The best cookware material really depends on what you want to accomplish. But there are definitely some cookware materials that are better than others, as well as better quality among the types. And there's some cookware you should avoid altogether.
In this article, we take a look at popular cookware materials and discuss what they're great at and (in some cases) not so great at, plus detailed info on heating, using, cleaning, pros and cons, and more. We also have recommendations of our favorite brands.
If you don't know what kind of cookware you should buy, this article will help you figure it out.
Cookware Materials at a Glance (Pros and Cons)
Here are the most common cookware materials at a glance. We get into more detail in the "About" sections below on each cookware type.
Clad Stainless Steel
-Safe at all heat levels
-Versatile all purpose cookware
-Available in many pieces/sets
-Good marriage of even heating and good heat retention.
-Food can stick w/wrong cooking method
-Quality brands are expensive
-Quality brands can be heavy.
Cast Iron and Carbon Steel
-Safe at all heat levels
-Durable (lasts forever!)
-Nonstick when seasoned
-Best for skillets
-Excellent heat retention (great for browning and searing)
-Most brands are affordable.
-Heavy (carbon steel lighter than cast iron, but still heavy)
-Needs to be seasoned
-Heats slowly and unevenly
-Acidic foods and liquids can destroy seasoning.
Enameled Cast Iron
-Safe at all heat levels
-Excellent heat retention (best Dutch oven for braising)
-Great for soups, stews, stocks
-Available in many colors.
-Heats slowly and unevenly
-Quality brands are expensive.
-Safe (steel cooking surface) at all heat levels
-Fastest, most even-heating cookware
-Available in many pieces/sets
-Great for delicate foods, sauces
-Quality brands (2mm thick or more) are heavy
-Needs polishing 2-3x/year
-Beware of cheap knockoffs.
-Inexpensive (seen mostly in restaurants)
-Heats quickly and evenly
-Versatile, good for most uses
-Safe at any heat
-Can impart metallic flavor, esp. to acidic foods
-Not available in sets
-Fairly soft, scratches easily
-May be a cause of Alzheimer's (largely debunked).
-Includes glass, ceramic, Corningware, etc.
-Safe (non-toxic) at any heat
-Best for bakeware.
-Terrible heat conductivity
-Good brands can be expensive.
Nonstick (PTFE and Ceramic)
-Best for skillets but available in sets
-Good for sticky or delicate foods like eggs and fish
-Most brands are inexpensive.
-Can only use low-medium heat
-PTFE emits toxic fumes at 490F
-Only lasts a few years
-PTFE industry pollutes planet
-Both types may have health and safety issues.
-Most has nonstick cooking surface
-If nonstick, see above
-If not nonstick, safe at all heat levels
-Not widely available w/out nonstick cooking surface. for more info, see About section below.
How Do I Choose the Best Cookware Material?
Here are factors to consider when choosing cookware material(s).
Since the basic function of cookware is to heat your food to doneness, heating performance is arguably the most important feature to consider, assuming everything else is equal (safety, aesthetics, durability and so forth).
Our overall recommendation is to buy the heaviest cookware you can comfortably handle.
Here's why: When you buy cookware, you want it to heat evenly (i.e., have good "thermal conductivity") and retain heat fairly well (have good "heat retention"). There's more to it, but this is the simplest description of how most people want their cookware to perform.
Heavy cookware, especially on the bottom where it's in contact with a heat source, will help prevent scorching and hold heat longer and more evenly. This is true for all cookware materials. Even copper, which is the most responsive to changes in temperature, holds heat better when it's thicker.
Different people will have a different definition of what constitutes heavy cookware, and that's fine. The point is to avoid thin, cheap cookware (like this TV infomercial brand) because even though it heats quickly, it heats unevenly, doesn't hold heat, and can easily let your food scorch.
Cheap, thin cookware will also warp, scratch, and fall apart more easily.
When you spend a little more on cookware, regardless of type, this is generally what you're paying for: thicker material that will heat more evenly, hold heat better, and be more of a pleasure to cook with.
The exception is cast iron and to some extent carbon steel, because these materials are thick and heavy by nature, so you don't get better heating by paying a premium. (There are valid reasons to buy expensive cast iron or carbon steel, but better heating is not one of them.)
Type of Stovetop
The type of stovetop really only matters if you have induction, which requires cookware that has a magnetic base. Magnetic cookware includes cast iron, enameled cast iron, carbon steel, and most brands of clad stainless steel. (Standard 300 grade stainless steel is not magnetic, so makers use a magnetic grade on the bottom for induction compatibility. Magnetic stainless isn't as corrosion resistant as non-magnetic grades, so they only use it where it's needed.)
Aluminum and copper aren't magnetic, but some brands have a magnetic base, or inner layer, that allows you to use them on an induction cooktop.
If you have a gas or conventional electric stovetop, any cookware material will be fine.
What Do You Cook?
It probably doesn't need to be said, but it's important to buy cookware that matches how you like to cook.
If you make a lot of soups and stocks, or like to meal prep, you'll need a good-sized stockpot and skillet (or two). Stockpots are best in stainless steel (disc bottom is good enough, you don't need full cladding). A clad stainless skillet is also a great choice for the most versatility.
If you like your food well-seared, you will also want a heavy skillet that retains heat well. Cast iron, a heavy brand of clad stainless, or possibly a cast iron griddle (great for weekend breakfasts, too) are the best choices.
Carbon steel is also an option, but cast iron is better if you can handle the weight. Both cast iron and carbon steel can replace your nonstick cookware (which we strongly recommend).
If you like stir fries, you should invest in a wok. The best ones are carbon steel and they're not expensive.
Even if you don't need any specialty pieces, different cookware materials excel at different tasks, so you don't necessarily want to buy a set of one type of cookware and think it will be enough. (We talk more about buying sets in a minute.)
