The Best Cookware Materials for a Safe Kitchen
With the huge variety of cooking pots and pans to choose from, how can you know what to buy? Find out about the different types of cookware available, and which ones are best for you.
The Best Cookware Materials Shopping Basics
Having a few basic points of comparison will help you make your best cookware choices. Here are a few factors to consider when shopping for pots and pans:
- Price: What are you willing to spend? Just about everyone has a budget, and price will most likely have a strong influence on the cookware you choose.
- Maintenance: How much work are you willing to put into your cookware? Some types of pots and pans, such as copper and cast iron require time and energy to keep them at their best. Other materials, particularly stainless steel, are easier to maintain.
- Reactivity: Do you often cook with tomatoes or other acidic foods? Certain metals, including aluminum, react with particular foods, which can cause some metal to actually be absorbed into your meals. The best cast iron cookware is usually neutral, so there’s no reaction with most foods at all and is always a safe bet.
- Durability: How long to you plan to keep your pots and pans? Some types of cookware may last generations while others will be ready for the trash much sooner.
- Heat conductivity: How precise are your cooking needs? Some metals conduct heat much better than others, resulting in quicker reaction time when you turn up or down the heat and more even cooking overall.
- How will it be used – Consider the type of meals you normally prepare. Do you need the typical pots, pans, and skillets or will you also need a roasting pan and maybe a stir-fry pan.
- Size of cookware – The number of people you cook for is another consideration. If you are only cooking for a small family you need smaller pieces. If you have a large family or entertain a lot you will need to purchase larger pieces to accommodate your needs.
- Material of cookware – These days cookware comes in several types of materials. The pros and cons of stainless steel vs nonstick vs ceramic are a never ending battle as to say which material is the best for cooking both as a home chef or a professional. You want to choose a material that is non-reactive, heats evenly, and is easy to clean.
Cooking with Steel
If you’re interested in cooking with steel, you’ve got three basic options: stainless steel, steel clad and carbon steel cookware.
Stainless steel gets its name from its resistance to corrosion, and is one of the most popular choices for pots and pans. In actuality it isn’t pure steel at all, but an alloy of steel and other metals. You’ll enjoy a number of advantages with stainless steel cookware, such as:
- Affordable price
- Low maintenance – stays shiny and attractive over the years
- No reactivity with foods
- Resistance to scratches and warping
- Excellent durability.
You’ll probably be able to pass your stainless steel cookware on to your children and grandchildren looking as good as the day you bought it. The only disadvantage to stainless steel is that it is a poor heat conductor.
Steel clad cookware offers a solution to the conductivity issue. This type of cookware, generally steel over aluminum or copper, has good conductivity, low maintenance and is very durable. The trade off is that it is heavy, and can be expensive.
Carbon steel is a durable low maintenance choice, however, like stainless steel, it is a poor heat conductor.
Classic Copper Kitchenware
If you’re serious about meal preparation, you’ll probably want to look into copper cooking because of its superior heat conduction and reduced food contamination due to the metals properties. Our Copper Chef review list over 20 different copper products that are 100% copper and perfect if this is the type of cookware you want to use most. Although this strikingly beautiful cooking surface is the choice of many professional chefs, consider these possible drawbacks before adding pure copper pots and pans to your collection:
- High cost
- High maintenance (needs to be polished regularly and re-tinned periodically)
- Can be difficult to clean – Read our article on How to Clean a Copper Pan
- Reactivity with acidic foods.
Nothing beats the easy cleanup of non-stick cookware, however non-stick surfaces such as Teflon can get scratched over time, allowing unhealthy particles to flake off and get into your food.
A possible solution may lie in “green” nonstick cookware, recently developed by a number of companies using manufacturing methods that reduce carbon emissions. Some of these products claim to be made without petroleum in their cooking surfaces, so they may offer a safer cooking experience.
Basic Aluminum Cookware
Aluminum is a lightweight metal but still fairly strong. It is a good conductor of heat that does not rust or easily distort when used over high temperatures. Aluminum is inexpensive and works well for frying or sautéing foods because of its ability to withstand high heat. However, aluminum does wear down quickly and tends to react with acidic and alkaline foods, which can affect the taste of the food. Aluminum can be coated with stainless steel or an anodized coating to protect the food.
Cooking with pure aluminum does have a few drawbacks, however. These include:
- Vulnerability to scratches and dents
- Reactivity with acidic foods
- Discoloration with some foods.
