Buying cookware can be a worrisome but necessary experience. Finding the best cookware materials and understanding the different types of cookware can be confusing. This article will guide you through the process, and help you make the best decisions for your circumstances.
Whether you’re a Michelin starred chef or a grad student trying to eat more healthily, buying the right cookware for your needs is a massive investment. I can’t emphasize that point enough. Buying cookware is an investment; in your health, your future, and your bank balance.
But, how do you know what the best cookware materials and the best types of cookware are?
That’s where I come in. In this article, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know to discover and make the best choices to suit your budget, your cooking style, and the cookware to match you perfectly.
What’s Your Budget for Buying New Cookware?
Who doesn’t want a kitchen with walls of gleaming copper pots and pans? It’s the stuff of movies of Julia Child’s life in post-war Paris.
Are those same copper pans practically for today’s cooks? No. Not even remotely. Sorry if that disappoints you, but it’s the truth.
In today’s age of functionality, aesthetics, and immediacy, we don’t have time for all that cleaning and polishing! Not to mention, a set like that will cost as much as a mortgage payment… per pan.
So, what’s the answer? Well, this is a complicated question with an equally complex response. It depends on your budget. If you’re a struggling student, I’d be shocked if you bought a $500 sauté pan.
However, if you’re a highly paid exec who loves to de-stress in the kitchen, then purchasing a $20 nonstick coated aluminum fry pan is not going to satisfy you.
There is one rule though that should always be adhered to whatever your budget, buy the best you can afford.
P.S. by ‘best’ I don’t mean the most expensive, I’m talking about quality here — well-built, suited to its purpose, made by a reliable manufacturer and with a warranty. The ‘best’ product may not cost you the most, but it should do everything you need it to for as long as possible.
What to Look for in Your Cookware?
Heat Distribution: if it doesn’t conduct heat efficiently, it’s not worth having. It’s true; you’re paying out for a piece of equipment to do a job as quickly as possible.
Pots and pans that do not do this will cost you more money in excess energy consumption. That, and they’ll annoy the hell out of you too.
Heat Retention: Thicker metals will retain heat for longer than those with thinner sides/bases. A heavy-based wok defeats its purpose; as would a lightweight casserole, make sure each piece of kitchen equipment is built to purpose.
Reactivity: Pots and pans with thicker bases release heat more slowly and for more extended periods. Equally, a thin-based wok or frying pan will give you fast heat for quick cooking.
Then there’s the metal they’re made from, copper and aluminum are much quicker than cast-iron and stainless steel. Some cookware uses a ‘folded’ metal design that utilizes multiple metals to get the best of all types.
Durability: Made to last, or built too fast, your new cookware should last a ‘lifetime,’ but only if its construction is appropriate. Screwed or spot-welded handles will break quickly, whereas solid welded handles will see you safely serving up meal after meal with no nasty surprises.
Maintenance/Cleaning: Do you enjoy having dishpan hands? If not, then choose wisely as many pots and pans are high maintenance. If you enjoy cleaning, this won’t worry you, but if you like convenience and speed, make sure the clean-up time is something you’re happy to commit to.
Induction Compatible: It’s a new age where stoves, ranges, and cooktops are concerned. Many homes now have induction rings. But not all cookware is compatible, so if you’re planning on cooking on induction, make sure your new cookware isn’t going to disappoint you.
Well-Constructed, Heatproof Handles: I cannot emphasize this enough; safety first. Many pots and pans, even roasting and baking dishes have handles that are inadequate for their job.
Handles with screws or spot-welding are notorious for accidents. Instead, look for integrated or riveted handles for the most secure grip. Also, if you’re planning on stove-to-oven usage, make sure the handle is heatproof, or it’s going to melt and/or burn you.
Secure Lids: Metal or glass, a lid should fit, be easy to grip and lift, and may need to be ovenproof too. Lids with plastic handles are ill-advised and can be dangerous, try to avoid them where possible.
Which Cookware Material is Best for You?
Before we start looking at the different materials your cookware could be made from, I’d like to talk about two areas that may be bothering you.
- What is the Healthiest Material for Pots and Pans?
- Toxic Cookware to Avoid
When it comes to healthy cooking, it’s safe to say we’re all aiming for better choices. Gone are the days of deep-fried diets. Now it’s about oil and fat-free cooking, using as little fats as possible in our cooking without sacrificing excellent tasting food.
With that in mind, there are a few great choices for the health-conscious cook, and they may not be the ones you’re expecting. Why do I say this? Well, this comes from the second point: toxic cookware to avoid.
Can cookware be toxic? Sadly, yes.
