Conduct heat into the sauce from all sides, so that all contents are exactly the same temperature.
- Provide a relatively large surface-area-to-volume ratio for efficient reduction.
- Effectively whisk what’s inside, with a nice and wide opening.
In short, you might want a stainless-lined, heavy copper sauce pan, a stainless-lined heavy aluminum pan, or a stainless pan with a copper bottom—depending on your budget, of course.
If you’re not sure why those options might be the best fit for the task of making sauces, don’t worry! By the end of this series, you’ll have a good understanding of why you’d choose that shape of pan and what’s lost or gained when cooking with different materials.
Just remember, it’s important to shop for cookware with a purpose in mind.
What’s Shape Got To Do With It?
New cooks tend to use the same pan to cook everything. But, different pan designs lend themselves to different cooking tasks, as well as the deployment of materials.
For example, searing off and frying potatoes in a frying pan will get you that nice, crispy texture you're going for. Try the same thing in a big pot meant for boiling water? Your potatoes will be mush since its deep sides are going to trap and hold steam.
That isn’t to say that it’s imperative you have a shape specifically designed for every task. The three basic items needed in any cookware collection are:
- A small two- to three-quart saucepan with a lid: This is your kitchen workhouse. Use it for boiling or steaming vegetables, making sauces, or cooking grains and pasta.
- A large four-quart to two-gallon saucepan or pot with lid: Every kitchen should have at least one really big pot. Use this for making pasta sauce, or chicken stock, or a large pot of soup you plan to freeze and have on hand for future meals.
- A medium ten- to fourteen-inch sauté pan with lid: A sauté pan has straight sides and a larger surface area, which makes it great for searing meat or reducing a pan sauce. The taller sides also mean sauces and slices are less likely to slosh out.
There are, of course, endless options when you start looking at specialized shapes and sizes: fry pans have straighter sides to allow for maximum dispersal of steam, and dutch ovens come in oval shapes particularly useful for braising large pieces of meat on the bone.
However, quality cookware is notoriously expensive, and you’d be hard-pressed to find too many tasks that the three pieces above can’t manage.
Materials: Understanding Reactive and Non-Reactive Cookware
Cookware materials differ in two important qualities: reactivity and thermal properties.
Ceramics (including earthenware, stoneware, and glass) and stainless steel are considered non-reactive. While these don't conduct heat very well and tend to have “hot spots,” they won’t interfere with the chemical structure of the food in such a way that changes the look or edibility.
The other big advantage of non-reactive cookware is that once they’re hot, they stay hot for quite some time.
Aluminum, copper, cast iron, and steel (not ‘stainless’) are all reactive. They conduct heat very efficiently, and therefore, do a great job of cooking our food evenly. However, these metals are reactive with acidic and alkaline foods and can produce unwanted flavors.
For example, if you're cooking with ingredients like tomatoes or lemon juice, your food can take on a metallic flavor, especially if the cooking time is very long. Light colored foods, like eggs, can develop gray streaks.
A special case is anodized aluminum, which is aluminum that has been treated with an electrolytic process to create a harder surface that is still somewhat reactive, but significantly less so than untreated aluminum. Similarly, a process called annealing is used to turn reactive carbon steel into harder, less reactive black steel and blue steel.
Foods will also pick up chemical elements from reactive cookware, causing us to ingest metals like copper and iron. Our bodies process iron relatively easily, so using cast iron cookware regularly isn’t a problem. However, we have a harder time eliminating copper.
Basically, when copper cookware is used to occasionally whip egg whites or sautéd vegetables, the small amount we ingest isn't enough to harm us—but you definitely don't want to use copper for everyday use.
The good news is that it’s possible to get the best of both worlds.
Manufacturers have found ways to combine elements, such as adding a layer of copper to the bottom of a stainless steel pan or coating iron with enamel, to heat the pan evenly while still protecting food from direct contact with the reactive metal.
The bad news? These kinds of cookware don’t come cheap!
