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A Guide to Cookware Materials – Which Type is the Best for You

Flat lay composition

In this guide to cookware materials, I’ll go over the different options available, the advantages and disadvantages that come with each style, and cooking methods that work better based on material, temperature sensitivity, and more. Because each type of cookware will have its own pros and cons, the cookware you choose for your kitchen should be based on the type of range you have, the dishes you prepare, and your cooking needs. If you love to try new recipes, then you’ll need a set of cookware that’s durable, versatile, and able to withstand higher temperatures. Now, let’s learn more about the leading types of cookware and how they can hold up to heavy-duty, daily use.

Cookware Material Options

The type of cookware you choose should be based on a variety of factors such as the type of dishes you make, the type of range you have, and your cooking skills. As an example, a sauté pan is very sensitive to temperature changes, while a pot designed specifically for braising will be made out of a material that will regulate and hold heat despite temperature changes. If you’re upgrading your cookware, then the goal will be to purchase pieces that will work for the food you cook the most. Now, I’ll go over the different types of material options available and their pros and cons.

Cookware options include:

  • Nonstick
  • Stoneware
  • Cast iron
  • Carbon steel
  • Aluminum
  • Stainless steel
  • Copper
  • Ceramic
  • PTFE

Copper

A Collection of Copper

Hands down, copper cookware is considered the best heat conductor out of any type of cookware material. Copper cools down as soon as it’s removed from heat and heats evenly and rapidly. This gives the user maximum control while cooking. How fast a pot can respond to changes in cooking temperatures is known as responsiveness, which can be a major factor when it comes to choosing a cookware set that can deliver the type of results you need for different cooking tasks. Because copper is considered the most highly responsive material used in cookware, it’s usually found in commercial kitchens and home kitchens as well. If you want the best copper cookware, then look for pots and pans that are at least ⅛ inch thick and offer both durability and heat efficiency.

Unfortunately, copper cannot be used alone for most types of cookware applications because it can react with acidic foods and natural minerals. This means it can add metallic taste or yellow tint to many different types of food. Because of this, cookware made out of copper must be lined with a nonreactive material such as stainless steel or tin. Both types of materials work by creating a safe barrier between the contents of the pot and the copper. Tin was the most common type of material used for decades, however, over time, tin tends to wear through to the copper, which means the cookware will have to be re-tinned at some point, in order to prevent the copper underneath from reacting with food. Cookware that’s lined with stainless steel lasts a lifetime, however, some cooks feel that the use of stainless steel can compromise the cookware’s responsiveness. Using a cookware set made out of thicker gauge copper can minimize this effect but it will also be more expensive.

One of the biggest downsides to copper cookware is the price. Copper is a type of precious metal so you can expect a higher price tag for a top-of-the-line set. However, if you want to produce a fine sauce or sauté using a high degree of control and precision as you cook, then there’s no better cookware. Cookware that’s made out of copper yields meats that are uniformly browned with crisp textures. Basically, this cookware is a pro’s dream come true.

It’s also very high maintenance. Washing copper pots and pans in a dishwasher is not recommended since it can leave the exterior discolored. To keep this type of cookware looking good it must be polished a few times a year, and carefully washed and dried by hand. If you’d like to learn more about routine care and maintenance, then click here to read my article on how to clean copper cookware.

Additionally, copper cookware cannot be used on induction ranges since copper is not magnetic. Restaurant grade copper pots and pans will come equipped with iron handles, while sets that are made for home use are usually equipped with stainless steel or brass handles. All types are perfectly safe for oven use.

Aluminum

When it comes to heat conductivity, aluminum comes in second. Aluminum is affordable and when strengthened with copper, magnesium, or other metals, it’s very responsive and lightweight. However, natural aluminum reacts with certain types of acidic foods, so it will turn food a dull gray color and will impart a metallic taste. In order to remedy this issue, high-quality cookware sets made out of aluminum are either lined with a type of non-stick coating or they undergo anodization. Anodized aluminum cookware features a surface that’s significantly harder. These days, anodized cookware is very popular as more and more manufacturers anodize pieces that have a stainless steel interior or nonstick surface since it’s more durable, attractive, and simple to clean.

