You’re ready to buy new cookware. But, even if you already know which type you need, what about the material? Should you go with stainless steel or copper, cast iron or aluminum, nonstick or something else altogether?
Before you invest in good-quality pots and pans, we’ll help you understand the answers to all the above and guide you through other important considerations to help you pick the right cookware for your kitchen.
What Kind of Cooking Do You Want to Do?
Instead of focusing on the type of cookware you’re interested in, start by considering the food you want to cook, as well as aspects you’d like to accomplish where your current cookware could be holding you back.
This could be simple, such as achieving even heating, or complex, such as creating reductions.
Once you know what you want your cookware to do, then you can identify which features to look for. For example, when making sauces or mounting reductions, you want a pan that can:
- Maintain even heating, including when cold ingredients are added.
- Respond immediately when adjusting the temperature.
- Conduct heat from all sides, so everything maintains the same temperature.
- Provide a large surface-area-to-volume ratio.
- A wide opening for whisking ease.
Pulling all of these details together, in this example, a stainless-lined, heavy copper or aluminum saucepan, or a stainless pan with a copper bottom might be ideal—depending on your budget, of course.
It's essential to shop for cookware with a purpose in mind.
» For Further Reading: Comparing Cookware: Stainless Steel vs. Copper
Consider the Shape of the Cookware
Although new cooks often use the same pan to prepare all of their food, the reality is that different designs lend themselves better to different cooking tasks, as well as the deployment of materials.
For example, searing off potatoes in a frying pan will deliver a nice, crispy texture. But, if you try the same thing in a big pot, the deep sides are going to trap steam and leave you with a mushy mess.
That isn't to say that it's imperative you have a shape specially designed for every task. The three foundational items needed in any cookware collection are:
A small two- to three-quart saucepan with a lid: Your all-around go-to. You can use it for everything from boiling water and steaming vegetables to making sauces or cooking grains.
A large four-quart to two-gallon saucepan or pot with lid: Although they take up a meaningful amount of space in your cabinets, large pots are useful for making pasta sauce, chicken stock, a large quantity of soup, etc.
A medium ten- to fourteen-inch sauté pan with lid: Sauté pans are known for their straight sides and larger surface areas, making them ideal for searing meat and reducing sauces, while making sure the ingredients remain inside.
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 for holding large pieces of meat on the bone while braising.
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.
» For Further Reading: How to Use the Right Pots and Pans for the Job
Materials: Understanding Reactive and Non-Reactive Cookware
Cookware materials differ in two critical qualities: reactivity and thermal properties.
TheKitchn’s Emma Christensen explains that ceramics, which include earthenware, stoneware, and glass, along with stainless steel, are considered non-reactive.
This means, “while these don't conduct heat very well and tend to have “hot spots,” she explains, “they won’t interfere with the chemical structure of the food in such a way that changes the look or edibility. Their other big advantage is that once they’re hot, they stay hot for quite some time.”
On the other hand, Emma points out that aluminum, copper, cast iron, and non-stainless steel are all reactive. So, while they deliver even heating, they also produce a metallic flavor when used to cook acidic and alkaline foods like tomatoes or lemon juice. In some instances, this can cause light-colored foods, like eggs, to develop gray streaks
She also explains that this leaching causes us to ingest metals like copper and iron, which can become excessive if we’re already getting enough from other areas of our diet.
Anodized aluminum (using an electrical circuit to form a layer of oxide on the surface) is significantly less reactive than the untreated version, while annealing (heating the metal and allowing it to cool slowly) can deliver toughness and reduce the reactivity of black steel and blue steel.
The good news is that it’s possible to get the best of both worlds.
By adding a layer of copper to the bottom of a stainless steel pan or coating iron with enamel, manufacturers have figured out a way to deliver even heating and avoid contact with reactive metal.
The bad news is that this type of cookware comes with a hefty price tag.
Alternately, you can save yourself the cash and only use cookware made from reactive metals to boil water, sauté vegetables, or sear meat, while non-reactive cookware can be used with acidic or alkaline ingredients.
» For Further Reading: The Pros and Cons of Copper Cookware
Considering Your Cooktop
To get the best results from your cookware, you should also be mindful of which material works best with your specific cooktop.
Smooth Electric Cooktops
Glass or ceramic cooktops are easy to clean, and they have a very contemporary look. However, these smooth surfaces require cookware bottoms that are almost equally as smooth. If you have one of these cooktops in your home, this will be the most important feature to focus on.
For example, because of bare cast iron’s rough texture, it’s not recommended for these types of cooktops, although enameled cast iron cookware, as well as copper, stainless steel, and aluminum, can work well.
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, they’re 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 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 add a special coating that makes the cookware’s interior non-stick and creates a darker color, burlier construction, and more expensive price tag than non-anodized aluminum versions.
With regular stovetops, heat is transferred from the source (e.g., electric coil, flame) to the cookware it’s in contact with via a process known as “thermal conduction.”
Comparatively, induction cooktops use a coiled wire to generate an oscillating magnetic field, which creates heat directly in any ferrous (magnetic) metal. These include cast iron, steel, and magnetic stainless steel (contains some iron), while aluminum, glass, and copper cookware won’t work well (or at all).
Some ceramic-clad and enameled cookware manufacturers (Le Creuset, as but one example) feature magnetic iron pans placed under a layer of ceramic, allowing an otherwise incompatible material to work well.
Not sure if your cookware will work with an induction cooktop? Grab any magnet (even one from your refrigerator) and place in on the bottom. If it sticks when you let go, this indicates it’s magnetic and is compatible.
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 and around the sides of cookware, use caution when cooking with smaller sized pots and pans.
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.
» For Further Reading:
- How to Buy the Best Copper Cookware
- How to Buy the Best Non-Stick Cookware
- Comparing Cookware: Cast Iron, Aluminum, Non-Stick and Carbon Steel