Who-ware, what-ware, why-ware cookware!?! Copper, Aluminum, stainless steel, oh my! Which way do I go, which way do I go? Cookware is a very confusing issue and isn't made easier by the lords of retail. In spite of what you hear in advertisements, a knowledgeable customer isn't a good customer. On the contrary, a confused customer is a customer who will buy more than they need. The hope I have here is that I can help make you a more informed shopper. So let's dig in shall we?
This first part of the article will deal with what cookware is made of and which may be the best choices for you. Of course, only you can decide what is right for you.
With that thought in mind, let me state three things upfront that might save you further hassles and anxiety.
One, there are approximately 6.5 billion people alive on the planet and I think it is safe to say that slightly more than 6 billion of them prepare their daily meals on what gourmets, gourmands and culinary snobs would call less than adequate cookware. And these people seem to be doing just fine thank you very much.
Two, you need to be honest with yourself about who you are and the reality of your culinary life. If you cook most of your food from cans, jars and bags â€“ then what you cook this food in really doesn't matter. This isn't to judge or seem haughty, but you may have a large family with jobs and kids needing to be here and there everyday. You might not have the time or energy to pursue any other style of cooking. Don't dispair, just use the tools you have and feed your family. If your family is happy with the food you make and you like it, then don't let anyone tell you that you need some fancy piece of cookware. You can make recipes from the cookbooks of great and/or famous chefs with basic cookware and things will turn out fine. My grandmother was a great cook and aside from her cast iron skillets, her cookware wasn't great.
Three, make sure that you match your cookware quality to your cooktop quality. In other words if you have a high-end, high BTU Viking cooktop or range, then please don't use inexpensive, stainless steel only cookware. The high BTU output will cause severe hot spots, undesired quick and uneven cooking. Even the simplest dishes will turn out disappointing. As we will see later in this article, thin pots and pans made of poorly conducting metals don't produce good results. Conversely, if you have heavy, high end cookware and a low BTU/electric, â€œrange that came with the placeâ€, then you will find that food takes longer to cook and, depending on the heat source, won't properly and evenly heat the metals used in the pots and pans. This mismatch in elements can cause even your most adventuresome culinary experiments to fall short of expectations or be frustrating. Old electric ranges are not only slow to heat up and cool down, but highly unresponsive. The newer electric cooktops are much better but again the matching rule still applies. In general, don't be talked into new cookware unless you are ready for a full commitment to heat source and cookware harmony.
Before we move on, there is one special rule for induction cooktops. While these ranges and cooktops are highly efficient and very effective, they require magnetic contact to generate heat. The problem is that the list of cookware that works is relatively short. The rule is if you can stick a magnet to the bottom, it will work.
So with that said - let's talk metal!
It is generally stated that copper is the best metal for cookware and for the most part they (whoever they are) are correct. Copper has the best heat conductivity of all the metals used to make cookware. But before we all run out and buy thousands of dollars of copper pots and pans, let's look quickly at the factors that make metals good or not so good for cooking purposes.
I can hear some of you screaming now â€œAaaaaagh! Here comes the boring technical stuff that makes my head hurt!â€. If you are looking for graphs and charts and scientific formulas, this is not your article. There are many good articles out on the net which go into that sort of detail. I will only tell you about the terms and try to tie them to what you will see out in the retail jungle. I don't believe that teaching all the technical aspects of cookware metals makes you a better consumer.
1.) There is heat conductivity. This simply indicates how well a metal disperses energy (heat from a flame or burner) over its surface. Copper is far and away the best conductor of energy. It is almost twice as good as aluminum. And the two are way ahead of the other materials.
2.) There is also heat capacity. This tells us how much energy (heat) a metal can hold. Cast iron holds more heat than copper and you might be surprised to know that stainless steel is second only to aluminum in how much energy it can hold.
People have come up with a combined measurement of these two topics called thermal or heat diffusivity. This is a fancy way of saying take the two numbers or terms above together and create a single measurement. Copper is first, followed by aluminum, cast iron, carbon steel and stainless steel.
Now there are wild cards here like thickness of the metal and combined metals.
OK, let's start with thickness. Yes, a thicker metal will have a better diffusivity, but cast iron will never surpass copper or aluminum in overall performance no matter how thick. But can say 5 mm of aluminum perform as well as 2.5 mm of copper. Yes, to some extent, but it will never be as responsive. When shopping for cookware, just be aware that thickness isn't always better yet it will factor into price.
Next, are combined metals better than pure or single metal cookware? This is where marketing and science come into play. Marketing types will try to convince you with science that their particular design is superior. As for whether there is cooking difference, that can be debated. In my opinion, combined metals will, in most cases, make better cookware, providing the manufacturer has a good reputation and the products are made of good quality materials.
However, we need to look at a pan being made entirely of or completely covered by the superior metal. Also, does the superior metal cover the whole area of the pot / pan or just the base? Combining metals can give you the best of each metal and it can make cooking enjoyable for the home chef. For instance, a 5mm aluminum core skillet with stainless steel inside and out will give you the benefits of aluminum's thermal diffusivity and the ease of use and durability of stainless steel. An all copper skillet with stainless steel inside, will give you the superior performance of copper with the ease of use and durability of stainless steel. I have used copper pots and pans, aluminum base and copper base pans and find that the performance differential is negligible, depending on the task. Yes, an all copper skillet will live up to its exalted reputation. A thick all aluminum pan will also perform well. Do I notice a difference between the copper, the 5mm aluminum core Demeyere skillet, my industrial grade aluminum skillet and my copper base Sitram skillets? Yes, I would have to say the copper, Demeyere and Sitram perform far better than the pure aluminum and the Demeyere skillet is better than the Sitram.
But that leads us to the obvious question of whether the higher cost of copper and Demeyere or Viking equate to an equal level of superiority: well that is for each to decide. For me, it is does not. Copper remains the best and the highest priced, but by comparison I believe that these other types of cookware come close enough for most of us, and combined with the savings in cost make them viable options for gourmet cooking. Within each sub-classification below you will find the same axiom applies. For instance, Allclad isn't always proportionally better than other brands of tri-ply cookware.
One other thing to keep in mind is that certain metals that are better at certain tasks than others - copper, cast iron and aluminum for skillets, enamel coated cast iron for braising and slow cooking, cast iron skillets for high heat frying, you get the idea. I cover this topic in each descriptive area below. My point here is that one doesn't need to buy every piece from one class of cookware or manufacturer.
So without further ado, let's talk about how these metals are presented, what they are best for and who makes them.
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