Traditional aluminum pots and pans were and still are, made to be affordable. However, they aren’t particularly healthy. Although aluminum is a fantastic conductor of heat second only to copper for efficiency, when acid is exposed to the inside of an aluminum pot, bad things happen.
The first thing you’ll notice is a change in the color of your food. This is caused as the grey of the metal leaches into your meal, that’s when you’ll be aware of the second effect, the taste. Aluminum pans that have acidic food cooked in them will impart a metallic tang to whatever that food is that you happen to be cooking.
This aluminum-effect is not toxic, and it will not kill you or give you Alzheimer’s Disease. But it still makes for an unpleasant dining experience and should be avoided where possible.
The far more worrying and toxic invader in your cookware is hidden PFTEs. Say what? Polytetrafluoroethylene, of PFTE, is a common compound used in the production of nonstick cookware, like Teflon.
Thankfully Teflon is made from food-grade PFTE, so it is safe. However, some cheaper nonstick pots, pans, and bakeware may not contain the food-safe version of this human-made chemical.
So what’s the problem with PFTEs? Well, over time the nonstick coating on your cookware flakes off, becomes imbedded in your food and of course, you ingest it. Doesn’t sound so bad, your body will naturally get rid of it… true.
The major problem is that when PFTEs become overheated that coating breaks down, and this releases toxic gases and particles that can be carcinogenic – deadly in other words.
But don’t panic! This does not mean your cookware is going to kill you! What it does mean is that any cookware with a nonstick coating will need replacing more frequently than other cookware.
As soon as there’s more stick than nonstick, or you see the edge of the nonstick starting to lift, get rid of it!
Well, what cookware can I use if nonstick and aluminum are out? I’m glad you asked! In this section, I’ll give you all you need to know about the most common cookware options.
I’ll explore which ones are best for what purpose, and their general properties, so you know what to look for on their advertising materials. So, without further ado, let’s get stuck in!
Copper Cookware Material
Beloved by 20th-century chefs around the world, copper pans are a thing of beauty, and big budgets. This gleaming metal is, hands down, the best conductor of heat to cook with.
It’s heat efficient and distributes heat evenly, and it’s reliable as it doesn’t warp over time. It doesn’t react poorly to most foods, and has a longer lifespan than we do, oh, and it looks incredible too!
The downside: metal plus acid equals bad. There it is, I’ve said it. As with iron and aluminum, copper will impart a metallic tang to any acidic food if exposed to it.
Another problem with copper is that when it comes in contact with acid, the copper begins to break down and leaches into the food. Which will cause a nasty case of what used to be called Ptomaine poisoning, but we know it now as gastroenteritis.
So, to avoid this sickening situation, look for copper cookware that has a stainless steel lining to prevent any chemical reactions.
Heat Distribution: unparalleled in the kitchen, copper is the most effective and efficient at heat distribution. It spreads heat evenly across the entire surface and encourages uniform cooking.
Heat Retention: Budget copper pans will lose heat quicker than thicker and more expensive copper cookware. Copper cookware that has just a ‘lining’ of copper on the outside is less reliable, as this lining is super thin and will do nothing for heat retention or distribution.
Reactivity: Being an excellent thermal conductor, copper will react to changes in temperature almost instantly, which makes it ideal for all cooking purposes. Equally, copper will cool down rapidly once the heat is removed, making it ideal for foods that must be cooked quickly and cooled just as quick.
Durability: Buy thicker, heavier gauge, copper cookware for greater cooking control. The thicker the metal, the more evenly it will cook your food; however, this will also affect thermal changes and responsiveness.
Maintenance/Cleaning: This is where copper is a pain. If you want that patina look of years of use, then cleaning is minimal. However, if you want them to gleam, get ready to huff and puff because copper takes a lot of polishing and regularly.
- Great heat transference
- Excellent lifespan/durability
- Even cooking
- Professional appearance
- Pain to clean
- Acid sensitive
- Expensive to buy
- Not induction friendly
Best for flash-frying, sautéing, soups, roasts, or absolutely anything you want to cook!
Safe for: Everything. Really, so long as your copper cookware has a stainless steel lining, you can cook anything and everything in it. All sorts of utensils can be used with copper, be careful though not to scratch the surface with metal spoons, etc.
A better option: There is no better cookware than copper. However, if it’s out of your budget, then stainless steel is your next best option.
Stainless Steel Cookware
For all-round value for money, cooking efficiency, and professional results, stainless steel material is where it’s at. With beloved copper being far too expensive for most cooks, and professional chefs also, stainless steel has become the go-to cookware for almost all kitchens since the 1930s.
