How do you pick cookware? How do you know what's right for you? We can help! Start here for an overview, then check out our cookware archives for more detailed articles and reviews.
Example: Tramontina Professional Aluminum Fry Pan (nonstick)
Pros: Lightweight, inexpensive, excellent heating properties (if thick enough)
Cons: Scratches easily, should not cook on bare aluminum because it's a neurotoxin, not induction compatible unless paired with a steel plate (such as T-fal Professional skillet).
Typical Uses: Inexpensive non-coated cookware (used mostly in restaurants), as a base for nonstick-coated cookware, and as an interior for clad stainless cookware.
Aluminum is by far the most popular type of cookware in the world. It's an inexpensive metal that provides great heating properties, so it is found in many different types of cookware, including nonstick cookware, clad stainless cookware, and very inexpensive, non-coated aluminum cookware (used mostly in restaurants).
We do not recommend bare aluminum cookware for home use. Aluminum reacts with acidic foods (like tomato sauce), and there is some evidence that aluminum ingestion is associated with Alzheimer's.
There are thousands of brands and types of aluminum cookware on the market. One of our favorites is All-Clad Master Chef. It's their least expensive line and offers better heating properties than their clad stainless due to a higher aluminum content.
Aluminum (Hard Anodized)
Pros: More durable than non-anodized aluminum, lightweight, excellent heating properties
Cons: More expensive than non-anodized aluminum, can't be put in dishwasher, darkens permanently with use, not induction compatible unless paired with a stainless plate.
Typical Uses: As an exterior for nonstick cookware, as an exterior for stainless cookware.
Anodizing is an electrochemical process that converts the metal surface into a decorative, durable, corrosion-resistant, anodic oxide finish. Aluminum is ideally suited to anodizing, although other nonferrous metals, such as magnesium and titanium, also can be anodized (from this website).
Since the anodizing actually changes the composition of the outer layer and is not a coating, it will never chip or peel off. Anodized aluminum is actually more durable than stainless steel!
Is there a difference between "anodized" and "hard-anodized" aluminum? Maybe. The process is the same, but the hard-anodized may have a thicker finish than the anodized. However, these are probably used more as marketing terms than as references to the actual composition. Just remember that any anodized aluminum is going to be stronger, more durable, and more corrosion resistant than non-anodized aluminum.
Anodized aluminum has a dark, matte finish that tends to get darker with use--so if you want your cookware shiny, this is not the product for you. Anodized aluminum is also not safe for dishwashers, as the detergents will permanently stain the anodized surface.
Despite these drawbacks, anodized aluminum cookware has a number of great features. It usually has a thicker aluminum layer than clad stainless, which only has aluminum on the interior. This means that anodized aluminum cookware is going to have better heating properties (that is, faster and more even) than most clad stainless cookware. In fact, we recommend All-Clad LTD2 hard anodized cookware, which you can find for about the same or less than All-Clad D3 (clad stainless). If you don't care about induction compatibility and don't mind the dark matte finish, LTD2 is going to have slightly better heating properties than the D3 (due to a higher aluminum content).
Example: Lodge cast iron skillet
Pros: Extremely durable, inexpensive, holds heat well so great for high-heat searing and deep frying, and when well-seasoned, the surface is almost as slick as nonstick, induction compatible.
Cons: Spreads heat slowly and unevenly, heavy, reacts with acidic foods, imparting metallic flavor.
Typical Uses: As a nonstick pan, for high heat searing, deep-frying, and other tasks that require holding heat. They're also great for using over campfires as the fire won't discolor them.
Cast iron is an iron alloy with a carbon content of more than 2% (from Wikipedia). It is one of the oldest cookware materials in existence, and as such, you may already own a hand-me-down cast iron piece from your parents or grandparents.
Many people swear by cast iron for everyday use, but we don't like it for daily use for the reasons mentioned above: it heats slowly and unevenly, it's really heavy, and it reacts with acidic foods, often imparting a metallic flavor. If you have a glass cooktop, you have to be extra careful not to scratch or crack it by scraping a cast iron pan on it or setting it down too heavily.
Cast iron also needs to be seasoned. This is a simple process, and you can even buy pre-seasoned skillets. It's not really a drawback, but if you or someone else in your home neglects to care for the pan properly after each use--e.g., no soap, drying thoroughly, and applying a thin coat of oil to the cooking surface--the pan will rust pretty much immediately and require re-seasoning.
Every semi-serious home cook should own at least one cast iron skillet. Their mass allows them to hold heat really well, so they're excellent for high heat searing (think juicy steaks). deep frying (fried chicken, anyone?), and oven baking where you want a nice crisp crust (corn bread, pizza, etc.).
