Even if you’re not a trained chef, you know that the type of cookware you use can sometimes make or break a meal. Use the wrong kind of pan—for pancakes or omelets, for instance—and you may end up prying the food off the surface. Here’s a guide to help you choose among the many options.
Aluminum. Most cookware in the marketplace is aluminum-based, usually alloyed with small amounts of other metals. This relatively inexpensive and lightweight option cooks food evenly, though it scratches easily, may stain, and can give acidic foods (such as tomato sauce) a bitter off-taste. What about concerns that aluminum may cause Alzheimer’s disease? Some aluminum does leach into foods cooked in this type of cookware but, despite the scares originating several decades ago, there’s been no convincing evidence that aluminum contributes to this disease. Still, you should avoid cooking acidic foods in it, since besides the bitter tastes that may occur, this can pock the surface of the cookware. Also, though ingestion of aluminum is not usually considered harmful, some people with kidney disease store a lot of aluminum in their body, and long-term excess aluminum intake could interfere with phosphorus absorption.
A better though more expensive option is anodized aluminum cookware, which is treated in ways that make the surface harder and more resistant to scratches, staining, leaching of aluminum, and off-flavors. Be aware, though, that some anodized products marketed as “nonstick,” “hard,” or “infused” may also contain PTFE or PTFE-related compounds. To find out more about what’s in them, you can ask the manufacturers, though they may not be very forthcoming, or the information may be proprietary.
Cast iron. This is a tried-and-true cookware option, used since ancient times. It’s durable, inexpensive, and versatile—you can use it for all kinds of cooking. But cast-iron pots and pans are heavy. And some iron leaches into foods that are acidic, such as tomato sauce, which is beneficial for people who are iron-deficient but a problem for those with hemochromatosis, a genetic condition in which iron builds up in the body to dangerous levels. Cast-iron pots and pans don’t always cook food evenly, shouldn’t be put in the dishwasher, and will rust if left wet. To maintain a cast-iron pan, you have to rub oil on the surface, referred to as seasoning. A well-seasoned cast-iron pan has fairly good nonstick properties. An alternative is enameled cast-iron cookware, which doesn’t react with food or need to be seasoned.
Ceramic coated. A relative newcomer is ceramic-coated cookware, which is nonstick but contains neither PTFE nor PFOA. Rather, the material is touted as heat-stable and flake-resistant, and therefore free of health or environmental concerns. But the products may use nanoparticle coatings, whose long-term effects on health and the environment are almost entirely unknown (see page 5). According to the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, there are no regulations for the use of such coatings (or any nanotechnology), and it’s unknown whether these tiny particles can migrate out during use. Some users have complained about chipping. More studies are needed.
Copper. High-quality, heavy-gauge copper pots and pans have a long lifespan and heat foods evenly. But as with aluminum and iron pans, copper can leach into food, especially acidic foods, resulting in a metallic taste. The addition of small amounts of copper in the diet isn’t generally a health concern. Copper cookware lined with stainless steel eliminates this leaching problem.
Glass. Glass is an inert material, meaning that nothing reacts with it or leaches from it. The best-known brand of glass cookware is Pyrex, introduced more than a century ago. But you have to follow instructions and heed warnings on labels, since there have been reports of some products shattering due to thermal shock. This risk may vary, depending on the composition of the glass, such as borosilicate glass in older clear Pyrex versus tempered soda-lime glass in newer products (the latter is less heat-resistant).
Stainless steel. Chefs love stainless-steel cookware because it is durable, doesn’t react with food, and is easy to clean. It can even be put in the dishwasher. Higher-quality stainless-steel pots and pans often have an inner core of aluminum or copper that helps food cook more uniformly. These pricier options may also have a brushed finish that makes them nonstick. Otherwise, basic stainless-steel cookware may not be completely nonstick unless a little oil or liquid is added to the food when cooking. (Of course, adding oil—but not necessarily liquid—to any cookware makes food less likely to stick.)