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

published Mar 27, 2012
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(Image credit: Marisa Vitale)

If you’ve gone shopping for pots and pans any time in the last few years you have probably been overwhelmed with options. Beyond the various shapes and sizes, there are also all sorts of materials to choose from. Stainless steel or copper? Cast iron or aluminum? Or anodized aluminum?! What the what?

Here’s a guide to the most common cookware materials — and the pros and cons of each.

Most Common Material Types for Pots and Pans

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Stainless Steel

Pros: Stainless steel pans are nonreactive (meaning you can cook any kind of food in it), heavy, and durable. You can find inexpensive basic options (and more expensive ones, of course) and are often dishwasher safe.

Cons: The more basic models often have poor heat transfer and distribution.

A better option? You can solve the heat 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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Pros: Copper has excellent thermal conductivity, which means food cooks incredibly evenly.

Cons: Copper is reactive with alkaline or acidic foods, which can take on a metallic taste after being cooked or prepared 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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Pros: Aluminum has excellent thermal conductivity. It’s also lightweight and very 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.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Cast Iron

Pros: Cast iron is durable, inexpensive, naturally non-stick if properly seasoned, distributes heat evenly and retains heat well, imparts iron to foods (an added benefit for some), and great for long, low simmering and browning.

Cons: It is also reactive, and doesn’t take well to acidic foods. Plus, it’s quite heavy, takes a long time to heat up, and 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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