This also goes without saying, but you want to choose safe cookware.
Safe cookware is non-toxic and stable, meaning it won't release dangerous chemicals and it won't react with food. (Actually, most cookware releases some small amounts of materials, so it's more accurate to say that the substances released by cookware are in tiny amounts and not unsafe for human consumption.)
Though there are many different opinions on the Internet about what constitutes safe cookware, we believe that most standard types of cookware are safe. Stainless steel, seasoned cast iron and carbon steel, enameled cookware, and copper lined with steel or tin are all safe. Bare aluminum is also probably safe to cook with, despite its association with Alzheimer's.
Yes: some cookware materials are more reactive than others (aluminum and bare iron will impart metallic flavors to your food, especially acidic food), and you probably want to avoid very cheap cookware of any type, because who knows what it could contain. But in general, most cookware is safe to use.
Clad stainless is our pick as the safest standard cookware material--meaning usable for most types of cookware.
However, if nickel allergies are a concern, we recommend Hestan NanoBond. It is expensive, but it has the most inert, non-reactive cooking surface on the market (that we are aware of).
The one cookware material we think you should avoid is nonstick cookware, both PTFE and ceramic nonstick. We explain why below (as well as in several other articles on this site).
Aesthetics (What Do You Like?)
A lot of people think it's silly to consider aesthetics in utilitarian objects. But we think finding pleasure in your daily work is a small but important joy, and people should not deprive themselves of it.
This doesn't mean you need to spend a fortune on cookware. But buying cookware that's functional as well as attractive will make cooking more enjoyable.
Give yourself permission to buy "pretty" cookware, as long as it meets all of your other requirements (safe, heats well, durable, etc.).
Most people also want durable cookware material that will hold up to heavy use and last for many years or even decades.
The most durable cookware materials are cast iron, carbon steel, enameled cast iron, and clad stainless steel. Clad stainless steel is our top choice because of its other features: it's versatile, easy to care for, fairly lightweight, non-reactive, doesn't need to be seasoned, and nearly every type of pot and pan is available in clad stainless, from skillets to stock pots to roasting pans to woks (and all are a good choice performance-wise).
Enameled cast iron is also durable and fairly easy to care for, but it's harder to find in every type of pot and pan. It's also heavier, so it's not the best choice for an every piece of cookware you need. We like enameled cast iron for Dutch ovens but think it's impractical for other pieces of cookware (e.g., not necessary for skillets, too heavy for saucepans and stockpots).
Cast iron and carbon steel cookware lasts forever, but both materials require seasoning or they'll rust, and they're not great for all types of pans either, not just because they're heavy, but because liquids and acidic foods can ruin the seasoning layer. This makes them a pain to use for cooking with liquids.
However, cast iron and carbon steel are great for skillets. They work for roasting pans, too, but they're heavy, so we prefer stainless steel (think about lifting that 20-pound turkey out of the oven).
Copper cookware is durable, but it needs to be polished to keep its luster, and it's really expensive.
Aluminum cookware is soft and scratches easily, and if it's got a nonstick coating, then it's even less durable.
Do we even need to mention that nonstick is the opposite of durable? It scratches easily, can't stand high heat or metal utensils, and has an average life span of just 1-5 years. Nonstick--both kinds--is the least durable cookware by a few orders of magnitude.
For all of these reasons, clad stainless steel wins the durability category.
Ease of Use and Cleaning
"Ease of use and cleaning" is mostly about everyday use issues:
Many of these are personal preference, and what one person loves could be someone else's nightmare.
In general, you should buy cookware that's comfortable to hold, easy to maneuver, easy to care for, and a pleasure to cook with. You can't always know all of these things before you buy, especially if you're buying online, but if you give it some thought, you'll have a better chance of getting cookware that's a good fit for you.
You probably won't find "perfect" cookware. You may have to live with small annoyances if cookware mostly has the features you want. (For example, a lot of people hate the All-Clad handles, but live with them because the cookware is so great in every other aspect.)
One last caution: Being easy to clean shouldn't be your main concern. If it is, you'll end up with nonstick cookware, which is not durable, won't last, and may have serious health issues. And all types of cookware are fairly easy to clean when used properly. Sure, cooked-on gunk happens, but there's an easy solution for it: soaking.
This is also a personal category, but how much you want to spend will influence your decision, especially if you're on a tight budget.
A lot of people on a tight budget make the mistake of buying large sets of cheap, poor quality cookware, quite often aluminum with a nonstick coating. They think they're getting a great deal because they got a lot of pieces for one low price.
This isn't really how it works, though. If you're on a tight budget, you're better off saving up for a small set of good quality clad stainless steel, or buying an inexpensive Lodge skillet ($20) while you save up for the cookware you really want.
You don't have to pay All-Clad money for good clad stainless cookware. There are brands similar to All-Clad in quality, but because they're made in China, they cost half as much (maybe less). We'll talk more about this below in the section on clad stainless cookware.
As for warranty, most good quality cookware comes with a lifetime warranty. You should avoid any cookware that doesn't have a decent warranty (and buying a reputable brand is a good idea if you want to make sure that the warranty is honored).
Other Cookware Considerations
In addition to choosing the best cookware materials, here are some other issues you may want to think about before buying.
Sets Vs. Open Stock
Sets can be a great way to get a lot of cookware at once for a lower price, but they're not always the best choice.
Also, not all types of cookware are available in whole sets. If you want matching cookware, you're probably stuck with clad stainless steel or aluminum nonstick. Clad stainless steel is the better choice, especially if you buy a good quality brand.
You may find some small sets of enameled cast iron--Le Creuset makes a few--but enameled cast iron is heavy, so it's not a good choice for large pieces like stock pots (and probably why Le Creuset doesn't include one in the set).
