Cooking with quality pots and pans, made out of appropriate material for the different cooking methods, can definitely improve your culinary results in the kitchen. There is such a wide variety of cookware available to both professional and amateur chefs nowadays, however, so it can be hard to decide on what to buy. Some makes are more renowned than others – such as Calphalon, All Clad, Viking and Circulon – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are better. Your choice of what to get often boils down to personal preference – to what you’ve preferred cooking with in the past – as well as to what suits your budget.
Before you go ahead and spend your precious savings, keep in mind what your cooking needs are, as well as requirements with regards to storage and cleaning. What are you planning to cook on a daily basis? Do you need lids? Do you have space in your cupboards for large pots and pans? Are they dishwasher safe? And most importantly, what material suits you best? Metals such as aluminium, copper, cast iron, stainless steel and carbon steel are the most popular, but you also get coated, enamelled and non-stick cookware. Then there’s also non-metallic cookware – ceramics, glass, glass-ceramic and silicone. Let’s have a look at advantages and drawbacks of these different types of cookware materials.
Aluminium is a lightweight metal with very good thermal conductivity. It does not rust, and is resistant to many forms of corrosion. Aluminium can, however, react with some acidic foods to change the taste of the food. Aluminium is perfect for sauté pans, stockpots, roasters and Dutch ovens.
Copper pans provide the best conductivity, and therefore the most even heating. They tend, however, to be heavy and expensive, and to require occasional re-tinning. Copper pans are great for high-heat, fast-cooking techniques such as sautéing.
Cast iron cookware is slow to heat, but once at temperature provides even heating. Being a reactive material, cast iron can have chemical reactions with high acid foods such as wine or tomatoes. In addition, some foods (such as spinach) cooked on bare cast iron will turn black. It also rusts easily. Nevertheless, cast iron can withstand very high temperatures, making cast iron pans ideal for searing.
Stainless steel is an iron alloy containing a minimum of 11.5% chromium. Stainless steel doesn’t react with either alkaline or acidic foods, and it is not easily scratched or dented. Stainless steel’s drawback for cooking use is that it is a relatively poor heat conductor. Which on the positive side means that stainless steel cookware is perfect for low-heat cooking.
Carbon steel cookware can be rolled or hammered into very thin sheets of material, while still maintaining high strength and heat resistance. This allows for rapid and high heating. Carbon steel does not conduct heat as well as other materials, however. Carbon steel cookware is best for woks, crepe pans and paella pans – where one portion of the pan is intentionally kept at a different temperature than the rest.
Non-stick cookware is popular because it’s so convenient and easy to use. However it requires vigilant care and attention in order to preserve the non-stick coating, and is not extremely popular among professional chefs. Non-metallic cookware, on the other hand, is mostly for use in conventional and microwave ovens.
Now let’s move on to take a look at which different types of pots and pans you need in order to cook up a storm in your kitchen – whether you’re making a scrumptious sauce, frying spicy fishcakes, roasting succulent lamb or boiling potatoes for mash.
1. Braising pans and roasting pans are large, wide and shallow to provide space to cook a meat or poultry roast. They typically have two loop or tab handles, and may have a cover. Roasters are usually made of heavy gauge metal so that they may be used safely on a cooktop following roasting in an oven – for deglazing and making sauces.
2. Dutch ovens are heavy, relatively deep pots with a heavy lid – designed to re-create oven conditions on the stovetop. They can be used for stews, braised meats, soups and a large variety of other dishes that benefit from low heat and slow cooking. Dutch ovens are typically made from cast iron, and are measured by volume. Casserole pans resemble roasters and Dutch ovens, and many recipes can be used interchangeably between them. Depending on their material, casseroles can be used in the oven or on the stovetop. Casseroles are commonly made of glazed ceramics or pyrex.
3. Frying pans or skillets provide a large flat heating surface and shallow sides, and are best for pan frying. Frying pans with a gentle, rolling slope are sometimes called omelette pans. Grill pans are frying pans that are ribbed to let fat drain away from the food being cooked. Frying pans are most often used for frying or sautéing meat, veggies or eggs, and sometimes come with lids.
4. Griddles or grill pans are flat plates of metal used for frying, grilling and making pan breads such as pancakes, tortillas and crepes. Traditional iron griddles are circular, with a semicircular hoop fixed to opposite edges of the plate and rising above it to form a central handle. Rectangular griddles that cover two stove burners are now also common, as are griddles that have a ribbed area that can be used like a grill pan. Some have multiple square metal grooves enabling the contents to have a defined pattern, similar to a waffle maker.
5. Saucepans – or just pots – are vessels with vertical sides about the same height as their diameter, used for simmering or boiling. Saucepans generally have one long handle. Larger pots of the same shape generally have two handles close to the sides of the pot so they can be lifted with both hands, and are called saucepots. Measured by volume, saucepans are usually used to make sauces.
6. Sauté pans, used for sautéing, have a large surface area and low sides to permit steam to escape and allow the cook to toss the food. The word “sauté” comes from the French verb “sauter”, meaning to jump. Sauté pans often have straight vertical sides and a glass lid.
7. Stockpots are large pots with sides at least as tall as their diameter. This allows stock to simmer for extended periods of time without reducing too much. Stockpots are typically measured in volume and come in a large variety of sizes to meet any need – from cooking for a family to preparing food for a banquet. Stockpots are great for steaming vegetables, cooking pasta and making soups and stocks.
8. Woks are wide, roughly bowl-shaped vessels with one or two handles at or near the rim. This shape allows a small pool of cooking oil in the centre of the wok to be heated to a high heat using relatively little fuel, while the outer areas of the wok are used to keep food warm after it has been fried in the oil. In the Western world, woks are typically used only for stir-frying, but they can actually be used for anything from steaming to deep frying.
Although you now have a guide to what type of cookware materials will suit different cooking needs, as well as a guide to the different types of pots and pans available for your kitchen, you might still be slightly indecisive when it comes to what exactly to buy. Your best bet is to then speak to chefs or cooks in your family or circle of friends – or even friends of friends – and ask them for advice. At the end of the day, however, you know your own cooking needs best and should be able to make a decision based on that. Enjoy your new set of pots and pans!