When well-seasoned, they also have an almost nonstick surface. Not as slippery as Teflon, no, but the fact that they last forever more than makes up for that. If you're anti-nonstick, cast iron (or carbon steel, see below) is almost as good (again, when properly seasoned and cared for!).
But for daily use, we recommend them only if the weight and bulk isn't an issue for you, if you're on a tight budget, or if you really dislike stainless steel for some reason.
Pros: Thinner and lighter than cast iron (though still heavy), inexpensive, durable, induction compatible, can have an almost nonstick surface when properly seasoned.
Cons: Like cast iron, heats slowly and unevenly, but because it's thinner, it doesn't have cast iron's heat-holding properties. Like cast iron, also requires seasoning.
Typical Uses: Everyday skillet, "nonstick" skillet for people who hate nonstick and prefer the lighter weight of carbon steel to cast iron.
Carbon steel, sometimes called blue steel, is cast iron's thinner, lighter weight cousin. It is composed of steel that is up to 2.1% carbon by weight (from Wikipedia). Like cast iron, carbon steel is extremely durable and will last forever. Its lighter weight is sought out by people who don't want to use Teflon or cast iron. Carbon steel cookware is found primarily in skillets; we have not seen other types of pans made of carbon steel. (Of course, this doesn't mean they don't exist; we just haven't seen them.)
Carbon steel can make a nice egg pan, but for an all-purpose skillet, it lacks a number of desirable qualities. It has the slow, uneven heating properties of cast iron, but because it lacks cast iron's mass, it doesn't hang onto heat like cast iron does. Thus, carbon steel pans heat up slowly, do not spread heat very evenly, and once hot, don't hang onto heat very well when you add cold food to it.
For all of these reasons, we don't recommend carbon steel pans. If you're looking for a nonstick alternative to cast iron or are on a tight budget, carbon steel is a decent option. But for everyday cooking, there are better choices out there.
Pros: Excellent heating properties (the best available!), beautiful, durable.
Cons: Very expensive, requires polishing to keep its shiny appearance (although oxidation will not affect cooking properties), not induction compatible.
Typical Uses: Used by serious home chefs and professional chefs because of its optimal heating properties.
Copper cookware has also been around for a long time. Copper has some of the best heating properties of any material known to man, second only to silver (which is not typically used in cookware due to its expense). Julia Child is reported to have only used copper cookware with a thickness of not less than 3 millimeters--an amount you'd be hard-pressed to find today. Today, copper cookware is used by discerning chefs the world over--if they are lucky enough to be able to afford it.
Some copper cookware has a bare copper cooking surface and is used for specialized tasks such as candy making; you don't want this for everyday cooking because, like cast iron, it can react with foods and impart a metallic flavor.
Traditional copper cookware is lined with tin, which is nonreactive with food, but also soft, so it requires re-tinning every few years. This is both expensive and a dying art, so while you can still find tin-lined copper cookware, we don't recommend buying it.
Most modern copper cookware is lined with stainless steel, which is a durable and low maintenance cooking surface that won't react with food. If you are lucky enough to afford copper cookware, we recommend buying it with a stainless steel cooking surface.
Copper spreads heat roughly twice as fast as aluminum, depending on the alloy, so you need approximately half as much to achieve similar results. Proper copper cookware lists the copper thickness you're getting. For example, the Mauviel M'heritage 250B has a copper layer of approximately 2.5 millimeters (the "B" is for the handle, which is bronze; you can also get it with stainless or cast iron handles). Mauviel also makes a M'heritage 150 line, which is approximately 1.5 millimeters of copper. (When you're paying this much for cookware, you deserve to know exactly what you're getting!)
All-Clad Copper Core, which is stainless cookware lined with copper, has about 0.9mm of copper; All-Clad C4, their newest line, has a 1mm layer of copper. While very nice cookware, if you want true copper performance, you can buy Mauviel 150 for about the same price as Copper Core, and Mauviel 250 for about the same price as C4--and get more than twice as much copper.
Be careful: there are a lot of copper imposters out there! Some cookware has a layer of copper on the exterior that's so thin it imparts none of copper's exemplary heating properties. And some cookware is only copper-colored, containing no copper at all! (Copper Chef, we're looking at you.) This is easily discernible by the price: if it's in the Mauviel price range, than it's real copper cookware. If it's not, then it probably contains insignificant amounts of copper, if any at all.
Is copper cookware worth it? Honestly, clad stainless with an aluminum core can be almost as good, and is a lot easier to maintain. But if you have an unlimited budget, love the beauty of copper--and make no mistake, it is GORGEOUS--and don't mind the maintenance aspect (or have servants to do this for you), then go for it.