It’s a durable and robust metal, meaning you’ll get many, many years of use out of each piece of cookware, and it’s safe to cook with!
Yes, you read correctly, stainless steel does not react to any acidic ingredients. It will not flake off into your food, and it will never taint your gorgeous dinners. What more could you want?
How about, it’s easy to clean? Stainless by name and stainless by nature, this cookware will not take on colors of food.
It’ll never turn red no matter how much Bolognaise sauce you cook. And equally, it will never turn your creamy béchamel grey either.
So long as you remember to season your stainless steel cookware, it’s also capable of being nonstick, without any PFTEs or other nasties. With many stainless steel cookware pieces either wiping clean or being dishwasher safe, cleaning up is a breeze.
Just remember, if you place your stainless steel pans in the dishwasher you will need to refresh the seasoning process.
Heat Distribution: Apart from copper, stainless steel cookware is the most reliable for all forms of cooking and cooktops. Stainless steel on its own isn’t a great conductor of heat, it’s too dense, but with a core of another metal, it’s unparalleled for cooking.
Most stainless steel pots and pans will have a solid thick base that has either an aluminum or copper core; this is usually branded as tri-ply or multi-ply.
This reinforced base gives increased heat efficiency and uniformity to cook your food evenly. And it makes the cookware more affordable than having a solid steel core which would perform poorly.
Heat Retention: Stainless steel will retain heat longer than copper or aluminum. Because cookware made with this material tends to be thicker, and the thicker the metal, the better it holds the heat.
One of the great things about stainless steel is that you can take it from top stovetop to an ice-bath to cool food, and it won’t harm the cookware. So, while it holds its heat, it can also disperse it quickly too when needed.
Reactivity: Stainless steel is so safe; it’s not funny. It will not react to any acidic food types; it will not stain your food, nor adopt colors from foods. It’s safe in any cooking methods.
Durability: If you want cookware that will last you for the rest of your life, look no further as stainless steel is the answer you seek.
Now, that’s not to say it isn’t indestructible, but it’s damn close! Good quality cookware will have a warranty, so spend the extra dollars and get the good stuff.
Maintenance/cleaning: Season before the first usage if you want the best results. That way you’ll give it an embedded nonstick quality that’s easy to refresh; that is if you ever take a night off from hand-washing and put it in the dishwasher. Otherwise, an excellent hot and soapy bath and it’ll be good as new every time.
- Affordable top quality cookware
- Excellent cooking properties
- Easy to clean and maintain
- Universal cooktop friendly
- Cooktop to oven capable
- Can be pricey for premium quality brands
- Not 100% dishwasher safe
Best for: If you can eat it, you can cook it with stainless steel. It’s great for everything from demi-glace to sautéing shallots right through to Julia’s ‘Beouf Bourguignon.’ It’s perfect for everything.
Safe for: Stoves, grills, broilers, and ovens too. You’ll never have any worries about food poisoning here either. Stainless steel does not react to any acid encounters, and it will not spoil your white sauces or take on a rosy bloom from your best bisque. All utensils are beautiful to use with stainless steel, even metal ones!
A better option: Copper with stainless steel lining, if you want to go pro. Otherwise, stainless steel is a good as it gets.
Aluminum Cookware Material
Aluminum has had a lot of bad press in past decades, and this article isn’t doing it any favors either. But, does that mean that aluminum is a dud?
No, not at all, in fact, if you go into many restaurants you’ll probably be surprised to see several aluminum pots and pans still in use.
What? Yes, as shocking as that may be, there’s no beating aluminum’s heat distribution and transference properties, and that’s why it’s still popular with chefs.
Aluminum is affordable, is readily available, and cookware made from it comes in many sizes and shapes including everything from sauté pans to 30lt stockpots.
Does this mean that you should use aluminum then? The answer to that question is entirely yours. If it’s the best you can afford, if it suits your purposes, and if you can remember not to cook anything acidic or prone to color/flavor transference, then it’s worth considering.
With that in mind, look for aluminum cookware that has been given a protective coating, like anodized aluminum. This will provide you with excellent thermal properties.
But due to the dark color of the anodizing, it does make cooking some foods difficult, i.e., caramel sauce as it’s hard to see the color change.
Heat Distribution: Superb, it’s a lightweight material, so heat is transferred quickly throughout the cookware.
Heat Retention: Due to its heat distribution properties, aluminum will retain and disperse heat quickly too. Plunge it into cold water, and the heat will be transferred out quite quickly.
Reactivity: Aluminum will react to acidic ingredients; it will also color any light-colored sauces etc. Aluminum with a lining will offer some protection against this happening though, so look for cookware with an anodized coating!