These days, there are many types of unreactive, high-performing aluminum cookware sets to choose from. Aluminum also remains the top choice for core material used in stainless steel cookware. Many types of aluminum pots cannot be used on an induction stove since they have an exterior made out of steel. Since aluminum is a type of lightweight material it’s a more practical choice for use in larger pots and pans.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel

This type of material is created by adding nickel and chromium to steel. The combination of these materials makes stainless steel highly anti-corrosive. High-quality stainless steel will have 18/10 stamped on the bottom of it. This number refers to the ratio of nickel to chromium that has been added. Other types of stainless steel can still provide comparable results but they’re not quite as durable. This type of steel is also often used for the lining of pots and pans since it doesn’t react with alkaline or acidic foods and does not scratch or dent easily. This type of cookware will not impart metallic flavor, discolor foods, and is broiler and dishwasher safe.

However, the biggest drawback of stainless steel is the fact that it’s a poor conductor of heat. Fortunately, techniques used to bond layers of this material to highly conductive metals such as aluminum or copper improves heat conductivity for pots and pans that are made primarily out of stainless steel. This type of cookware is referred to as steel-clad cookware and is considered one of the most practical and versatile types of cookware on the market. It combines the impervious nature of the steel with the best qualities of durable lightweight metals, namely heat conductivity, in order to create an attractive pan that’s versatile, durable, and able to handle a variety of temperatures and dish types. This makes clad stainless steel cookware one of the best choices for your pots and pans that you use the most, thanks to its durability and low maintenance needs.

Impact bonding is another method used to improve stainless steel heat conductivity in cookware. It involves a heavy-gauge aluminum disc that’s inserted on the bottom of the stainless steel pot or pan. This type of design isn’t quite as durable as steel-clad and it doesn’t conduct heat as evenly, but well-made sets are solid performers that can handle heavy-duty everyday use. However, it can be a better choice for the family on a tight budget since it’s often priced much lower than clad cookware, yet it possesses many of the benefits that steel clad cookware does such as a low maintenance design and a nonreactive interior.

Carbon Steel

Coming in third, carbon steel also does an excellent job of conducting heat. While very durable and inexpensive, raw carbon steel is mainly used in woks and skillets or other types of specialty pans. This is because carbon steel can rust if it’s not seasoned properly. Fortunately, if the cookware is seasoned correctly it develops a natural non-stick coating. This cookware is a little on the heavy side and can be slow to heat up. It can also react with acidic foods, which is why it’s not considered the most versatile. However, cookware made out of this type of material is able to achieve a higher temperature compared to other pots and pans and it also retains heat well, which makes carbon steel cookware perfect for high heat techniques. Cookware made out of this material is perfect for making stir fries, blackening fish, and searing steaks.

In many home kitchens, this material is widely used as the core material for certain types of enameled cookware such as broiling pans, lobster pots, roasting pans, and tea kettles.

If you need a set of cookware for your gas stove, then carbon steel is an excellent choice. It’s very versatile and will work with any type of range and is broiler and oven safe.

Cast Iron

New Cast-iron

When it comes to conducting heat, cast iron is at the bottom of the list. This means that cast iron is very slow to heat up and cool down. Cast iron has a type of self-regulating nature that makes it a great choice for grill pans, griddles, frying pans, and Dutch ovens. These pots and pans are warp-resistant and impressively durable.

