From simply boiling water to creating a delicate Hollandaise sauce, to scrambling eggs in a fry pan, or fast cooking risotto in a pressure cooker, cookware permeates every activity in the kitchen. And, as home cooks become more proficient in their daily food preparations, they quickly realize that the proper cooking utensils not only make food preparation easier, but improve the results as well.
There are four main methods of cooking: Conduction, convection, induction, and microwave.
The design of the cookware is another important consideration. Cookware should be well balanced and have an energy-efficient shape – flat bottoms, snug-fitting lids, and straight sides. The handles should be comfortable for greater ease of use and they should be very secure.
Generally, a piece of cookware is made up of three components: The body, the handle, and the lid. A thorough understanding of these three components will make the task of selling cookware more pleasant and more effective.
Aluminum conducts heat quickly and evenly, making it a good choice for frying or braising. Aluminum also holds heat well, making it an ideal choice for slow-cooking foods. Aluminum cookware can be plain or nonstick and is relatively lightweight, which translates into easy handling.
Neither scratch nor stain resistant, it can pit if moist food remains in the pan. Aluminum reacts with certain elements such as acids, alkali, or even the hydrogen sulfide in eggs, giving them an off color. Highly acidic or salty foods should not be left in the pan as they may pit the aluminum. Aluminum cookware is not dishwasher safe.
The key quality issue with aluminum is its thickness. Thin-gauge aluminum heats quickly but creates hot spots where foods can burn or cook unevenly. The thicker the pan, the better the heat will be dispersed, thereby reducing the occurrence of hot spots. The pan’s thickness is referred to as its gauge – the smaller the number, the thicker the aluminum. Lower-gauge aluminum cookware is more durable, and more costly, although it is still much less expensive than stainless steel or copper.
The exterior can be polished, chrome plated, or have a porcelain-enamel coating or a nonstick coating.
In an effort to take advantage of aluminum’s heat conductivity, manufacturers have changed the chemical structure through an electrochemical process to create anodized aluminum.
Anodizing (often referred to as hard anodizing or hard-coat anodizing) is an electrolytic process that produces a protective oxide film on a metal. This film is not a coating, but rather a part of the pan. During the process, as the aluminum oxide forms on the surface, the metal’s properties are changed, making it more abrasion, scratch, and corrosion resistant; however, the aluminum core that remains beneath the surface still provides excellent heat conductivity.
Both the plain aluminum pan and the hard-anodized aluminum pan may have a nonstick coating applied. But the hard-anodized cookware has a greater ability to release food over the long term. Additionally, the surface of hard-anodized cookware is more porous than that of aluminum, enabling the nonstick coating to permeate the surface and be locked-in more permanently. With hard-anodized aluminum, the layer between the aluminum surface and the food eliminates the possibility of a chemical reaction occurring.
Like plain aluminum, the durability of a hard-anodized pan is relative to its thickness, its ability to spread heat evenly, and the quality of the nonstick coating that has been applied.
Iron and carbon are combined to produce steel cookware. High-carbon steel is traditionally used for woks as it can withstand high heat and transfers heat very rapidly to the food being cooked. Carbon steel, used to manufacture cookware and cutlery is susceptible to rusting, so it is recommended that cookware made of this metal be seasoned before it is used. The steel, however, can be made rust resistant, if it is mixed with chromium and nickel. The resulting quality of the mixed metal – now called stainless steel – is determined by its nickel content. Nickel produces a lustrous, durable, rust-resistant finish. Therefore, the more nickel, the higher the quality.
For instance, 18/10 stainless steel cookware is comprised of 18 parts chromium and 10 parts nickel. The amount of chromium remains constant in stainless steel; it is the nickel content that varies – from 0 to 8 to 10 parts.
Stainless steel is nonporous, nonreactive, and completely nontoxic. The high chromium content gives the cookware a bright, shiny appearance, as well as provides tensile strength to resist denting, scratching, or chipping and it does not corrode or tarnish. Dishwasher safe, stainless steel cookware can bear a polished shiny or bright mirror finish, or be given a satin one.
While stainless steel has many appealing attributes, it is a poor conductor of heat. Therefore, it is often combined with other more conductive metals, such as aluminum or copper, resulting in a ply, or a clad bottom piece of cookware.
