Cookware Types, Materials and Coatings – The Ultimate Buying Guide
Not sure how to pick the right type of cookware for your kitchen? Or the pros and cons of different materials used to make pots and pans? How does one nonstick coating differ from another?
In this ultimate guide to types of cookware and cookware materials we provide all the answers in an easy-to-digest format. Read on and find the best type of cookware for your needs and pick like an expert.
Before we dive into the materials and types, let’s cover the three main types of cookware manufacturing methods. Cookware can be either coated, uncoated, or clad.
✽ Uncoated cookware is the simplest, it is the base material – usually stainless steel, cast iron or carbon steel – without any additional layer.
✽ Coated cookware features an added layer to the base material which can be on the outside only (Dutch ovens and other enameled cast iron items), inside only (hard-anodized aluminum and some stainless steel pots and pans) or both on the outside and the inside (French ovens, many modern nonstick cookware pieces).
Several brands add multiple layers to the cooking surface of their cookware, some for making the surface more durable, some for adding nonstick properties and some for adding texture for easy food release.
✽ Clad cookware is made of sandwiched layers of different base materials, usually for combining the best properties of different metals. The most common example is adding a layer of aluminum in between two layers of stainless steel. This structure adds the superior heat conducting properties of aluminum to the durability and non-reactive property of stainless steel. Copper can also be used the same way.
This construction is also known as a 3-ply cookware structure. Some of the high-end brands also make 5-ply lines, adding both copper and aluminum to stainless steel.
A different type of cladding is adding a magnetic layer (heat plate) to the bottom of aluminum cookware items, making the usable on induction stovetops as well.
A great choice for long-lasting, everyday cookware. Heats up quickly but the heat distribution is not as even as some other materials. For this reason, it is often layered (clad) with aluminum or copper. Good stainless-steel sets contain just about every pot and pan you will need in an average kitchen. Best suited for browning and braising.
● Compatible with most cooktops including induction
● Non-reactive with foods
● Oven safe
● Good value for the price
○ Takes time to learn how to cook with it as it’s not nonstick
○ Pans require seasoning
○ Can be more difficult to clean
Aluminum is one of the best heat-conducting materials, making it very suitable as a base cookware material. It is also lightweight, affordable, and resistant to corrosion. Uncoated aluminum can leach into food if it comes into contact with acidic foods in high temperature so you will mostly find it coated with some kind of nonstick or ceramic coating. It is not suitable for induction cooktops.
● Great heat conductivity
○ Less durable
○ Can dent and warp easily
○ Needs to be coated to avoid leaching into food
Hard-anodized aluminum retains the good qualities of regular aluminum but it’s much more durable. During the anodizing process the material is exposed to electrical charges which makes the outer surface thicker and harder. It still conducts heat very well and it’s very lightweight. It serves as a base material for many of today’s top nonstick cookware sets.
● Great heat conductor
○ Pricier than normal aluminum
○ Not compatible with induction cooktops
Nonstick coatings are usually applied to aluminum or stainless-steel cookware bases. Their biggest advantage is in their name, they can be used with less oil and food will not stick to them. Nonstick has a bad reputation from chemicals used in the production such as PTFE and PFOA (used in earlier Teflon surfaces). However, all Teflon and other nonstick coatings are PFOA-free since 2013 and many modern nonstick coatings are reinforced to make them more durable, and safe to use. Still, you want to avoid overheating nonstick cookware and stop using it once the coating is damaged.
● Great food release
● Easy cleanup
● Less oil needed for cooking
○ Can’t be used once the surface is damaged
○ There is still debate around some chemicals used in the production
Copper has one of the best heat retention and cooling properties, offering the chef full control over the cooking process. This is why copper is often clad into stainless steel which does not perform well in this area. It is also reactive to acidic foods and full copper cookware is still usually lined with a non-reactive cooking surface.
● Superior heat retention and even cooking
● Elegant look
○ Can dent easily
○ Not compatible with induction stoves
○ Requires special cleaning
Uncoated cast iron is a popular choice for skillets and Dutch ovens. It is very durable and can withstand extreme amounts of heat without any damage or harmful effect. It develops nonstick qualities after being used a number of times. Best suited for searing, browning and for dishes finished in the oven. It can be used on any cooktops except glass top stoves, and you can even use them over open fire outside.
● Very durable
● Can handle high heat and retains it well
○ Requires seasoning before use
○ Can be tougher to clean
○ Prone to rust if not maintained properly
Enameled Cast Iron
It shares most of the characteristics with uncoated cast iron but comes with a porcelain enamel coating. This coating makes enameled cast iron cookware suitable for acidic foods – which can react with plain cast iron. It also makes clean up easier as enamel does not stick to food as much. These pieces are great for searing, browning, frying and dishes that go from stovetop to oven to finish. Many are also colorful, decorative items, doubling as a serving dish.
● Heavy duty and durable
● Retains heat for a long time
● Oven safe
○ Heavy – especially with food inside
○ Requires more care as enamel can chip
○ Some brands can be pricey
Full ceramic cookware is rare but available. Most “ceramic” pots and pans have an aluminum base with a ceramic nonstick coating. It’s a non-reactive, silicon-based material and it’s considered to be one of the healthiest cookware options on the market. Many popular brands have their own ceramic coatings reinforced with titanium, diamonds or other additions to make them more durable.