It's also important to know that one type of cookware isn't great for everything. As versatile as clad stainless is and as much as we love it, it's not the best choice for everything. For searing a steak, you want cast iron (or carbon steel if you can't handle the weight of cast iron). And some people insist that you need a nonstick pan for eggs, but well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel also work just fine (stainless will work too if you get your technique down).
For braises, an enameled cast iron Dutch oven is the best choice. The heavy cast iron retains heat and holds in liquid for excellent results, and the enamel ensures the braising liquids aren't stripping any seasoning.
These are just two of the pieces that you may want to own in addition to a set of stainless cookware.
We're not saying that you shouldn't buy a set. Sets can be great, if you'll use all the pieces and if all the pieces are large enough for you. The larger the set, the more "filler" pieces it tends to have. So be sure to check the piece sizes before you decide on a set.
In general, here are some guidelines for buying cookware sets:
Cladding Vs. Coating
Before we get into all the cookware materials and what each one is best for, we want to talk about cladding and coating. It's a simple distinction, but not one that everyone understands.
Why is it important to know the difference between cladding and coating? It can help you have a better understanding of cookware in general and a better idea about what you want to buy (and why).
Cladded cookware has different metals fused together. The most common type of cladded cookware is clad stainless steel, which has an aluminum and/or copper core and a stainless steel exterior. This configuration takes advantage of the best properties of each metal: the even heating but soft aluminum is on the interior, while the durable but poorly heating stainless is on the exterior. Many people think this is the best cookware design on the market (including us).
Another type of cladded cookware is copper cookware with a tin or stainless cooking surface. Copper is too reactive to use it for daily cooking, but its heating properties are exceptional, so it is typically clad with steel or tin to give it a safe cooking surface. Some newer styles of copper cookware also contain a layer of magnetic steel so you can use them on an induction cooktop.
Still other types of cladded cookware include copper tri-ply. This has a cooking layer of stainless steel, an interior of aluminum, and an exterior of copper. The copper exterior can vary considerably in thickness among brands, and sometimes (often) is just an electroplated coating. (If you buy tri-ply copper, be sure you know what you're getting and don't overpay for what is essentially aluminum cookware with a copper-colored exterior.
Coated cookware has a base material, often aluminum, that's been sprayed or otherwise treated with a thin coating. The coating typically doesn't add to (or detract from) the heating properties but serves a different purpose.
The most common example of coated cookware is nonstick (both kinds). Most nonstick cookware is an aluminum base that's covered with a relatively thin layer of nonstick coating. Both PTFE and ceramic nonstick coatings are applied by spraying, then the cookware is "cured" (baked) until the coating hardens. Nonstick coatings make cookware easy to clean, but they aren't very durable, and the nonstick properties wear out rather quickly--usually within a couple of years, and often even less time than that.
Another type of coated cookware is enameled cast iron. The enamel is a layer of hard ceramic that's applied to the cast iron to make it less reactive so it doesn't need to be seasoned. This enamel is extremely hard and resistant to all types of corrosion, but it can chip and crack. Even so, enameled cast iron is one of the most durable types of cookware you can buy.
Note here that the enamel used on traditional cast iron is not the same as ceramic nonstick coatings. Enamel has been around for centuries, while nonstick ceramic was invented in 2007. They are both silicone-based, but ceramic nonstick contains additional materials that make it more nonstick; many people believe enameled cast iron is nonstick, but it is only semi-nonstick at best.
What we're calling "specialty pieces" are those that are almost never included in a set, so you have to buy them separately. Most cooks want a few of these pieces, which is why you almost never get everything you need in a set (no matter how large).
Specialty pieces include woks, grill pans, roasting pans, pasta pentolas, chef's pans (or "everything" pans), deep sauté pans, sauciérs, and more.
Along with these, you may want to include cast iron, carbon steel, and nonstick skillets, as many cooks feel their cookware collection isn't complete without at least one of these (we recommend cast iron).
Where Is the Cookware Made?
It's nice to know where your cookware comes from.
The vast majority of cookware on the market today is made in China, including popular brands like Cuisinart, Tramontina, Calphalon, Anolon, Hestan, Viking, Green Pan, and some types of All-Clad (nonstick, as well as the lids for clad stainless). Being made in China does not automatically mean cookware is poor quality. There are a few brands of cookware made in China that we really like and recommend. But if you're buying Chinese-made cookware, it's best to stick with a known brand if you want to ensure you're getting good quality.
Several brands of cookware are still made in the USA, including All-Clad, Heritage Steel, 360, Lodge, and many more, including several artisan brands of copper and cast iron. These brands tend to be better quality than Chinese-made cookware (sometimes just slightly), but they also tend to be more expensive. Check out our article on American-made cookware for more information.
Some high quality brands of cookware are made in Europe. Demeyere, one of our favorite brands, is made in Belgium. Fissler is made in Germany. Scan Pan, a high end nonstick brand, is made in Denmark. European brands also tend to be expensive, but the quality is typically very good.
About Stainless Steel Cookware
Clad stainless steel is our choice for the best cookware material. It's safe, durable, easy to care for (yes, despite horror stories to the contrary), and when good quality, has great heating performance. For most people, clad stainless cookware is their daily go-to cookware material.
Full cladding vs. disc cladding: Probably the most important thing to know about stainless cookware is that it comes in two basic varieties: fully clad and disc clad (also called "impact bonded).
Fully clad cookware has a heating core (aluminum and/or copper) throughout the pan, all the way up to the rim. Disc-clad cookware has the heating core bonded to the base of the pan; the sides are one layer of stainless steel.
