Choosing Cookware for Your Kitchen? It’s Not as Hard as You Think

Choosing cookware for your kitchen is not easy. Today, there are so many choices on the market that you don’t know how to select. In this article, we will walk you through the selecting process. 

Before jumping in, let’s list the common properties of ideal cookware we are searching for.

  • Heat up and cool down fast
  • Good heat retention and even heat distribution
  • Versatile so we can cook different types of food in a few cookware and save storage space
  • Non-reactive. The cookware should not react with our foods and leach any unwanted materials into our meals
  • Lightweight, but durable, corrosion resistant, warp resistant, dent resistant
  • Nonstick cooking surface
  • Easy cleanup, dishwasher safe, and little maintenance required
  • Cool-touch handle

But the world is not perfect in reality. Some properties may contradict each other. They cannot exist at the same time. What we are trying to do is strike a balance between them.

With all these in mind, let’s dive into our discussion on certain things when choosing cookware. 

What type of food do you cook frequently?

Think about what you cook most. This affects your choices of cookware. If you cook scrambled eggs, pancakes and any delicate food, nonstick pan is your man. If you braise or stew, go for a Dutch oven or a stockpot. If you sear meat, cast iron is a good choice. For every cookware in the kitchen, there is a purpose.

cooking-technique

Table: Cookware Used for Different Cooking Methods

Best UsesTips
Dutch oven Slow cooking: stewing, braising, blanching, frying, poaching, casseroles, roasting, baking, making soups, boiling water5 or 6 quarts are the most popular sizes. For your reference, one quart is equal to one serving
SaucepanCooking a small amount of liquid: making sauce, simmering, boiling, poaching eggs1-1.5 quarts, 2-2.5 quarts, 3 quarts and 4 quarts are the common sizes. Having a large and a small saucepan can meet most needs. If you have to choose one, go for 4 quarts
Fry pan / skilletFast cooking: frying, browning, searing, sautéing8, 10 and 12 inch are the most popular sizes. If you choose one only, select 12 inch
Stock potCooking with lots of liquid: blanching, making stocks, soups, boiling pasta, steamingThe most useful size is 8 quarts
Sauté panFast cooking:  stirring, sautéing, browning, braising, poaching, sauce reductionThe 4-quart size is the most versatile 
WokWoks are versatile and involved in different cooking techniques: stir frying, pan frying, deep frying, steaming, poaching, boiling, braising, stewing, searing, sautéing If you own an electric or induction cooktop, select a flat-bottomed wok. If you have a gas stove, a round- bottomed wok with a wok ring is recommended
Grill panHigh heat cooking: grilling, searingOil or fat is easy to stay in the grooves. Remember to clean and season it thoroughly

To obtain remarkable grill marks, select cast iron grill pan
Roasting pan with a rackRoasting Depth affects the cooking time. The ideal depth is 2-3 inches

Heat conductivity 

Heat conductivity is one of the most important features to consider when choosing cookware. Different metals have different degrees of heat conductivity. If a material has a higher heat conductivity, the cookware will heat up and spread heat to the unheated area of the cooking surface faster. The cooking surface will become evenly heated, so your food is evenly cooked. It also takes a shorter time to reach the cooking temperature and save your bill. The cookware will also respond to the temperature change quickly and can cool down faster compared with materials with low conductivity.

When it comes to handles and lids, it is a different story. Materials with lower heat conductivity are preferred,  so that your hands will not get hurt. 

Copper is the best heat conductor. Most premium cookware are made of copper and the price is expensive. An alternative is aluminum which is less thermal conductive but the price rewards it. 

Here is the thermal conductivity of metals used in cookware.

