The vast array of pots and pans available can be a bit overwhelming. Cast iron, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, non-stick, and all the other options – how do you know what is the best suited for your kitchen and what has the best value?
To help you answer the above question, the first part of our series guided you through considering what purpose a pot or pan might have, understanding the importance of shape, how different metals react to heat, and the needs of various cooktops.
Part two took an up-close look at the two metals that make up cookware’s elite ranks: stainless steel and copper. However, few of us can afford a kitchen full of copper or stainless—nor can those two compete with cast iron in some chef’s eyes.
In this third installment, we’ll walk you through other popular materials: cast iron, aluminum, non-stick, and carbon steel. We will wrap up this series with tips to keep in mind when shopping for quality cookware.
Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron is a material that has been used to create cookware for hundreds of years. Those who’ve learned to care for their cast irons often come to swear by its exceptional abilities and many cooks believe that no kitchen is complete without a cast-iron skillet.
What makes this heavy metal the not-so-secret weapon of choice for chefs?
The Pros of Cast Iron Cookware
Great for simmering and browning, cast iron imbues years of flavor into every meal. It's inexpensive, won't warp, conducts heat very well and, if seasoned well, has a relatively nonstick surface. You can also easily go from stovetop to oven.
Love a good steak? Cast iron gives a terrific sear to meats. Additionally, it maintains steady heat long after the burner is turned off, which works well when you want to keep foods warm.
The Cons of Cast Iron Cookware
Even though no kitchen is complete without a cast-iron skillet, it does have its drawbacks. It's heavy, reactive, high-maintenance and not suited for all food.
Cast iron also isn't recommended for ceramic-glass cooktops. It's worth noting that cast iron leaches—surprise—iron into your food. Many people consider this a benefit, but unexpected metal in the diet can be dangerous for certain individuals.
How to Season a New Cast Iron Pan
Seasoning a cast-iron for the first time is a labor of love, and there’s good reason to do so. It makes the skillet nonstick, just like the other pans you pay so much for. Additionally, like Gryffindor’s sword, cast iron absorbs what makes it even better.
Here’s how to season your skillet in a way that would make Grandma proud:
1. First, preheat your oven to 200 degrees F. While it’s warming up, wash your new skillet in hot water with mild soap. (Note that when you re-season it later, you can skip this step.) Dry your skillet on the stovetop or in the heated oven, then allow it to cool.
2. Now, you’ll need some fat (lard, bacon or sausage drippings, etc.). We know, but it’s necessary. If you don’t save the drippings from your bacon and other fatty meats, just keep a small supply of lard on hand at all times, and your cast-iron will never wear out.
Spoon a bit (approximately a quarter cup for a large skillet) onto the surface and use a folded-up paper towel to smear the fat all over the cooking surface (you can add more if you think you should). Coat the outside surfaces on the skillet too (except the very bottom, which will only cause the fat to burn off and smoke when you use it).
3. Place your skillet in the oven for 3 hours (do not raise the temperature to decrease the cooking time). While it’s in the oven, the pores of the metal will open, allowing the fat to soak in as it liquefies.
4. When the 3 hours are up, cut the heat, but leave the skillet in the oven to cool slowly. When it’s cool enough to touch, use a clean, dry paper towel to remove the excess fat. Your skillet should still be shiny due to a thin layer left on the surface. Set the skillet aside, then re-wipe it with another clean, dry paper towel an hour or so later. After that, it will be deep black, but no longer shiny.
How to Care for Your Cast Iron Cookware
The cardinal rule is never to put your cast-iron in a dishwasher or submerge it in water. Use a solution of mild soap and water to clean it with a non-scratch sponge. Not only could you remove the seasoning layer using harsh soaps, but you could also cause your cast-iron to rust if it stays in the water for an extended period of time.