You can tell if cookware is disc clad by the "seam" that runs around the bottom where the disc base was welded onto the pan:
Most Americans prefer fully clad cookware, and in many cases it's the better choice. Disc-clad cookware is more popular in Europe, where there are several high quality brands of it, including Fissler, Sitram, and Demeyere Atlantis. These are all high quality brands, but not popular in the US, so that's all we'll say about them for now.
Most of the disc-clad cookware in the American market is cheap, made in China, and mediocre quality. This includes brands like Cuisinart Chef's Classic and some lines of Tramontina. If you're wondering why a no-name brand of clad stainless (or even a name brand) is so cheap, look for the seam: it's probably disc-clad.
Pros and Cons of Clad Stainless Steel Cookware
Basic cookware sets (e.g., skillets, sauté pan, sauce pan, stock pot).
Clad stainless is the most versatile, all-around cookware. You can use it for just about any cooking task. If you can only have one type of cookware material, clad stainless steel is the way to go.
Clad stainless also has the biggest variety of sets and open stock pieces.
What to Look For When Buying Clad Stainless Cookware
When buying clad stainless steel, it's best to go with a known brand. It doesn't have to be an expensive brand, but it should be a brand you've heard of. If you go with an unknown brand, it could be cheaply made and too thin to heat well. (This can be the case with known brands, too, so it's best to know what you're looking for before you buy.)
It's frustrating for us that few clad stainless makers list the thickness of their cookware. Thickness, particularly of the heating core (interior layers) is the most important factor in heating performance. So buyers are often flying blind when choosing clad stainless cookware.
How thick is thick enough?
For fully clad stainless cookware, All-Clad D3 is the gold standard. It is 2.6mm thick, with an aluminum layer that's 1.7mm thick. Any thinner, and you can have issues with scorching and poor heat retention.
You can get clad cookware quite a bit thicker. The Demeyere Proline skillet has an aluminum layer almost 4mm thick--more than twice as thick as All-Clad D3. The performance is the best in the clad stainless world, but it's almost as heavy as cast iron. Thus, All-Clad is a good compromise for many cooks.
Both Demeyere Industry 5 and Misen stainless are 3mm thick. This added thickness results in more even heating and better heat retention, without adding a lot more weight than D3. Both are an excellent compromise if you can handle heavier cookware than D3.
Disc-clad cookware needs to have a considerably thicker heating core to perform as well as fully clad pans. You want an aluminum base that's 3-4mm thick. If the disc is too thin, or doesn't completely cover the bottom of the pan (and ideally extend slightly up the sides), you're going to have problems with uneven heating.
One more point about clad cookware: Full cladding matters most for skillets and sauciérs. That is, pans that do not rely on liquids to move heat around, and pans that need to respond quickly to temperature changes.
Stock pots and sauce pans can provide great performance with disc cladding. The cladding--especially on the stock pot--doesn't even need to be 3mm thick; a thinner disc will perform just fine, if the pot is used exclusively for liquids. (Liquids create convection currents so they heat evenly without full cladding.)
This doesn't matter so much if you're getting a set, but if you're buying open stock, you can save money by buying cheaper stock pots and sauce pans (if you're using them exclusively for liquids, like making pasta, rice, soups, etc.), and saving up to invest in a high-end skillet or sauté pan (again, we highly recommend the Demeyere Proline).
Good design is also important. Look for comfortable handles, stainless lids, skillets with a lot of flat cooking surface, helper handles on large pieces, and anything else you like in your cookware.
Steel grade is also important. 18/10 is the most common and best. If you want even more corrosion resistance, 316Ti is better, as found in Heritage Steel cookware.
Since it's so hard to know what you're getting when you're buying clad stainless steel cookware, we strongly recommend that you go with a brand recommended by us or someone else whose opinion you trust.
Cooking With and Caring For Clad Stainless Steel Pans
Stainless steel has an unearned reputation for being sticky. It can be, but if you learn the right techniques for cooking with it, this is a rare occurrence--and when it happens, you can soak the pan in warm soapy water for as long as it takes to life the mess.
To cook with stainless steel:
- Heat the bare pan on medium high.
- Add enough cooking oil to thinly coat the pan surface.
- Let oil heat until just shimmering; if it smokes, it's too hot (and you should start over).
- Add your food and lower the heat to medium or medium-low.
- Let food cook undisturbed for a few minutes, then test it: if it doesn't come away easily from the pan, let it go a little longer.
- Once the food forms a crust, it releases from the pan naturally. And voila, no stuck-on mess.
This won't always work, but it works most of the time.
Stainless steel can stand up to metal utensils and high heat as well as abrasive scrubby pads and cleansers. Don't be afraid to use elbow grease if you have to to get a pan clean.
Best Clad Stainless Steel Cookware Brands
Best fully clad brand overall: Demeyere Industry 5. 3mm aluminum heating core, not too heavy but heavy enough to perform very well. Also has a rivetless cooking surface. 18/10 steel, made in Belgium. $$$
Best lighter fully clad brand: All-Clad D3. Lighter than Demeyere Industry 5, but still heavy enough to perform well. 18/10 steel, made in USA. Heritage Steel is also an excellent brand, but has fewer open stock pieces available. $$$
Best budget fully clad brand: Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad. Almost identical to All-Clad in build and performance. 18/10 steel, made in China and Brazil (equal quality from both countries). $$
Best budget disc-clad brand: Cuisinart Professional. If you're on a tight budget, this is a good set to get. Very few open stock pieces available. Made in China and possibly not 18/10 (or even 18/8).
About Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Cookware
Cast iron and carbon steel have rather poor thermal conductivity: that is, they heat rather slowly and unevenly. But if you are patient and willing to wait for a pan to heat all the way through (can take several minutes), you'll be rewarded with the best heat retention around: both cast iron and carbon steel hang onto heat extremely wel, making them great for searing (thick juicy steaks with a crispy crust) and deep frying (if the pan is deep enough to safely hold oil).