Cookware made of cast iron is very durable and its natural state, however, you can also find enamel coated cast iron cookware. Natural cast iron is more affordable, but it must be seasoned in order to prevent rust. Seasoning will also create a smooth nonstick interior, but it can also make it easier to clean and cook with. Cast iron with enamel coating is much easier to clean, is low maintenance, and is completely non-reactive. All types of cookware made out of cast iron will be very heavy, which can make it difficult to cook with, especially for people with arthritis or carpal tunnel. Standard frying pans measure in at 10 inches and will usually weigh around 5 or 6 pounds, while Dutch ovens can easily weigh 10 to 12 pounds.

Stoneware

Stoneware cookware is considered the oldest around, however, they’re not obsolete. Cookware made out of this material is durable and practical and produces pretty impressive cooking results.  most types of stoneware consist of glazed casserole and baking dishes that are designed specifically for oven use only. This cookware varies in shapes and sizes and comes in a variety of colors. Additionally, stoneware is both freezer and dishwasher safe. It also heats evenly and retains heat well, just like cast iron, however, it’s not as likely to burn anything. Other types of stoneware that you can commonly find available include tagine pots, bread pans, and pizza stones. This type of cooking material behaves much like cast iron and can also be seasoned in order to form a type of a nonstick surface that will make it easier to clean and cook with. Additionally, this material is non-reactive and 30% lighter than cast iron.

However, stoneware requires more care compared to cast iron, in order to prevent cracks and to maintain it.

Since the temperature rises high during use, the stoneware should never be placed directly on a cold surface after you pull it out of the oven. You also cannot fill stoneware with anything cold when it’s hot. Some types of low-quality stoneware can also contain lead. While this is not very common, make sure to check the product label to ensure that the stoneware you purchase is lead-free.

Nonstick

Nonstick cookware is popular mainly for its nonstick surfaces, however, it’s also very easy to clean and maintain. Many types of nonstick cookware will allow the user to cook with minimal amounts of oil, resulting in a healthier meal. These pots and pans require extra care since damage to the interior can lead to the nonstick coating flaking off in the food as you cook. Because of this, you must not use metal utensils when cooking with pots and pans that have nonstick surfaces. Instead, you must use utensils that are made out of wood, silicone, or hard nylon. When it comes to maintenance, this type of cookware must be cleaned with a soft plastic brush or sponge. The pots and pans cannot be stacked together since this can scrape and damage the interior.

Nonstick cookware falls into a couple of categories: ceramic or PTFE.

PTFE

This type of nonstick coating is extremely functional, however, when overheated it can release gas as the coating breaks down. This cookware can be used safely just as long as you maintain temperatures under 500 degrees. When roasting or baking, the user must ensure that they closely follow the manufacturer’s recommendations in terms of maximum temperatures. When cooking on the stove top, the cook must avoid overheating the pan. Some types of PTFE cookware are manufactured using PFOA. If you’re environmentally conscious than you’ll want to avoid cookware that contains PFOA.

Fortunately, as of 2015, many manufacturers are phasing out the use of PFOA cookware completely.

Ceramic

In the world of nonstick cookware, ceramic is a newer surface material. It’s widely thought of as the most environmentally friendly and safest option, however some argue that  it doesn’t last as long as PTFE. Ceramic is free of both PFOA and PTFE. It’s also available in a wide variety of colors and styles. However, you’ll still need to avoid the use of high heat when cooking with ceramic pots and pans since it can have an impact on the non-stick properties of the cookware. It’s also important that you spend extra time and care in order to completely remove all of the cooked-on oil after each use, since built up oil can have a negative impact on the nonstick properties of the pots and pans.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are many cookware options to choose from, whether you’re an amateur in the kitchen, an avid cook, or you’re looking for a new set that will give you the most bang for your buck. Choosing a new cookware set can be difficult, especially if you’re searching for a set that’s designed to withstand heavy-duty daily use, pots and pans that are easy to cook with and care for, and a set that offers the type of versatility you need when you’re trying out new recipes. In this guide to cookware materials, you’ll have learned about the pros and cons of each type of material, and how each type can work for you depending on your cooking skills, and the kind of dishes you love to make.