Picking Pans: Quick Guide to Cookware Materials

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There are plenty of options on types of cookware, and there are many pros and cons of each. This can lead to some confusion on which may be the best for you. Some things that you should consider when purchasing pots and pans are who are you are cooking for, just yourself or a family? What types of foods do you typically prefer to prepare, like foods that are acidic? Do you value convenience over quality? Are you still pretty new to the kitchen or are you a “seasoned” vet (sorry had to use a pun somewhere). All of these questions can help you to consider what materials, sizes, and styles of pots and pans would be best suited to you and your particular lifestyle.

A man seasons food cooking on a stove.

Let’s dive a little deeper into why the style and materials of your cookware matters, beginning with the style. If you are just getting comfortable in the kitchen or do not prepare any foods that requires specific utensils or cookware then you can probably stick to the essential pots and pans (stock pot, frying pan, baking sheet, roasting pan). If you have special items or have a particular food that you enjoy making, you may want to invest in cookware the makes the prep of that items easier or improves the quality of the finished product. Also, if you are cooking for a family or just for one can determine if you should invest in larger pots and pans that allow for the preparation of a greater quantity of food at one time. Using the appropriate size of cookware is not only a good idea for the quantity of food you are preparing, but the amount of food in that pot or pan relative to the size of the pan can affect the quality and cook time of the food. For example a pan that is too large for the amount of food in it can cause food to scorch or burn, and on the flip side, overcrowding a pan can cause food to take longer to cook, among other quality issues.

Now, let’s quickly discuss the materials and why you should consider them when equipping your kitchen. If you are a person who values convenience and price over quality and maintenance, then you may opt to purchase nonstick cookware. This is also a great option if you are just starting out. Nonstick cookware is cheap, easy to clean, and can be used for pretty much any dish. There is also not a lot of maintenance and upkeep involved. The downside to this material is that they do not last a long time and you will need to replace them once the nonstick coating begins to degrade. Also, concern has been raised about some of the chemicals that could possibly be released from the nonstick coating called Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). If this is of concern, then one may opt for cookware made of other materials. If you are interested in further researching the topic please check out the links at the bottom of this article. As an alternative to nonstick, there are options like cast iron, carbon steel, and ceramic, each having their own pros and cons. Cast iron and carbon steel both are high maintenance materials that also cannot handle acidic foods. If you are used to simply wiping out a pan after you’re done or like cooking with acids like lemon juice or vinegar, you may need to use another material like non-stick or ceramic. Stainless steel may be the best overall option for ease of care and the variety of foods that can be prepared in them.

Below you will find a quick guide on the uses of common cookware products and the pros and cons of the different materials. You can also find videos and articles linked if you would like to find further details about various styles of cookware and materials.

Style Description and Uses Essential (Y/N)
Stock Pot Large deep pot with flat bottom. Used for liquid foods that do not need to be close to heat source. Sauté and browning. Stocks, soups, and stews, and pasta. Y
Fry Pan/Skillet Shallow flat bottom pan with curved sides. Versatile pan, stir-frying, omelets, searing, simmering Y
Sauté Pan Similar to frying pan/skillet. Higher, more rounded sides, limits the escape of moisture. Deep frying, searing, sauces. N
Sauce Pan Fairly tall sided pot with rounded bottom. Used for sauces and soups, prepping pasta and grains, and boiling. Y
Braiser Pan A large pan with a flat bottom and lid. Used on stove top or oven. Great for slow cooking. N
Griddle Pan A large, flat, short sided pan used for pancakes, eggs, and other breakfast foods. N
Wok High sided pan with steep sloping sides. Popular in Asian cuisine. Great for stir frying and deep frying. N
Baking Sheet Flat rectangular pan for use in the oven. Y
Dutch/French Oven Large pot with fitted lid used for stews and braised meats. Also great for slow cooking N
Roasting Pan Large rectangular pan with higher sides than a typical baking sheet. For oven use. Great for roasting. Y
Material Pros Cons
Copper Most conductive material, fast and even cooking Expensive, dents and tarnishes easily, hand wash only
Aluminum Lightweight, good conduction, handles heat well for longer time periods. (Anodized aluminum prevents flavor changes, creates non-porous surface, and improves heat transfer.) Reactive (if not anodized), can spot, at high heat will misshapen
Stainless Steel Durable, relatively easy to clean, does not react with food. Fully-Clad Stainless Steel heats more evenly but is expensive. Food may stick, food residue can be difficult to remove. Impact-Bonded Stainless Steel does not heat as evenly, but is cheaper. If not blended with other metal can be a poor conductor of heat.
Cast Iron Retains heat well, durable, naturally non-stick when well-seasoned. Slow to heat, can be heavy, tough to clean and maintain (unless enameled), can rust if not properly maintained. Cannot handle acidic foods well. (Enameled Cast Iron can be a great alternative that requires less maintenance and allows the prep of acidic foods, however have to use softer utensils like wood or silicone).
Non Stick Versatile, requires little to no oil/fat, great for delicate foods, inexpensive Not great for browning, metal utensils will damage surface, short life span, non-stick cookware is associated with concerns of PFAS.
Ceramic Alternative to nonstick pans if worried about the health risks of nonstick coating, can handle higher temperatures than nonstick limited non stick benefits, be mindful of the difference between ceramic coated and 100% ceramic. “Coated” pans can chip or lose their coating similar to standard nonstick pans.
Carbon Steel Lightweight, very heat responsive, and has a high heat tolerance, non-stick after seasoned. Requires seasoning, can rust and discolor, cannot handle acidic foods.


Cooking with Heat (Kentucky Cooperative Extension)

Cookware Buying Guide

NC State Extension: Understanding PFAS

FDA on PFAS in Non-Stick and other Food Contact Items

Cookware 101

Picking The Right Pan for Every Recipe