A Guide To The Best Cookware Materials

Finding the best cookware material is a highly subjective process. What works well for you may be very different from the kitchen next door. 

Picking a cookware material that works means reflecting on your goals and constraints first. Each material offers unique strengths but may fall short in some areas as well. For example, cast iron may create the best skillet, but that doesn’t mean it will also be the best performing material for all the other types of pans.

In this article, we’ll provide an introduction to most common cookware materials, and cover the core benefits and drawbacks of each.

Stainless Steel

If you were to sneak into most professional kitchens, you’d discover the stoves are covered with stainless steel pots and pans.

Stainless steel is chosen by professionals for several reasons. It provides great heat retention and distribution. It’s incredibly durable, and requires little maintenance. For most of us, these factors are just as important in our home kitchen as they might be in a busy restaurant.

Most stainless steel cookware is created through a process called cladding. Clad pots and pans are constructed by multiple layers of metal bound together in a sort of cookware sandwich. With this layered approach, stainless steel is typically used as the exterior layer.

Aluminum, copper, and stainless steel are some of the materials most often used for the inner layers of cladware. Each metal offers specific benefits, which we’ll look at in more detail later in the article.

With a bit of knowledge and practice, stainless steel can truly handle any cooking task.

For those readers who are building a budget, you can often find a bargain brand stainless steel set for less than $200. Mid range options often hover between $400-800, and some luxury brands may cost upwards of $2,000.

Pros

  • Very durable
  • Low maintenance
  • Can be used for virtually any cooking task

Cons

  • Takes some practice to master
  • Can be expensive

Nonstick

In recent decades, nonstick cookware has been by-far the most popular materials category globally. And for the home-cook it truly excels for convenience and ease of use.

Nonstick is a great fit for cooking delicate items like eggs or fish. It is incredibly easy to clean. After most cooking tasks, it can simply be wiped clean, with no soaking or scrubbing required. And if you’re hoping to avoid excess oil and fats, nonstick is a great fit for that too.

Even with so many benefits, nonstick cookware is somewhat limited in its range of cooking abilities. And special care must be taken when using it. The most common complaint about non stick sets is their short lifespan.

It is difficult to achieve a hard sear on foods like you might with iron or steel, and in most cases nonstick pans are limited to use at low-to-medium temperature settings.

Over the past 20 years, there has been some controversy about the health and environmental impact of traditional PTFE-coated nonstick cookware. A new wave of ceramic-based non-stick products was born on the heels of that controversy, though PTFE remains a more popular option.

It’s pretty easy to find a set for any budget. Several brands offer a good individual fry pan around $20-30. Full sets tend to fall in the $80-200 range, and top end collections can reach upwards of $1,000. Ceramic nonstick is generally a bit less expensive than the PTFE options, but also tends to have a shorter lifespan.

Pros

  • Convenient to use
  • Easy cleanup
  • Very affordable

Cons

  • Some temperature and functional limitations
  • Lower durability than other materials
  • Some environmental controversy

Uncoated Cast Iron

Uncoated cast iron cookware is a jack of all trades. It can handle just about any task that you throw at it, in and even outside of the kitchen. This is the cookware material that you can throw directly on a fire in the woods and be no worse for the ware.

Cast iron is one of the original cookware materials. While the process of making and finishing cast iron has been somewhat refined, its basic form and function remains unchanged. That’s a good indicator that the material performs well, and deserves a place in most kitchens.

Uncoated cast iron is a raw material and it does require a bit of maintenance in order to keep it from rusting (no dishwashers allowed here).

With just a bit of know-how and a light coating of oil here and there, these pots and pans have no equal and can be passed down from generation to generation.

You can easily find high quality raw cast iron skillets for less than $20. Despite the low price tag, those options will still last a lifetime. There are only a handful of brands that actually reach over the $100 threshold. 

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Very Durable
  • Good heat distribution and retention
  • Can be used for almost any cooking task

Cons

  • Heavy
  • Requires some maintenance

Enameled Cast Iron

Enameled cast iron is uncoated cast iron’s more refined sibling.

By covering cast iron in a layer of enamel, you get cookware with most of the same benefits, and none of the necessary upkeep.

Enameled cast iron is another kitchen workhorse. But, while very durable, there are some precautions that should be taken into consideration.

The enamel coating is made by fusing a powdered glass material onto cast iron. This coating is what makes the cookware so easy to use and clean, but as strong as it may be, it is possible to chip or crack.

Dutch ovens are the most popular piece of enamel coated cast iron, and can be found between $80-100. Luxury brands tend to start around $300, and go up from there. Size and shape plays a role in the price as well, and you can find a variety of options.

Pros

  • Durable
  • Good heat distribution and retention
  • Very versatile
  • Low maintenance

Cons

  • Heavy
  • Can be expensive

Carbon Steel & Blue Steel

If a professional kitchen isn’t using stainless steel cookware, then this is likely the alternative. Carbon and blue steel pans have many similarities to cast iron but are much lighter and easier to maneuver. 

Most often found as a saute pan, carbon and blue steel pans are raw and uncoated, and like cast iron, they will rust if not maintained properly. However, if treated right, these pans can become incredibly nonstick and likely become a go-to option for many cooking tasks.

This cookware retains heat very well, and because they are relatively thin, they also heat up very quickly. Almost always accompanied by a steel handle, these pans can tolerate very high heat and go from stove to oven with no problem. Again, if treated well, these will last a lifetime.

