Are you bewildered by the wide range of cookware available on the market? Don’t know your carbon steel from your stainless steel? Well, I’m here to help. First, remember, though, that there’s no such thing as the perfect material for cookware.
Some materials are cheap and last a long time – but need a lot of work, others may be hard to clear, yet others might not last or be expensive. There’s something for everyone, but if you can’t have everything.
Different Cookware Materials
There’s more to cookware than the base material, and some cookware is composed of layers. Yet the primary material the cookware is made of is as good a place to start as any! You’ve got several choices here:
Cast Iron And Carbon Steel
Cast iron and carbon steel are very similar. The main difference is that carbon steel is smoother and slightly thinner (and therefore a little lighter.) Yet they are both heavy materials that take a while to warm up and retain their heat well.
This can be great for things like stir fry or searing food. Cast iron and carbon steel are among the safest cookware materials. They also both can last for decades if treated well. The price is that you do need to treat them well. Season regularly to avoid rust and wash by hand. Keep them as dry as possible.
Another healthy material is stainless steel. Like cast iron, it’s sustainable and long-lasting. Stainless steel doesn’t need as much work in terms of maintenance as cast iron.
Yet it requires a lot more work to clean it. I’d recommend it for soups or heating water (like if you are steaming). Any sticky food is likely to burn on the pan and need some elbow grease to get rid of it!
Aluminum cookware comes in two forms:
- Standard Aluminum
- Hard-Anodized Aluminum
Hard anodized aluminum is safer, more durable, and less likely to scratch. This is due to the hard aluminum oxide coating that gives it its name, Yet the hard-anodized version usually is more expensive.
Aluminum is a decent cookware material. It’s lightweight, inexpensive, and conducts heat well. Many stainless steel pans have an aluminum core to help spread the heat (they are often called tri-ply).
There are some safety concerns around bare aluminum, so I’d recommend ensuring that there is some sort of coating, just to be safe. A non-stick coating is typical.
Aluminum, carbon steel, cast iron, and stainless steel are the materials most used in cookware. You will often find that they are the core even when the pan is advertised as made of a different material. For example, copper, ceramic, and stone pans typically, but not always, have a steel or aluminum base.
What other materials can you find? Here are some of the less common materials:
- Copper. Most copper cookware doesn’t have much copper in it. Occasionally you can find this as a genuine base material. It will usually be tin-lined.
- Glass is not a common cookware material – it’s more suitable for bakeware where it hearts slowly. The temperature differential on the stove can crack it. Yet there is some tempered glass cookware out there – with mixed reports as to its effectiveness.
- Ceramic. Be careful with ceramic that you aren’t getting something that includes lead.
It’s not just the base material but also the coatings or layers that count. Here are some common coatings and structures:
The most common form of nonstick is Teflon, and it’s variations. Teflon can kill pet birds if overheated, so treat with care. There are Teflon-free nonstick variations out there. The key is to check if it is “PTFE-free”. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is the active component of Teflon.
Nonstick is very convenient, but it won’t last as long, and you need to treat it with care. It’s probably useful to have a nonstick pan—but don’t go overboard.
Tri-ply is a way of getting the benefits of several metals and consists of three layers. The most common structure is a steel sandwich with an aluminum core. This sort of engineering can be valuable as you get the surface properties of steel (non-toxic) and Aluminum’s heating efficiency.
There are also alternatives to this, such as multi-ply, copper core, or copper bottom. All have a similar idea of several layers to maximize efficiency. (Copper is also an efficient heating material.)
Enameled Cast Iron
A slight variant on cast iron is enameled cast iron. It’s got many of the advantages of cast iron, but it has a protective hard enamel coating that means you don’t need to bother seasoning. Yet this coating is easy to chip or scratch, and when that happens, you can’t repair it. Although rarer, you can sometimes find enamel coatings on aluminum or even other materials.
What Cookware Should You Get?
Get cast iron if you don’t mind the work maintaining it. Buy stainless steel if you are prepared to clean it. Consider non-stick if you want an easy life but don’t mind throwing your pans out every few years. Or get a combination and use the best one for the moment:
- Heat water with stainless steel
- Use nonstick for sticky foods
- Cook with cast iron when searing