Other tips to care for cast iron include:
Always dry your skillet immediately after washing using dry heat from the stovetop or oven, then allow it to cool completely before you put it away. Simply wiping it dry will leave moisture in the pores of the cast-iron, causing rust.
Never allow food to sit in the skillet. When you're done cooking transfer the food to another dish as soon as possible, then clean it immediately.
To maintain your skillet, just wipe it down with lard or fat drippings every couple of months. This step is actually pretty easy with a barbecue brush. After cooking a fatty meat like bacon or sausage, just use the brush to spread the fat around the interior cooking surface (including the interior sides). Add a little lard or leftover drippings if you need more.
Do a full re-season every other year.
What to Look for When Buying Cast Iron Cookware
When shopping for cast iron, weight is a major factor in the purchase of a satisfactory piece of cookware. And, while not always true, the heavier items tend to hold more heat and provide a more authentic iron cooking style.
Alternatively, enameled cast iron pans have most of the same benefits of uncoated cast iron pans at a higher price point. They are heavy and slow to heat, but retain heat well. They are great for browning and can move from stove to oven easily. However, they don’t offer that sought-after seasoning that makes cast iron so valuable to chefs.
Additional Cookware Material Options
Stainless steel, copper, and cast iron are considered the heavy hitters by many cooks. But you can find cookware in a variety of materials, from copper to porcelain and beyond. For brevity’s sake, here’s a condensed guide to three more popular options for cookware.
Aluminum is used in approximately 50% of all cookware manufactured today because of its excellent heat conduction. However, this soft metal and can scratch and dent easily. It can also react with certain foods, which is why aluminum is generally sandwiched between other metals. That’s why you’ll often find stainless steel cookware with a layer of aluminum offering the benefits of both materials.
To care for aluminum cookware, wash the pans with hot, soapy water. Avoid washing the cookware in hard water because it tends to darken the aluminum. To remove stains, use a cream of tartar and water paste.
Cookware with non-stick coatings, such as Teflon, Tefal, Silverstone, Anolon, Circulon, Calphalon and others are remarkably easy to cook with and clean.
On one hand, they’re healthier, as they require less butter or oil to start a dish, and some are even engineered to be oven-safe.
But, there’s a not-so-nice side to the convenience of non-stick. One of the primary materials used to coat nonstick cookware, Teflon, is made from perfluorinated compounds, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems.
Another negative is that cookware with a non-stick coating can only be used with safe utensils like plastic and wood, or you risk scratching through the coating.
Under heavy use, all non-stick coatings eventually flake and scratch and introduce harmful chemicals into your food. Additionally, at high heat (over 500 ℉) some of these coatings, notably Teflon, emit gas which is toxic to humans, inducing flu-like symptoms.
A new alternative is a non-stick ceramic. The relatively new material is quickly growing in popularity due to claims that it offsets some of the negative and dangerous aspects of nonstick coatings.
To care for non-stick cookware, use hot soapy water and avoid using abrasive pads or powders. If food does stick to the pan, soak in hot water to loosen.
A nylon scouring pad, nylon scraper, or non-abrasive cleaner can also be used. Do not wash in a dishwasher. Also, protect the nonstick surface by only using wooden, plastic, or coated utensils when cooking.
For additional details on non-stick cookware, check out our guide on How to Buy the Best Non-Stick Cookware: 4 Top Non-Stick Pans.
Carbon Steel Cookware
Carbon steel isn’t the best conductor of heat, but it is the preferred pan for when you want to the have certain spots hotter than others, like in stir-frying. That’s why woks are traditionally made from carbon steel, as are paella pans and crepe pans.
After much use, the carbon steel cookware will develop a nonstick surface, which is a bonus. Additionally, the thin, light material has a high heat resistance.
The downside? Like cast iron, carbon steel requires seasoning and is prone to rust.