Durability: It’ll last forever. Well, not for all eternity, but it is an extremely durable material, and in the event of your aluminum cookware giving up the ghost, it’s also recyclable.
Maintenance/Cleaning: It’s better to hand wash, but at a pinch, it will go in a dishwasher. Due to its matte exterior and exposed metal sides, it will never be shiny and pretty, but it will always scrub up nicely.
- Priced affordably for all budgets
- Long-lasting and reliable
- Excellent heat distribution and cooking properties
- Reacts badly to acidic foods
- Taints and discolors some foods/sauces
- Soft metal, so scratches/dints easily
- Not induction friendly
Best for: Slightly better protection with anodized linings, so aluminum is excellent for making big batches of stocks or soups, minimalize the acidic ingredients like tomato sauces or dishes with citrus.
Safe for: Stovetop and ovens. Everything really, so long as it has a protective lining. Raw aluminum should only be used for boiling water, stews or soups, any dishes that avoid acid. Utensils made from wood or silicone is better, as they are less likely to loosen any aluminum from the surface.
A better option: Stainless steel, it’s pricier, but a better solution all-round.
Cast Iron Cookware Material
Uncoated Cast Iron:
Let’s talk about old school cooking. In all honesty, it’s really how the west was won; cooking traditional food on reliable cookware without fear of things going wrong.
Now, it cast iron may be the most efficient at conducting heat, but man does it outrank every other metal for retaining heat!
Whether you want to ‘low n slow’ a braised shin of beef, or sear that rib-eye steak, cast iron will do any temperature and hold it there.
Best of all, cast iron pans won’t lose heat when you add food, like some other metals. Instead, it just keeps chugging along.
The downside to cast iron cookware is it’s heavy and can rust or get little dimples called ‘pits’ in it that react to acidic foods.
To get the best results, and lower your chances of rusting is to ‘season’ the pan properly, and remember to apply a light coating of oil now and then.
If you cook a batch of acidic food, say tomato sauce, give it a quick re-season and a drop of oil in the pan. Problem solved.
Heat Distribution: Fantastic, takes a while to heat up, but once there, it’s steady and reliable!
Heat Retention: Wow, you won’t get better. Cast iron is well known for this ability. You’ll never have to worry about the pan getting cold, remember to use a mitt before you grab that handle!
Reactivity: Sadly, yes, cast iron does have some acidic reactive properties. But, it’s less of an issue and easy to remedy. However, you won’t have any discoloring or tainting with metallic flavor issues with cast iron.
Durability: Looking for a family heirloom? I kid not, cast iron has been known to be handed on down through families, it’s that tough and reliable!
Maintenance/Cleaning: Hand washing is recommended, followed by drying quickly and thoroughly before adding a light coat of oil to protect the cooking surface.
- The perfect all-rounder for all cooking styles
- Will last for many, many years, perhaps passing from one generation to another even.
- It’s induction friendly
- It’s heavy, really heavy, so lifting cast iron cookware can be off-putting.
- It can react to some acidic foods, so re-seasoning of the cookware is a must.
- Cleaning and drying immediately after use are essential. You cannot soak cast iron as it will rust, and this will take some rejuvenation to remove.
Best for: Anything and everything. It’s ideal for stove-to-oven cooking, or even on a campfire. You can cook anything in cast iron, baking, roasting, searing, stewing and even frying.
Safe for: All applications; stoves, ovens, grills, even open flame. All sorts of utensils are beautiful to use with cast iron, wooden and heatproof plastic/silicone will lower the risks of creating rust inducing pits.
A better option: Enameled cast iron is a great start, or of course something like stainless steel.
Enameled Cast Iron
How do you improve on the tried and tested qualities of cast iron? You enamel it! This coating transforms your traditional cast iron cookware into a culinary demi-god, making it easier to cook on, clean, maintain, and improving its iconic beauty as well!
Another benefit to enameled cast iron cookware is you don’t have to season it. It’s ready to go straight into kitchen action the second you get it home.
It’s not quite 100% nonstick, but the enameling does give you a much smoother and stick-resistant surface to cook on. Meaning you’ll use less oil and fat in your cooking. If that’s not enough, it’s also now dishwasher-friendly, booyah!
The downside of this improvement is, unfortunately, the price; it goes up dramatically, catapulting the cost into the ‘expensive’ bracket. So where regular cast iron is budget approved, its fancy cousin is pushing the purse strings to the limit.
However, with companies like Le Creuset offering warranties approaching 100years, it’s worth shelling out those extra dollars for a quality product that will last your lifetime and your children’s.
