With so many options, shopping for cookware can be confusing. From what cookware material to use for searing, roasting, frying, braising, and more to which types of skillets, baking pans, and casserole dishes to invest in, here is the lowdown on how to stock any kitchen like a pro.
Cast iron is one of the most versatile cooking materials. It’s durable, conducts heat very well, and can cook almost anywhere – from stove to oven and grill.
Cast iron gets a bad rap because it is notoriously hard to take care of. Let us dispel the rumors: seasoning the cast iron by adding a layer of polymerized oil is pretty easy and protects the surface.
The process consists of repeatedly rubbing the cast iron with oil, heating it up, and cooling it down. This process breaks down the oil into a plastic-like substance that bonds to the metal, creating a slick surface that’s perfect for cooking. A well-seasoned cast iron pan will be nearly non-stick.
While iron is a reactive metal, it’s nothing to worry about. Reactive metals can cause off flavors and discoloring when mixed with certain foods, including anything very acidic or alkaline. However, if a cast iron pan is seasoned properly, the occasional run-in with a few tomatoes or a splash of lemon juice shouldn’t hurt, so long as they’re not simmering for hours on end.
How to clean it: After cooling, clean cast iron gently with a bit of soap and water. Gently remove any stuck-on food with a plastic scrub sponge. Do not use steel wool, as this will ruin the seasoning. Immediately dry the pan. After each use, re-season: Place the clean pan over a burner on high. Heat until residual water dries up. Add a teaspoon or two of vegetable oil and rub it around the cooking surface using a paper towel. Heat until the oil starts to smoke. Once smoking, take the pan off the burner and rub the oil around once more. Let the pan cool, and store.1
- Once hot, it stays hot, which is important when searing meat.
- Extremely versatile; can be used to cook in any medium, from stovetop to fire pit.
- Can use any type of utensil; metal utensils will not scrape the surface.
- Durable and inexpensive.
- Naturally non-stick if seasoned properly.
- Doesn’t heat very evenly. The best way to ensure an evenly heated pan is to pre-heat it for about 10 minutes, rotating it a quarter-turn every few minutes. Can also preheat cast iron in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Can rust, chip, and crack easily if it is not properly cared for. Follow instructions on how to season the pan, and there will be no issues.
- Reactive – does not take well to acidic foods.2
- Takes effort to clean and maintain.
Stainless steel is non-reactive, durable, dishwasher-safe, and resistant to rust, corrosion, scratching, and denting. It’s also pretty easy on the eyes. However, on its own, stainless steel is a terrible heat conductor. The key to finding good stainless-steel cookware is to pick a model that has a core of another type of metal that conducts heat more effectively – most often aluminum or copper.
Aluminum-core pots and pans are more affordable than copper-core. However, copper is a slightly better conductor of heat compared to aluminum, which explains the price difference. Copper-core pans react more quickly to temperature changes, giving the cook more control over the cooking process.4
It’s also possible to find stainless steel baking pans, but unless they are reinforced with another type of metal that conducts heat more efficiently, opt for other materials.
How to clean it: Gently scrub with soap and water. When faced with tough burnt-on stains or debris, try this method: Fill the burned pot with water and boil for 15-20 minutes. Once loosened, scrape up stuck-on spots with a wooden spoon. Pour out the water, and wash the pot as normal.5 (For even tougher stains, coat the bottom of the pan with baking soda or a stainless-steel cleaner – such as Bar Keeper’s Friend – and scrub.)
- Less expensive than other options, such as copper.
- Poor heat conductivity relative to other materials unless reinforced with aluminum or copper.
- Can be expensive, especially with copper core.
Copper is a fantastic heat conductor, which is one of the reasons that copper cookware is more expensive than its competitors. Copper heats and reacts to temperature changes quickly, giving the cook more control and making it easy to cook food evenly. Because copper is a reactive metal, it must be lined with another material, such as stainless steel or tin. There are some non-lined copper cookware pieces on the market, but these are specifically meant for sugar cookery, in which reactiveness is not an issue.8 While copper is not ideal for high-heat cooking, this is not a huge downfall. Because it’s so good at retaining and distributing heat, there is generally no need for a high flame.9
How to clean it: Wash with soap and water, and scrub with a gentle plastic brush. Do not use steel wool or abrasive cleaners. Over time, the copper outside of the pan will age, or patina. While some prefer this aged look, it’s also easy to polish away with a copper cookware cleaner or a number of homemade remedies.