MaterialThermal conductivity
Silver419 w/m*k
Copper385 w/m*k
Aluminum239 w/m*k
Cast iron55 w/m*k
Carbon steel50 w/m*k
Stainless steel25 w/m*k
Titanium17 w/m*k

Source: ScienceDirect, MatWeb

Reactivity

Cookware should be made of non-reactive materials. We don’t want our cookware reacting with food that will harm our health or affect the taste of the food or pit the surface of the cookware. However, some materials like copper, aluminum and iron can react with foods. These materials leach into the food, imparting a metallic taste, and discolor the pan. Our bodies cannot handle these ingested metals except iron, and cause different health problems. Stainless steel, a popular material used in cookware, is less reactive. But it has poor heat conductivity.

An ideal material for making cookware should be high thermal conductivity and low reactivity at the same time.  But most materials possess only one of the properties only.  

In order to have cookware with high thermal conductivity and low reactivity, a manufacturer found a way to bond reactive metals with high thermal conductivity and non-reactive materials together to form cooking vessels. This design is known as cladding. So, the cooking vessels can have quick heating and the cooking surfaces are non-reactive materials to prevent direct contact from the food. 

Durability 

Some materials are durable that can maintain their shape and work for a longer time. Stainless steel is outstanding in this area and offers scratch resistance. Seasoned cast iron can last for generations with proper seasoning and maintenance. But nonstick cookware have a shorter life time.  Teflon coated cookware can last at most 5 years even if you take good care of it while ceramic cookware are far worse: last 2-3years.

The weight of the cookware affects the durability. Heavy-gauge cookware are more durable. It can spread and hold the heat evenly. If the cookware are light, the bottoms are likely to dent and warp. The food is much easier to scorch.

Price

The price of cookware varies depending on their materials and construction. In general, metal cookware costs more than other materials, especially silver which you can’t think about. Copper is much better, but the price is still higher than regular cookware. A small pot generally costs at least $100. 

Stainless steel comes to the next. It is affordable compared to copper. But clad with copper or aluminum is still expensive. Copper or aluminum disc base is less expensive but the sidewall of the cookware may be cooler than the bottom. Generally, the more materials used, the more expensive it is.

Pure aluminum is inexpensive. But it is reactive with acidic food.  To overcome this problem, the practices are lined with nonstick coating, clad in stainless steel or anodized. The best price is aluminum coated with Teflon. 

Carbon steel and cast iron is an economic option. It can withstand high heat which is suitable for searing.  If you season and maintain it properly, it can last for decades. 

Cleaning and Maintenance 

Different materials require different degrees of care and maintenance. Nonstick cookware are the easiest to clean.  Stainless steel can be cleaned with metal scrubber and are dishwasher safe. Cast iron and carbon steel need a little work to keep it in shape after cooking.  Seasoning is required periodically to keep their nonstick coating.  Copper can only be hand washed with non-abrasive detergents. You have to polish the exposed copper to keep its shiny appearance.

If you don’t want to spend a lot of time cleaning after cooking, nonstick cookware is a good choice. If you prefer a dishwasher to do the cleaning, go for stainless steel cookware.

Cooktop

All materials are compatible with gas and electric cooktops. 

Gas cooktop is very responsive. You can control the heat easily and it works for all shapes of cookware. 

Electric cooktops work the best with flat bottomed cookware. But they respond to the heat change slowly. They take a longer time to heat up and cool down. If your cooktops are smooth glass-ceramic, you have to avoid abrasive cookware like cast iron and aluminum that will scratch your cooktops. 

Induction cooktops are compatible with magnetized cookware only. Cast iron, carbon steel and magnetic stainless steel can work on induction tops. If you don’t know which one is suitable for induction, test it with a magnet. If a magnet sticks to it, you find an induction compatible cookware.

Handle 

The perfect handles should remain cold and sturdy attached to the body of the cookware, so it will not break apart easily and burn your hand. Low thermal conductive materials such as stainless steel, plastic, silicone or wood allow you to pick up the cookware easily without oven gloves. But plastic and wooden handles are not oven safe. 

You also have to consider how the handles are attached to the body of the cookware. They are generally attached  by welding, riveting or screwing. 

