Cast-iron, carbon steel, nonstick, aluminum — if you’re baffled about which pot or pan is right for which application, you’re not alone.
Whether you’re preparing a grand holiday feast or gift shopping for that enthusiastic foodie in your life, you’ve got more choices than ever when it comes to cookware surfaces. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, but all have a place in the home kitchen.
Let’s take a look at six of the most popular options out there, and how to get the best results out of each.
Aluminum: Bottom line, you won’t find a lighter weight or less expensive material that conducts heat as well as aluminum. It’s frequently found in the core of multilayer stainless steel cookware, and many nonstick pots and pans are made from coated aluminum.
Uncoated aluminum, often sold as natural finish aluminum, is a common find in commercial kitchens, and for good reason. It’s cheap, durable and effective. But it’s also fairly reactive when exposed to acidic ingredients and can leach out into your recipes. While the consensus from the medical community is that this trace amount of aluminum doesn’t pose a health risk, it is downright unpleasant, discoloring food and imparting a metallic taste.
Because of its light weight, natural-finish aluminum is particularly welcome in large pieces of cookware such as the deep pots used for seafood boils, steaming tamales or frying turkeys, as well as large roasting pans and bulky rondeaus. A large aluminum skillet is a reliable and affordable option for searing several chicken thighs, steaks or other proteins.
Carbon steel: While a wide variety of affordable and durable cookware is available in carbon steel, skillets are its most useful application. Carbon steel frying pans are a little slower to heat than aluminum, but they conduct that heat quite well. They can be somewhat reactive to acidic ingredients, though not to the degree of aluminum or cast-iron. Carbon steel will rust, but with care and regular seasoning with a thin sheen of oil after use, your skillet will develop a near nonstick surface similar to cast-iron.
Carbon steel skillets are among the best performers for a nice sear on a steak, a bronzed pork chop, crispy golden edges on potatoes and other high-heat uses. Carbon steel pans, unlike nonstick cookware, will also develop a good bit of fond while frying proteins, which makes a terrific base for a quick pan sauce to join those meats.
Carbon steel roasting pans, saucepans and pots are available, but due to the labor required to clean them and maintain the seasoning, stainless steel is generally a more user-friendly choice.
Cast-iron: If you want cookware you’ll be able to pass down to your grandkids, cast-iron is undoubtedly the way to go. It’s practically indestructible and makes a great skillet, Dutch oven, griddle and just about anything else you’d use in the kitchen. You’ll also get a proper workout hefting all those pots and pans around, as there isn’t a heavier cookware material in town.
Cast-iron is very slow to heat, but it holds its temperature well. It’s the perfect choice for things like fried chicken, strips of bacon, hash browns and other classic comfort foods. A cast-iron skillet also doubles as an excellent baking vessel for corn bread, upside-down cakes and even pizza.
It also reacts to acidic ingredients found in dishes such as wine-soaked coq a vin or tomato-rich ragu, and those can strip away your hard-earned seasoning in addition to leaching iron into your food. Fortunately, for most of us that’s more an issue of discoloration than health concerns, as cast-iron can actually be a reliable source of dietary iron, which many of us could use more of. That being said, enameled cast-iron is a better choice for that kind of cooking.
Enameled cast-iron looks gorgeous and doesn’t require seasoning, but it won’t develop the same slick surface as raw cast-iron. You’ll pay more for it, but no kitchen is complete without at least one showy enameled cast-iron Dutch oven or saucepan that can go directly from stove top or oven to the table in style.
Cast-iron has an ill-earned reputation for being fussy to maintain, but seasoning it properly is actually quite simple. If yours is losing its near nonstick properties, just give it a good scrubbing in hot, soapy water and dry it with a towel. Spread a thin layer of shortening or oil over the pan, and stick it upside-down on the middle rack of a 375-degree oven with foil or a baking sheet on a rack below to catch drips. Let it bake for 1 hour, then turn off the heat and let the pan cool inside the oven.
Copper: Copper is king when it comes to responsiveness, or how fast the metal will react to changes in heat. That matters, for example, when you’re frying a delicate fish fillet or making caramel and want the temperature to drop rapidly when removed from the flame. Those kinds of tasks can be executed just fine with other forms of cookware, but require a little more attention.
With very few exceptions, copper cookware will be lined with another metal, as it’s very reactive and easily leaches out into food. A thin layer of tin is the most common, although newer copper pans may be lined with stainless steel. Because of its impressive conductive properties, copper is often found sandwiched between layers of steel or other metals in the core of multilayer frying pans.
