With so many options available in the world of pots and pans, picking what’s best for you and your lifestyle can be overwhelming. Here you’ll quickly learn key information about the most popular materials that pots and pans are made of – giving you the information you need to confidently select the perfect pans for you. The perfect pans for you are the ones that fit your lifestyle and the way you like to cook.
Pots and pans are made from a variety of materials, each with its own strengths and best uses. Apart from their performance properties, materials look and feel different to one another and have noticeable differences in weight.
Aluminum is an excellent conductor of quick and even heat, second only to copper. It’s also lightweight, easy to handle and cost effective, so it’s widely used in cookware manufacturing. The downside of aluminum is that it is a softer metal that can scratch and stain easily, and it reacts with some foods (for instance, giving lemon juice or garlic an unattractive green color cast). For these reasons, aluminum cookware is typically covered by another material like stainless steel or porcelain enamel, or coated with a nonstick surface on the interior of the pan.
Hard-anodized aluminum is created by putting aluminum through an electrochemical process that transforms the aluminum’s characteristics – this process keeps the benefits and corrects the downsides of cooking with plain aluminum. For example, hard-anodized aluminum retains the excellent heat conductivity of aluminum throughout the body of the pan (bottom and sides), but will not react with acidic foods like plain aluminum will. Plus, hard-anodized aluminum is twice as hard as stainless steel, making it very tough and durable. Typically, the interior of hard-anodized aluminum cookware is nonstick.
Stainless steel is a popular finish for pots and pans. It’s strong, durable and beautiful – but stainless steel by itself is actually a poor conductor of heat, so it must be paired with another material with better heat conductivity. Usually, stainless steel is paired with aluminum or copper, both excellent conductors of heat that, in turn, benefit from the strength and protection that stainless steel provides. So, stainless steel is more of a protective cladding material than a material for pots or pans all by itself.
Of all the materials used in cookware manufacturing, copper is considered the best conductor of heat. It’s also very responsive, so it heats up quickly, and also cools down quickly. This is useful when making something delicate like a cream sauce, and reducing the heat at the right time is important. Copper is also very expensive, hard to maintain, and, as a softer material, prone to denting. Since copper reacts with some foods, the interior of copper pots are often lined with stainless steel. Copper is sometimes used in the center of clad pans, sandwiched between layers of stainless steel and/or aluminum, to take advantage of copper’s excellent heating properties while diminishing its negative properties like high maintenance and denting.
Cast iron is heavy weight and durable. It conducts heat well and retains heat very well. It’s also very heavy which can make it difficult to handle, and it can react with some foods. Cast iron may be left uncoated, or coated with colorful porcelain enamel.
Porcelain enamel on steel cookware comes in vibrant colors and will not react with food. It is better suited to slow cooking in the oven since the heat conductivity lags other cookware materials.
In addition to the materials used to manufacture pots and pans, the finish on the pans varies as well. The primary difference in the finish is whether it has a nonstick coating or not. Finishes that are not nonstick include stainless steel and porcelain enamel, both discussed above.
Nonstick finishes can be applied to both the interior and exterior of pots and pans made from many kinds of materials. All nonstick will release well in its early days of use, but its performance over time will depend on the quality of the nonstick, how it was applied to the pan, the quality of the pan itself, and the way the nonstick pan is used and cared for by the cook.
Quality cookware manufacturers use superior nonstick coatings and apply them using the best manufacturing technologies. Heavier nonstick pans will perform better over time because they don’t have hot spots that can cause greater wear and tear on the nonstick surface.
Nonstick finishes are safe and durable, and today’s nonstick is engineered to resist chipping, peeling and flaking. Nonstick pans prevent foods from sticking during cooking without the use of fats like butter and oils, and they are quick and easy to clean. They can be used to prepare all types of foods, from perfectly seared steaks to gently simmered sauces.
Whether or not you wish to buy a matching set of cookware is an individual choice. Some people have aesthetic reasons for wanting their pots and pans to match. Others prefer a specific combination of features for each task, such as nonstick skillets, saucepans with a variety of interiors, and a different surface for a stockpot or roaster (such as enamel on steel).
We believe your cookware should be both functional and a pleasure to cook with. TV chef Jacques Pepin is fond of saying, “Happy Cooking,” and that’s what your cookware should give you: happy cooking!
For more information about selecting the perfect cookware for you, read Choosing Cookware Part 2: Features.