Other Considerations When Comparing Cookware
Making the final decision on whether you want stainless steel, cast iron, copper, or aluminum is really a personal decision based on how much time you spend cooking, your expertise in the kitchen and your budget. However, when selecting the cookware for your kitchen, you should take the following points into consideration:
Handles Can Range From Too Hot to Too Heavy
Handles are typically made of tubular stainless steel, cast stainless steel, heat-resistant plastic, or silicone.
Both solid and hollow metal handles enable you to go from stovetop to oven, so you have one less pan to clean. However, solid metal handles are unwieldy but sturdy. Alternatively, lightweight plastic handles won’t get as hot as metal ones, but can’t go in ovens, and they occasionally break.
A third option is silicone handles. These stay cool, are dishwasher safe, and can go in the oven up to a certain temperature, so check the manual.
No matter the material, handles are either welded, screwed, or riveted onto cookware. Riveted handles are the strongest.
Learn the Lingo
You’ll see pre-seasoned on cast iron cookware labels. It usually means a wax-based coating has been applied to prevent rust while the pans are in the warehouse or on store shelves. But some pans may actually be pre-seasoned so they can be used right away. To learn which, look for the manufacturer's instructions.
Hard-coat anodized is a fancy way of saying the soft surface of nearly pure aluminum has been changed to a hard surface—it has nothing to do with the nonstick coating.
All the chatter about clad-ultra typically means the pot is made of separate pieces of metal that were fused together. So, while the outer and inner sides of the pan are stainless, the inside layer is aluminum or copper, or another material more conductive or magnetic. Clad can also mean a material was added to the bottom of a stainless-steel pan, enhancing heat transfer.
Cookware Shopping Tips: How to Buy the Right One?
The sheer number of cooking shows on TV or a recent kitchen remodel might tempt you to replace your tired pots and pans. But, don’t think the most expensive cookware sets are always the best. Also, despite some famous names, chef-endorsed sets aren’t generally that impressive when pitted against alternatives in many cookware tests.
Beyond brands, another question you’ll face is whether or not to buy a pre-packaged starter set. There’s nothing wrong with matching cookware in principle. After all, packaged starter sets are attractively priced, and a whole lineup of matching pans looks nice, too.
But a single material isn’t suited for every kitchen task—with sets, you're often stuck with pans you don’t need. That enameled cast-iron casserole pan is just right for the cassoulet you'll move from stovetop to oven. But, its matching saucepan might overcook a caramel because it’s too heavy to heft quickly once the sugar turns color.
The savings offered by buying a set is relative to how much use each item gets. If you are not going to use all the pieces, then the cost for the few that are in the heavy rotation goes up exponentially.
It’s our opinion that you'll get more use out of pieces that you hand-pick yourself – considering each with a different purpose in mind. Doing so means that you can budget more for a pot or pan that will get used daily, and purchase cheaper items that will only see occasional use.
Plus, it lets you branch out to different materials which can add a lot of interest to your cooking routine. Just remember the following:
Stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat all by itself, but it’s a peerless surface metal: easy to clean, durable, shiny for good visibility, and completely nonreactive.
Copper is a superb heat conductor and radiates visual warmth if you keep it polished. All alone, copper is highly reactive with food, so the pans must be lined. It’s often used as a bottom layer for better heat conduction.
Aluminum is a top-notch heat conductor and is lightweight and easy to handle, but it reacts with acidic, sulfurous, and alkaline foods. Aluminum is often used as a core or bottom layer for better heat conduction.
Cast iron is an excellent retainer of heat and great for high temperatures. It’s relatively slow to heat up and cool down and needs thorough drying and oiling.
Enameled cast iron’s coating solves the maintenance problems of cast iron, but the heating benefits remain. The enamel coating can chip with wear and abrasion.
Nonstick coatings have greatly improved, with ceramic being a safer option, but it still can’t stand high heat.
Bottom line? Take your time when choosing cookware, buy the best product you can afford, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on looking after your pots and pans and you will be rewarded with years of good service and an enjoyable cooking experience.