Additionally, bacteria can breed in tiny food particles that get trapped in scratches.
Anodized is an aluminum that has been coated with a finish to protect it from corrosion. Anodized aluminum is a good conductor of heat. The anodized finish makes it stick-resistant. This is a good choice for most any type of cooking. However, be aware that it cannot be cleaned in the dishwasher.
Historic Cast Iron Cooking
Cast iron cookware has been around for hundreds of years, and with good reason: This material is:
- Extremely durable
- Excellent for searing and blackening
- Retains heat well
Just about any pot or pan you can imagine can also be found in cast iron. Fajita pans, bacon pans, you name it, they can all be found in stainless or cast iron.
If you choose cast iron pots and pans, be aware of these possible drawbacks:
- High maintenance (will rust and react with foods unless seasoned regularly)
- May harbor bacteria or add unintended flavors to food
- Heavier than other cookware.
Other Cookware Surfaces
Other less common cookware surfaces include ceramic and glass pots and pans. Both of these options offer unique and beautiful cookware pieces that are as decorative as they are functional. Both can be used for serving as well as cooking, and ceramic cookware is particularly easy to clean. Be aware though, that these choices are not as durable as other types of cookware. In addition, glass is a poor conductor of heat and can develop hot spots during cooking.
• Porcelain Enamel
This is a coating applied to pots and pans made of aluminum or cast iron. The porcelain enamel finish prevents the cookware from reacting with the foods being cooked. This type of cookware is not intended for frying or sautéing but does have the advantage of being oven safe.
Glass cookware comes in a tempered glass. Tempered glass cookware is available in flameproof and ovenproof glass. The flameproof glassware generally holds its heat well and can be used on the stovetop or in the microwave. It does heat unevenly though and foods tend to stick to the glassware. Ovenproof glass can be used in the oven and microwave but not on the stovetop.
Caring For Your Cookware
Because cookware comes in many types of materials, there are several clean up considerations. Some of your cookware can be washed in the automatic dishwasher but most do best being washed in hot sudsy water using a nylon scrubber. Hard water tends to darken the aluminum finishes and it’s always important to know whether you have dishwasher safe cookware or not. Use a paste of water and cream of tarter to remove these dark spots. To avoid scratching the finish on the anodized aluminum, do not use an abrasive cleaner.
Wiping with a clean paper towel best cleans cast iron cookware. You can run hot water over stuck on food but then it should be dried completely. If left wet, cast iron will rust.
To prevent it from rusting, set the cookware piece on the stove over high heat until all moisture is evaporated and then coat with oil before storing.
Use a copper polish to keep copper cookware from tarnishing and to prevent white spots. There are stainless steel cleaners that can be used on the stainless steel cookware to remove stains and restore the shine.
If you’re just getting started in your first kitchen, here are a few essential pots and pans everyone should have around:
- Basic saucepan: When you need to heat soup, or make pasta sauce or rice, a two-quart saucepan is just right. For a great balance of easy maintenance and excellent heat conductivity, consider a stainless steel saucepan with a copper bottom. Or go completely copper with a copper chef pan.
- Large stockpot: This type of cookware is excellent for making pasta, soup, stews and steaming vegetables. An anodized aluminum stockpot with large handles is a good choice.
- Sauté Pan: You’ll need a large, versatile pan for sauteing and searing vegetables, poultry and meats. A three-quart sauté pan will do these jobs and fry as well. Stainless steel is an excellent choice for this type of pan. You could also go with a cast iron skillet as these things last forever.
Tips For Using Your Cookware
The following are general tips for using your cookware:
- To remove discoloration on your cookware, make a paste of water and cream of tarter. Use two to three tablespoons of cream of tarter to each quart of water.
- To test as to whether a dish is microwave safe, fill a 1-cup glass measuring cup with water and place it next to the dish inside your microwave. Run the microwave on high for one minute. After a minute, check the water and the container you are testing. The water should be hot but if the container is also hot, it is not microwave safe.
- Be sure all lids fit snuggly on your cookware. This includes splatter screens if you’re using them.
- Before putting a piece of cookware into your oven, check to see if the handles are ovenproof. Remember, the handles will be hot when they come out of the oven.
Your Best Cookware
No single surface is right for all cooking situations. Understanding the pros and cons of each will help you have the best cookware for your unique cooking style.