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What a lot of people don’t understand about cooking is that it’s a science; it’s chemistry. You analyze flavor molecules, consider their composition and texture, then mix them together. Sometimes you know what the outcome will be, other times…it’s an experiment.
The truth is, it’s a science through and through, down to the pots and pans you use. Every single substance has its own properties, meaning pans with even a slightly different metal composition will produce different results.
It’s part of the professional chef’s job to know which material works best for whatever method or food, but what about the home cooks out there?
We don’t get the opportunity to flick through specialist catalogs and experiment with new and exciting designs. How are we to know what works and what doesn’t?
Well, in this article, we’re going to be putting our cookware under the microscope in the hopes of discovering the best cookware material.
So, if you’ve always wanted to know the difference between an aluminum and cast iron pan, pop your lab coat on, secure your safety goggles, and let’s get cracking.
Table of Contents
Cookware in its Essence
Let’s start with the absolute basics and try to define exactly what our cookware should achieve. Firstly, pots and pans provide an appropriate size and shape surface in which to cook a number of ingredients.
They need to be sturdy, stable, able to hold both solids and liquids, and they should be easy to clean after use.
Most importantly, they’re a sensitive thermal conductor. They need to be as receptive to temperature as possible, as when we turn the heat up or down, we need a rapid response in order to cook our food well.
Any metal can be heated over a flame, but the best metals for cooking spread the heat evenly across the whole surface.
Before you start having horrific flashbacks to those dull afternoons studying the periodic table in high school, know that there aren’t actually all that many materials used to make pots and pans.
The list has been refined over the years, so no need to search for that pen and paper. It’s all quite simple really.
Stainless Steel – Invincibility at a Cost
What’s it Good At?
Let’s start with this classic. Stainless steel pots and pans are incredibly durable. You could cook in the same steel pan your whole life and it might not even have a dent in it.
In addition, it’s pretty easy to clean. Steel shouldn’t be considered a non-stick surface per se. It’s no Teflon, but if you’re careful you can still cook one hell of an omelet without destroying it.
Although you won’t find many pans made entirely of steel, it’s a fantastic material to use as a coating as it’s totally non-reactive.
This means that it won’t leach anything into the food. This can happen with other types of metal when cooking high acidity or alkaline foods.
Things like tomatoes might take on a metallic ‘tinny’ undertone, or you may notice a silver streak in your creamy sauce.
Due to steel’s durability, it’s completely dishwasher safe which is always a great thing.
Cleaning pots and pans by hand can be a nightmare, especially if the cook didn’t go so well.
Another cool aspect of steel is that in some forms, it’s magnetic, making it perfect for use on induction cooktops.
Sounds good right? Well, while steel is strong, it poses a couple of other problems.
What it’s Bad At?
First of all, it’s not a great thermal conductor, so you’ll be waiting for longer before you hear that satisfying sizzle.
To combat this, manufacturers often use other more conductive metals alongside steel. A copper or aluminum core will allow heat to spread through the steel surface quicker.
This slow heating aspect of steel can often lead to catastrophe in the kitchen because we as a species are impatient with our food. We’ll turn the heat up to speed up the process and end up burning our food.
Secondly, steel is an incredibly heavy metal. Weight can be useful in a kitchen to a certain degree, but you need to actually be able to lift and maneuver your pan. So, if you’re weak of wrist, or cook for lots of people, a steel pan might be too much of a burden.
Aluminum – Nearly Perfect
What it’s Good At
Aluminum is an awesome thermal conductor, so you can expect lightning fast response rates to burner intensity, and even heat distribution.
It’s roughly four times better for conducting heat than steel. It’s also a really cheap metal to manufacture as it’s recyclable, plentiful, and easily extracted. This means you’ll find aluminum pans with some wallet-friendly price tags. Hurray!
Another way in which aluminum excels as a cookware material is its weight. Aluminum is super light. You could cook for your ever growing family and you wouldn’t have to hit the gym five times a week to lift the pan.
What it’s Bad At
Unfortunately, aluminum is a very reactive metal, meaning it’s going to affect the flavor and color of certain foods and so is not really appropriate to use as a cooking surface.
It’s also quite malleable, susceptible to denting and scratching, which is far from ideal for cookware.
Using aluminum in conjunction with other materials unlocks its true potential.
You’ll often find it with a stainless steel coating, mixing durability and conductivity to create a super pan.
You’re also likely to find it with special non-stick coatings such as PTFE or Thermolene.
These make for an effortless cook that requires less lubrication, but they don’t address the softness of aluminum.
A clever fix for this is a process called anodization. Anodisation is an electro-chemical treatment process that hardens aluminum significantly.
This augmented substance is known as aluminum oxide. It’s far more expensive than raw aluminum, but it’s incredibly tough and non-reactive. Add a non-stick surface and you’ve got a formidable pan.
It’s good to note that when aluminum is anodized, it loses a small amount of thermal conductivity, which is a shame, but it’s still more conductive than steel, and it solves all its other problems.
Copper – Hottest of the Hot
What it’s Good At?
With twice the conductive potential as aluminum, copper is the fastest heating material used in the production of cookware.
This means it cooks things quickly and evenly.
What it’s Bad At?
Unlike aluminum, copper is expensive and incredibly heavy, but very much like aluminum, it’s a reactive and delicate substance.
Thanks to this mishmash of properties, copper cookware is quite hard to come by.
It’s normally used for specialized applications like candy making, although, due to the striking appearance, they’re often used as decoration as well.
Copper can’t be anodized the same way aluminum can, which means you’ll mostly come across it in hybridized cookware.
It works incredibly well as a heat conductive core with a stronger, less reactive metal coating such as stainless steel or tin.
Some cores are made from a mixture of aluminum and copper to keep costs down.