We lump cast iron and carbon steel together because they are similar materials, with similar heating properties and both prone to rusting, so they both require seasoning. Seasoning is not hard, but it takes a little practice to get the hang of it. We think it's well worth the effort, especially if you want to avoid nonstick chemicals: well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel are almost as slippery as Teflon (PTFE), and much safer to use.
You can read more in our articles on cast iron and carbon steel--see our Cookware page.
Pros and Cons
Skillets. You would have a hard time finding entire sets of either material, and they are really best for skillets. Many cooks like them for all-purpose cooking, and they will work for this once you get the hang of cooking with them (mainly the patience to let them heat all the way through before cooking). But because they require seasoning, they're heavy, and they aren't great for liquids, we recommend them as your go-to for high heat searing and possibly deep frying if deep enough to hold enough oil (like the Lodge pan pictured above).
Both materials also make great egg pans if you're trying to avoid nonstick chemicals (which we recommend). For eggs, our preference is carbon steel because they're easier to handle and you don't need the extreme heat retention of cast iron.
Woks. Carbon steel is the classic material for woks, with good reason. They're inexpensive, last forever, and are one of the best materials for stir fries.
What to Look For When Buying Cast Iron and Carbon Steel
With cast iron, you don't have to look for (or guess about) the thickness and heating performance. Cast iron is all thick: it has to be, because it's brittle, so thin cast iron can crack easily and wouldn't be safe to use for cookware.
Carbon steel contains less carbon than cast iron (somewhat ironically given its name), so it is less brittle. This means it's thinner and lighter. Carbon steel comes in different gauges that range from about 1.5-3mm thick, and the thicker carbon steel is almost as heavy as cast iron; thick carbon steel will have better heat retention.
You can spend a lot of money on both cast iron and carbon steel. Some of the boutique brands on the market make exquisite and beautiful pans; they are also generally smoother than Lodge, so will require less seasoning to get that ultra-smooth, nonstick surface that makes cast iron and carbon steel so great to cook with (and no worries about dangerous nonstick toxins).
But the expensive brands offer no better cooking performance than cheaper brands. Cast iron and carbon steel is all the same, so no matter how much you spend, it's all going to heat slowly and retain heat extremely well.
There are reasons to buy more expensive brands: smoothness is one, another is aesthetics. But you'll pay hundreds more for these features, and frankly, we don't think they're worth it unless you have an unlimited budget.
Cooking With and Caring for Cast Iron and Carbon Steel
These pans need to be seasoned, which means "baking" them at a high temperature with a thin coating of oil. The oil changes into polymers (sort of like Teflon, but not toxic) that coat the pan and create a smooth, nearly nonstick cooking surface.
Even if a pan comes pre-seasoned, it typically needs a few treatments before it reaches optimal smoothness.
We're not going to get in to how to season your cast iron and carbon steel pans. We think this is the best article on how to season cast iron (works for carbon steel too), plus there are tons of YouTube videos about it. Your pans should also come with instructions.
Once seasoned, cast iron and carbon steel are easy to care for. They should clean up easily most of the time, and you can scrub them and use a small amount of soap to get them clean. Once washed, the most important thing is to dry them thoroughly: do not let them air dry or they could rust. A lot of people like to set them on a burner for a few minutes to evaporate the moisture. Then you can wipe them with a then layer of oil to seal the pan, readying it for the next time you use it.
Best Cast Iron Cookware
Best basic brand: Lodge. You can get a 10" skillet for about $20. It will last forever, and it's made in the USA. It will require seasoning and a lot of use to get that smooth nonstick surface, but if you want that out of the box, you'll have to pay hundreds more.
Best boutique brand: Field. One reason to pay more for Field is that these skillets are a little bit lighter, and they aren't as pricey as some other boutique brands.
Best Carbon Steel Cookware
Best basic brand: Vollrath or Matfer-Bourgeat. Both are basic brands and have the old-school carbon steel design with long flat handles, fairly shallow sides, and lots of flat cooking surface. We like these brands because the handles are welded on, so there are no rivets to collect gunk. Vollrath is made in the US, Matfer Bourgeat is made in France.
Carbon steel is a little more expensive than cast iron, but you can get a good carbon steel skillet for less than $60.
Best boutique brand: Northwest Skillet Company. You'll more than $200 for this American-made skillet, but it's beauty may be worth it to you. It also has a very different shape than traditional carbon steel pans:
About Enameled Cast Iron Cookware
Enameled cast iron cookware is safe, durable, and non-reactive cookware. It is also heavy, so it's not a great choice for entire sets. And it's expensive, so you should only buy it where you need it.
Enamel is a glass-based coating applied to cast iron to make it more durable, less reactive, and eliminate the need for seasoning. Enameling has been around for thousands of years and has been used to add durability to countless objects besides cookware. It is a different material than the ceramic coating found on nonstick cookware (like GreenPan). It is semi-nonstick, but not fully so.
Enameled cast iron has a wide range of price and quality. You can spend $50 on a Dutch oven, or you can spend 10 times that much. There are pros and cons to both inexpensive and high-end enameled cast iron.
Pros and Cons
Dutch ovens. Enameled cast iron is the ideal material for braising, soups, stews, stocks, and all low-and-slow cooking and cooking with liquids. These Dutch ovens can also do double duty as large sauce pans and smallish stock pots. It's an extremely versatile piece of cookware that most cooks should have in their collection.
You can buy enameled cast iron skillets, but the enameled coating isn't necessary for frying, and is actually less nonstick than a well-seasoned bare cast iron or carbon steel skillet.
You can use enameled cast iron for sauce pans and stock pots, but it's also not necessary, and clad stainless steel is just as durable and lighter weight.
