If you're shopping for clad stainless steel cookware, you're probably asking yourself: 3-ply or 5-ply? And what's the difference?
It's not rocket science, but it's good to understand the different configurations of clad stainless cookware. We'll explain the differences and tell you how to pick out a good, high quality set of clad stainless steel cookware. (Hint: The number of plies is kind of irrelevant--read on to find out why.)
Clad Stainless Steel Cookware: An Introduction to Plies
According to Wikipedia:
Cladding is the application of one material over another to provide a skin or layer.
The outer layers of cladding are typically used to protect a more vulnerable inner layer that serves a purpose integral to the application. Cladding can apply to all kinds of materials. In cookware, cladding is the process of bonding different metals together. Plies are the layers of metals in a clad pan.
Cladding can also be called bonding, at least when referring to metals.
So, a 3-ply (also called tri-ply) pan has three layers of different metals. In nearly all cases (or maybe all), the three layers are two outer layers of stainless steel that protect an inner layer of aluminum (see diagram above). A 5-ply pan can have different materials, but the idea is the same: two outer layers of stainless steel that protect inner layers of heating core.
Why this configuration? Stainless steel is durable, but doesn't heat well. It protects the heating core, which is aluminum or copper, which have excellent heating properties but can leach into food, causing off flavors and even be toxic in large amounts.
Bonded metals have existed for decades, but John Ulam, founder of the All-Clad cookware company, was the first to use bonded metal to make a pan. The company originally made other products out of bonded metal, then one day Ulam used bonded metal to make a pan for his personal use. He liked it so much he began making the pans for friends and selling them at local fairs and cookware expositions. The pans were a huge success and by 1971, All-Clad was exclusively a cookware company.
Ulam's first clad cookware was 2-ply, with an exterior layer of aluminum and a stainless steel cooking surface. This became the All-Clad Master Chef line (which sadly has now been discontinued). His most popular product, tri-ply clad cookware, came along later, and the rest is history.
The Outer Layers
Whatever is in the middle of clad cookware, the outer layers are always stainless steel--but usually not the same kind of stainless steel. (2-ply cookware, aluminum-stainless steel, used to be popular, but since Master Chef was discontinued, we don't know of any brands still on the market.)
Let's look at the details of the outer layers.
The cooking surface has to be, above all, durable, so it's usually made out of a 300 grade stainless steel. The most common steel used is 304, which can be 18/8 or 18/10 steel. Both are high quality "surgical" stainless steels. The numbers mean that the steel is 18% chromium and 8% or 10% nickel. "Surgical" is largely a marketing term that means the steel is corrosion resistant.
There is an even higher grade of stainless used in some clad cookware, 316Ti, which has a small amount of titanium in it (about 0.5%). Titanium increases corrosion resistance slightly, but 18/8 or 18/10 cookware is more than durable enough and corrosion resistant enough for kitchen use. 316Ti cookware can be more expensive without adding a lot of benefit, but some people love it. Two brands that use 316Ti are Heritage Steel and Saladmaster (links go to our reviews).
On cheap clad cookware, you sometimes see lower grades of stainless steel such as 200 grade and 400 grade steel (400 is also called 18/0), on both the inner and outer layers of steel. 200 grade steel uses manganese instead of nickel for corrosion. resistance, and 400 grade is nickel free. Both steels are less corrosion resistant than 300 grade steels, but they're cheaper and thus make cheaper cookware.
Some people use 400 grade steel cookware if they're concerned about nickel intake. 200 grade steel is less common, but if people buy it, they usually don't know they're buying it. You'll see it on inexpensive brands of cookware such as on Bed, Bath, & Beyond's affordably priced house brand.
If the price of clad stainless steel cookware is too good to be true, check the type of steel it's made of: both 400 and 200 grade steels are cheaper but less corrosion resistant than 300 grade steel.
The exterior surface of clad cookware--the side in contact with the heating source--is usually 400 grade, or 18/0. This steel is nickel-free, which makes it ferritic (i.e., magnetic), so it's induction compatible.
400 grade steel is often called "magnetic steel," as in the All-Clad diagram above, so you know that it's induction compatible. The vast majority of induction compatible steel in cookware is 400 grade (maybe all of it), although the grade of 400 can vary.
Is Stainless Steel a Safe Cooking Surface?
Both 18/10 and 316Ti steel leach very small amounts of nickel and chromium into your food, especially when new. The leaching is not in unsafe amounts, and decreases with use, eventually stopping altogether.