Heat Distribution: As with regular cast iron, enameled cast iron is fantastic to cook with once it’s heated up.
Heat Retention: Like it’s naked cousin, an enameled cast iron pot or pan will hold any heat perfectly without compromise. Reminder: if you’re using high heat, use a mitten to protect your hands before attempting to move or lift the cookware.
Reactivity: Perfectly safe, so long as the enamel stays intact.
Durability: Has been known to last over a hundred years, this cookware is both timeless and ageless.
Maintenance/cleaning: A warm and soapy hand wash is excellent, or straight into the dishwasher.
- Durability and reliability: it’ll last you forever and a day.
- Ideal for all stews and slow-cooked foods like chili, also great for campfires and stove to oven recipes.
- Induction friendly
- It’s heavy, real heavy, so movement on stovetops can be awkward.
- Pricey, quality cast iron cookware can cost a small fortune
- Enameling can be chipped, which can lead to the same reactive problems as non-enameled cast iron.
Best for: You can cook everything with enameled cast iron the same as regular cast iron.
Safe for: Stovetop, oven, grilling, and broiling. All sorts of utensils are excellent, being careful not to chip the enamel with metal spoons, etc.
A better option: Heavy-based stainless steel cookware. Or if you’re looking for a casserole that will give you a crisp and golden encrusted crumble, then stoneware or ceramic cookware is your best bet.
Carbon Steel & Blue Steel Cookware Materials
This is another old-time favorite for kitchen professionals around the world. From works in Asia and the Far East to sizzling skillets in fancy French restaurants, carbon and blue steel can boast some truly remarkable culinary results.
Why is it so popular? Well, it offers a mix of features from some of the materials we’ve already discussed. It’s lightweight compared to cast iron and stainless steel, and it’s affordable like aluminum.
Also, it offers excellent heat distribution and nonstick similarities to copper and contemporary nonstick pans. Oh, and it looks fantastic too, with most carbon steel giving a chic semi-industrial appearance to any kitchen.
Its major downside is maintenance; it’s a bit labor-intensive. First, you’ll have to season it, like cast iron and stainless steel. However, it can only be hand-washed and needs to be adequately dried to prevent rusting.
You’ll also need to avoid abrasive cleaners and scouring pads, or you’ll risk cleaning off the nonstick properties you’ve imbued with the seasoning process. One way around this is to wipe out the pan as soon as you’re finished cooking.
Heat Distribution: Excellent, it’s quick, even, and efficient. It also responds quickly to heat changes.
Heat Retention: Moderate, it’ll hold the temperature for a short while, but not forever. This also means that the risk of burns is lower.
Reactivity: Similar to that of cast iron, it’s safe once seasoned. But watch out not to create pits which will give you that metallic tang.
Durability: It’s a workhorse that’ll see you through many meals.
Maintenance/Cleaning: Hand-wash only! No harsh detergents or scrubbing or you’re in for a rude surprise.
- Durable and affordable
- Excellent heat distribution and transference in all cooking situations.
- Induction friendly
- It needs a lot of maintenance with regular seasoning
- Can have reactions to acidic foods
- Prone to rust and doesn’t hold heat for a long time
Best for: It’s perfect for cooking steaks, frying eggs or making omelets, and is an excellent material for cake tins.
Safe for: Stovetops, grills, ovens, and broilers
A better option: I’m going to repeat myself here, stainless steel. Carbon or black steel is a fantastic material to cook with. But if you’re not prepared to deal with it’s careful cleaning, then go with something a little more forgiving.
Clay and Stoneware Cookware Materials
What exactly do we mean by ceramic and stoneware? Well, you’re probably familiar with a French gratin, or Moroccan Tagine, or perhaps even the iconic Chinese clay-pot chicken?
Well, all of these dishes are cooked in either clay or stoneware cookware. In the case of tagine and clay-pot chicken, the recipe is named after the vessel it’s cooked in. This type of cookware is some of the oldest known to civilization and has proven itself time after time.
What’s it suitable for? Think low and slow; it’s the cookware you want to cook succulent slow-roasts, or sweet and gooey rice puddings, that sort of thing.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the two individually.
Ceramic, in essence, means a white fine-particle clay vessel that’s been baked at a high temperature in a kiln and has a special protective glaze on it.
In recent years aluminum cookware has advanced and can have a ceramic ‘coating’ on it, for better nonstick properties.
Ceramic cookware can take any form, including casserole dishes, baking trays or gratins. It’s an ideal oven-to-table serving option and can lend a genuine homely touch to a romantic dinner.
Heat Distribution: It radiates heat evenly, but does take a long time to heat up. This delay makes it perfect for custards or slow roasts, but not so good for dishes that need to be finished in a hurry.
