Cookware Buying Guide
Shopping for the right pots and pans is all about the materials. Since metal is the vehicle that delivers heat to food, it’s important to know what type of material will serve you best before you hit the kitchen supply store. Check out this guide for the top 10 cookware materials to consider for your kitchen.
Stainless Steel Cookware
Pros: Easy to clean, non-reactive, impervious to stains and corrosion, resistant to warping
Cons: Poor heat conductivity unless paired with another metal
Care: Dishwasher safe, avoid high heat
Stainless steel is the preferred cookware material for many home cooks. It’s easy to clean, non-reactive, and resistant to rust, stains, corrosion, and warping. Although stainless steel is not itself a good conductor of heat, it can be one of the most effective materials in the kitchen when paired with other metals.
Encapsulated stainless steel is an efficient and cost-effective way to get the best of both worlds. Combining stainless steel with metals like copper and aluminum will ensure even heat distribution and improved conductivity. This material combination is ideal for stovetop pans like soup pots, pressure cookers, and saute pans.
While stainless steel is dishwasher safe, handwashing will help maintain its luster. Avoid overheating as this may cause the material to become discolored. Nylon scouring pads and gently abrasive cleaners are recommended if your stainless steel cookware becomes stained.
Carbon Steel Cookware
Pros: Quick heating, durable, good for high-heat cooking
Cons: Requires seasoning, prone to rust
Care: Season before use, avoid prolonged exposure to liquid
Known for its quick heating and strength, carbon steel is a durable, reliable cookware option that is commonly used to make woks and crepe pans. This material is particularly good for high-heat cooking like frying. Similar to cast iron, this material requires seasoning, especially upon first use.
Avoid abrasive cleansers and scouring pads when cleaning carbon steel cookware. Like cast iron, many cooks prefer to wipe clean the pans after cooking. However, if cleaning is needed, you can wash carbon steel pans in warm soapy water, dry thoroughly, and then re-season before next use.
Pros: Non-reactive if enameled, long-lasting, fair conductivity, maintains temperature
Cons: Requires seasoning, prone to rust, reactive to acid if not enameled
Care: Season pan, wipe clean after cooking, hand wash only if necessary
Cast-iron cookware is reliable, long-lasting, and extremely versatile. This thick, heavy metal has a sturdy crystalline structure which makes it incredibly durable. Other metals may be more efficient at conducting heat, but cast iron outranks them all when it comes to retaining temperature. From low and slow cooking to fast searing, cast iron is great for holding and maintaining heat, even when food is added to the pan.
Bare cast iron requires seasoning. This means the rough metal is coated with a polymerized layer of fat, which creates a smooth, nearly nonstick surface. Click here to learn how to season cast iron. (Link to How to Season Cast Iron Cookware guide) The key to caring for cast iron is to avoid using soap or cleaners on the pan, which can remove the seasoning. Since cast iron is prone to rusting, avoid keeping liquids in the pan for prolonged periods.
Enameled cast iron is a variation of the classic cookware that features a hard enameled coating. While cast iron can be reactive to foods high in acidity, enameled cast iron is non-reactive and doesn’t need to be seasoned. Enamel, however, is a fragile material and can be prone to chipping or cracking if overheated or mishandled.
Pros: Lightweight, highly conductive, inexpensive, easy to maintain
Cons: Susceptible to warping, prone to uneven heating, reacts to acidic, alkaline, and sulfuric foods
Care: Avoid using metal utensils, hand wash only
Pots and pans made of pressed aluminum are lightweight and excellent heat conductors that are particularly great for when even heating is not essential (e.g. pasta pots). Aluminum cookware is an inexpensive and easy-to-maintain option if cared for properly. However, aluminum is a soft metal, so it’s easily prone to denting and warping. Avoid using aluminum cookware when preparing foods that are acidic, alkaline, and sulfuric as these will cause the aluminum to react. Removing foods promptly after cooking is recommended in order to avoid metal absorption.
