A Guide to the Best Material for Pots and Pans: A Pros and Cons List

Cookware Materials 101

Yesterday we shared our guide to the essential cookware pieces you should have in your kitchen. The type is one thing—skillet, saucepan, stock pot—but what about the material? Stainless steel or copper? Cast iron or aluminum? Here's a guide to the most common cookware materials, and the pros and cons of each:

Material Types for Pots and Pans

Note: Read this article for a primer on reactive vs. nonreactive cookware.

Stainless Steel

Pros: Nonreactive (meaning you can cook any kind of food in it), heavy, durable, dishwasher-safe, inexpensive for basic models. Cons: Poor heat transfer and distribution. A better option? You can solve this problem by buying better quality (and higher priced) stainless steel cookware with an added inner core made of copper or aluminum, which improves the heat conductivity. It might be expensive, but it'll last a lifetime. All-Clad is a great example of high-end stainless steel cookware, and it's a favorite brand of Kitchn editors.

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Copper

Pros: Excellent thermal conductivity, cooks food evenly. Cons: Reactive with alkaline or acidic foods, which can take on a metallic taste after being cooked in a copper pot. Light colored foods, like eggs, can also develop grey streaks when they pick up the copper compounds, which also means you'll ingest small amounts of copper. Not a big deal if it's an occasional thing, but not so great for everyday use. Copper also requires regular polishing and maintenance, and it's expensive. A better option? Look for copper pots with a stainless steel or tin lining so you get the best of both worlds: great thermal conductivity, with the safety and versatility of a nonreactive lining.

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Aluminum

Pros: Excellent thermal conductivity, lightweight, affordable. Cons: Like copper, raw aluminum is highly reactive to alkaline or acidic foods. It's also very soft and tends to warp in high heat and scratch easily, which leads to health concerns with long term use. A better option? Anodized aluminum has been treated by an electro-chemical process that hardens it, thus solving most of the problems with raw aluminum. It's more expensive than raw aluminum, but also a far superior cookware material. While anodized aluminum does take longer to heat up than other materials, it's an excellent heat conductor (superior to stainless steel), scratch-resistant, and lightweight yet very strong.

Cast Iron

Pros: Durable, inexpensive, naturally non-stick if properly seasoned, distributes heat evenly and retains heat well, imparts iron to foods (an added benefit for some), great for long, low simmering and browning. Cons: Cast iron is also reactive, and doesn't take well to acidic foods. It's also quite heavy, takes a long time to heat up, takes a bit more effort to clean and maintain. Another option? While we still prefer raw cast iron for skillets, enameled cast iron (cast iron coated in porcelain enamel) has all the benefits of cast iron without the extra trouble, so it's a great material for dutch ovens. It's non-reactive, easy to clean, and beautiful. Popular enameled cast iron brands include Le Creuset and Staub.

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Elizabeth's Favorite Pan: Lodge Cast Iron Skillet

Readers, what material do you cook with? Do you love it? Hate it? Share your experiences below!

Related: The Kitchn's Guide to Essential Cookware

(Images: Kevin and Amanda)

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