Heat Retention: It holds on, ceramic won’t cool down quickly, and it can be awkward to hold onto when hot due to the glaze, so be careful.
Reactivity: Totally 100% safe, it will not react to any acidic or alkaline foods; it will not taint any dish with an undesirable taste. However, it can over-brown some sugary items, due to heat retention, and this can cause burning.
Durability: It’s good for decades, so long as you don’t drop it, as this will cause chipping or full breakage.
Maintenance/Cleaning: It usually scrubs up nicely; you can even soak it for those stubborn bits. Just make sure you let it cool down, and never plunge an oven-hot ceramic item into cold water.
- Perfect for slow cooking
- Works in any oven
- Looks fantastic
- Chips and breaks relatively easily
- Awkward to handle when hot
- Slow to heat up, and then hangs onto heat.
Best for: Any oven to cook slow roasts, casseroles, and traditional puddings or soufflés.
Safe for: Oven, gas or electric, and you can use metal, wood, or silicone utensils without worry.
A better option: Stainless steel or carbon/blue steel for roasting, copper for gratins, and cast iron for casseroles or slow cooking.
Stone cookware is similar to ceramic, as it’s made from a clay base and fired in a kiln. The main difference is that its composition is denser, and it comes in many colors. What does that mean in English? That means it’s stronger and is available in many colors and different glazes, rather than ceramic’s plain white.
Heat Distribution: As with ceramic cookware, stoneware takes a while to heat up entirely, but once it does its distribution is generally even throughout the entire container.
Heat Retention: Again, like its paler cousin, stoneware will retain heat, and is made from heavier-duty clay (thicker sides and bottom). It will hold its temperature for longer than ceramic.
Reactivity: Not a problem, stoneware does not react with any foods. Most stoneware has a glazed finish, and this will protect it from any sauces discoloring the cookware.
Durability: Fantastic, this cookware will last a lifetime, so long as you don’t drop it! It is breakable, so heavy knocks or falls it will either chip or break it, and it’s not repairable.
Maintenance/Cleaning: Easy as it comes. Anything baked-on needs a good soak to get it off. Hand-washing or in the dishwasher – as per manufacturer’s directions – and you’ll have that stoneware casserole gleaming in no time!
- Looks great, as it comes in many sizes, shapes, and colors
- Lasts forever, it’s something you can hand on to family members
- Will go in any oven, gas, electric, etc.
- Only useful in ovens, not on stoves
- Can be heavy to lift
Best for: You can use it in any oven for perfect lasagnas, slow-roasted meats, pasta bakes, casseroles, and stews. Anything that needs a long and low cook is ideal for stoneware.
Safe for: Ovens; gas or electric, hand-washing, some are dishwashers safe. Ideal for acidic foods, or those that can stain other cookware.
A better option: Ceramic or Stainless steel. For the obvious reasons of versatility and cleaning.
Nonstick Surfaces Cookware
In recent years nonstick cookware has received a lot of bad press. As mentioned the main culprit previously in this dilemma is manufacturers using PTFEs, and not providing adequate consumer information.
Put that aside though for the moment, because not all ‘nonstick’ cookware is tarred with that brush. Most nonstick cookware will have an aluminum or steel sides with an aluminum core that is then given a nonstick coating. This construction creates a highly efficient heat conducting cookware at an affordable price.
The main benefit of nonstick is the ability to reduce the volume of oils or fats used to cook food. It’s popular for those seeking a healthier lifestyle, and it’s also great for foods that naturally want to cling to the pan. We’ll now look at the main two nonstick options.
PTFE Nonstick Cookware
PTFE nonstick cookware is a great budget-friendly option for those like the iconic struggling student. Wait a minute, you said PTFEs were terrible, and now you’re saying it’s okay to cook with them? Well, yeah, so long as you buy a reputable brand and don’t overheat them!
You see, that’s the problem, people overheat nonstick pans and that’s what makes them nasty. Just keep the heat moderate, cook your food sensibly and you’ll be fine.
If you’re really worried, use it for as long as you have to and then upgrade. After all, it’s better than eating take-out every night.
Heat Distribution: It’s excellent, helpful and even, can be prone to warping if overheated, but otherwise there are no issues here.
Heat Retention: Pretty decent, won’t get cold super quick, but equally won’t be hot forever.
Reactivity: Not a problem, the nonstick coating protects the aluminum or steel below, thus preventing any chemical reactions. Non-stick is usually also not color transferable, so you don’t have to worry about staining.
Durability: It will not last forever, an average of 2years for most fry-pans, and a maximum of 5.
