If you’ve ever found yourself hunched over a sink, scrubbing eggs out of the bottom of a pan, you’ve probably asked yourself this question: should I even be cooking omelets in this pan? I, for one, can attest that I only look at the price and reputation of a brand when buying cookware. I’ve never actually taken the time to consider what material the pan is made of and whether it might suit my particular culinary needs. It seems, however, that these are two important questions I should ask myself the next time I make a purchase. Learning the important characteristics of different kinds of stovetop cookware might just help you the next time you’re in the market for some new pots and pans.
According to Whatscookingamerica.net, stainless steel is the most common type of cookware found in households today. The website describes the material as an alloy of metals, including steel, carbon, and chromium. Stainless steel is called “stainless” because it can resist corrosion. It’s also relatively inexpensive, durable, and warp- and scratch-resistant. It’s not a great conductor of heat and does not cook food evenly, but it does work well for sautéing. Buying a stainless steel pot or pan with either an aluminum or a copper core will help counteract the poor heat conduction. Leaving boiling water in a stainless steel pot over high heat for too long may cause discoloration; also, cookware made of this material should not be stacked, as surface scratching will occur. To polish stainless steel, according to TLC.com, you should sprinkle baking soda on the pan’s wet surface and scrub the metal with a synthetic scouring pad. Stainless steel is also dishwasher safe.
Nonstick is, well, nonstick, which makes cooking (and cleaning) especially hard-to-get-off foods, like eggs, that much easier. And while cooking with nonstick may at first seem healthier because the surface eliminates the need to grease with butter or oil, one should take into account the potentially harmful health effects of polytetrafluoroethylene in the nonstick surface. According to a 2003 San Francisco Chronicle article, nonstick pans can “give off potentially harmful fumes at medium to high temperatures.” But brands like Teflon remain favored among consumers. The article points out that nonstick is more popular than ever, stating that consumers spent “roughly $1.2 billion on 159 million pots and pans last year (2002), 60 percent of which were nonstick.” If you do have or plan to buy nonstick pans, the most important way to preserve them is to not use metal utensils, as the nonstick coating is relatively thin and will easily scratch and flake off. And according to TLC.com, you should not soak pans in soapy water, as the coating can retain a soap flavor. Most nonstick cookware is also dishwasher safe.
The great thing about this material is that it looks and feels like nonstick, but without the chemical coating. According to Cooking.com, anodized aluminum is great for “everyday cooking, whether sautéed mushrooms, hamburgers, or chicken cutlets.” Anodized aluminum also has superb heat conductivity and is long lasting. You can use metal spoons and spatulas without damaging the surface; however, the surface does need to be seasoned from time to time. Anodized aluminum is not dishwasher safe and can be on the pricier side.
Cast iron is the one surface that truly lives up to its name. It has great heat retention, is a great heat conductor, can easily transfer from the stove to the oven, and is relatively inexpensive. It works beautifully for everything from searing meats to baking blueberry pies, and because it can withstand high temperatures, it’s also good for outdoor cooking. And the real beauty of cast-iron pans, as Whatscookingamerica.net points out, is that “every time you cook in your cast-iron pan, you are actually seasoning it again by filling in the microscopic pores and valleys that are part of the cast-iron surface. The more you cook, the smoother the surface becomes.”
Cast iron does, however, require special maintenance, including regular seasoning. According to TLC.com, you should scour the surface with a steel-wool soap pad, rinse thoroughly, then “wipe the inside of the pot with vegetable oil, place it in a warm oven for two hours, and wipe off the excessive oil.” Any washing thereafter should only be in warm, sudsy water. Never wash it in a dishwasher, as it will remove any seasoning and cause rust. When buying cast iron, keep in mind that it’s quite heavy, so a pot or pan with two handles will definitely make it easier to handle. It may also be reactive with some acidic foods. Overall, though, it’s a great investment because it’s exceptionally durable and can last a lifetime.
Copper cookware looks lovely hanging above the stove and works wonders on the stovetop. With great heat conductivity and the ability to cook foods evenly, many industry professionals choose this material for their own pots and pans. It also gives the cook greater control over levels of heat. According to Cooking.com, copper works well for “delicate items that need precise timing―thin veal scaloppini or sea scallops, for example.” The disadvantages of copper are its cost, its need for periodic polishing, and the fact that it may be reactive with certain acidic foods. Copper cookware should always be hand washed and should be stored where it won’t touch other pots and pans, as it easily scratches. If you find the prices too steep, look for stainless steel or aluminum pots and pans that have copper bottoms or cores.
In our rushed day-to-day schedules, cooking should be the one time of the day when we can slow down. Preparing meals should not be something that causes more time or trouble; but if you’re using the wrong tools of the trade, it may very well do both. Ultimately, it’s important to think about what you’re cooking and what you need to do the job. And if we can’t take the heat, then maybe it’s time to get out of the kitchen.