One of the most important factors to consider when you're selecting cookware is the materials used to construct it. Material construction affects cookware performance, how it can be used and how to care for it. Once you understand the pros and cons of the most common cookware materials, it will be easier to select pieces that suit your needs among the large array of available options.
Stainless steel is steel that has been mixed with chromium, which makes it corrosion resistant. Look for high-grade stainless steel that is eighteen parts chromium and ten parts nickel, which is stamped 18/10 on the base of pots and pans. It is important to note that stainless steel is not completely corrosion-proof. Although soaking a stainless steel pan overnight is fine, storing it in a damp place for extended periods will result in rust.
Stainless steel is ideal for pan exteriors because it does not dent easily, it holds a high polish and it is usually magnetic, so it's compatible with induction cooktops. The durable metal is also a great choice for interior cooking surfaces because it does not react with acidic or alkaline foods and won't pit or scratch easily. Additionally, stainless steel is dishwasher, oven and broiler safe. Stainless steel has one drawback: it's a poor conductor of heat and doesn't react to temperature changes very quickly. To compensate for this, the best cookware manufacturers usually clad stainless-steel exteriors around a core made out of a more conductive material, such as aluminum or copper.
Second only to copper in conductivity, aluminum transmits heat rapidly. As a result, cookware manufacturers often use it for the core of stainless-steel cookware. Pure aluminum is quite soft, so it is often alloyed, or mixed, with other metals such as magnesium, copper or bronze for added strength. These aluminum alloys are lightweight enough to make the metal ideal for large cookware pieces like stock pots. Even when it's alloyed, however, aluminum can react with certain foods, affecting its flavor, and is susceptible to pitting, so it's often lined with stainless steel or a nonstick coating.
Alternatively, manufacturers "anodize" the aluminum, an electrolytic process that seals the surface pores of the metal, making it extremely durable and nonreactive. You can spot anodized aluminum by its charcoal-gray color. Pots containing aluminum alloy or anodized aluminum are not magnetic and therefore can only be used on gas and electric ranges unless they have a stainless-steel exterior. Aluminum-alloy cookware is not dishwasher safe, but anodized aluminum often is. Ask about individual products for specifics on dishwasher and oven use.
Copper is the best heat conductor of any material used to make cookware. It heats rapidly and evenly and cools down as soon as it's removed from the heat, giving you maximum control over the cooking process and making it a favorite of chefs. The best-quality copper pans are made of a heavy gauge, 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick.
Because copper reacts with the natural minerals found in some foods, most copper pans are lined with a nonreactive metal such as tin or stainless steel. A tin-lined copper pan may occasionally require a new lining, but the process is relatively easy. A stainless-steel lining will last a lifetime, but some cooks feel that steel hinders copper's performance. To minimize this, stainless-steel-lined pans should be made of thick copper. Some copper pans designed for cooking foods with a high sugar content, such as zabaglione and jam, are unlined because the sugar prevents a reaction with the metal.
Copper is not magnetic and therefore cannot be used on induction ranges. Very heavy professional or restaurant pans will have iron handles, while those for home use will be made of brass. Both are perfectly safe for oven use. Copper cookware should never be placed in the dishwasher.
Cast-iron cookware is extremely durable and resists warping, denting and chipping. Although cast iron heats slowly, the metal distributes heat very evenly and retains it extremely well, long after it's removed from the stovetop or oven. Cast iron is ideal for browning meats or poultry and frying all types of foods. It is magnetic and therefore can be used with induction ranges, even if the cookware has an enamel coating. Pure cast-iron pieces should not be used to cook acidic foods such as wine, vinegar or lemon juice.
One disadvantage of cast iron is that it is extremely heavy and, unless it has an enamel lining, requires seasoning to protect it from rusting. The seasoning process smoothes cast iron's porous surface so that food doesn't stick, provides a waterproof coating and prevents the pan from imparting a metallic taste to food. Most unlined cast-iron pans come "pre-seasoned," but maintaining this surface is an ongoing process. Check manufacturer's instructions for seasoning directions. Clean cast-iron cookware with hot water and mild soap. Unlined cast iron cookware should be hand washed and must be dried thoroughly before storing. If cared for properly, a cast iron pan will last for generations.
Carbon steel is a metal alloy formed by combining iron and carbon. Extremely hard and durable, it creates cookware with thin, strong, warp-resistant walls for rapid and efficient heat conductivity. It is an ideal material for woks, omelette pans and crepe pans. Unlike stainless-steel, carbon steel is susceptible to rust and—like unlined cast iron—must be seasoned before use.
To preserve the finish of a carbon-steel pan, professional cooks often reserve one for a specific dish, such as making omelettes, and use it for nothing else. After use, carbon-steel pans can be wiped clean with paper towels but should not be washed unless absolutely necessary. To wash, use only mild soapy water and a soft brush. Carbon-steel pans should never be placed in the dishwasher.
Nonstick cooking surfaces are popular because they release foods easily and clean up with little effort. Nonstick pans require little or no oil for cooking, so they're great for preparing low-fat and nonfat dishes. Even if reducing fat is not a primarily goal, most cooks find that it's useful to have at least one nonstick fry pan in their cookware arsenal to make foods like eggs or pancakes.
There are a few disadvantages to nonstick coatings. The typically don't brown or caramelize ingredients as well as unlined metal, and the coating must be treated with care to avoid damage. Metal utensils are a common culprit in the demise of a nonstick cookware, along with overheating (using it above medium heat levels), thermal shock (placing a hot pan under cold water) and the use of aerosol cooking sprays (most contain lecithin, which gums up the coating). Many nonstick pots and pans must be hand washed, and even if the manufacturer specifies that its cookware is dishwasher safe, you may want to avoid doing so to preserve the nonstick coating.
Enamel is a thin, durable layer of colored glass used to coat the interior and exterior of some cast-iron or steel cookware. This coating prevents corrosion, eliminates the need to season cast iron or steel and is nonreactive, so it won't impart any flavor to food. Enamel does not conduct or transmit heat well, but it does hold heat efficiently, making it an ideal partner for cast iron.
When used on cookware exteriors, an enamel coating is thin enough to allow a magnetic connection with induction cooktops. On interior surfaces, it allows for great browning with easy cleanup. Smooth, light-colored enameled interiors make it easy to see changes in food as it cooks while dark, textured enamel (often mistaken for unlined cast iron) provides superior browning, a reason it's often used for grill pans and skillets.
Tin is used as a lining for copper pans. Like stainless-steel linings, tin protects copper from acidic foods with which the copper may react. Unlike stainless-steel linings, tin tends to be a better transmitter of copper's renowned heat conductivity.
Tin does have some drawbacks, however. Tin-lined pans should only be used over low heat and never heated while empty or the tin may begin to blister or even melt. Use wooden, silicone or nylon cooking tools on tin-lined cookware because metal utensils may scratch the tin. Tin will discolor slightly with normal use and this is harmless. A tin-lined pan will need to be refurbished occasionally with a new lining, known as "retinning," which is easily done by a specialist. To clean a tin-lined pan, use a sponge or soft bristle brush and warm soapy water. Never put a tin-lined pan in the dishwasher.