Maintenance/Cleaning: Usually easy/low, most are dishwasher-friendly, though some prefer hand washing, check the instructions first.
- Affordable for all budgets
- Non-reactive to acidic foods
- Great heating and cleaning
- Some are induction friendly
- It can be dangerous if overheated
- It may be scratched/peeled
- Prone to denting or warping
Best for: Students or those on a lower income who need versatility. Or those who don’t cook much and want a healthier cooking option.
Safe for: All types of stoves/cooktops, induction included but you should check specific models. Great for foods prone to sticking, or that have high acid levels. Do not use metal utensils, wood, or silicone/rubber only.
A better option: Stainless steel or copper with a stainless liner.
Ceramic Coated Cookware
I’m trying not to laugh here, but seriously, don’t waste your time and money. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with ceramic coated ‘nonstick’ cookware. It’s been around for some time, people have raised families cooking with it, but it’s just not that great.
The biggest problem with ceramic-coated cookware is where it was made. Some manufacturers source their materials from foreign countries that can, unfortunately, include a lead in the glazing process. This is bad.
Ceramic-coated cookware isn’t nonstick either; it tends to be quite grabby actually. For example, heat it and drop your favorite sirloin in.
If you try to move it, no go, the coating grabs onto the food, and if you force the issue, the meat fibers will be torn from the steak.
Ceramic-coating relies on you leaving the steak in place, letting it searing the food, then you can move it. So anything like a stir-fry is not going to cook well.
Heat Distribution: It disperses heat satisfactorily. It’s relatively even depending on what the base metal is and how thick it is, but it isn’t great.
Heat Retention: Similarly, it’s okay, it’ll lose heat within a few minutes, and can be fussy on the burner.
Reactivity: The coating means it shouldn’t react to any acidic foods. Also, it shouldn’t give any color or metallic taste to your food either.
Durability: Not great. One chip and your pot or pan are done for.
Maintenance/Cleaning: As they say in hockey, soft hands! Not generally recommended for dishwashers it should be hand-washed, carefully. Also allow to cool completely before placing in cold water, do not rapid chill!
- It can be pretty with different colors etc.
- A wide range of cookware options
- Chips easily
- Is not genuinely nonstick
- Suspect materials in some manufacturing
Best for: Good for all stove types, including induction. It is the right choice for boiling and braising, making soups, roasting meats, etc.
Safe for: As with it’s PTFE cousin, do not use metal utensils, wood or silicone/rubber only.
A better option: Stainless steel, enameled cast iron, or stoneware depending on the dish you’re cooking.
Types of Cookware: Which One Should You Buy?
There’s no right or wrong answer here, so we’ll launch into what cookware you might want or need to meet your cooking goals:
Cookware Sets: The basics in an excellent and convenient package. It usually contains 1-3 saucepans, a frying pan, and maybe some lids. They’re great for starting on your culinary adventures.
Fry Pan/Skillet: A necessary piece of kit for every kitchen. You can expect to have at least 2 of these, one larger and one smaller. Use them for cooking breakfasts, as an alternative to a wok, and for shallow frying.
Cast Iron Skillet: Serious cooking territory is here. These are perfect for stove-to-oven to grill cooking, for shallow frying, and for taking camping. They are heavy, though, be warned.
Sauté Pan: This is your one-pot, or in this case pan, wonder. You can cook an entire meal in this bit of kit: paella, risotto, pasta and sauce, stews or braises. This is a must-have!
Sauce Pan: For more than just boiling vegetables, saucepans are what give you versatility and expansion. They’re perfect for quickly cooking asparagus, heating a batch of soup, making sauces, and of course boiling rice or potatoes.
Dutch Oven: Akin to the French oven, the main difference is the Dutch oven is generally slightly wider and shallower. The Dutch oven is your go-to for stews, casseroles, and any other low and slow-cooked winter comfort. Oh, and you can bake with them too if you’re going camping!
French Oven: High sides and a wide base, the French oven is the perfect cookware for stove-to-oven cooking of a variety of dishes, including; poultry, beef and pork joints, classics like beouf carbonnade, and of course fruit crumble or cobblers.
Wok: Food in a flash, a wok is a gateway to all Asian cooking. For a truly authentic style stir-fry, you’ll need a wok; you can fry, steam, deep-fry, and poach in this one piece of equipment.
Braiser: Wide bottomed and with a lid, a braiser is similar to the Dutch and French ovens. The main difference is the size; a braiser is much larger to cook entire joints of meat or masses of vegetables.
Sauce Pot: Great for smaller batches of soup or stovetop stews, they’re ideal for most family situations and meal-time needs.
