Which cookware material is best? The number of materials that cookware is made of (and their corresponding terms) can be dizzying at times. Truth be told, there is no right answer, but here is a rundown of the different materials you may see on FortheChef.com.
Stainless Steel: Known for its durability, ease of care, and rust-resistance (which provides its namesake), stainless steel is one of the main and most popular materials that is used in both the home and professional kitchen today. Stainless steel is incredibly food-safe, does not contain any chemicals that may migrate into your food, and will not react with acidic ingredients. While stainless steel is incredibly attractive and transitions well from cooktop to tabletop, at times it can be a poor conductor of heat. To combat this, oftentimes stainless steel cookware may be made of tri-ply construction (discussed below). Stainless steel is dishwasher, oven, and broiler safe, and is compatible with induction cookers since it is usually magnetic.
*Chef’s Specs: 18/10 (also known as 18/8 or 304 Grade) stainless steel tends to provide a more eye-catching sheen and resists rust and corrosion better – this is because of its 18% chromium (provides rust-resistance) and between 8-10% nickel composition (to provide corrosion-resistance). Higher nickel content allows more workability to prevent cracking during the manufacturing process. Additionally, greater nickel content increases the cookware’s luster. However, it tends to be pricier than other types of stainless steel.
The alternatives include 18/0 (also known as 430 Grade) stainless steel, which includes 18% chromium and a negligible amount of nickel; and 14/1 (also known as 200 Series) stainless steel, which is composed of 14% chromium and oftentimes manganese instead of nickel.
On a pricing scale, 18/10 tends to be the most expensive, followed by 18/0, and finally 14/1.
Tri-Ply / Multi-Ply: Tri-Ply cookware is the best of both worlds: it combines the beauty and grace of stainless steel cookware with the powerful heating properties of aluminum or copper. Tri-ply means that three different layers of metal have been bonded together; generally, this consists of two outer layers of stainless steel with an aluminum or copper core. To counteract slower cooking speeds of typical stainless steel cookware, the aluminum core allows for rapid and uniform heat distribution across the pan, ensuring that your food is cooked evenly. Additionally, the magnetic stainless steel exterior enables the cookware to be induction-cooktop compatible, creating a versatile piece of cookware that can accomplish almost any cooking task.
Aluminum: For you Professional Chefs out there, aluminum cookware is the staple and workhorse of the professional kitchen. Aluminum cookware is generally lightweight, highly heat-conductive, easy-to-maintain, and reasonably priced. Aluminum stands with copper as the most heat-conductive of cooking materials, as it transmits heat rapidly and is incredibly responsive to cooking temperature changes – as such it adapts well to all culinary techniques, from high-heat cooking to gentle simmering (it can be oven safe up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit). If cared for properly, aluminum is also easy-to-maintain; however, since aluminum is a softer metal, it may dent or warp more easily than other materials – as such, be wary of the thickness of the cookware, particularly when evaluating aluminum products. Additionally, aluminum may react to acidic, alkaline, or sulfuric foods. Avoid using metal utensils with aluminum cookware, as they may scratch and damage the surface. Look for use and care instructions carefully from the manufacturer; oftentimes aluminum cookware may not be dishwasher safe. Finally, aluminum is not magnetic, so it is not compatible with induction cooktops.
However, for Kitchen Newcomers and Culinary Artists, don’t fret -- aluminum can also work for you! There are many types of aluminum that are coated with various nonstick or ceramic coatings that provide the efficient heat distribution properties of aluminum cookware combined with beautiful colors that match the decor of your kitchen.
*Chef’s Specs: In the cooking world, there are generally two types of aluminum used: 1100 Grade and 3003 Grade. Due to aluminum’s properties of being light yet strong, it is often a very versatile material to work with, particularly since it can be deep-drawn. Additionally, aluminum accepts different types of nonstick coating, allowing it to be versatile and effective in the kitchen. 3003 Grade aluminum generally represents the higher-end of the spectrum in aluminum cookware: it offers greater strength and holds up extremely well in day-to-day cooking applications.
