Choosing the best cookware materials depends on your cooking methods, the types of dishes you cook, your stove top, weight, care requirements, and budget. All cookware materials have pros and cons. The key is to assess which material is best for what you want to do.
Considerations When Purchasing Cookware
Experts recommend matching the cooking method with the cookware material. Some are better for sautéing, while others are ideal for braising or roasting. To assemble cookware that best serves your needs, consider buying open stock pots and pans (i.e., individual pieces) rather than a cookware set.
Other factors to consider:
1. Type of Stovetop. Although most cookware materials work on the majority of gas and electric cooktops, induction cooktops require cookware with magnetic properties. When shopping for cookware for your induction cooktop, bring a magnet with you. If the magnet sticks to the pan, you can use the pan on your induction cooktop.
2. Some cookware materials are quite heavy. For example, a 10-inch cast iron frying pan can weigh upward of 6 pounds—and that is without any food! If lifting heavy pots and pans will be problematic, purchase lighter weight materials.
3. Care Requirements. Some cookware materials require special care — particularly copper and carbon steel. If you tend to ignore recommended care requirements, avoid these types of cookware materials as you’ll quickly render them useless.
4. Cooktop materials vary widely in cost — from the less expensive (aluminum and non-stick) to expensive (enameled cast iron, carbon steel, copper). Choose the best material for the job that also fits your budget.
5. Some cookware materials can be used on the stove and in the oven, but others are limited to one or the other.
Terms to Know When Choosing Cookware
Before examining the pros and cons of different cookware materials, let’s review a few key terms.
1. Responsiveness refers to how quickly a material responds to changes in temperature. The heat conductivity of the material determines its responsiveness.
Copper is the best heat conductor (meaning it heats up rapidly and cools down quickly)—followed by aluminum and carbon steel. By contrast, cast iron cookware conducts heat poorly, which means it takes a long time to heat up and cool down.
A material’s responsiveness often determines what form it will take. For example, Dutch ovens are usually made from cast iron because its low responsiveness is ideally suited for its purpose.
2. Clad/Cladding refers to layers of metals fused together to create cookware. It can also mean material added to the bottom of a pan to help conduct heat.
3. Anodized refers to an electrochemical process that changes the soft surface of aluminum to a hard surface, making it more conducive for cooking.
4. Reactive or Non-Reactive refers to whether cookware has metals that interact with foods (usually acidic foods). Reactive metals include aluminum, cast iron, and copper, while non-reactive metals include stainless steel or tin. Reactive cookware materials are typically lined with non-reactive materials to reduce food discoloration and metallic taste.
5. Seasoning cookware means applying a thin layer of oil to fill small pores in the material’s surface. Properly seasoning a pan extends its lifetime and helps keep food from sticking. The procedure is simple but cannot be neglected, or your cookware will quickly get ruined.
Now that you’re familiar with terms related to cookware materials, let’s explore each type of material and the pros, cons, and best uses for each.
Many cooks use stainless steel because of its low maintenance requirements. Chromium and nickel are added to the steel to prevent rust and add shine. When shopping, look for 18/10 stainless steel, which refers to the ratio of chromium and nickel added to the steel. 18/10 is the preferred and most common ratio.
The bad news is that stainless steel by itself is a poor conductor of heat. For this reason, most stainless steel is clad with metals with better heat conductivity, such as copper and aluminum. The cladding increases stainless steel’s practicality and versatility—making it a good choice for all-purpose cookware.
Another option is impact-bonded stainless steel. This means a heavy gauge aluminum disk is bonded to the bottom of a stainless steel pot or pan to increase its heat conductivity. Although this option isn’t as durable as cladding, it is less expensive.
Experts recommend using impact-bonded stainless steel for large, infrequently used pieces (i.e., a 12-quart stockpot).
- Won’t rust
- Safe to use in the dishwasher, oven, or broiler
- Can usually be used on an induction cooktop
- Poor conductor of heat so requires cladding or impact-bonding to increase its effectiveness
- Can be difficult to clean despite being dishwasher-safe
Professional chefs prefer copper because of its extreme responsiveness—it heats up rapidly and cools down quickly. Look for heavy gauge copper that is 1/16 to 1/8 inches thick. Most copper cookware has brass handles.
Copper is attractive, and many people love the look of copper pots hanging in their kitchen. However, copper is very reactive and can add a yellowish tint and a metallic taste to certain foods.
Copper cookware must be lined with a non-reactive metal (such as tin or stainless steel) to reduce reactivity. Tin is the best choice, but it will wear away and must be reapplied (“retinned”). A stainless steel lining is more durable but affects the responsiveness that makes copper cookware so valued.
- Best heat conductor of all cookware materials
- Provides quick and even cooking
- Can be used on gas or electric cooktops
- Cannot be used on induction cooktops
- Highly reactive and must be lined with tin or stainless steel
- Very expensive
- Will tarnish over time due to air and water exposure
- Must be hand washed and immediately dried
- Will need occasional polishing
- Dents easily
After copper, aluminum is the second best material for heat conductivity, and it is often used as a core material for stainless steel clad cookware. However, aluminum is highly reactive and can add a gray tint and metallic taste to foods. To combat this, aluminum cookware is either clad with stainless steel, lined with a non-stick coating, or anodized.
Anodization is a process that hardens aluminum’s surface and turns it a dark gray. Anodized aluminum cookware is your best option. Although more expensive, it is vastly superior. In fact, anodized aluminum cookware is the most common cookware material because of its flexibility. Anodized aluminum often used in roasting pans, griddles, and large water pots.
