Whatcha' got cookin'? Nothing if you don't have the proper material. The number one thing to look for in a great cookware set is the construction. No single metal is ideal for all types of cooking applications. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. An essential quality you should look for in all cookware is weight. A heavy pot or pan will sit securely on the burner. Just make sure it's light enough for you to lift easily.
|Aluminum||Heats up fast and evenly; dishwasher safe; inexpensive.||If untreated, it may stain easily and react with foods.||Great for general-purpose cooking.|
|Copper||Heats up very fast and evenly.||May react with food; discoloration from water; dents/scratches easily.||Ideal for cooking delicate sauces.|
|Stainless Steel||Lightweight; durable; easy to clean/maintain; doesn't corrode or tarnish; won't scratch.||Doesn't conduct heat as well as other materials.||Good for general-purpose cooking especially stir-frying.|
|Cast Iron||Thick and heavy-duty; won't scratch; spreads heat evenly.||Doesn't conduct heat as well as other materials; reacts with acidic foods if it's not coated.||Perfect for browning and frying.|
|Nonstick||Easy to clean, great for cooking low-fat foods.||Scratches easily.||Best for low-fat cooking without much oil.|
Aluminum is the most popular material in cookware with lots of upsides. It is an excellent conductor that spreads heat evenly throughout the pan. The thicker the aluminum, the more evenly the heat spreads. Aluminum can be anodized to harden the surface, making it harder than steel and extremely durable. Plus, aluminum is dishwasher safe. It’s also less expensive than most materials. The downside? Untreated aluminum is prone to staining and reacting with foods. For this reason, we recommend aluminum with a nonstick interior because it’s much less likely to discolor or react with foods.
Carbon Steel can produce both the most expensive cookware and the least expensive. Maintained like cast iron, but lighter in weight, it's good for cooking that requires quick heat changes because it maintains temperature well. The most common pans made out of this material are woks or stir-fry pans. It's rare in a lot of other cookware because stainless steel provides the same function, without the high maintenance.
Cast Iron is very thick and heavy-duty. Although it’s slow to heat up, cast iron retains and evenly distributes heat. It’s perfect for browning, drying, braising, stewing, slow cooking and baking foods. Cast iron comes in either bare iron or with enamel coating. Bare iron needs to be “seasoned” before it is used. To season it, thoroughly wash and dry the pan, lightly rub shortening on the surface and bake it in the oven at 300 degrees for about 60-75 minutes. This creates a nonstick surface that lasts forever. After seasoning, avoid soaking and washing with soap. Simply wipe pots and pans with a cloth to keep a thin coat of grease. Enamel-coated cast iron provides all the benefits of cast iron, but requires less maintenance and provides easier cleanup. Acidic foods will react with it and strip off the coating. If that should happen, don’t panic — just season your pan again!
Ceramic cookware is a great insulator, so it does not react quickly to heat. It can usually be found in the form of a casserole dish or other shapes that are great for cooking slowly at constant temperatures. It's lighter than cast iron, but it is also more fragile. It can be characterized under different categories, including: porcelain, stoneware and earthenware. Porcelain, the strongest of the three, is fired to become very hard and durable. This type can usually be used on the stove, in ovens and microwaves. Earthenware, on the other hand, is less strong and often prone to chipping and scratching. Decorative and very pleasing, this type of material is often used as serveware.
Clad cookware is developed by using two types of cookware materials together to get all the benefits of both materials. Most of the time, stainless steel is clad with aluminum. This gives you the thickness and excellent heat conductivity of aluminum and the easy-to-maintain, corrosion resistance of stainless steel. Quality clad cookware will last through a lifetime of cooking, so if you're looking for true investment pieces, then this might be your best material. The downside of this type of cookware is that it is generally heavy and expensive.
Copper is the very best conductor of heat. Because of this, it is especially great when cooking on top of the range where the food must be cooked at precisely controlled temperatures. Copper can, however, react with foods and be toxic in large amounts. Therefore, copper pots and pans are usually lined with another material like stainless steel. Traditionally, they were lined with tin, but the tin tended to wear out too quickly. The biggest disadvantage of using copper cookware is the maintenance. Copper can discolor from being air-dried and washed in a dishwasher. Polishing it will remove the discoloration. Also, copper dents and scratches easily.
Stainless Steel is the basis of very good, general-purpose cookware. It’s lightweight, durable and easy to care for. Plus, it won’t corrode or tarnish, and its nonporous surface is resistant to wear. It is, however, a poor conductor of heat and does not distribute heat evenly. Because of this, many stainless steel pots and pans are made with a copper or aluminum disc in the bottom to help absorb heat evenly. Because of its smooth surface, stainless steel is easy to clean and maintain. Plus, it’s dishwasher safe. If discoloration occurs, a stainless steel cleanser can be used to restore the natural luster. If your recipe calls for changes in the temperature while cooking, it’s the perfect choice!
Nonstick cookware has a coating on the interior surface that makes it difficult for foods to stick to it. This makes it very easy to cook healthy, nonfat foods. Plus, since foods don't stick to the surface, cleanup is a breeze! Nonstick cookware can be found in combination with many metals that produce cookware. There is, however, one disadvantage to nonstick cookware. The nonstick coating can be easily scratched. Stainless steel or other metal utensils can scratch the surface. Nylon utensils are recommended when cooking with this type of surface.