Cooking With and Caring For Enameled Cast Iron
Enameled cast iron is easy to care for. The enamel is durable and can stand up to heat, metal utensils, and scrubbing. But many people avoid metal utensils so as not to scratch the enamel, and avoid abrasive scrubby pads for the same reason.
If you don't want to use abrasive pads to clean, it's fine to let enameled cast iron soak. Do note that some brands have a bare cast iron rim, so you should avoid letting that sit in water as it can rust (although the rust should wipe off easily.
Contrary to popular belief, the enamel used on cast iron is not nonstick. It tends to be fairly easy to clean, but don't expect nonstick performance, and don't treat it with the delicacy you need to use with nonstick cookware.
What to Look For When Buying Enameled Cast Iron Cookware
Most enameled cast iron Dutch ovens at all price points get great ratings. There are reasons to spend a lot on a top brand like Le Creuset, such as resistance to cracks and grazing in the enamel, being slightly lighter than cheaper brands, aesthetics, and coming in dozens of colors, shapes, and sizes.
However, you can buy about 8 Lodge or Tramontina Dutch ovens for about what you'd spend on one Le Creuset, and the durability is still quite good.
Being cast iron, they're all going to heat about the same, so it's the enamel you're paying for. It's up to you how much you want to pay for higher quality Le Creuset enamel and styling.
Size: Dutch ovens come in several sizes, from 2 quarts up to 9 quarts. 5-7 quarts is the best size for most cooks. Just be sure you're getting the size you want.
Best Enameled Cast Iron Cookware
Best overall: Le Creuset. Best design and most colors, most durable enamel, and the lightest cast iron Dutch ovens on the market (though still heavy). The enamel is also more nonstick than other brands. But all of these advantages may not be worth paying more than $300 for a 5 quart pot. Made in France.
Best budget brand: Tramontina or Lodge. We like Tramontina for its straight sides and larger amount of flat cooking surface, but we like Lodge because it's a nicer looking pot. Both get overwhelmingly positive reviews. Both brands are made in China.
There are many other budget brands to choose from, and they're probably all about the same. One risk of buying a no-name brand is that there could be small amounts of lead, arsenic, or other toxins in the enamel. So cheap is fine, but really cheap may not be.
About Copper Cookware
Copper cookware is the traditional choice for professional chefs, especially French chefs (many high end copper brands are made in France, like Mauviel and Matfer-Bourgeat). Julia Child famously used copper cookware that was 3mm thick (hard to find today). It is the most expensive cookware material on the market, with single pans costing $200 or more and sets rarely less than $1500.
Copper has the highest thermal conductivity rating of all cookware materials. This means that it heats very evenly and quickly, and is extremely responsive to changes in temperature (meaning it has low heat retention).
Copper heats roughly twice as fast as aluminum, so 1.5mm of copper will heat about the same as 3mm of aluminum.
Copper is reactive with food, so copper cookware has to be clad with a non-reactive metal. The traditional cooking surface of copper cookware is tin, but tin wears out rather quickly, so most copper cookware today is lined with stainless steel. When the cooking surface is steel, all the same safety, durability, and non-reactive properties of clad stainless cookware also apply to copper. (A lot of review sites get this wrong, and will claim that copper cookware is "reactive" or even "toxic". It is not.)
There are some pure copper pieces, but they are for very specific uses such as making jam and whipping egg whites. They are not meant to be used as general cookware. No standard copper cookware is unlined.
Copper also oxidizes--that is, it gets a dull brown coating with age. The coating doesn't affect cooking performance, but if you want to keep your copper cookware beautiful, you need to polish it at least twice a year. This adds to both upkeep and expense.
Still, copper cookware is beautiful, and its agile, responsive cooking performance makes it a pleasure to use.
You can also buy tri-ply copper, with an external layer of copper, an aluminum heating core, and a stainless cooking surface. This is a cheaper way to get the look of copper at a lower price. Tri-ply can be hard to choose, though, because many brands have just an electro-plated copper coating, not thick enough to provide any real copper performance. If electroplated, the copper finish can come off easily. Mauviel makes a good quality tri-ply copper line, with a decent layer of copper, but it's expensive. If you want the look of copper without the high cost, though, tri-ply can be a good choice, but many brands are going to heat like aluminum, not like copper (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).
Some cookware is just copper-colored and contains no real copper at all. (We are amazed every time we see a review site recommending one of these brands as "copper.") Most of these are inexpensive nonstick brands, but there are others, too. for more information on all types of copper and "copper" cookware, see our Guide to the Best Copper Cookware.
Pros and Cons
Sets, skillets, all purpose cookware. If you are a serious cook and into making delicate sauces, candies, or other delicate foods, at least one copper sauciér is a must-have. Copper skillets are great for most kitchen tasks, too, although cast iron is a better choice for high-heat searing (and much less expensive, as well).
Copper is more of a want than a need, but if you have the budget, it will perform as well as a set of clad stainless cookware (better, actually). But for most cooks, the differences won't be all that noticeable.
Remember, if you have an induction cooktop, most copper cookware won't work with it.
What to Look For When Buying Copper Cookware
First and foremost, you want real copper: there are a lot of copper-plated and even copper-colored brands on the market that contain little copper, or even none at all. Real copper cookware is expensive, with small sets of 1.5mm copper (the thinnest gauge you can get) starting at more than $700.
The good news about real copper cookware is that the makers know it's purchased by serious cooks. So unlike clad stainless, the copper content is given by nearly every maker. In the case of many brands, like Mauviel, it's in the name: Mauviel M'Heritage 150 has a 1.5mm copper layer, while Mauviel M'Heritage 250 has a 2.5mm copper layer.
