This Is How to Pick the Best Cookware for Your Needs

by Ashley Marcin on 28 March 2014 1 comment

As an enthusiastic home cook, my pots and pans get heavy use daily. Over the years I've experimented with a variety of materials for different methods, recipes, and cooking styles. I've certainly learned a lot about what material works best for what purpose, but it's taken a lot of trial and error. (See also: 5 Kitchen Luxuries That Are Worth It)

Today I'm sharing the basics on some of the world's most popular cookware materials and why they're absolutely great or, sometimes, not. In a follow-up, I'll be providing a list of my specific favorite pans, pots, and baking dishes for those of you who'd rather skip the pre-boxed cooking sets and get right down to business.

Aluminum

If you're looking for a low-cost way to cook your foods, aluminum might work for you. These pots and pans are lightweight and excellent at conducting heat. They can last a long time, too, if cared for properly, but you'll need to baby them. (See also: 36 Ways to Use Tin Foil)

Unfortunately, aluminum can warp, dent, and scratch relatively easily. And without any special coating (which I'll get to in the Nonstick section below), your more acidic ingredients can react with the raw metal and compromise your investment. Some have even expressed health concerns with regard to using aluminum, although others believe there's nothing to worry about.

But if you're still worried about the risk, the Cook's Illustrated lab cooked tomato sauce for two hours inside aluminum pots. They then stored it in the same pot overnight. When tested, the sauce contained just .0024 milligrams of aluminum per cup versus the 200 milligrams found in a single antacid tablet.

Cast Iron

Over the years, I have grown very fond of cast iron — both enamel coated and not — for cooking and especially for baking breads. These pots and dishes can last a lifetime if cared for properly. They even entail a few health benefits from use. For example, vegetarians and vegans might like to know that cooking with cast iron fortifies food with iron. As well, cast iron can be an affordable option if you look beyond the popular brands and stick with the basics.

On the flip side, cast iron is awfully heavy. The handles get very hot and, from experience, it's easy to forget and burn your hands while cooking (Ouch!). And if you're using cast iron without enamel, you'll need to avoid acidic foods because it will react negatively and damage your pans. If you're new to this material, you'll also need to season your cookware from time to time and take care with cleaning to avoid rust.

I like cooking tofu on cast iron pans because it gives me that extra dose of iron I need in my diet. Otherwise, I use my cast iron pans for hearty cooking and bread baking. I tend to shy away when cooking eggs because I have yet to master the technique. However, I've heard you can really cook most anything provided your pans are seasoned properly.

Copper

I don't own any copper cookware, but I surely have lusted over some pretty pieces I've spied in the "Downton Abbey" kitchen. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that copper, by nature, is antimicrobial because it contains many brasses. A friend of mine who uses copper tells me she's smitten because it's a great conductor of heat. Her foods cook uniformly, and her pans are responsive to heat changes as she changes levels on her cooktop. (See also: 11 Tricks to Help You Love Cooking)

Unfortunately, copper isn't the most cost-friendly cookware you can stock up on. In fact, it's often wildly expensive. So, if you're interested, I would suggest checking out discount stores like TJ Max, Home Goods, Marshall's, etc. to snag a couple test pieces. Copper can also be difficult to maintain, and older pots often need professional re-tinning.

As far as use is concerned, tin or stainless lined copper saucepans are great for making delicate sauces and candies or melting sugar. Just be sure to save acidic ingredients (tomatoes, lemons, etc.) for another pan, as they will react and likely end up tasting metallic, depending on cook time. And unlined copper bowls are famously great for whipping egg whites.

Nonstick

I grew up on nonstick cookware — which is actually often anodized aluminum with a nonstick coating. My mom still uses it exclusively to this day. The advantages here are as easy as the name lets on. You need not use much oil or other fat in your cooking and cleaning is a breeze. Yeah — ingredients don't as easily stick to the pan thanks to controversial Teflon (though there are newer guys on the market made of a ceramic base).

Plenty of people are nervous about nonstick because its coating can occasionally cause flu-like symptoms when exposed to high temperatures. Like with most anything else, opinions are split on these claims. A negative I have experienced? Several pieces of our own nonstick cookware have had flaking because the coating degrades easily with heavy use over time. Carcinogen or not, I don't like seeing or tasting it.

As a vegetarian, I would be inclined to declare that nonstick cookware is good for cooking most everything. However, I uncovered that using nonstick for all cooking is actually a mistake. Since this material tends to transfer heat slowly, it's not great for browning meat, for example. It's best to use these pots and pans for traditionally "sticky" items and cook the rest on cast iron or stainless steel. (See also: How to Make the Most of a Tiny Kitchen)

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is readily available in most discount stores, making it an inexpensive cookware option. It's also good looking and classic, and many pots and pans come with lifetime guarantees. Some more good news is that stainless cookware is nonreactive, which is just a quick way of explaining it will not discolor or pit with acidic ingredients. For this reason, you can cook any type of food without worry.

However, unless your stainless has an aluminum or copper core, you may have trouble heating foods evenly. And from personal experience, I tend to use more oil and butter than I would with other alternatives to ensure that ingredients won't stick fast to the bottom on the pan.

That being said, experienced stainless lovers have some tips and tricks for cooking on this material, including to heat the pan dry, add the oil next, and — when hot — place your protein in. Meat will usually stick at first, but then release once it is seared.

For me, most of my cookware fleet is cast iron, but it took me a while to get used to cooking with it after so many years as a nonstick devotee. What material makes up the bulk of your cookware?

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GinnyD

I think its a good idea to have a variety of different types of cookware. Like you, my preference is cast iron. I would caution against using cast iron cookware on electric ranges though. It really cooks much better over a flame, i.e. a gas range. The other types of cookware of choice in my kitchen are stainless steel and Corning Visions. I wouldn't want to rely exclusively on Visions, but I find it works really well for warming soups, sauces, and vegetables.