Both welded and riveted handles are sturdy and secure. But welded handles have a smooth inside and are easy to clean while riveted ones have food bits accumulated around the rivet. Screwed handle is not recommended because it is likely to hurt yourself if the screw loosens. You usually find it in the budget cookware. Another type of handles you can find on the market is one piece construction where there’s no fastener for the handle. But the heat from the body is likely to transfer to the handle. Make sure to protect your hand with an oven glove. 

Some cookware come with a detachable handle. The removable handles are versatile and one single handle can be used in other cookware with the same handle design. This can save your storage space. But remember to check the load bearing capacity of the handle and follow the instructions. Otherwise, the handle may detach and hurt yourself.

Materials

Finally, we’re looking into the properties of common materials used in cookware and how to select the materials that suit the cooking techniques.

Coating


PTFE (Teflon)

PTFE known as Teflon is a popular material to provide a nonstick cooking surface. Teflon is easy to clean, and requires no or little oil for cooking. Before 2013, Teflon coating contained toxic materials PFOA and PFOS. New version of Teflon coated cookware is PFOA free. It seems safer. But the high temperature can decompose the coating and release toxic fumes. With care, it is safe to use PTFE for low heat cooking because it is stable and nontoxic at low temperature.


PRO

  • Offer a nonstick cooking surface and release food easily.
  • Easy clean up.
  • Requires less oil to prepare low fat food.
  • Low cost.

CON

  • Nonstick coating degrades over time and lasts for at most 5 years.
  • PTFE cannot withstand high heat. The coating will rapidly lose its non-stick properties if overheated. Always cook below 500° F. The coating will decompose and emit toxic fumes if the cooking temperature is above 662° F. These by-products are lethal to birds and are the root cause of polymer fume fever.
  • Not for high heat cooking like searing, browning, and sautéing and thickening sauce.
  • Non-biodegradable.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Don’t use abrasive utensils, scouring pads and abrasive soap which can damage the nonstick coating.
  2. Some manufacturers claim dishwasher safe, but we recommend hand wash because the high heat of a dishwasher and detergent may damage the coating.

Ceramic coating (sol-gel)

Ceramic coating is made of silica and inorganic chemicals that are free of PTFE/PFOA and other toxic chemicals. That makes it a great alternative to PTFE coating. Thus, you can have your safety meals and enjoy the nonstick cooking experience at the same time.


PRO

  • Safe and healthy materials.
  • Ceramic coating is harder and withstand higher temperatures than PTFE coatings. Most manufacturers advise customers not to heat ceramic cookware above 500° F. Otherwise ceramic may lose its nonstick property and decompose. Cook on low to medium heat only.

CON

  • Wear off easily. Last for 1-2 years.
  • Unable to handle sudden temperature change.
  • Inability of high cooking temperature that will damage the ceramic coating.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Use silicon or wooden utensils, avoid abrasive utensils.
  2. Hand wash, not dishwasher safe. Cool down to room temperature before washing. Use mild detergents and non-abrasive pads to clean.


Enamel

Enamel coating is considered safe and eco-friendly. This prevents the interior metals from leaching into food.


PRO

  • Offer smooth, hard, durable, chemically resistant surface.
  • Offer different colors to choose.
  • Safe and healthy.
  • Durable and can last for many years.
  • Ability to withstand high temperatures that allow them to sear and braise foods.
  • Quick drying.
  • Suitable for all cooktops, oven safe.

CON

  • Heavy.
  • Enamel cannot handle sudden temperature change well. The cookware will crack if cold water is added to a hot pan.
  • Expensive.
  • Lower heat conductivity. 
  • Fragile and chip if shove it down forcefully.
  • Allow to store leftover food.
  • Nonstick property is not effective.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Little maintenance is required.
  2. Don’t use abrasive cleaners.
  3. Don’t use metals utensils.


Seasoning

Seasoning is the process of baking oil into cast iron or carbon steel to produce a smooth plastic-like nonstick surface.


PRO

  • Offer naturally nonstick coating which is free from toxic chemicals.
  • Prevent rusting.
  • Easy cleanup.
  • Reduce the interaction between food and the core metal.
  • The nonstick layer will be improved after each single use.

