Understanding the differences in cookware materials will help you make the best selection to match your cooking skill and lifestyle. Here's a guide to the most common metals found in cookware.
Stainless Steel Cookware
This is a sturdy, non-reactive (you can cook any type of food in it), dishwasher safe and economic material for cookware. It's a versatile material that will keep its shine and won't dent easily. Stainless steel has poor heat transfer and distribution on its own, so look for a set that has an inner core made of copper or aluminum to help with conducting heat. Also make sure to use a cooking spray, oil, or butter when using stainless steel cookware, as it does not have nonstick properties.
This material is known for its heat conducting qualities. It's also lightweight and affordable. Aluminum cookware is great option for sauteing and frying foods. The drawback with aluminum cookware is that it's highly reactive to alkaline or acidic foods. For a better option that still maintains the heat responsiveness of aluminum, look for cookware that has an aluminum core or try anodized aluminum that has been treated to protect the food.
Anodized Aluminum Cookware
This type of aluminum has been given a special treatment to protect the cookware from corrosion as a result of cooking acidic and alkaline foods. It's also much harder than pure aluminum. Like aluminum, anodized aluminum cookware is a great heat conductor, and the special coating makes it stick-resistant. Note that this is a not a dishwasher-safe material.
This cookware type combines several metals bonded together making it a very versatile option for everyday cookware. It usually has a stainless steel or nonstick interior which won't react with food and the core is usually aluminum or copper to help distribute heat evenly and quickly. Multi-ply cookware is a more expensive option but it's a great fit for all kinds of cooking.
This cookware has been treated with a coating that prevents food from sticking and makes for much easier clean up. These pieces traditionally come in a variety of metals that have the special interior coating. Non-stick cookware requires less cooking spray, oil, or butter so it's great for healthy cooking. To clean, avoid abrasive pads or sponges since the non-stick coating can easily scratch.
Of all the metals, copper is the most efficient heat conductor, making it the gold-standard when it comes to gourmet cooking. It's also one of the more expensive materials used to make cookware and it reacts to everything it touches so it needs to be polished regularly to keep its shine. Most copper cookware is lined with tin or stainless steel since those metals won't react with your food.
Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron heats slowly, but once it's heated, it retains and distributes the heat evenly. It's oven-safe so you can start a dish on the stove and finish in the oven. Traditionally, you have to season your cast iron cookware before using for the first time, but these days, you can purchase pre-seasoned skillets. It's important to never wash cast iron with soap so you don't remove the oils that give it its coveted, nearly non-stick coating. Some cast iron cookware has an enamel or porcelain coating that makes cleaning and maintenance easier. When treated correctly, cast iron cookware will last a lifetime and is often passed down through generations of families.