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Some cooking methods require moisture or fat.  Some require dry heat.
Some pot shapes encourage evaporation. Some discourage evaporation.
Some metals heat slowly, and cool slowly.  Some heat fast and cool fast.
Some distribute heat better than others.

International dining, celebrity TV chefs, recreating meals at home, metallurgy technology and brand-marketing continue to expand cookware products exponentially. Because new cookware looks good doesn’t mean it is good.

Every brand extols a bias of superiority as they promote matched sets of  ‘pots & pans’ which may not result in the best material or shape pan for each cooking task. ‘Set’ price incentives most probably includes sizes you don’t need nor want.

What shape pan to use?
Will it conduct and hold heat?
Will the metal have a chemical reaction to food?
These can be as important as the ingredients.

Should you buy a complete set of matching cookware to save
money or buy the best pots for the foods you cook, as Julia Child,
even though they don’t match?

Begin by choosing the best raw material for each of your cooking needs.


Iron, the Third Metal Age, is second to aluminum as a common element found in ores. Iron was used by prehistoric man for weapons and later, to make both utilitarian and ornamental objects. Iron is soft, ductile and malleable and the basic component of steel.  Cast iron is an alloy of iron; carbon is added as a hardener.

Benefits:  Absorbs heat evenly, excellent conductor of heat—released slowly, durable.
Drawbacks: Rusts, stains, pits and is usually heavy, sometimes too heavy.

Cast iron cookware (shaped by casting) releases some iron into food—considered desirable as a dietary nutrient that produces red blood cells. Iron regulates heat and prevents abrupt temperature changes inside the pan. These pots are excellent for foods cooked slowly over even heat.

Iron pans must be seasoned before use (some are pre-seasoned by the manufacturer) and must be dried thoroughly after washing to prevent rust. Iron casseroles and dutch ovens can be used to cook inexpensive cuts of meat slowly, making them excellent for stews, succulent pot-roasts,  etc.

Enamel-on-cast-iron cookware is expensive but it has heat distribution advantages of iron and hygienic advantages that eliminate problems of rust, stains and pitting and enamel finishes are attractive for oven-to-table serving.

As the First Metal Age, copper is one of the earliest metals man employed for both ornamental and functional use.  Copper is malleable, ductile, resistant to corrosion and second only to silver as a conductor of heat and electricity. A superb conductor of heat, copper is called “the jewel of the kitchen”.

Benefits:     A superb conductor of heat, copper is sensitive to temperature changes, heats quickly,evenly and cools quickly when removed from heat.
Drawbacks:  Quality copper pans are expensive and must be lined to avoid toxic reaction with foods— although unlined copper is used for candy and egg whites. If you don’t want to polish pots and pans, copper is not for you. 

Heavy gauge copper pans are preferred by chefs who demand superior heat control and are willing to pay for it. Hammered copper is exceptionally strong. Because copper is toxic in contact with many foods, it has been traditionally lined with tin for purity—but because tin is soft and eventually requires relining, better quality copper pans are now lined with stainless steel or nickel.  Iron or brass handles often perform as heat breakers on copper cookware.

Used since ancient times, tin was alloyed with copper to make bronze and tin is the major metal in pewter. Tin is corrosion resistant, ductile and exceptionally malleable. But tin is soft, scratches easily and has a melting temperature of 450º, making tin a poor choice for cookware—with the exception of saucepans and fish poachers used for foods cooked at lower temperatures.

Benefits:         Tin is pure.  It holds no taste and does not interact with foods.
Drawbacks:    Tin is soft, not strong and has a melting temperature of 450º.

Tin’s purity and lack of interaction with color, taste and flavor make it a superb housing  for food. (I have a tin canister set.)  Exceptions to the drawbacks of tin are saucepans and fish poachers used for foods cooked at low temperatures. Tin was the lining of choice for copper pans but because tin eventually requires re-lining, the lining of choice has become stainless steel.

Aluminum, the most abundant of metals, was not isolated until the 19th Century. It is second in usage to iron/steel.  Aluminum is lightweight, easy to shape, and an excellent conductor of heat.

Aluminum is harder and stronger when alloyed with magnesium, manganese, nickel, chrome, zinc, iron or copper. Producers of aluminum cookware use these alloyed variations to create finishes that cannot chip, crack, peel or rust.

Anodizing is an electro-chemical finish integrated with underlying aluminum for total bonding, which means the surface is extremely  hard, durable, corrosion resistant and long-lasting. Anodized aluminum is chemically stable, non-toxic and will not decompose. Finishes of anodized aluminum cookware may be polished, brushed and ‘blackened’.