CON

  • Seasoning must be done regularly to maintain its nonstick property. 
  • Acidic foods will shorten the lifespan of nonstick coating.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Hand wash only.
  2. Don’t use abrasive utensils, metal scouring pads and harsh detergents.
  3. Don’t store your foods.

Body


Copper

Copper is an excellent heat conductor that provides quick and even cooking. It can respond to temperature change rapidly, so provides greater control over your cooking. Most premium cookware are made of copper.


PRO

  • Excellent thermal conductivity.
  • Extremely responsive to heat change.
  • Durable that last a lifetime.
  • Excellent for gas and electric cooktops, can be used in induction tops if magnetic stainless steel lining is used.

CON

  • Expensive.
  • Copper surface is easy to tarnish or scratch.
  • Unable to retain heat. Cool down quickly after removing from the heat source.
  • Copper is reactive metal and reacts with acidic foods. This results in excessive copper intake and copper toxicity. Therefore, the cooking surface must be lined with tin, nickel, silver or stainless steel to prevent the food from contact with copper.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Hand wash only.
  2. Rquire regular polishing to maintain its shiny appearance.

Aluminum

Aluminum cookware is lightweight, low cost and thermal conductive. But it’s reactive with acidic and alkaline foods. Thus, two common ways are used to overcome this problem.

First, it’s lined with non-reactive materials. Teflon coated aluminum are non-stick, non-reactive and cheap. Or choose aluminum clad stainless steel cookware.

The other way is to anodize aluminum to create a hard non-reactive oxidized surface which is suitable for all types of food.


PRO

  • Cheap if plain or Teflon coated. Moderate price if anodized.
  • Good thermal conductivity.
  • Lightweight.
  • Plain aluminum – good for non-acidic and non-alkaline foods, like boiling stock or cooking pasta.
  • Nonstick aluminum – fry pan for cooking eggs and other delicate foods.

CON

  • Expensive if stainless steel lined or clad.
  • React with acidic and alkaline foods.
  • Plain aluminum may dent and warp under high heat.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Hand wash with mild detergents

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is versatile. It can handle all types of foods due to its non-reactive and durable nature.


PRO

  • Sturdy, durable, scratch and warp resistant, non-reactive with foods and corrosion resistant.
  • Shining surface allows you to monitor the cooking status, so you can act fast to prevent food from burning.
  • Plain stainless steel is a poor heat conductor. But coupled with other thermal conductive materials like aluminum and copper, the improved heat conductivity makes stainless steel become one of the best materials for cookware.
  • Dishwasher safe, require little maintenance to maintain its shiny appearance and shape, easy to clean any burnt food with metal scrubbers.
  • Do not rust.
  • Great for deglazing.
  • Suitable for all cooktops (the exterior layer must be magnetic).

CON

  • Poor heat conductivity. The problem can be solved by aluminum or copper cladding.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Dishwasher safe.
  2. Easy cleanup and require little maintenance.

Cast iron

Cast iron is well-known for its durability, exceptional heat retention and ability to work under high temperature. It can develop nonstick coating by seasoning. You have to put a little effort to maintain and clean it in a proper way, then your cast iron can last for decades.


PRO

  • Plain cast iron is budget friendly.
  • Durable that lasts for generations if you care properly. If your pan rusts and sticks, you can save your pan easily by cleaning and re-seasoning again.
  • Heavy gauge cast iron offers superior heat retention. Its slow heat absorption and release are great for slow cooking.
  • Plain cast iron can withstand and maintain high cooking temperatures, so makes it excellent for searing and browning.
  • Develop nonstick coating naturally by seasoning and thicken the layer over each cooking. This results in easy cleaning and avoids rusting. Less oil is required for cooking due to its nonstick property.
  • Enameled cast iron offers a variety of beautiful colors.
  • Suitable for all types of cooktops, oven and grill. Remember don’t drag your cookware over the ceramic – glass cooktops to avoid scratch.
  • Plain and enameled cast iron can go from stovetop to oven.
  • Enameled cast iron: great for searing, sautéing, browning, frying, braising, stewing, slow-cooking, and roasting meat, baking bread.