● Made without harmful chemicals often found in other nonstick surfaces
● Non-reactive to food
● Easy to clean
○ Less durable than metal surfaces
○ Ceramic coating can chip
Carbon steel is made of iron and carbon, combining the durability of iron with the light weight of carbon. It’s a popular choice of professional chefs as it can handle high-performance cooking exposure too. It’s often used as a material for special frying pans, paella pans and woks. Best used for frying, stir-frying, searing and other high-heat cooking methods.
● Very durable
● Lighter than cast iron
● Becomes naturally nonstick with use
● Induction compatible
○ Requires seasoning and hand washing
○ Not suitable for acidic foods
Used as a specialty cookware mostly for casseroles and other meals that needs to be finished in the oven. The main advantage is that you can better monitor the food during the cooking process, and it can go straight to the table from the oven, without the need to change dishes. It can be used on glass top stoves and ovens but not on gas and induction stoves.
● Can handle high heat for oven cooking
● Doubles as a serving dish
○ Food can burn and stick to it
○ Limited use on cooktops
○ Heat distribution is not even
Types of Cookware
A grill pan is very similar to a frying pan, the only difference is the shape of the cooking surface. Grill pans feature grill lines raising out from the bottom of the pan, allowing the juices from the food to trickle down in between the grill lines. This keeps the food from being braised in its own juices and getting seared instead.
Grill pans often come in square shape to allow for a bigger cooking surface. They are usually made from cast iron but there are also aluminum grill pans with a nonstick cooking surface.
A wok is a round-bottomed cooking pot with deep curved sides originating from Asia. The shape of the wok makes it easy to move food around the pot during stir-frying, which is the main cooking method it’s used for. Traditional round-bottomed woks require a wok ring to use while modern flat-bottomed woks can be used on stovetops. They can have one or two handles, depending on the style.
The traditional wok material is carbon steel, but you can find modern woks made from stainless steel and hard-anodized aluminum too.
A saute pan is a wide bottom pan with straight, high sides, often coming with a lid. It’s designed for maximum heat conduction and retention in order to quickly cook food. The large cooking surface is great for searing meat or vegetables and reducing sauces. The high sides also make it suitable for stir-frying and other cooking methods where you need to move the food around a lot. They come with a long pan handle and a small helper handle on the opposite side.
Saute pans are usually either made from stainless steel or aluminum with a nonstick inner surface.
A saucepan is a round cooking pot with straight, high sides and a relatively small cooking surface. It has one long handle and typically comes with a lid. It’s primarily used for cooking and reducing sauces and other liquids and it’s also great for cooking vegetables.
Saucepans are one of the most common cookware types and you can find them in several sizes. Stainless steel and aluminum with nonstick or ceramic coating are the most widely used saucepan materials.
Brazier pots look like saute pans but with two side handles rather than a long pan handle and one side handle. A lid is an essential accessory for a brazier as it is designed for slow cooking meats and vegetables in a small amount of liquid. They can also serve as hot baths for a saucepan with sensitive food which can’t handle a direct heat from the stove.
Most braziers are made from stainless steel or aluminum and usually come uncoated.
A sauce pot is a bigger version of a saucepan but with two loop handles instead of the one panhandle for the saucepan. It has a wide bottom for more heat exposure. It’s mainly used for stews, soups, casseroles, and larger amounts of sauces.
Sauce pots are typically made of stainless steel or aluminum and can be both uncoated or coated with a nonstick surface.
A stock pot is the largest item in a cookware set, a tall and wide pot with two loop handles and a lid. It comes with a thick bottom for even heat distribution during long, slow cooking sessions. Ideal for soups, pasta, stocks, and vegetables, the tall sides force liquids to boil through the ingredients for flavor extraction.
Stock pots are most commonly made of stainless steel and aluminum and are usually uncoated.
A classic Dutch oven is a thick and heavy pot with a lid and an uncoated cooking surface. Designed for maximum heat retention and distribution during a slow cooking process. Great for stews, browning and braising meat or veggies and for dishes that needs to be finished in the oven such as baked pasta.
Dutch ovens are almost always made of cast iron, although, you can find some made from aluminum as well.
A French oven is identical to a Dutch oven from the outside, the difference is that French ovens come with a porcelain enamel cooking surface. It can be used for the same cooking applications. Both Dutch and French ovens can be found in beautiful colors making them a decorative serving dish straight from the oven.
Just as Dutch ovens, French ovens are also primarily made from cast iron or cast aluminum.
A roasting pan is a large, oven-safe, high sided pan with a removable rack that fits inside. Simpler versions come with a ribbed bottom instead of a separate rack. They are designed to accommodate large pieces of meat such as turkey, ham or large cuts of meat for oven cooking.
You can find both stainless steel and nonstick roasting pans on the market.
A paella pan is a specialist pan with the singular purpose of cooking this traditional Spanish dish. It is very wide and shallow with sloped sides and two loop handles. The reason for this shape is to allow rice to be cooked in a thin layer while still holding a decent quantity. Some models also come with a stand for outside cooking.
Traditional Valencian paella pans are made from carbon steel but you can also find models made of stainless steel and enameled steel.