1100 Grade aluminum is among the softest of aluminum alloys and cannot be hardened by heat treatment (only cold-workable); as such, it is generally less expensive than other grades of aluminum and can be an economical solution for cost-effective cookware, bakeware, or other cooking utensils. Unfortunately, however, it may dent or scratch more easily than other materials.
As a caveat, 3004 Grade aluminum may also be found in premium commercial cookware: 3004 Grade is far more durable than 3003 Grade aluminum, and is often used in high-quality commercial cookware, bakeware, and other industrial kitchen equipment applications.
Hard Anodized Aluminum: One subset of aluminum is hard anodized aluminum, which is an exterior finish applied to an aluminum surface. Hard anodized aluminum is tremendously durable; through the finishing process, aluminum is transformed into another material altogether that is stronger than steel and is scratch and chip-resistant. Hard anodized aluminum is naturally non-stick and easy to clean (but don’t put it in a dishwasher!).
Cast Iron: Cast iron has enjoyed a longevity in the cooking space that is unmatched – for over two thousand years cooks have relied upon cast iron as a foundational material by which they created their meals. Today, cast iron has experienced a renaissance in popularity, spawning not only the traditional bare black pre-seasoned skillets that have become so commonplace, but also the stunning statement pieces of colored enameled cast iron cookware. Arguably the most durable and reliable of all cookware, cast iron pieces can be passed down several generations, and each generation’s use of the cookware further enhances the flavor that becomes “seasoned” into the material. Your grandmother may have had a staple cast iron skillet that she passed down to you!
New cast iron cookware has terrific heat retention capabilities and heats slowly and evenly if properly used; however, it is a very slow conductor of heat and forms hot spots when heated too quickly. Since cast iron pieces are generally cast as a single piece of metal (including the handle), this means that if left heating too long the entire piece of cookware may become extremely hot to handle (pun intended).
Cast iron is incredibly versatile; it is compatible with virtually all cooktops, including induction. Cast iron is perfect for browning, frying, sauteing, or searing, and can also tackle tasks such as braising, pot-roasting, slow-cooking, and stewing. However, in exchange for versatility comes general maintenance: new bare cast iron typically comes pre-seasoned for non-stick purposes, but over time may require re-seasonings. Be wary: if cast iron is not appropriately seasoned it may react with acidic or alkaline ingredients.
A recent trend that has added to cast iron’s popularity is colorful enameled cast iron. The beautiful pieces not only provide the functional prowess of traditional cast iron cookware, but also become a decorative accent to your tabletop or kitchen counter. An added benefit of enameled cast iron is that it requires no seasonings, and as such, lowers maintenance!
*Chef’s Specs: Cast iron cookware is usually begins as a mixture of various metals that is melted into molten cast iron and then poured into sand mold casts or is sandblasted to create its unique appearance. Then, seasoning is applied to help prevent rust and corrosion – typically, this seasoning consists of vegetable or soybean oil – and finally the new cookware piece is transferred to an ultra high-heat oven to virtually bake the oil into the surface and create the black sheen of traditional non-enameled cast iron products.
Carbon Steel: Carbon steel has been used more heavily in commercial kitchens than in household ones, but given its similarities to cast iron cookware, carbon steel cookware should gain a consumer following soon. In fact, some even consider carbon steel and cast iron to be relatively interchangeable. Carbon steel shares cast iron’s thermodynamic characteristics, with strong heat retention – this makes carbon steel skillets great for crisping chicken skin or searing steaks. Carbon steel can withstand abuse, but requires seasoning just like cast iron does. However, with proper maintenance and seasoning, carbon steel can last for a long time and take on non-stick properties. One additional thing to note is that carbon steel does take a while to heat up, similar to cast iron.
A couple key differences between carbon steel and cast iron are form-related. Cast iron tends to be heavier, and in skillets, its sides tend to be more vertical than that of carbon steel skillets: this makes cast iron skillets ideal for shallow-frying chicken or baking cornbread.
On the other hand, carbon steel pans have sloped sides, making them the solid sauteing tools. The lighter weight also makes carbon steel skillets easier to lift and shake with one hand, allowing the skillet’s contents to move around more constantly.