Copper cookware is easily the most expensive option — it is a precious metal, after all — and requires regular polishing to retain its shiny glimmer. If your budget and time for maintenance allows, a complete set of matching copper cookware will dazzle anyone who steps into your kitchen. For the rest of us, indulging in a tin-lined copper skillet will more than suffice, and make a nice counterpoint to a slowpoke cast-iron pan.
Copper can, of course, be used to cook anything, but the upside for the few delicate applications where it thrives probably won’t justify the cost for most general uses where aluminum or carbon steel will work nearly as well.
Nonstick: Nonstick cookware mainly comes in two basic forms: coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), known to many by the brand name Teflon, or finished with a thin ceramic surface. Both are a dream come true when you want to fry an egg and slide it out of the pan with ease.
The downside of that convenience is that both types of nonstick surfaces are very delicate and easily damaged with metal utensils or a trip through the dishwasher. PTFE-coated cookware shouldn’t be heated above 500 degrees as the chemicals in the coating can burn off. The American Cancer Society says Teflon itself is not a cause of cancer, but the vaporized chemical has “the potential to be a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time,” making it a poor choice for any kind of high-temperature cooking.
Most nonstick cookware is made from flimsy and thin aluminum or steel and will have a short life span. A higher-quality option is anodized aluminum, which is typically more expensive but will last longer and can be heated to any temperature.
Anodized aluminum pans have an oxidized surface that’s very durable, nonreactive to acids, won’t burn off like other nonstick coatings, and as long as you don’t put them in the dishwasher, they should have a lifespan significantly longer than other types of nonstick cookware.
Other than the ease of cleaning, there’s not much argument in favor of nonstick roasting pans, baking sheets or pots. They’re too delicate and don’t heat evenly. A well-made nonstick skillet will likely find regular use for most home cooks for quick-cooking things like scrambled eggs, pancakes, a sauteed side dish of spinach, peppers or other vegetables, or putting a fast sear on scallops.
Stainless steel: On its own, stainless steel isn’t much to celebrate in the kitchen. It’s a lousy conductor of heat, and food loves to stick to the surface. But when other more conductive metals such as aluminum or copper are sandwiched into stainless steel — you’ll often find these sold as stainless steel clad cookware — the results will become the workhorse of nearly any kitchen. https://www.gzprosperltd.com/index.php?s=cookware&cat=490
Like its name implies, stainless steel is nonreactive. It’s also difficult to damage. And if you bring the pan up to temperature with a thin layer of oil before adding ingredients, sticking won’t be as much of a problem.
While stainless won’t ever be as much of a delight to fry in as cast-iron, carbon steel or copper, its nonreactive properties make it an excellent choice for deeper saute pans, saucepans and roasting pans where you might want meat to mingle with tomatoes, wine or other acidic ingredients in a flavorful sauce.
A stainless steel roasting pan with a stainless rack is ideal for your holiday turkey or ham, and it can go directly to the stove top to make gravy from the drippings. A large stainless pot measuring at least 4 quarts is a must for anyone craving soup, a big batch of Bolognese sauce or a pot of chili.
All cookware surfaces have their pros and cons, and there’s no perfect one-pan-fits-all solution. With all of these respective cookware qualities in mind, our ideal dish rack would be a mix-and-match capitalizing on the strengths of each.
Whether you’re starting from scratch or spicing up your existing collection of cookware, here’s our bare-minimum suggestion: Your workhorse will be a large cast-iron skillet measuring 10 to 12 inches. Add an enameled Dutch oven measuring at least 5 quarts for all the essential braised dishes. The rest of your pots and saucepans, we’re talking about the 2- to 4-quart size here, should be stainless steel. Same goes for the roasting pan.
That’s the basic kit. The next step is adding pieces that will make your cooking life easier or more fun.
You’ll appreciate the convenience of a nonstick skillet measuring at least 10 inches, but don’t bother with the lightweight junk. If you make stock or steam tamales with any regularity, grab a jumbo aluminum pot. And a carbon steel skillet measuring at least 10 inches will become your go-to much quicker than you expect.
As for copper, it’s a delight, but unless Santa is going to leave it under the tree for you, don’t lose any sleep longing for that shiny pot or pan.
Good luck this holiday season, y’all. There’s a lot of cooking to do, and now you have all the tools you need to get sizzling.
Post time: Nov-22-2019