- Of all the cookware materials, copper is the best heat conductor. It heats food evenly and adjusts to temperature changes quickly.
- Does not require much pre-heating since copper heats very quickly.
- Very expensive.
- Does not work on induction cooktops.
- Requires regular polishing to maintain shine.
Because raw aluminum is an extremely soft and reactive metal, it must be processed in certain ways before it’s used as cookware. Anodized aluminum – which makes up the majority of the aluminum cookware out there – has been treated with a chemical process to harden the metal and make it non-reactive.11
Aluminum is also a popular material for bakeware, but it is almost always paired with another type of metal to increase durability. Aluminized steel baking pans and sheets are very popular among professional bakers thanks to their durability, great heat transfer, and corrosion-resistance.12
How to clean it: Anodized aluminum can be cleaned much like stainless steel – soap and water, a plastic scrub brush for tough spots, and no harsh cleaners or steel wool. Most anodized aluminum will be dishwasher safe, but check with the manufacturer to be sure.
- Excellent thermal conductivity.
- Lightweight and affordable.
- Scratch-resistant and strong.
- A better heat conductor than stainless steel. This is a benefit both for cooking foods on the stovetop and for achieving more evenly baked items in the oven.
- Regular anodized aluminum will not work on induction burners. However, many manufacturers make aluminum cookware
- specifically outfitted to work on induction stovetops (make sure to double check before purchasing).
- May not be the best for sweet baked goods, as dark-colored metals can cause over browning if not watched closely.
While non-stick pans are not ideal for all jobs, they do have their place. They allow cooking with less fat and are also much easier to clean compared to other non-lined metal cookware.
Non-stick pans can be made from the same types of metal as other cookware – stainless steel, aluminum, and copper, for instance. The only difference is that the cooking surface is coated with a non-stick compound. The most common metal for non-stick pans is anodized aluminum because it is lightweight, affordable, rust-resistant, and a good heat conductor, which means that it reacts quickly to changes in cooking temperature. Teflon, a nonstick coating made from food-grade PTFE, a.k.a. polytetraflouroethylene, is the most commonly found non-stick coating, though other more eco-friendly options have gained popularity in the last few years.13 While nonstick coatings, specifically Teflon, have gotten a bad rap because of safety concerns, the majority of research on the subject says that non-stick pans are safe as long as they’re not overheated.14 (When overheated, the coating may begin to break down, releasing toxic particles and gasses, some of which are considered carcinogens.) Over time, the coating on non-stick pans can begin to flake off. When this happens, it is time to replace the pan. However, while it may be a bit disconcerting to know you may have consumed a few flakes of chemical coating, no research has shown that it can cause you harm.15
How to wash it: Do not use steel wool or any other abrasive cleaners on non-stick pans. Soap, water, and a soft sponge should clean up most messes. Remove any stubborn spots with a plastic scrub brush. Most non-stick pans are dishwasher safe, but check with the manufacturer to be sure. Regardless of the instructions, repeated dishwashing can wear down the lining over time.
- Allows cooking with less fat.
- Many eco-friendly options allow for non-stick coatings that won’t break down over high heat and may be safer. Some
- options include pans coated with ceramic, Thermolon, or SandFlow.
- Depending on pan material, can be a great heat conductor (look for anodized aluminum or stainless steel with an aluminum or copper base).
- Non-reactive and non-porous.
- Delicate foods such as fish or eggs won’t stick to the pan or break apart.
- Must use plastic (nylon, silicone) or wooden utensils; metal utensils will scratch the non-stick coating.
- Can’t withstand super high heat. Non-stick coatings can break down at high heat, so keep non-stick pans at medium-high heat or below.
- Nonstick coating can have a short lifespan depending on the brand and how long it’s cared for. Most companies claim that non-stick pans will last a lifetime, or at least 5 to 10 years, but in practice, most cooks find that they replace non-stick pans every 2 to 4 years.