Some people mistakenly believe that 316Ti steel doesn't leach nickel or chromium, but that is incorrect. In fact, some studies have shown that 316Ti leached these elements in slightly larger amounts than 18/10.
If you're concerned about new stainless cookware leaching nickel or chromium, you can simmer it with acidic water (add some vinegar) for a few hours. This will pull out most of the nickel and chromium.
Unless you have a nickel sensitivity, you don't need to do this. Even with the small amounts of leaching, stainless steel is one of the safest, most non-reactive surfaces you can cook on.
The Heating Core: The Core Issue
The heating core comprises the inner layer(s) of clad cookware that spread heat quickly and evenly. It is almost always aluminum because aluminum has excellent heating properties and it's inexpensive. You may also see copper, but only in 5-ply cookware; copper doesn't bond well to steel so you always see it in combination with aluminum. We talk more about different 5-ply configurations below.
Assuming quality stainless steel, the heating core is the most important feature of clad cookware because it's what affects how well the cookware performs. And the most important aspect of the heating core is its thickness.
Thickness of the heating core is more important than the number of plies.
A thick heating core spreads heat more evenly and holds heat longer than a thin heating core. Whether one layer of aluminum, three layers or aluminum, or a combination of aluminum and copper, you want a heating core that's thick enough to heat evenly and hold. onto heat well.
We get into specifics below.
Why Is Different Steel Used for the Interior and Exterior of a Pan?
As we said above, nickel-free cookware is not as corrosion resistant as 300 grade steel, but it's necessary for induction compatibility. The highest quality, longest lasting cookware usually has a 300 grade cooking surface and a 400 grade exterior.
Older clad stainless cookware, made before about the mid-90s, may not have a magnetic layer for induction cooking. This cookware is usually 100% 300 grade steel.
The Upshot: Why Plies Aren't Important
Many people assume that 5-ply cookware is always thicker than tri-ply, but this is not the case. For example, All-Clad D5 is the same thickness as All-Clad D3, and All-Clad Copper Core, which is 5-ply, is even thinner than All-Clad D3 (because it takes half as much copper to produce the same heating performance as aluminum).
You also need to know what the heating core is made of, because it takes half as much copper to produce similar heating performance as aluminum. For example, a 1mm layer of copper heats as well as a 2mm layer of aluminum.
The gold standard for heating performance is All-Clad D3, which has a heating core that's 1.7mm thick (all aluminum). It's enough aluminum to provide fast, even heating and decent heat retention, but not so much that the cookware is heavy and hard to handle.
If you can handle heavier cookware, there are brands with thicker heating cores out there. Demeyere Industry, which is 5-ply cookware, has a 2.1mm thick heating core. So in this case, the 5-ply does have a thicker heating core and is going to heat more evenly and have better heat retention. It's also heavier than All-Clad D3 or D5, though not so much that most people wouldn't want to use it.
Once again, the number of plies doesn't matter as much as the total thickness of the heating core.
How do you know how thick a heating core is? This can be tricky, because makers don't always disclose this information. Thickness and weight are good indications that cookware has a good heating core.
The number of plies isn't as important as the overall thickness of the heating core--and yes, some 5-ply cookware can be as thin or even thinner than some 3-ply cookware.
You also need to know the material, because it takes less copper to produce the same heating performance as aluminum.
Pay attention to the overall thickness, weight, and material--not so much the number of plies.
Types of 3-Ply Cookware
There's just one type of 3-ply, or tri-ply, cookware. It has outer layers of stainless steel and almost always an aluminum heating core.
Copper core cookware is typically 5-ply because it doesn't bond well to stainless steel and requires a thin layer of aluminum on each side to "clad" to the steel. In fact, if you find a brand of 3-ply cookware with a copper core, don't buy it, because the copper can separate from the steel, which destroys the cookware.
Types of 5-Ply Cookware (And "5-Ply" Cookware)
With 5-ply cookware, the options get a little more complicated (but not too bad).
Let's look at each type.
Three layers of aluminum is the most common 5-ply heating core, seen in most brands of 5-ply cookware except All-Clad. Typically, the core layer is pure aluminum, which heats more efficiently, with two outer layers of different aluminum alloys that bond better to stainless steel.
A lot of people call 5-ply with three aluminum layers glorified 3-ply, but because the aluminum layers are different alloys, it really is a 5-ply product.
A copper core almost always has two outer layers of aluminum, which help it bond to stainless steel. This is less common than an all-aluminum heating core, usually more expensive, and almost always lighter because you need less copper for the same heating effects as aluminum.