Stockpot: Whether you’re making Bolognaise sauce, a delicious Bouillabaisse, or steaming enough rice to feed a small army, a stockpot is essential for cooking large amounts of food.
Roasting Pan: This is what you need for your Sunday roast or your Christmas dinner. It’s essential for roasting meat and vegetables, and you can even do pasta or vegetable bakes in them too!
Griddle/Grill Pan: Fancy some pancakes or a perfectly grilled steak? Having a good quality griddle/grill in your kitchen is a must. Look for one that is two-sided, flat on one face and with ridges on the other, the whole thing shouldn’t be too thick, or have too much lip.
Pressure Cooker: A favorite from the 70s and 80s and now back in fashion. A pressure cooker is an excellent toy for those in a hurry or those who like to make preserves. It’s not necessary, but nice to have.
What’s Your Cooking Personality?
Is there such a thing as a cooking personality? You bet there is! Usually, this can be broken down into two categories; 1) those that love cooking, and 2) those that see it as a chore. Most people will fall somewhere between those two polarities, so what cookware should you buy?
1. You LOVE to cook, you’re good at it, and you enjoy showing off your skills.
You probably wish you’d trained as a chef, or you’re obsessed with watching culinary T.V. at every given opportunity.
You’re more likely to spend extra on top quality cookware, but you expect a lot from it. Finally, you’ll be more willing to take the extra time to clean and maintain your cookware. Here’s what you’re looking for:
You want stainless steel, with either an aluminum or copper core as your everyday cookware. You’ll probably also enjoy having some copper for authentic Indian or Spanish dishes like curries or paella. Don’t forget a cast iron pot or two, with lids, for slow roasts, bread, and iconic casseroles.
2. You cook because you need to eat. It’s a daily chore that you want to get done with as quickly as possible. You don’t want to spend hours cleaning up, and you don’t see the point in spending loads of money on kitchen equipment. But, you have to eat, and you don’t want to be ripped off, so here’s what you should buy:
Stainless steel gives it a bit of love, and you’ll be fine. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, quality nonstick pans will get you through. Make sure they’re dishwasher safe, or they won’t last the distance.
You’ll also be fine with ceramic or enameled steel. You’ll probably score some of this cookware from family members for free or in charity/op shops for a pittance, as they’re affordable for almost everyone.
What’s Your Type of Cooking?
You’re going to need to ask yourself the hard questions here and be honest. You won’t do yourself any favors by daydreaming of what you’d like to cook; we’re dealing with facts here.
- What do you like to eat?
- How much time do you have?
- How much food do you intend to cook?
- What styles of food will you cook?
- What type of stove or cooktop do you have?
- What can you realistically afford?
All of these questions should give you some idea of what you need to know. There’s no point buying a 20litre stockpot if you’re a single student cooking for themselves. Equally, a family of 6 trying to cook enough rice in a 1-quart pot will be hungry and annoyed.
Be honest with yourself, then make a list of cookware items from those discussed above, and see which ones will best fit your needs. Remember, some items can be doubled up to do two or more jobs.
A large saucepan can be used to boil enough pasta for a family of 4, as well as make soup, or boil potatoes. You don’t need to buy a multitude of different cookware for every kitchen job.
Pre-Packaged Sets vs. Hand-Picked Pieces?
There are distinct advantages to buy a preselected set of cookware. They tend to be better priced. They’ll suit a variety of culinary jobs, and it’s less stressful than trying to work out what you need if you’re not fussy.
What can let you down, however, is that they tend to be generic, so if you’re a culinary master, they’ll never please you?
Most sets will range between 5 and 10 pieces, depending on budget and purpose, and will include pots, pans, and at least one frying pan.
If you’re setting up a new home on a budget, then these are a great start. However, if you’re looking for something a bit more personally tailored, you’re going to need to do the legwork yourself. After all, you can always buy extra cookware and add it to your pre-packaged set.
If you decide to go with the pre-packaged option, ensure you have at least these items:
- 1 Small and one medium saucepan, with lids.
- 1 Frying pan, a lid is useful but not essential.
- 1 Large saucepan or stockpot, with lid
Items you may want to add over time:
- Sauté pan
- Braiser pan
- Griddle or grill pans
- Roasting trays
- Larger or small frying pans /skillet
- Casserole or Dutch ovens
- Pressure Cooker
So, there you go, everything you need to know about discovering what kind of cook you are. What pieces of cookware you’ll need to fulfill those goals. And what they should be made from to get the best results for your efforts.
Now there’s only one thing left to do, grab a cookbook to work out what you want to cook next, and get your new cookware! Happy cooking!