The less-spendy path is to section off tasks: Use non-reactive cookware whenever your dish contains acidic or alkaline ingredients. Cookware made with reactive metals is a good choice for boiling water, sautéing vegetables, or searing meat.
Considering Your Cooktop
To get the best results from your cookware, you should also consider which material will work best with your type of cooktop.
Smooth Electric Cooktops
Glass or ceramic cooktops are easy to clean, and they have a very contemporary look. However, those smooth surfaces require cookware that is also smooth on the bottom. If you have a smooth electric cooktop, this will be the most important feature for you to shop for.
For example, bare cast iron has a rough texture—meaning that cast iron cookware is not recommended for use on glass or ceramic cooktops. However, enameled cast iron is smooth and can be safely used on glass or ceramic surfaces. Copper, stainless steel, and aluminum cookware are also smooth on the bottom.
Electric Coil Cooktops
Electric coil stoves have been around for a long time—they're a frequent choice due to being affordable, easy to use, and familiar to many people. However, electric coil stoves are also notorious for heating unevenly.
One tip to keep in mind is that the cheaper your stove is, the better your cookware needs to be.
Heat distribution in copper cookware is the best of all the pans available—however, as we said before, it isn’t healthy to cook with copper for every meal.
One alternative to solid copper is stainless steel cookware with a copper core. These offer chefs a greater control over temperature, while reducing hot spots and eliminating the danger of ingesting copper’s chemical elements.
Another alternative to copper or copper-core cookware is anodized aluminum cookware. These employ a special coating that makes the interior of a pot or pan non-stick while maintaining its aluminum core. Anodized aluminum pans are darker in color, sturdier in construction, and more expensive than plain aluminum cookware.
Regular stovetops heat pots and pans through contact in a process known as “thermal conduction.” The flames or electrical heating elements of regular stovetops generate heat, and that heat is transferred through contact from the burner to the base of the pot.
Induction cooktops, on the other hand, do not generate heat. Induction burners have a coiled wire just below the ceramic surface, which generates an oscillating magnetic field. Because induction stoves use electromagnetic energy to transfer heat and cook food, they require cookware that is made with iron.
Magnetic materials that work well with induction cooktops are cast iron, steel, and magnetic stainless steel (the stainless steel must contain some iron). Ceramic-clad and enameled pots and pans, like Le Creuset cookware, work with induction stovetops because hidden within the ceramic layer is an iron pan, which is magnetic.
What kind of materials don’t work with induction cooktops? Aluminum, glass, and copper pans don’t work with induction stoves, unless they are made with a layer of a magnetic material on the bottom.
If you aren’t sure if your pans are magnetic or not, or what material your pans are made of, here’s an easy trick: Grab a magnet from your fridge and hold it near the bottom surface of the pan. If you let go of the magnet and it sticks to the base of the pan, the pot is magnetic, and, therefore will work with an induction stovetop.
Gas ranges offer a wide variety of temperature settings using a ring of flames emitted from the burner. Unlike electric stoves—particularly the flat top models—that require the use of pans with reasonably flat bottoms, gas stoves don’t require pots and pans with a particular shape.
In fact, you can use pretty much any cookware on a gas stove. However, some types will work better than others.
Cookware that evenly distributes heat is best, as it will spread out the fire's heat to avoid uneven pan temperatures. Another consideration? Because an open flame is capable of reaching up around the sides of cookware, use caution when cooking with pots and pans of smaller sizes.
Your Preferences Dictate Performance
What’s the most important thing to consider when shopping for new cookware? The job it’s supposed to do, of course!
Remember, you don't have to go out and buy whole sets. Instead, when you’re shopping for cookware, you should select the individual pots and pans that will best fit your needs without purchasing unnecessary items that will just cause clutter.
Once you’ve considered the tasks at hand, you can apply your newfound understanding of how the shape of any pot or pan plays a role in how well it gets a job done, how different materials react to heat, and what kinds of metals are best for your cooktop.
Next up, we’ll take a close look at the pros and cons of different materials, and the variety of ways those materials can be deployed.
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