2.5mm copper is excellent cookware, but as we said, it's really a want, not a need. Even 1.5mm copper will heat more evenly than most brands of clad stainless steel (including All-Clad). It's really up to you and your budget what to get.
Copper cookware traditionally has cast iron handles, but you can find handles in bronze and stainless steel, too. Any handle material is fine--get the one you think is prettiest, most practical, or has the best price.
As with clad stainless steel, look for design that you like and looks comfortable to handle. Real copper cookware is heavy--it's lighter than cast iron but considerably heavier than most clad stainless--so be sure you're up. to handling it.
Cooking With and Caring For Copper Cookware
Cooking with copper basically involves being careful with the heat level because it's so responsive to temperature changes. You may want to use lower heat than you usually do and use shorter preheating times because it heats so fast. Keep a close eye on food to ensure it doesn't burn.
If the cooking surface is stainless steel, you treat the cookware as you would clad stainless cookware: you can use metal utensils and follow the cooking instructions for stainless: preheat, add oil, add food, let food form a crust before you move it. Easy peasy.
The exterior is a different story, of course. Copper oxidizes quickly, meaning it forms a dull brown layer, so you have to polish it to keep it shiny and beautiful. You don't have to, as it performs fine with oxidation, but why buy copper if you're not going to keep it beautiful?
Best Copper Cookware
As we said, any brand of copper cookware is a good choice. We like Mauviel because it's beautiful and is one of the most widely available French brands in the US.
If you really want to go all out, there are some boutique brands made here in the US, including Duparquet, Brooklyn Copper, and Hammersmith. This is hand-made cookware at its very finest, no expense spared. Most of it has a tin lining (with silver also available), which wears down and requires re-tinning every few years. This is another expense of owning traditional copper pans, but if you're even considering it, then the cost probably isn't an issue for you.
About Aluminum Cookware (Non-Coated)
Non-coated aluminum is more commonly used in restaurants than by home cooks. It's typically inexpensive yet heats evenly, which are both good qualities for restaurant cookware. It's also light and easy to handle, even when it's thick enough to provide decent heat retention.
Non-coated aluminum cookware is rarely, if ever, seen in sets. You can buy skillets, sauce pans, stock pots, and more, but because they are generally produced for the restaurant industry, they're not packaged for sale to home cooks.
Most non-coated aluminum cookware is good quality, especially for the price. But aluminum is soft and scratches easily, so it's not the best choice for durability.
It's also very utilitarian looking, so it's not going to be the prettiest cookware you can display in your kitchen.
And of course, there's the association with Alzheimer's, which turns many people away from aluminum. This is largely debunked, but the bigger reason you may not want bare aluminum cookware is that it can impart a metallic flavor to your foods, especially acidic foods.
Overall, not a typical choice for home cooks. And it doesn't work with induction, so if you have an induction cooktop, most aluminum cookware won't work.
Pros and Cons
For home cooks, aluminum works best in a large stock pot: you see them all the time in restaurants.
It's not really the best choice for any type of home cooking, unless you're really on a tight budget.
What to Look for When Buying Non-Coated Aluminum Cookware
Best (Non-Coated) Aluminum Cookware
If you're looking for non-coated aluminum, your primary concern is probably price--so look for cheap brands.
If you want an aluminum stock pot, then look for the right size, comfortable handles, and a snug fitting lid (if no lid is included, keep looking).
Best Non-Coated Aluminum Cookware
We aren't familiar with non-coated aluminum cookware and can't really offer any brands. If you really want this cookware, we recommend going to a site like webstaurantstore.com, where you'll find the best deals.
About 100% Stone, Ceramic, and Glass Cookware
100% stone, ceramic, and glass cookware is cookware that contains no metals. We lump them together because they all perform very similarly, even though the materials aren't the same.
Note that we do not include "stoneware" that's a nonstick coating on an aluminum pan. This is a common misperception about what stoneware cookware is--but it is not nonstick cookware. See our article about Stoneware Cookware for more information.
None of them are great for stovetop cooking because they don't conduct heat very well. However, they make great bakeware, and many types can be used on the stovetop, they just aren't the best choice.
Most people who use ceramic and glass cookware are concerned about the safety of other types of cookware. A lot of people believe stainless steel is unsafe (it is not).
It is also not induction compatible, of course (because it's not magnetic), so if you have induction, you can only use this in your oven, not on your stovetop.
We aren't big fans of stoneware cookware for the stovetop, but for baking, they're a great choice. Their insulating properties allow delicate batters and doughs to cook through without burning on the exterior.
Pros and Cons
Baking. We do not recommend 100% for stovetop cooking.
What to Look For When Buying 100% Stone/Ceramic/Glass Cookware
It's all much the same, so just make sure it's 100% stone or glass and not coated aluminum.
It's also important to buy a reputable brand because no-name brands can contain toxins like lead and arsenic.
You can spend a lot or a little on 100% stoneware or glass. We like fairly inexpensive brands like Corningware and Pyrex. Higher-end brands like Emile Henry are beautiful, but probably won't perform any better than a $20 Pyrex pan.
Cooking With and Caring For 100% Stoneware and Ceramic Cookware
Our recommendation is to use 100% stone, ceramic, and glass for bakeware because it has such poor heat transfer properties.
The exterior layer tends to be pretty durable, so you can scrub it, soak it, and use metal utensils on it.
As with enameled cast iron, it's important to know that no 100% stoneware falls in the nonstick category. Ceramic nonstick is a different material. Although sticking should be mostly mild and clean up easily, don't expect messes to wash right off.
Best 100% Stone/Ceramic Cookware
About Nonstick Cookware
People love nonstick cookware. Even with all the recent bad press about PFOA and "forever chemicals," people still want nonstick cookware.