Just remember that it's not induction compatible, either, so you'll need new pans if you have an induction cooktop in your future.
Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven
Pros: Durable, great for jobs that require holding heat, won't react with acidic food (like non-enameled cast iron does), induction compatible.
Cons: Slow and uneven heating (though very good once heated, making it especially good for long oven or stove top braises and baking projects), heavy, some brands can be very expensive, the enamel may chip (especially on lower-priced brands).
Typical Uses: Enameled cast iron Dutch ovens can be used for myriad kitchen tasks and should be your go-to pot for many of them. They are an excellent all-purpose piece you can use for soups, stews, stocks, and, because of their heavy lids that keep in liquid, are especially wonderful for oven braising (e.g., pot roast, short ribs, etc.). They are also great for baking projects like boulés, corn breads, and other goodies when you want a crisp exterior and tender interior.
(Note: You can also find enameled cast iron skillets and other pieces, but you really only need the Dutch oven. This is the piece that makes the best use of cast iron's mass and heating properties.)
Even if you own a clad stainless or nonstick Dutch oven that came in a set you bought, you should do yourself a favor and get one in enameled cast iron, especially if you like to do long, low oven braises and/or bread baking. Enameled cast iron is ideal for these cooking projects because of its heat retention properties and heavy lid (that doesn't let liquid escape). You will find yourself reaching for it all winter long.
Is the le Creuset or Staub worth paying 5-10 times what you'll pay for a Lodge or Amazon Basics Dutch oven? That depends on your cooking style, your budget, how much you'll use it, and (we suppose) how much you care about the color choices (the le Creuset offers at least a dozen different colors, while the less expensive brands do not). But if you can afford it, we really recommend the le Creuset; America's Test Kitchen did a review of enameled Dutch ovens, and they found--as we have--that the le Creuset was not only sturdier and more resistant to the enamel chipping, but also lighter weight; not a small feature when you're talking about cast iron.
Why is le Creuset so expensive, you ask? Because it's still made in a small factory in France, largely by hand. But be careful! This is only true for their enameled cast iron cookware, as their stainless cookware and ceramic bakeware is almost as expensive, but made in China, and nowhere near the quality of their enameled cast iron.
The truth, though, is that not a lot has changed in cast iron cooking technology in the past century or so, so if you choose to go with a cheaper brand, you will get roughly the same cooking performance as you will with a premium brand. However, there's no doubt that if you go with le Creuset or Staub, you will get a higher quality pot, less prone to chipping, with superb customer service in the unlikely event that something does go wrong.
On the other hand, you can buy 5-10 Amazon Basics Dutch ovens for the price of 1 le Creuset or Staub, so there's that.
Much as we love le Creuset and Staub, and adore the old world craftsmanship you get with these brands, we wouldn't blame you a bit for going with a less expensive choice.
Pros: Extremely inert substance with no inherent dangers to human health.
Cons: Poor heating properties, poor browning, expensive, not induction compatible.
Typical Uses: Corningware Visions made a splash in the 1970s-80s, but it was in the wake of the success of its bakeware. Since then, glass and stone-based cookware is used primarily by people who are concerned about "toxicity" in other types of cookware. While we believe that all cookware is safe when used and cared for properly, if you have an allergy or sensitivity to some materials (such as nickel, which is found in minute amounts in stainless steel), you may want to consider glass, ceramic, or stone cookware.
Performance-wise, there is honestly nothing worse than glass, ceramic, or stone cookware. The reasons for this are obvious: these substances are insulators rather than conductors of heat. They are designed to slow the flow of heat rather than enhance it. If you consider copper to be number one on the list of heat-conducting cookware, you can consider glass, ceramic, and stone cookware to be dead last, behind everything else.
Thus, no self-respecting or semi-serious cook would be caught dead with glass, ceramic, or stone cookware. (The same is not true for bakeware, for which these materials are excellent--the insulating properties can provide gentle heat and protect baked goods from burning.) Having said that, if you have any sensitivity issues to nickel or other metals found in other cookware, then glass/ceramic/stone is a viable choice.
We have not tested any of it, so if you're interested in learning more about this cookware, you'll have to look elsewhere for a review. But we will say that, if you're decided on this cookware, Xtrema seems to be a high quality choice, as is Corningware, if you can find it.
Be careful! There are a lot of brands out there with words like "stone" and "stoneware" in their names that are actually not made of stone. (Most of these are aluminum pans with a PTFE nonstick coating. The "stone" reference is for the durability of the coating, and is pure marketing, as all PTFE is pretty much the same.)
Pros: Durable, long lasting, excellent heating properties (if you buy a good brand), easy to care for, a wide array of options and pieces available at many different price points, most has a lifetime warranty, most is induction compatible.
