Professional cooks try to use the best tools available. They’ll go well out of their way in order to find the right set of knives, pots, and pans that will stand up to rigorous, everyday professional use. In some respects, home cooks are similar.
For many of us, the most important difference is that we simply don’t have access to many different types of cookware. While a professional chef can easily borrow his co-worker’s Yoshihiro knife for a day to see how it feels, most home cooks don’t have that luxury.
We’re reliant on reviews, marketing, and advice from trusted sources. This makes it a lot trickier to find the very best cookware for your kitchen. If you’ve never tried a copper pan before, how are you supposed to know how it’s different from a hard anodized or stainless pan?
In this article, I’ll go over all of the important differences between various cookware materials in order to help you decide which ones are best for your kitchen.
The Basics: What’s The Role Of Cookware?
When you use a pot or pan, it does a few important things. First, it provides an appropriately sized and shaped cooking surface. This surface is easier to clean than the top of your range and can hold liquids or trap steam underneath a lid.
Second, it transfers heat from your range to your food. Well made cookware heats up quickly, spreads that heat throughout the entire cooking surface, and is responsive to changes in range temperature. When you turn your burner up or down, you want your cookware to quickly get hotter or colder in response.
Different Cookware Materials Have Different Properties
There are a handful of materials that are used in cookware. While each material has its own set of characteristics, most materials are only used in one or two specific ways. This means that there’s actually not a whole lot of information to remember.
Aluminum: A Workhorse In The Kitchen
Aluminum is cheap, strong, and has GREAT thermal conductivity. This means that it’s extremely responsive to changes in burner heat and that it heats up evenly. It conducts heat about four times as well as steel. While aluminum is an excellent cookware material, it’s prone to get scratched, chipped, or damaged.
It’s also not a very good cooking surface on its own. This means that it’s used in most pots or pans, but it’s often paired with another material. This can mean that it’s clad with stainless steel on the outside (for strength), stainless steel on the inside (as a cooking surface), or that it’s coated with a non-stick surface (Thermolon or PTFE) to form an easy-to-clean cooking surface.
There’s a process called “anodization” that transforms the outer layer of an aluminum pot or pan to a material called aluminum oxide.
Aluminum oxide is very strong, durable, and non-reactive.
It’s somewhat non-stick on its own, although cookware manufacturers usually coat it with an additional layer of non-stick material instead of using it as a cooking surface. Pots and pans like this are referred to as “hard anodized“ and are excellent additions to most kitchens.
Stainless Steel: Strong and Simple
You don’t usually see pots or pans that are made entirely of stainless steel. While stainless is easy to clean and very durable, it’s not a particularly good conductor of heat. Most cookware manufacturers use stainless steel in conjunction with aluminum or copper to provide better heating characteristics in their pots and pans.
Stainless steel is often dishwasher safe. It’s one of the more durable materials that’s used in cookware, meaning that stainless steel pots and pans can easily last for a decade or more. Some forms of stainless steel are magnetic, meaning that many stainless pots and pans work on induction ranges.
You’ll often see stainless steel used as a cooking surface. It’s not non-stick in the way that PTFE or Thermolon is non-stick, but you can still cook eggs over-easy on a stainless steel pan. It’ll take a bit of practice, however, and you’ll need to be diligent in using an appropriate amount of cooking fat and maintaining the right temperature to keep your food from burning or cooking too slowly.
Stainless steel pots and pans are often chosen by people who value longevity and durability over convenience.
Copper: The Best Conductor
Copper is an excellent conductor of heat. It’s even more thermally conductive than aluminum, to the point where it transfers about twice as much heat energy in the same amount of time. Unlike aluminum, however, it’s heavy, delicate, and expensive. This means that it’s normally reserved for specialty applications (like candy making) or used as one of many materials in more complex pots and pans.
Copper can’t be hard-anodized in the same way as aluminum. While it’s fairly delicate, it’s still used as both the interior and exterior of specialty pots and pans. The owners of these cookware pieces need to be careful to avoid damaging the delicate metal used in their cookware. This means that they can’t cook with acidic foods, they have to use special copper cleaners to polish their pots and pans, and they have to store their cookware carefully.
More commonly, copper serves as an inner layer in cookware that also uses stainless steel and sometimes aluminum. By coating the copper with a more robust metal, cookware manufacturers can nullify most of these concerns. This hybrid cookware combines the excellent heat conductivity of copper with the ease of use and cleaning of stainless. Because copper is heavy and expensive, it’s often paired with aluminum to cut both cost and weight (at the expense of thermal conductivity).