Benefits:    Excellent conductor of heat—but less than copper. Affordable.
Drawbacks:      Can pit and interact and discolor acidic foods as fruits and tomatoes, alkaline ones like milk and sulfur rich foods as eggs.

Aluminum cookware is usually lined with stainless steel to provide non-reactive surface for all foods. Prices depend upon the thickness and weight of  the gauge of the metal. The smaller the gauge number, the thicker and heavier the pan. 1 or 2 ply aluminum cookware is commonly used as a light weight substrate for release surfaces.

If pans are lightweight, warping is inevitable and if release-coated aluminum pans reach very high temperatures, non-stick surfaces can deteriorate. Multi-layers (2 to 5 plies) of sandwiched aluminum, provide heat diffusion and good weight to negate warping.

Steel is 85% iron alloyed with other elements. High carbon steel is 12% carbon and similar but harder than cast iron making it good for wok cooking but, like iron, can rust. Nickel   steel and aluminum steel are lightweight steels commonly used for baking. They provide better rust resistance.

Stainless steel is stain less—not stain proof.  An alloy of iron, chrome and nickel, stainless steel was developed in England in 1913. Different formulas have varying tensile strength. 18/8 and 18/10 means iron is alloyed with 18 parts chrome and 8 or 10 parts nickel. 18/10 is superior.

Stainless steel is an excellent contact surface for food because it is non-reactive. In fact, stainless steel is the least reactive of any cookware metal, making it a superior lining for aluminum or copper cookware which diffuse heat very well.

Benefits:  Non-reactive, hygienic, easy to clean, great tensile strength, non-porous and durable.
Drawbacks:   Very poor heat diffusion, uneven cooking, discolors  from overheating.

Because of its strength and durability, stainless steel is often used as both an interior and exterior surface in  multi-ply cookware  having an inner core of aluminum or copper to provide uniform heat distribution throughout the entire pan. 

This is called sandwich construction because 2 to 5 flat single layers or plies of a metal or a mix of metals as steel, aluminum and/or copper are fused by electricity and pressure  into a solid sheet before a pan is shaped and provides the desired heft which is not likely to warp. 

Cladding means that a layer or coating of aluminum or copper has been applied by electrolysis   to the bottom of the pan. Some stainless steel pans are ‘cladded’ with copper or aluminum but the cladded layer is usually too thin to provide a diffusion benefit and the temperature of the pan wall is inconsistent.

A vitreous, ceramic-glass coating  fused to steel or iron with intense heat.

Benefits:  The enamel is non-porous, imparts no taste to food and is oven-to-table presentable. Usually colorful.
Drawbacks:    These can be an investment purchase—especially enamel on cast iron.       Large sizes are heavy and enamel can chip.

Cooking performance:
Enamel on steel: cooking properties of steel–meaning poor heat diffusion.
Enamel on cast-iron: cooking properties of iron—meaning superior heat diffusion. 

Ceramic cookware can be porcelain, stoneware and terra-cotta. 

Benefits:  From bean pots to casseroles to roasters, ceramic cookware is nonreactive and won’t change the taste and color of food. It diffuses and retains heat well.  Labels should specify if they are ‘oven-to-table’.
Drawbacks:  Meats must be browned first in a metal pan on top of the stove and transferred to a ceramic dish for continued cooking in the oven. Ceramics are breakable.

Borosilicate and tempered glass. In 1915, Corning  introduced a clear,  low-thermal-expansion borosilicate glass for laboratory glass and kitchenware; trademarked PYREX; (each letter is uppercase).

Spun off from Corning in 1998, World Kitchen, LLC,  licensed the name Pyrex (not upper case) for kitchen products.  Pyrex is not borosilicate glass. 

Tempered glass is glass changed by thermal or chemical processes to resist breakage.  Many metal pans currently marketed have tempered glass lids, (an advantage of visually checking the cooking progress). Glass doesn’t leach harmful ingredients or chemicals into food.

Benefits:   Borosilicate glass products are suitable for oven and microwave cooking and some may even be used for stove-top cooking. (Prior to the 1940’s, Pyrex was borosilicate glass; but no longer….see above). Read all labels before using glass cookware.
Drawbacks:   Glass is not freezer-to-oven and can shatter.

No metal product or product with metal ornamentation should be placed in a microwave oven. Microwaves cannot enter through metal; they’re reflected back into the magnetron causing damage.

Safe microwave containers include glass, Pyrex, porcelain, paper and plastic. These must not have metal findings and ornamentation…. including metallic glazes.  Because some clays have high iron content, it’s important to verify which ceramic dishes are safe for use in a microwave.