Between cast iron, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, and non-stick options, choosing new pots and pans available can be overwhelming. Based on your cooking style, which of these are best? Even then, how can you achieve the best value?
In this guide, we’ll walk you through popular cookware materials: cast iron, aluminum, non-stick, and carbon steel. We will also provide expert 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 iron often come to swear by its exceptional abilities, and many cooks believe that no kitchen is complete without at least a skillet.
What makes this the heavy metal weapon of choice for chefs?
The Pros of Cast Iron Cookware
Since cast iron cookware is often just rinsed and re-oiled after each meal, those that have been used for years can infuse a ton of flavor into every dish. Additional benefits include relatively inexpensive prices, great heat conduction, resistance against warping, and it works well to prevent sticking, if well seasoned.
Together, these traits can make cast iron cookware perfect for simmering and browning, as well as for easily going from stovetop to oven.
Love a good steak? Cast iron sears meats terrifically and also retains its heat long after the burner is turned off, providing great warming capabilities.
The Cons of Cast Iron Cookware
On the other hand, potential downsides related to cast iron cookware include weight, reactivity with some foods, its high-maintenance, it isn’t recommended for ceramic-glass cooktops, and it also leaches iron into your food.
While this last one might be considered a benefit if you’re looking for a little extra iron in your diet, this could also be potentially dangerous if you’re already consuming extra iron through multivitamin supplementation.
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.
Here’s how to season your skillet in a way that would make Grandma proud:
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.
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).
Place your skillet in the oven for three 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.
When the three 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 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.
In general, enameled cast iron pans deliver most of the same benefits as uncoated cast iron pans, while also adding a potentially more effective non-stick element, but at a higher price point. However, they don’t offer that sought-after seasoning that makes cast iron so valuable to chefs.
Aluminum is used in approximately 50 percent 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.
Caring for aluminum cookware is as easy as washing it with hot, soapy water (avoid hard water, since it can darken the metal) after each meal.
Need to remove stains from your aluminum cookware? Try making a cream consisting of tartar and water paste. Alternately, SOS pads can work wonders for really stuck-on stains.
Cookware with non-stick coatings (Teflon, Tefal, Circulon, and Calphalon, to name just a few) have reputations for being exceptionally easy to cook with and clean.
They’re also often regarded as a healthier cooking option since their naturally slippery surfaces don’t need as much butter or oil when cooking. Furthermore, some can also be used in the oven.
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.
See Also: The Pros and Cons of Non-Stick Cookware
And if some of this coating flakes off into your food, it could introduce harmful chemicals into your body. To help reduce the risk of this occurring, cookware with a non-stick coating can only be used with safe utensils like plastic, wood, or those that are otherwise coated.
Additionally, Heather Barnett at SheKnows.com emphasizes that “at high heat (over 500 ℉) some of these coatings, notably Teflon, emit gas which is toxic to humans, inducing flu-like symptoms.”
If you do shop for nonstick, search for a PFOA-free option.
A new alternative is a non-stick ceramic, a material that’s quickly growing in popularity due to claims that it offsets some of the negative and dangerous aspects of traditional nonstick coatings.
While non-stick cookware can be cared for by simply washing with hot, soapy water, make sure that you don’t use any abrasive pads or powders to free up stuck-on food. Instead, soak in hot water until loosened.
A nylon scouring pad or scraper, or a non-abrasive cleaner, can also be used, but non-stick cookware should never be cleaned in a dishwasher.
For additional details on non-stick cookware, check out our guide on How to Buy the Best Non-Stick Cookware.
Carbon Steel Cookware
Carbon steel isn’t the best conductor of heat, but it is the preferred pan for when you want to 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 Buying 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 also 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 the term ‘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 might be stainless, the inside layer could be something like 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—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing so. This way, you can obtain a whole lineup of matching pans that are competitively priced, and that looks nice to boot.
But if you’re considering a starter set, it’s important to keep in mind that one material won’t work well for every situation you might encounter in the kitchen. On the flip side, you could also be stuck with cookware you don’t need, especially if you’re just starting to build your skill set.
To this last point, 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 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. Fine Cooking’s Amy Albert just recommends that you remember the following:
By itself, stainless steel is a less-than-stellar heat conductor. But on the upside, it’s easy to clean, lasts a long time, delivers good visibility, and is completely nonreactive with foods cooked on it.
Comparatively, copper cookware conducts heat quite well—not to mention the fact that it looks fantastic (as long as you keep it polished). If not lined with another material, though, copper is highly reactive with food. It’s also often layered toward the bottom to provide better heat conduction for cookware.
Aluminum conducts heat very well, is lightweight, and easy to handle. Like copper, though, it reacts with many different kinds of foods (especially those that are acidic, sulfurous, and alkaline). Because of these traits, aluminum is similarly often used as a core or bottom layer.
Cast iron retains heat superbly and works great for high-temperature cooking. However, this material is known for its relatively slow heating and cooling times. And don’t forget that you’ll have to thoroughly dry and oil the cookware after each use.
The coating surrounding enameled cast iron solves these cast iron maintenance concerns while retaining the heating benefits. But keep in mind that this coating can chip with use.
Other nonstick coatings have greatly improved their durability over the last few years, with ceramic perhaps 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. You’ll be rewarded with years of good service and an enjoyable cooking experience.
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