Its primary appeal is that it's easy to clean. Never mind that you have to use low heat, non-metal utensils, avoid cooking spray, and never, ever scrub. And also never mind that it doesn't brown food very well for two reasons: one, you can't use high heat, and two, the slippery surface is not conducive to browning.
Nonstick cookware comes in two materials: PTFE (also known as Teflon) and ceramic nonstick. PTFE has been around since the 1950s and is the traditional nonstick material. Ceramic nonstick was invented in 2007 and was hailed as a safe replacement for PTFE.
We don't recommend either type of nonstick cookware. PTFE, even if labeled "PFOA-free," is toxic when heated above about 490F, which is an easy temp to reach if you're not paying attention, even on a medium setting. And even worse, the nonstick cookware industry has been dumping "forever chemicals" into the water supply for more than 60 years. There are still very few regulations against it, so it continues with "GenX," the "safer" chemical that's replaced PFOA. But if you look up GenX, you'll find it has all the problems as PFOA, and is just as bad for living creatures and the environment.
Ceramic nonstick cookware is probably safer, but it's so new that there's not a lot of research about it, so we just don't know for sure. Ceramic nonstick contains substances called titanium dioxide nanoparticles that have been associated with some serious health issues. It's unknown at this time if they're safe for use in ceramic nonstick cookware.
But just as important is that ceramic nonstick isn't really nonstick: honest manufacturers will tell you that you need to use some oil for best results. Furthermore, the nonstick properties tend to last a much shorter time than those of PTFE. This is true for all types of ceramic nonstick, including upscale brands like Caraway and Our Place (the Always pan).
So with nonstick, those are your two choices: a nonstick surface that actually works (though typically only for a few years) but is poisoning the planet and is toxic at high temps, or a safer nonstick that doesn't really work all that well and could be unsafe for human use.
Furthermore, since both types are notoriously short-lived, especially when compared to the lifetime use of stainless steel, cast iron, carbon steel, and copper, they are a huge issue for landfills.
Using nonstick cookware kind of automatically makes you a poor steward of the planet.
For all of these reasons, we don't recommend buying nonstick cookware. But we know there are many of you out there who don't want to give it up (but please try carbon steel or cast iron!), so here are our recommendations.
Pros and Cons
Skillets. Please don't buy sets of nonstick cookware! You really only need the nonstick surface on a skillet, and the pans wear out so quickly, they are a real landfill issue. If you must have a nonstick pan, just one skillet is all you really need (but please give cast iron or carbon steel a try).
Our recommendation for nonstick cookware is to buy cheap, but not too cheap. They don't last, so you don't want to spend a lot. But if you go too cheap, the pan will have terrible heating properties and you'll hate it (read comments on our site for GraniteStone--PTFE--and Gotham Steel pans--ceramic nonstick--for an example of this).
Best PTFE Nonstick Cookware
Anolon Nouvelle Luxe: It has a cast aluminum body almost 3mm thick, plus an induction heating base with more aluminum and a 0.5mm layer of copper. This pan has better heating properties than nonstick pans that cost three times as much. Unfortunately it has all the bad features of a PTFE pan as well, but if you must have nonstick, this is the pan to buy.
For more information, see our Anolon Cookware Review.
Best Ceramic Nonstick Cookware
GreenPan: GreenPan is the original ceramic nonstick brands. The cookware is good quality but still very affordable. GreenPan makes dozens of lines of cookware, some of it induction compatible. See our GreenPan Review for more information.
There are many other brands of ceramic nonstick to choose from, so if you can't find a GreenPan product you like, there are a lot of options.
Avoid very cheap brands, like Gotham Steel and other red "copper" infomercial brands, which are cheap and flimsy, as well as upscale brands like Caraway and Our Place, which are overpriced and won't last any longer or provide better heating than a GreenPan.
About Anodized Aluminum Cookware
Anodized aluminum is aluminum that's been treated to have a durable, stable finish. Anodized aluminum is non-reactive and stronger than stainless steel.
You can tell anodized aluminum by its dark, matte color.
The vast majority of anodized aluminum cookware has a nonstick cooking surface (see Anolon Nouvelle Luxe above for an example of this). We find it incredibly frustrating that many cookware review sites discuss anodized aluminum cookware without mentioning that the cookware has a PTFE cooking surface. This is not "anodized aluminum cookware," it's PTFE cookware with an anodized aluminum exterior!
A few brands of anodized aluminum cookware has a stainless steel cooking surface. The now discontinued All-Clad LTD2 is an example of one. Viking also makes a set with a stainless cooking surface (it's one of the few Viking products we really like).
Thus, real anodized aluminum cookware--which is 100% anodized aluminum, including the cooking surface--is rare. Lloyd's is the closest we know of, and they use some sort of proprietary, water-based nonstick coating, so even their pans aren't 100% anodized aluminum.
There may be 100% anodized aluminum cookware available, but we don't know of any.
Since we don't know of any, this is all we'll say about anodized aluminum cookware.
Final Thoughts on the Best Cookware Materials
The best cookware material really depends on what you want to accomplish.
We recommend clad stainless steel for sets because it's the most versatile and durable type of cookware. Stainless is great for skillets, sauce pans, stock pots, sauciérs, chef pans, and more: most of it is light enough to handle easily, but heavy enough to provide even heating and good heat retention.
We recommend cast iron or carbon steel for high-heat searing (steaks), eggs, and other nonstick cooking tasks. (Either will work, but cast iron has better heat retention for better browning, and carbon steel is lighter and faster to heat through for eggs.)
Finally, we recommend enameled cast iron for Dutch ovens, which are great for braises and other liquid cooking (soups, stews, stocks). A Dutch oven can also double as a large sauce pan or a small stock pot--a very versatile piece! Clad stainless Dutch ovens will work, but they can't retain heat like cast iron.
Copper is also great all-around cookware, but it's a want, not a need.
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