All-Clad Copper Core is by far the most popular copper core cookware, but there are some knockoffs out there that sell for less. It can be difficult, however, to know how thick the copper layer (heating core) is, and less copper often means a lower price.
See our All-Clad Copper Core review for more information.
Rather than three layers of aluminum for a heating core, the All-Clad D5 heating core is two layers of aluminum and a middle layer of steel. We're not big fans of D5 because stainless steel has terrible heating properties--the whole reason clad cookware was invented in the first place. So why add another layer of steel? All-Clad claims that the internal layer of steel is better for induction because it slows down the lateral movement of heat, allowing the pan to heat more evenly. There's some truth to this, but the differences are unnoticeable during actual use.
Many people think D5 is thicker than D3, but it isn't. This means that the amount of aluminum in D5 is less than what's in D3. Since aluminum is what allows cookware to spread heat evenly, it doesn't make sense to have less of it. If D5 had more aluminum and the steel layer, then it would be interesting to test. But with less aluminum, and more steel, we think D5 is overpriced and overhyped.
Since D3 is cheaper and has more aluminum, we recommend it over D5.
(Some people also think that the inner layer of steel in D5 is to improve performance on induction, but all our research has shown that the internal layer is 300 grade, and thus not magnetic--so it makes no difference on an induction stove.
For more information, see our article D3 Vs. D5: Which Is Better?
What to Look For in Clad Cookware
Whether you buy tri-py or 5-ply, you shop for the same basic features.
Thickness (Including Exterior Layers and Heating Core)
In general, the thicker cookware is, the better it's going to heat, and this is true of all cookware, not just clad stainless.
It's especially true for clad stainless steel cookware, though, because makers don't always disclose the thickness of the heating core. If you don't know this information, it's hard to go wrong with thick, heavy cookware.
All-Clad D3 is the industry standard for tri-ply. You can find clad cookware that's thicker (Demeyere, Misen) and thinner (many less expensive brands). If you can handle heavier cookware, Demeyere and Misen are both great choices. Anything thinner than D3 will sacrifice even heating and heat retention, so D3--and it's knockoffs--is the thinnest clad cookware we recommend.
The exception, of course, is copper core, because copper heats more efficiently than aluminum. But if you stray from All-Clad Copper Core, it's hard to know how much copper a brand contains: because copper is expensive, some makers might use a thin layer of copper and thicker layers of steel to compensate. Every brand is different.
Weight goes along with thickness: in general, you want to buy the thickest, heaviest cookware you can comfortably handle. Thick, heavy cookware heats more evenly and hangs onto heat longer than its thinner, lighter counterparts.
You really have to consider how much weight you can handle, though. If cookware is too heavy, you won't want to use it.
All-Clad D3 and its knockoffs (e.g., Cuisinart Multiclad Pro and Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad) are right in the middle of the pack as far as weight: they're heavy enough to heat evenly and hold heat, but not so heavy that they're hard to handle. This middle-of-the-road design is what makes this cookware so great and also so popular.
Thickness and weight determine heating performance in clad cookware (and in most other types of cookware). In many of our articles and reviews, we talk in some detail about heating performance. But if cookware is thick enough and heavy enough, heating performance will be good.
All-Clad D3 is the standard, but it is also the lightest, thinnest you should go if you want good heating. If you go with a cheaper brand, stay away from anything lighter or thinner than D3. If you don't want to spend All-Clad prices, we recommend Cuisinart Multiclad Pro and Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad. Misen is also a good choice (see our Misen review for more information).
You want to look at design features such as handles, lids, and flat cooking surface. Are the handles comfortable and do they allow you to easily stabilize a full pot? Do the larger pieces have helper handles? Do the lids fit snugly? Does the skillet have a good amount of flat cooking surface?
Also consider whether you think the cookware is pretty or not, because you'll enjoy using cookware that's aesthetically pleasing to you more than using cookware that isn't.
Fully Clad Vs. Disc Clad Cookware
For clarity's sake, we'll touch on the topic of fully clad vs. disc clad cookware.
All the information in this article pertains to fully clad cookware. In fully clad cookware, the heating core extends up the sides, throughout the entire pan. When people think of clad cookware, they're usually thinking about fully clad cookware.
Another kind of clad stainless cookware is disc clad cookware, also called bottom clad or impact bonded cookware. Disc clad cookware is one layer of stainless steel with a heating core bonded to the bottom of the pan. Thus, the heating core is only on the bottom, while pan sides are one piece of steel.