- Inexpensive when compared to copper
- Can be used on gas and electric cooktops
- Cannot be used on induction cooktops
- Reactive so requires cladding, lining, or anodization
- Care requirements vary depending on which method was used to reduce reactivity
Carbon steel is the third best conductor of heat after copper and aluminum. However, it is a high maintenance material primarily used for high-performance cooking and single purpose pans such as woks, crepe pans, omelet pans, and traditional paella pans.
Carbon steel can get to higher temperatures than other materials and holds heat well—making it ideal for high heat cooking techniques. However, carbon steel is prone to rusting and must be oiled and seasoned correctly.
Carbon steel is often used as the core metal in enameled cookware such as tea kettles, roasting pans, and broiling pans.
- Clean by wiping with a paper towel; hand wash only if truly needed
- Rusts easily if not oiled/seasoned properly
- Can be heavy
- Slow to heat
- Often used only in specialty pans
The two types of cast iron are enameled cast iron and “natural state” cast iron. Enameled cast iron is more user-friendly because it is virtually maintenance free, easy to clean, non-reactive, and available in a variety of colored glazes—allowing you to match your cookware with your kitchen décor. However, enameled cast iron pans tend to be expensive.
Although natural state cast iron pans are cheaper, they require proper seasoning to prevent rusting. Another option is “craft” cast iron pots and pans, which are “factory seasoned.” However, both natural state and craft cast iron both require proper maintenance.
Although cast iron is a poor heat conductor (i.e., slow to heat and cool), it is the perfect material for Dutch ovens, frying pans, griddles, and grill pans.
- Durable—won’t warp or chip
- Heats slowly but evenly and retains heat
- Available in a variety of colors
- Enameled cast iron is easy to clean
- Very heavy—making it impractical for everyday use
- Enameled cast iron is expensive
- Natural state cast iron requires seasoning
Clay and Stoneware
Clay and stoneware are the oldest type of cookware and is still used today. Most of your choices will be glazed baking or casserole dishes made for the oven. However, you can choose from a wide array of shapes, sizes, and colors. Care instructions will vary depending on the material and glaze.
Some manufacturers have created stoneware pots and pans for use on gas and electric stovetops. Specialty pieces—such as pizza stones, bread pans, and tagin pots—are also available.
- Practical and durable
- Dishwasher and freezer safe
- Heats evenly and holds heat without burning
- Can be used in the freezer and microwave
- Avoid going from “hot” to “cold” too quickly or cracking might occur
- Cheaper versions might contain lead—make sure packaging says “lead-free”
Non-stick cookware is ideal for healthy cooking because the non-stick coating reduces the amount of oil needed. Non-stick cookware is suitable for any cooktop and easily releases most items. You can choose from two types of non-stick cookware—PTFE (i.e., made with coatings such as Teflon) and non-stick ceramic.
Today, most people opt for non-stick ceramic due to concerns about the chemicals in PTFE coatings. If overheated, PTFE coatings can break down and release gases.
For most non-stick cookware, the maximum temperature is 500° Fahrenheit (but double-check with the manufacturer). Although the most harmful chemical—PFOA—was phased out in 2015, it might be found in older pieces.
Although more environmentally-friendly, non-stick ceramic isn’t as durable, and high heat must still be avoided. In addition, clean non-stick ceramic thoroughly after using oil, or layers will build up and affect the non-stick coating.
Take care not to scratch the coating. Use heat-safe nylon, silicone, or wood utensils rather than metal, and avoid stacking pots and pans (unless using liners). Some non-stick cookware can be used with metal utensils, but check with the manufacturer for your specific pot or pan.
- Easy to clean but use a sponge or soft plastic brush to avoid scratches
- Good for healthy cooking
- Ideal for any cooktop
- Easily releases food
- Quickly loses usefulness once scratched
- Take care not to overheat
- Avoid stacking unless using liners
Glass cookware is primarily used for baking or cooking in the oven, but some cook top sets exist. Glass is a fantastic heat conductor. It is easy to clean and is dishwasher safe. However, avoid going from hot to cold too quickly, or cracking can occur.
Although glass is ideal for baking, recipes containing lots of sugar can over carmelize.
- Easy to clean
- Dishwasher safe
- Cannot be used on induction cooktops
- Cannot move from hot to cold too quickly or cracking will occur
- Can’t be used for broiling
Silicone has excellent non-stick properties but is a poor heat conductor. Silicone is usually found in pan liners, muffin “tins,” and cake pans.
Although used primarily for baking, baked goods don’t brown well in silicone, so use silicone to bake light-colored cakes, breads, and muffins.
- Keeps baked goods from sticking
- Dishwasher safe
- Foldable (which makes it great for kitchens with limited storage)
- Poor heat conductor
- Baked goods don’t brown well
- Quickly obtains a slight film that can be difficult to remove
Healthy Cookware Choices
Many home cooks are concerned about metals from cookware transferring to their food. If this is a concern for you, the healthiest cookware materials are PFOA-free non-stick, carbon steel, ceramic, tempered glass, and enameled cast iron.
Brands to look for include:
- Cuisinart Green Gourmet
- Ozeri Green Earth or Stone Earth
If low-fat or healthy cooking is your primary concern, choose PFOA-free non-stick cookware, which avoids the harmful chemicals found in other non-stick cookware and requires less oil.
When choosing cookware material, consider how and what you are cooking as different materials are better suited for different cooking methods. If you often make delicate sauces, you’ll probably want at least one copper saucepan.
If you’re focusing on healthy cooking that limits oils, PFOA-free non-stick cookware is the way to go. If you make a lot of stir-fry, consider purchasing a carbon steel wok.
Also consider your cooktop. If you have an induction cooktop, you can only use cookware that is magnetic.
The bottom line is that you should select the right cookware for your needs. There is no “one size fits all” choice—although anodized aluminum comes closest. Hopefully, this guide has provided you with the information to decide which cookware materials to use in your kitchen.