There’s no substitute for copper when it comes to candy making.
For other kitchen tasks, it’s a convenient choice, but it’s best when it’s paired with other materials.
Non-Stick Surfaces: Ceramic vs PTFE
There are two broad categories of non-stick cooking surfaces on the market. One category uses something called PTFE, which is a family of substances that includes Teflon.The other utilizes a ceramic polymer instead.
The most popular type of ceramic non-stick is called Thermolon. Thermolon’s marketing team would have you believe that it’s superior to PTFE in every way. It’s safe at much higher temperatures, it doesn’t scratch or flake off, and it’s pretty darn non-stick.
Also, unlike PTFE, Thermolon conducts heat pretty well. This means that your pots and pans heat up more quickly and are more responsive to changes in temperature. The truth is, PTFE is pretty comparable for home use. In my experience, it’s a bit more non-stick, it lasts about the same amount of time, and any differences in thermal conductivity are too small to notice.
Modern PTFE variants are very scratch resistant and can even be used with metal utensils. While it will eventually flake off, Thermolon-style non-stick ceramics usually stop being non-stick at about the same time that your PTFE starts to flake.
You also don’t need to use any fat at all with PTFE, whereas you absolutely need to use a small amount of oil or butter to keep your Thermolon non-stick pans non-stick. The biggest and most important difference is that PTFE starts to be very unsafe and can release toxic gases at around 400 – 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you leave a pot or pan unattended on high-heat it’ll quickly hit this temperature. Thermolon is “safe” to over 600 degrees, although using it on high heat will quickly degrade its effectiveness as a non-stick surface. In other words, no matter what your pan is made out of, if you leave your non-stick pan unattended on high heat, you should buy a new pan.
Aluminum vs Stainless Steel Cookware
I get asked about this a lot. This comparison is a bit odd since almost all stainless steel cookware has an aluminum core. It’s like asking about the difference between ice cream cake and ice cream. One of them has frosting and cake, but both of them are primarily made from delicious frozen dairy.
Aluminum cookware that’s NOT clad in stainless steel usually has a hard-anodized exterior, which is somewhat less durable than stainless steel. It’ll also often have a non-stick cooking surface, whereas stainless steel cookware often has a stainless cooking surface that isn’t non-stick.
This means that the aluminum cookware is easier to cook with, harder to clean, and won’t last as long as the stainless steel cookware.
Copper Cookware vs Stainless Steel
Cookware that’s made with only copper is soft, delicate, and unsuited for general cooking. You can’t cook with tomatoes, wine, or vinegar in a copper pot or pan.
You’ll also need to use special copper cleaning solutions to keep it bright and shiny. On the other hand, stainless steel is pretty easy to clean and you can cook anything you want in it.
The advantage of copper is that it heats up a lot faster than stainless steel.
While steel cookware usually uses a core of aluminum, copper is almost twice as thermally conductive as aluminum and therefore still performs better. It’s the best material to use when you care about exact temperature control in your cooking. Again, copper is frequently used as an invisible inner layer in pots and pans. This means that you can easily have all of the advantages of both types of cookware.
Anodized Aluminum vs Stainless Steel
Anodized aluminum is often used as the outer layer (and sometimes inner cooking surface) of aluminum cookware. It’s not quite as strong as stainless steel, so it’s liable to chip or scratch more easily. On the other hand, it’s sometimes a bit cheaper.
Since steel isn’t as good of a thermal conductor as aluminum, it can slightly impede the ability of your pots and pans to transfer heat, even when it’s used as a thin outer layer or cooking surface. This means that hard anodized pots and pans might boil water faster and heat up more evenly.
Stainless steel is usually paired with another material (usually aluminum) when it’s used in cookware. This means that while there’s some difference in thermal performance, it’s usually pretty slight. The stainless steel simply provides a more durable exterior and cooking surface. That said, hard-anodized aluminum can still last for many, many years.
The Best Cookware Material
If you’re looking for a set of cookware that will last for years, you’ll probably want to choose something with a stainless exterior and cooking surface and an aluminum or copper core.
If you’re more interested in convenience, something with a non-stick interior and an aluminum core is going to be your best bet.
While a stainless steel exterior might out-perform a hard anodized exterior over a decade or two, your non-stick interior will expire long before you’re likely to notice any difference.