The heating core is typically an aluminum disc sandwiched between layers of stainless steel. You can identify a disc clad pan by the seam around the bottom where the heating core disc is welded to the pan (see images below).
In general, disc clad cookware is cheaper than fully clad cookware because it's cheaper to make. Most people believe it also doesn't heat as well as fully clad, which is often true but not always. As with fully clad cookware, you have to look at the heating core. If the disc is too thin and too small (i.e., doesn't cover the full bottom surface of the pan), then the heating performance won't be very good:
However, if the heating core is thick enough and covers the entire bottom surface of the pan and extends slightly up the sides, the heating can be quite good--in some cases, as good as fully clad or even better:
Because the heat spreads only on the pan bottom, the disc has to be considerably thicker to provide similar heating as a fully clad pan.
There are high quality brands such as Demeyere Atlantis and Fissler Profi that have a thick, heavy disc that spreads heat very well. In the case of the Atlantis, the disc is actually copper--so the heating is excellent. Both of these brands are exceptions to the rule that disc clad cookware is cheaper and not as good as fully clad. They are also expensive.
In the United States, fully clad cookware is more popular than disc clad, maybe because of All-Clad's influence on the market. In Europe, disc cladding is more popular (both Demeyere and Fissler are European brands). But disc clad cookware isn't automatically lower quality than fully clad. As with fully clad, you have to understand the heating core to determine if disc clad cookware is any good.
The Difference Between Clad Cookware and Coated Cookware
Coated cookware is another type of cookware that people might find confusing when compared to clad cookware. They are very different kinds of cookware.
Clad cookware is made by bonding layers of different metals together, while coated cookware is one type of metal (usually aluminum or cast iron) that has a non-metal coating. The two most common types of coated cookware are nonstick and enameled cast iron. Both the nonstick surface and the enamel are coatings applied to the pan.
Some pans can have two different coatings, such as a nonstick cooking surface and an enameled exterior. Some can be both clad and coated, such as tri-ply with a nonstick coating.
Coatings are a very different thing than cladding.
5-Ply Vs. 3-Ply FAQs
Here are some common questions about 3-ply vs. 5-ply cookware.
Does 3-ply Cookware Warp More Easily than 5-Ply?
It can, but only if it is too thin or mistreated. But 5-ply can also warp if it's too thin. To avoid warping, choose a thick pan, because thickness is more important than the number of plies.
Is 5-Ply Cookware Always Thicker than 3-Ply?
Contrary to popular belief, 5-ply cookware is not automatically thicker or heavier than 3-ply. You have to look at more than the number of plies to determine the thickness of a pan. 3-ply pans can be thicker than 5-ply and vice versa. Don't assume that 5-ply is always thicker than 3-ply.
Which Heats Better, 3-Ply or 5-Ply?
The heating depends more on the material and thickness of the heating core than on the number of plies. Look for pans that are thick and heavy for good heating--but don't get a pan so thick and heavy that it's hard for you to handle. All-Clad D3 is an excellent example of cookware that's heavy enough to heat well but light enough to handle easily.
Why Is 5-Ply Cookware Usually More Expensive than 3-Ply?
5-ply materials are typically more expensive than 3-ply materials, and this is true whether they're thicker or not. 5-ply also has the reputation of heating better than 3-ply and this allows makers to charge more for it (even if it's not better).
Is Clad Stainless Steel Cookware Safe to Use?
Yes, it is safe to use. Stainless steel is a very safe, stable cooking surface.
Is Clad Stainless Steel Cookware Dishwasher Safe?
Some clad stainless cookware is dishwasher safe, and some isn't: if the rim is sealed, then the cookware is dishwasher safe. If the rim is not sealed, then you should wash it by hand. You can tell if cookware is sealed by if you can see the layers of cladding on the rim or not: if you can see the layers, then the cookware is not sealed and you should wash it by hand.
Here are some of our favorite tri-ply brands.
It's tough to go wrong with All-Clad D3. It's All-Clad's most affordable line, and we think it's also the best bang for your buck. These pans will last for decades and stay looking new.
Available in open stock and sets. The skillet with lid is a great buy ($99 for the 10-inch and $119 for the 12-inch).
buy all clad d3:
Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad
Tramontina makes a few lines of clad stainless cookware, some of it disc-clad. So be sure you get the Tri-Ply Clad and not another Tramontina line, as the Tri-Ply Clad is the All-Clad D3 knockoff and almost indistinguishable from D3--but for a much lower price.
Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad is made in two countries: China and Brazil. The Chinese Tri-Ply Clad has better set pieces (the 12 piece set has two large skillets) and is cheaper, but it has glass lids. The Brazilian Tri-Ply Clad has stainless steel lids and only the biggest set has a 12-inch skillet, but it's more expensive. Other than the piece sizes and lids, they are the same cookware and will provide the same heating and durability.
If you want All-Clad D3 but don't want to pay All-Clad prices, Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad is the brand to get.
buy tramontina tri-ply clad:
Cuisinart Multiclad Pro
Cuisinart makes several lines of cookware, but the Multiclad Pro is the All-Clad D3 knockoff, and closest in design to D3. It's an affordable brand, with the 7 piece set pictured above going for about $200. (Compare to the All-Clad D3 7 piece set, which goes for about $500). Multiclad Pro is made in China, which is probably how they keep their prices low.
MC Pro has a lot of great features, like a skillet with a lot of flat cooking surface, stainless lids, and excellent handles that are both comfortable and great for stabilizing a hot, heavy pot full of food.
Some people complain about Multiclad Pro pans warping easily, but we haven't had any issues with it. But because of this, it's our second favorite D3 knockoff after the Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad.
If you want a great deal on cookware that's almost identical to All-Clad D3 for considerably less, Cuisinart Multiclad Pro is the way to go.
Or, if you want to pay a little more, you can go with the Cuisinart French Classic. This 10 piece set (pictured below) was about $400 for years, but the price has gone down to be regularly less than $300. We suspect that Cuisinart may have stopped making it in France and it's now made in China, but we can't verify that. In any case, French Classic is identical to Multiclad Pro in design and configuration, but with slightly different design.
buy cuisinart multiclad pro:
buy cuisinart french classic 10 piece cookware set:
Here are some of our favorite 5-ply brands.
Demeyere Industry is our favorite 5-ply cookware brand. It's got excellent heating properties, is durable, and beautiful. The heating core is three layers of aluminum, which provides the best heating performance. Welded handles mean no gunk collection on rivets (because, no rivets). The 10 piece set pictured has great pieces, including 9-inch and an 11-inch skillets, two large sauce pans, and a huge stock pot.
Demeyere is made in Belgium. It's not cheap, at about $1000 for this 10 piece set, but it will last a lifetime. It's heavier than All-Clad D3, but not by a lot, so unless you have ergonomic issues, Industry will heat more evenly and hang onto heat better than any All-Clad product (because it has a thicker heating core).
Misen cookware is made in China, but it's high quality cookware nevertheless. The heating core is three layers of aluminum and is roughly the same thickness as the Demeyere Industry, but for less. A 10 piece set goes for just under $700.
Misen is thicker than Made In and the prices are usually lower. Between the two direct-to-consumer brands (which are both now sold on Amazon), Misen is the better option, unless you want made-in-USA cookware (but only Made In clad stainless is made here; the rest of their products are made overseas).
Misen is a great choice for durable, affordable 5-ply cookware. Will it have better heating than Al-l-Clad D3 or D5? Yes, because it's got a thicker heating core.
buy misen stainless steel cookware:
All-Clad Copper Core
All-Clad Copper Core is expensive, and doesn't have much improvement in heating over the D3. But it's beautiful, and the heating is good enough that it might be worth the higher price to people who have the budget for it.
The design is similar to D3: same handles and lid pulls, same skillet design, typically the same pieces in the sets. All the Copper Core has a grooved rim for better pouring, and the lovely copper ring around the bottom of every pot. Copper is heavier than aluminum, so Copper Core is a little heavier than D3 even though it's thinner. But it's not so heavy that you wouldn't want to use it.
The 10 piece set of Copper Core goes for almost $1500, so it's considerably more than D3. It's great cookware, though, and like our other choices, will last a lifetime, which makes the cost-per-year-of-use low, even at this price.
buy all-clad copper core:
Final Thoughts About 3-Ply Vs. 5-Ply Cookware
3-ply vs. 5-ply cookware: it's a question you need to understand before you buy. But the truth is that the number of plies doesn't matter nearly as much as how thick the heating core is and how heavy the cookware is. 5-ply is not automatically thicker and heavier than 3-ply. You have to do more research to understand how the cookware is made and how well it will heat.
For more detailed information about the brands we recommend, check our Cookware page for reviews.
Thanks for reading!
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