Most commonly sold as individual pieces, carbon and blue steel pans usually range from $30-60 each.

Pros

  • Durable
  • Lightweight
  • Versatile

Cons

  • Requires some maintenance
  • Not dishwasher safe

Copper

Copper is the ultimate heat conductor, making it a prime cookware material. Allowing pots and pans to heat up faster than any other material, copper has been popular in cookware for a very long time.

Copper heats very quickly and evenly, but it does not hold heat exceptionally well. The other downside is that copper is reactive. This means that acidic ingredients can leach exposed copper into your food. Because of this, you’ll rarely find cookware that has a copper cooking surface. 

The solution is to have a layer of copper either on the outside of the cookware or layered in the middle, with a stainless steel or tin cooking surface.

Copper is without a doubt the most expensive material on this list. While it can be a joy to cook with, and the aesthetic quality is exceptional, copper cookware may be overkill for most casual home cooks.

Copper cookware is not as widely available as other materials, and is often made and sold through speciality shops. Copper as a material is extremely expensive, with individual pieces often priced at several hundred dollars each.

Pros

  • Unmatched heat conductivity
  • Visually attractive
  • Durable

Cons

  • Very expensive
  • Reacts to acidic ingredients

Aluminum

Aluminum has three major attributes that make it a good material for cookware. It’s inexpensive, lightweight, and conducts heat very well.

Along with those three positives characteristics are a couple of material challenges. Plain aluminum is not exceptionally durable and can be easily warped or misshapen. It is also reactive, and so acidic ingredients should not be used in them.

Many aluminum cookware products are modified through a chemical process called hard-anodization. The result is an aluminum pan with a hardened exterior, which is less food reactive and possesses some non-stick properties.

While you can easily seek out cookware made entirely from aluminum, you’re more likely to find it layered with other materials to take advantage of its lightweight and conductivity. Most nonstick pans are constructed atop an aluminum base, and the material is frequently applied as an interior layer for clad stainless steel cookware products.

Aluminum cookware can be a great and inexpensive tool in the kitchen. Just remember to avoid using acidic ingredients that can leach aluminum into your food.

Many aluminum cookware sets are available between $80-200, while hard anodized collections often retail between $400-500.

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Lightweight
  • Good heat conductor

Cons

  • Less durable than the competition
  • Reacts to acidic ingredients

Ceramic vs. PTFE: What’s the difference?

There are two primary categories of nonstick cookware: PTFE and Ceramic.

PTFE is a synthetic fluoropolymer which is widely known by the brand name Teflon. The material is incredibly slick and used in an array of non-cooking applications from aerospace to outdoor performance clothing.

From a cooking performance standpoint, PTFE offers better food release than any other material. It is the gold standard for food release, but this property will deteriorate over time. 

Many PTFE-based nonstick cookware sets last up to 5 years before needing a replacement, which is significantly longer than the 2 year lifespan of top performing ceramic pans.

Most ceramic pans leverage a sand-based enamel to create food release. Although PTFE has a bigger market size in terms of dollars spent each year, the popularity of ceramic nonstick cookware has grown significantly over the past few decades.

This shift followed public controversy surrounding the health and environmental safety of PTFE, mostly related to its manufacturing.

For many kitchens, ceramic pans are seen as a healthy alternative to traditional PTFE nonstick. Although durability and food release performance of ceramic sets tends to lag behind traditional non stick pans, material quality is improving year-over-year as new products hit the market.

Both PTFE and Ceramic products tend to be at the affordable end of the cookware market, with ceramic often being sold at a marginally lower sticker price. Both options are incredibly convenient for cooking delicate dishes and ease of cleanup.

Cladding vs. Coating vs. Anodizing: What’s the difference?

Cookware manufacturers utilize many techniques to create products that behave in specific ways for the advantage of the cook. Three of the most popular construction strategies are cladding, coating, and anodizing.

Cladding is a process of layering various metals in order to take advantage of their strengths and to mitigate their weaknesses.

For example, a steel clad pan may be created with a stainless exterior and cooking surface. Beneath the steel exterior you might find thin sheets of copper or aluminum sandwiched into the core of the pan. By layering materials in this way, the maker provides exceptional heat conductivity from the copper and aluminum. The stainless steel exterior prevents food reactivity, creates heat retention and durability.

Coating is a technique that is often used in the creation of nonstick pots and pans. In this method, the manufacturer will spray a gel-like compound atop a metal base and then bake it at high temperatures to create a hard enamel shell. In many cases a “primer” layer is added first to improve the adhesion between coating an aluminum or stainless steel base.

Anodization is a chemical process that is often utilized with aluminum cookware. It hardens the outer surface of the metal in order to create durability, decrease food reactivity, and provide some non stick properties.

How To Choose A Material

There are a lot of things to consider when choosing cookware, and I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer. A well-equipped kitchen will have an assortment of cookware, not only in size and shape but also in material.

It may not make sense to have ten pots and pans all made from heavy enameled cast iron. But, a single dutch oven in your collection will add a level of versatility that no other material can match. 

The same goes for nonstick cookware. A nonstick pan is great for eggs, but if I want to sear a steak, I’m going to reach for my uncoated cast iron pan.

The most crucial thing to consider before making a purchase is how effectively the cookware material fits your lifestyle. Think about what you like to cook, and pick the best cookware material for that purpose.

Don’t be afraid to mix and match pieces to suit the overall priorities of your kitchen.

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