If you’re intent on cooking with copper, make sure you take precautions.
You won’t be able to cook with acidic or alkaline foods such as tomatoes or vinegar, and you’ll have to apply special cleaning agents after use.
Separate storage is also a good idea as they’re so malleable.
Cast Iron – The Sophisticated Tank of the Kitchen
What it’s Good At
Cast iron is a very durable metal. It both is and isn’t as strong as steel. Confusing, we know.
Cast iron has greater compressive strength, whereas steel is more tensile. Much like steel, cast iron has fairly good naturally occurring non-stick qualities as long as it’s properly seasoned. It’s much cheaper too.
Cast iron has a really even heat distribution. This is why people swear by cast iron pots and pans for food that requires browning or long simmers.
Cast iron is reactive, but here’s the thing…it’s mostly good for you.
That’s right, folks, the minuscule amount of iron that seeps into your food actually fortifies your internal iron status and helps transport oxygen around your body.
What it’s Bad At
Cast iron sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but there are drawbacks.
It’s very heavy. Trying to lift a stack of cast iron pans to pull out the bottom one is no walk in the park.
Its reactivity can also be a bad thing, so avoid using it for cooking acidic or alkaline foods.
While it does retain and distribute heat well, cast iron takes a while to heat up, so it’s not ideal for efficient everyday usage.
In our opinion, the worst thing about cast iron is that it rusts. It rusts badly. Unless it’s properly seasoned with carbonized oil, your black plan will be orange before the year’s out.
Even if you’ve seasoned your cast iron pan really well, it will still rust if it’s exposed to moisture for too long.
The best way to save your beloved cast iron pots and pans from a dusky orange fate, besides proper care, is to buy them with an enamel coating. It’s non-stick, easy to clean, and non-reactive.
Right, that’s the bulk of our cookware covered.
Now let’s take a closer look at the different forms of non-stick coatings commonly used to turn our kitchen nightmares into easy dreams.
PTFE or polytetrafluoroethylene is a controversial synthetic polymer with many applications, one of them being slicking up your cooking surface.
What it’s Good At
PTFE surfaces provide an excellent non-stick surface for cooking all your favorite but difficult foods on.
It’s also fairly resilient. In some cases, you could even use metal utensils without scratching the surface.
The amazing thing about PTFE coatings is that they’re non-stick qualities are so effective you need little to no lubricant in the pan.
What it’s Bad At
PTFE is known to contain the hazardous PFOA which is an acid that settles in your blood content and doesn’t leave for a very long time.
It’s also common knowledge PTFE releases toxic fumes when heated to around 500 degrees or above.
PTFE isn’t really a very good thermal conductor either. It may slick up your pan, but ultimately it’s going to slow the whole process down.
That said, it will be fractional and you’re unlikely to notice the difference.
Although it is a hardy scratch-resistant coating, PTFE will eventually begin to flake off, and at this point, it’s going to be completely unusable.
Ceramic doesn’t actually mean ceramic.
It refers to cookware that has been treated with a sol-gel coating.
This silicone coating gives your cookware a lovely non-stick surface.
What it’s Good At
Ceramic coatings, the most popular of which is known as Thermolon, is preferable to PTFE in many ways. Most importantly, it’s totally safe for use up to temperatures of 600 degrees.
We don’t know about you, but we love the idea of not being poisoned by our pans. It also conducts heat far more efficiently than PTFE, and it’s more responsive to burner intensity.
The other feature that makes ceramic coating seem like the better option is the fact that it doesn’t chip or flake. This provides you with a bit of peace of mind as with PTFE, you never know when it will start to flake.
By the time you’ve noticed it’s on its way out, you may have already consumed some of the flakes in a meal.
What it’s Bad At
Nothing lasts forever, and the same is true of ceramic coatings.
Eventually, it will wear completely away. It’s also a much softer surface than PTFE so you’ll need to be gentle with it and use plastic or wood utensils.
Which is Best for You?
It’s hard to say what’s suitable for the average person in this situation. Non-intensive home use shouldn’t push either coating too hard.
They’ll both last a relatively long time. Yes, PTFE does eventually flake, but in our experience, ceramic wears away after roughly the same amount of time, so you get the same lifespan from both.
That said, the flaking does make the pan pretty much unusable, whereas you can still use a ceramic pan after the coating is long gone.
You certainly won’t notice the slight difference in thermal conductivity unless perhaps you had the two pans fired up next to each other on a similar heat. You do get that extra safety at high temperatures with the ceramic cover; however, ceramic will also deteriorate faster come 400 or 500 degrees.
We’d settle on the ceramic finish, but the truth is that as long as you’re responsible with your non-stick pans and you know their limitations, it probably won’t make much of a difference to you.
Provide them with the care they need and both will keep you cooking easy for a fair while. If you don’t like the idea of either of these, tin-coated cookware is a good alternative. It won’t be quite as non-stick, but it won’t wear away or release poisonous fumes either.
So What is the Best Cookware Material?
It depends what you want out of your cookware. Unfortunately, there is no one perfect combination of substances. They all have their limitations.
If you want something that’s going to last a really long time, we’d suggest you take a look at stainless steel or cast iron products, although steel will require far less maintenance.
Match steel up with a raw aluminum core for enhanced thermal conductivity and you’ve got a great pan for day to day cooking. You could opt for a copper core for optimal thermal conductivity but we feel that will weigh things down too much.
If you want something efficient as possible, you should look into anodized aluminum cookware with a ceramic non-stick coating. This combination should provide you with a smooth and swift cooking experience for the near future.
Ultimately though, a steel pan with a specialized core won’t be that much slower than an anodized aluminum pan. It has fairly good natural non-stick qualities that won’t wear away, and it’s going to last far longer.