Cookware is made from a wide variety of materials, so there will always be an item that possesses the exact properties you require for a specific dish. Understanding how these materials perform in the kitchen will improve your choice of cookware and hopefully your cooking!
Considered the ‘professional’s choice’, stainless steel pans are extremely strong, durable and good looking. It won’t react with the food or corrode (except in extreme circumstances). Stainless steel is a very poor heat conductor, whilst this is a great advantage for pan handles as they are less likely to get hot, but not so great for the body of the pan when it comes to spreading the heat. To provide both strength and thermal conductivity, stainless steel pans usually have a thick layer of conductive aluminium or copper bonded to the thin steel base. This layer is then enclosed in stainless steel for durability, creating what is known as an encapsulated or sandwich base.
Aluminium – Hard Anodised or Toughened Non-Stick (TNS)
Strong, light and a good conductor of heat, aluminium ticks many of the boxes that we require for cookware, but aluminium is a soft metal and would be prone to damage. To combat this and prolong life, most modern aluminium pans are ‘hard anodised’. This means the pan has undergone an electrochemical process which creates a dense layer of oxide on the surface of the cookware. The oxide layer almost entirely prevents any reactions between the food and the metal and gives an attractive uniform grey colour to the cookware. Aluminium cookware always tends to have a non-stick coating applied to the interior of the pans for added convenience too.
Tri-ply or Laminate
Two different names for the same thing - laminates are the latest development in cookware materials. They consist of a thin pan body made from a conductive material such as aluminium, clad with two very thin shells of stainless steel, one on the inside and one outside. Tri-ply pans are typically less than 3mm thick throughout and combine the strength of stainless steel with the conductivity of aluminium across the entire body of the pan, even up the sides of the pan. Tri-ply cookware is usually dishwasher safe and combines the durability of stainless steel with the responsive cooking performance of aluminium, however hand washing is generally recommended as the chemicals used in dishwasher soaps can cause some discolouration to the exterior finish.
A very traditional material used typically in old school frying pans, crepe pans and woks and appealing to those who have lost patience with non-stick coatings! Carbon steel does not give the best heat distribution & is best suited for high heat cooking. This type of cookware should be seasoned before use to prevent it from rusting and to improve its natural non-stick properties. Seasoning is achieved by heating a small amount of light oil in the pan for around 15 minutes before using the pan for the first time and wiping away any excess before cooking. Never put carbon steel cookware into the dishwasher. Gentle hand washing will keep the pan clean without removing the seasoning. It is important that these pans are thoroughly dried to prevent rusting. Many chefs prefer to simply wipe their carbon steel pans clean.
Highly prized by chefs, copper is not only extremely beautiful, it is also one of the most conductive materials found on earth. This means that copper cookware provides the user with the ultimate control of temperature and the optimum rate of cooking and browning. Pure copper reacts with substances found in many foods to produce mildly toxic oxides, so for this reason almost all modern copper cookware is lined with a thin layer of inert material. Old school copper is lined with tin which has a similar effect, but be careful if using with very acidic foods or at excessively high temperatures, as it could potentially cause the tin to blister. Unlike their standard cooking counterparts, copper sugar pans are unlined - as the metal will not react with sugar when in use. Another unexpected benefit of copper is that unlined copper beating bowls actually help to reduce the effort required to beat egg whites into stiff peaks. Copper pots and pans should always be washed by hand and dried thoroughly after washing and remember that it will need regular polishing to maintain its fabulous looks – don’t we all!
A material that is heavy, extremely slow to conduct heat and prone to rusting would not seem to be the ideal material for cookware; despite this cast iron has a place in the heart of most well-equipped kitchens. When heated, cast iron provides a very even, uniform heat ideally suited to slowly cooking casseroles over long periods. This allows the natural flavours and textures of the food to fully develop. Cast iron griddle pans are able to produce the intense dry heat required to seal in flavour when cooking the perfect steak. Cast iron cookware is coated in vitreous enamel to prevent corrosion and tainting of the food as well as allowing a rainbow of colours. A cast iron pot could easily provide over 25 years’ solid use. It will happily withstand the dishwasher; however, don’t drop it as cast iron can be rather brittle.
Often considered a good substitute for cast iron, materials such as earthenware or stoneware provide uniform heat distribution and are excellent as casseroles and stewpots. Unglazed earthenware should be soaked in water for 30 minutes prior to use in applications such as the much loved chicken brick which yields remarkably juicy results.