CON

  • Heavy.
  • React with acidic food like tomatoes, vinegar and lemon juice. You can still cook acidic foods in a well-seasoned cast iron, but have to cook in a short period of time. Otherwise, the acidic ingredients will destroy the non-stick coating and expose the bare metal to moisture which will cause rusting. The enameled cast iron was invented to solve the reactivity, seasoning, rusting and cleaning issues of plain cast iron. You can cook any food you like. But it costs you three times more in price. You can still find more affordable options on the market.
  • Cast iron has a lower thermal conductivity and requires a longer time to heat up and cool down. Preheat your pan slowly before use. 
  • Use wooden, nylon or silicone utensils.
  • Food tends to stick if you cook on high heat in enameled cast iron. 
  • Enameled cast iron chips if it is dropped, overheated or subject to sudden change in temperature.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Never run your hot pan under cool water. This will cause thermal shock and crack your pans.
  2. Never store your food in cast iron cookware.
  3. Clean and wash with hot water.
  4. Use non-abrasive pads to clean cast iron. 
  5. Season your cast iron when it’s required.
  6. Hand wash your enameled cast iron in soapy water.
  7. Want to learn more cleaning and maintenance of bare cast iron, check out our article on How to Clean Cast Iron Grill Pans.

Carbon steel

Carbon steel is similar to cast iron. They’re both durable, get nonstick coating after seasoning, and require the same care to keep it in shape.


PRO

  • Cast steel is budget friendly.
  • Faster seasoning than cast iron because carbon steel has less pores.
  • Easy cleanup.
  • Thin and light that are great for stir frying.
  • Suitable for all types of cooktops and oven safe.
  • Preferred material for woks and fry pans.
  • Carbon steel heats up and cools faster than cast iron. This makes it great for quick cooking such as sautéing.
  • Carbon steel can handle high heat.

CON

  • Use wooden, nylon or silicone utensils.
  • Food tends to stick if you cook on high heat in enameled cast iron. 
  • React with acidic foods.
  • Require a little more work for maintenance.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Hand wash only, not dishwasher safe.
  2. Care and maintain similar to cast iron.

Titanium

Titanium cookware is popular nowadays. It features its lightweight, robust and safety. It is versatile enough to cook anything you love. But one of the big problem is plain titanium cookware doesn’t conduct heat well, so it normally comes with other materials to improve its shortcomings.


PRO

  • Medical-level safe materials and do not pose any health problem.
  • Has a protective non-porous oxide layer that prevents titanium and interior metal from reacting with your foods or leaching into your meals. You can cook all types of foods and enjoy favor without worrying about your health.
  • Offer a nonstick surface, so less oil is required for cooking and is easy to clean. Some titanium cookware are dishwasher safe.
  • Durable, dent resistant, warp resistant, corrosion resistant. Titanium lasts for a long time. Some brands even offer a lifetime warranty.
  • 45% lighter than steel, strong that is suitable for producing camping cookware.

CON

  • Low heat conductivity, uneven heat distribution. Plain titanium tends to develop hot spots, burn easily and stick. Hence, it is not ideal for everyday cooking. This can be solved by infusing heat conductive metals – aluminum is the popular option, to improve its heat problem, so that the cookware can heat up faster and evenly across the cooking surface. 
  • Expensive.

Clean and maintenances

  1. Use silicon or wooden utensils, avoid abrasive utensils.
  2. Hand wash, not dishwasher safe. Cool down to room temperature before washing. Use mild detergents and non-abrasive pads to clean.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are buying stainless steel, cast iron or aluminum, it is totally your personal decision based on your situation. Take your time, buy the right one that meets your needs, follow the manufacturers’ instructions to care and use your chosen cookware. You will have an enjoyable cooking experience with them. 

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