Cons: A good brand can be expensive, food can stick to it if not used properly.
Typical Uses: Clad stainless cookware comes in every imaginable size and shape and is the most versatile all-around cookware for the home chef.
If you've read other articles on our site, you know that clad stainless steel is our favorite all-around cookware. It's durable, easy to care for, and has the best heating properties you can buy for a reasonable price. Yes; it's more expensive than cheap aluminum cookware, but it's also more durable: even the cheapest stainless cookware will outlive aluminum cookware. It resists both corrosion and warping, and it provides a good experience in the kitchen.
Good clad stainless cookware is more expensive than some other types of cookware, but it's also going to outlive other kinds of cookware. The exception is cast iron, but clad stainless is lighter, more versatile, and has better heating properties (e.g., faster and more even), so it outperforms cast iron for most purposes.
Clad stainless is hugely popular cookware, and when All-Clad's patent expired in the early 2000's, many makers jumped into the market. The result is a wide variety of price and quality--meaning you have to do your research before you buy.
While there isn't room to go into a lot of detail here, the basics that you're looking for are high quality stainless exterior and a thick enough interior layer of aluminum, copper, or both to provide good heating properties. Being the first, All-Clad is still the gold standard in the US for top quality clad stainless cookware. A couple of brands are as good or better, but most are worse--far, far worse.
For more information, see our Cookware Archives, where you'll find a number of detailed reviews of clad stainless cookware. You can learn all you need to know about types of cladding, whether multi-ply cookware is better than tri-ply, how much a good set will set you back, which brands are our favorites (and why), buying sets vs. buying individual pieces, and just about everything else you need to know to buy wisely.
The good news is that if you're on a budget, you can still get good quality clad stainless cookware. All of the brands listed here are recommended brands. They range from top of the line (All-Clad, Demeyere) to mid-range (Zwilling), to excellent quality budget cookware (Cuisinart Multiclad Pro, Tramontina).
Be careful when you're purchasing, especially the Tramontina and Cuisinart MC Pro: these companies make several lines of cookware that vary greatly in quality. We only recommend the Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad and the Cuisinart Multiclad Pro, and no other lines by these makers.
We also recommend the All-Clad D3 over other lines of All-Clad, but for a different reason: all of All-Clad's cookware is top quality, but D3 is the most reasonably priced. You can spend more, but you won't get a significant bump in performance to justify the added cost.
Pros: Easy to clean because food doesn't stick, most brands are inexpensive.
Cons: Nonstick coatings are notoriously short-lived and need to be replaced every few years; PTFE nonstick has to be babied to get as long a life as possible out of it (and ceramic will lose its nonstick properties even faster than PTFE no matter how you treat it).
Typical Uses: Used by home chefs who hate washing other types of pans. While you can buy entire sets of nonstick, we strongly recommend buying only one or two nonstick skillets for eggs, fish, and other delicate foods. Because nonstick coatings are so short-lived, and because it's not safe to use scratched or peeling nonstick pans, you will have to replace every nonstick pan you own at least every couple of years. Thus, only use it for what's necessary, which is a dedicated egg/fish/delicate foods pan. This more than anything else will guarantee you get the maximum life possible out of your nonstick skillet.
We also recommend that you buy aluminum pans with nonstick coating--that is, the low end of the market. Our two favorites--All-Clad HA1 and Anolon Nouvelle Copper--are both cast aluminum, making these pans inexpensive, yet both have an aluminum that's thick enough to provide truly excellent heating properties and a steel base for induction compatibility. Both of these pans are about $30 each when bought as a set (or $50 each if you get the larger sizes). That's a bargain, and you will definitely get your 2-3 years of use out of them.
Furthermore, the Anolon Nouvelle Copper has a 0.5mm thick layer of copper in the base as well, putting it in the heating performance stratosphere as far as nonstick pans go.
You can buy clad stainless pans with nonstick coating, but we don't recommend it because they're expensive, and the coating will wear out long before the rest of the pan does--frustrating! Some clad stainless sets have nonstick skillets, but we recommend you purchase your nonstick pan separately.
You can go the ceramic nonstick route for about the same price as PTFE, but ceramic loses its nonstick properties even faster than PTFE. If you're concerned about using PTFE, or have people in your household incapable of using it correctly (e.g., no high heat, no dishwasher, no metal utensils, no cooking spray), ceramic is a viable option. But know that you will be replacing that pan frequently.
There you have it, the major groups of cookware. If you've narrowed down your choice to just one or two, check out our Cookware Archives if you're in need of more information. We have a lot of detailed articles about clad stainless, nonstick cookware, and more.
Thanks for reading!