To extend the life of your aluminum cookware, avoid using metal utensils that can scratch and damage the interior. Wood, nylon, and plastic utensils are recommended. Aluminum cookware is not dishwasher safe and must be hand washed.
Cast Aluminum Cookware
Pros: Thick construction, retains heat well, ideal for Bundt and springform pans
Cons: Reacts to acidic and sulfuric foods
Care: Hand wash only, avoid metal utensils
Cast aluminum is a metal variation made by pouring molten aluminum into a mold to create a thicker, stronger construction. Better at retaining heat, this type of aluminum is most often used for tasks that require heavier cookware like Bundt and springform pans. Cast aluminum is also capable of leaching into acidic and sulfuric foods, so take care to avoid preparing those foods in this type of cookware.
Anodized Aluminum Cookware
Pros: Very hard surface, smooth interior, non-reactive, will not leach into foods, durable, versatile
Cons: Not dishwasher safe
Care: Hand wash only
Anodized aluminum is another aluminum variant where the metal is pressed into layers then chemically treated to create a very hard, smooth, non-reactive surface. Hard-anodized aluminum cookware offers much more versatility and practicality in the kitchen. This material is especially excellent for skillets, saute pans, stock pots, and roasting pans.
Pros: Highly conductive, excellent temperature control, long-lasting construction
Cons: Reactive to certain foods, high maintenance care, intolerant of high temperatures, scratches easily, not dishwasher safe
Care: Hand wash only with mild, non-abrasive detergent, hand dry, buff and polish regularly
When it comes to cookware, copper is the most efficient and even conductor of heat. This material responds immediately to changes in temperature which gives you the most control while cooking. Though copper is one of the most expensive cookware materials, it is also the most long-lasting if cared for properly.
Copper cookware is ideal for cooking non-reactive foods like those with high sugar levels. As a high-maintenance material, copper requires a specific cleaning and polishing regimen to maintain its luster and prevent oxidation, which can cause uneven heating. High heat, like that of an oven broiler, can also be damaging to copper and should be avoided.
Lined Copper Cookware
Pros: Non-reactive, easy to maintain, highly conductive
Cons: Certain linings may wear down
Care: Hand wash only with mild, non-abrasive detergent, hand dry
Copper lined with other metals — like stainless steel, silver, or nickel — increases its performance and versatility. As a more practical alternative, lined copper offers the same high conductivity and temperature control as raw copper but with less overall maintenance. Keep in mind that some copper linings may eventually wear down with use. However, stainless steel is an excellent coating for copper cookware because stainless steel doesn’t wear away and is safe for use with high heat.
Pros: Inexpensive, easy to clean, excellent for low-fat cooking
Cons: Nonstick lining has a short shelf life, not dishwasher safe
Care: Hand wash, avoid using metal utensils or abrasive cleaners
There is something to be said for a $20 nonstick frying pan. With proper use and care, it can become a much-loved ally in the kitchen. It’s a great solution to daily meal preparation and is perfect for those looking to cook with less fat and oil.
When shopping for nonstick cookware, keep in mind that coating is not designed to last a lifetime. Over time, the pan’s nonstick surface will weaken and lose the ability to release food. That said, you’ll save money in the long run by choosing less expensive options and replacing as needed. Ceramic cookware is another nonstick option that offers a more eco-friendly cooking surface and works well with little to no oil.
Many cheaper metals can warp or have hot spots which results in uneven cooking. Look for pans with a flat base, sturdy construction, and smooth nonstick coating. Aluminum is a reliable yet inexpensive material for a nonstick cookware.
Pros: Versatile cooking options, user-friendly, non-reactive, affordable
Cons: Not dishwasher safe
Care: Hand wash
If no single material seems to fit with your cooking needs, you may consider the benefits of multi-ply cookware. This type of cookware combines several metals into one pan or pot, making it perfect for nearly any method of cooking. Multi-ply cookware combines the strengths of good conductivity and even heating with the convenience of durable interiors. Available in a range of metal combinations, this versatile material is user-friendly and a good value for those looking to find quality cookware for everyday use.
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