Of all the metals, copper is the best conductor of heat, providing even, rapid distribution and requiring only low to moderate heat for best results. While it is a great conductor of heat and a very attractive metal, copper is soft and easily damaged. Additionally, it reacts with moisture, creating a greenish film, and with salt, forming white spots. Unless properly cleaned, both properties can give foods cooked in copper a metallic taste. Also, copper is toxic, and small amounts can leach into food.
Copper is often bonded or laminated with other metals to produce cookware that offers more even heat distribution. Copper cookware must be lined, most often with tin, nickel, or stainless steel. Tin lining wears out quickly, but can be re-tinned easily; nickel linings are durable, but can be difficult to refurbish. A stainless steel lining will last the life of the pan. The downside is that the steel is less conductive than copper, and retards its sensitive cooking properties.
Cast iron , a slow cooker that retains heat well, has been the cookware of choice for frying, browning, and baking for years. Quite durable and inexpensive, cast iron cookware’s magnetic properties allow its usage on induction cook tops.
On the downside, cast iron cookware is very heavy and not the best conductor of heat. It is not easy to clean, is not dishwasher safe, and must be seasoned before use. It rusts easily, so it must be properly cared for, including drying it well after it’s washed.
A porcelain-enamel coating provides a relatively thick nonmetallic coating to metals such as aluminum and cast iron, both good conductors of heat. Enamel does not react with food, and when combined with the heat conductivity of the metal below the surface, porcelain-enamel-coaled cookware is great for simmering stews, soups, or other casserole dishes. Since the coating is available in many colors, the cookware may also function as an attractive serving vessel.
The coating’s quality is relative to the ingredients in the glaze, as well as the number of coats applied. On the downside, porcelain can chip or crack at extreme or rapidly changing temperatures. It can be scratched by metal utensils and since the coating affects the pan’s heat conductivity, cookware coated with porcelain-enamel is not ideal for sauteing or browning.
Clay-based pots were probably the first pots used for cooking. Still in use today, they appear in a variety of forms. Earthenware is porous, coarse in texture, terracotta in color, and is composed of a clay that is fired at low temperatures. If it is not glazed, it remains porous. A good energy saver, earthenware cookware is ideal for slow cooking. It doesn’t heat up quickly, but once heated, retains its temperature for a long period of time. Earthenware pots can be glazed on the inside to seal the surface, while their outer surfaces are left unglazed so they can absorb heat and moisture.
Porcelain cookware has a clay body that is a combination of a variety of clays. When fired, porcelain becomes hard and strong and has a very white and smooth surface.
Stoneware is a high-fired ceramic often made of unrefined clays. Stoneware is vitreous or semivitreous.
While glass is a good heat conductor, it does not distribute it evenly. Oven-proof glass works well for most oven cooking as it doesn’t react with foods. However, it is not efficient for use on the stove top because hot spots may develop.
How Metal Cookware is Manufactured
Metal cookware is made using one of four manufacturing techniques: Stamped, drawing, cast, and spun.
A die in a press machine is used to make stamped cookware. Flat sheets of metal or flat pieces of circular metal are placed in a machine that “stamps” out or shapes the cookware. Afterwards, the finish is applied to both the interior and the exterior. Stamping is most often used to create shallow pieces of cookware.
When the piece of cookware being manufactured is of considerable depth, the drawing technique is used. During this process, a sheet of metal is progressively compressed into a series of deeper dies.
Stamping and drawing are most often used for aluminum, steel, and stainless steel cookware.
To cast cookware, molten metal is poured into a mold that is designed specifically for each cookware piece. This method allows the thickness of the cookware to be varied throughout the piece in order to maximize cooking efficiency. Aluminum and iron are most often cast into cookware.
The process of creating spun cookware begins by fastening a metal blank (a round piece of metal) to the round end of a mold. This is then rotated as the metal is shaped over it. A uniform gauge of the cookware is maintained by applying an equal amount of pressure to all sides during the process. Steel and aluminum are the metals most often spun into cookware.
Many nonstick coatings are available on the market, with their qualities ranging from low to high. Nonstick coatings enable cooks to use less fat when cooking, as well as offer easy cleanup. It is best to follow a manufacturer’s instructions as to care and use.
Cookware handles are fashioned into a plethora of different shapes and made of a variety of different materials – plastic, metal, wood, and ceramic or glass. They may be attached to the cookware body by molding, welding, and riveting, or by a simple screw.
While there is no preferred way to attach a handle to cookware, each method has its advantages – both functional and aesthetic.
A permanent, durable method of attaching the handle is through welding. This process can be used for either a metal or a phenolic handle, but can be visibly unappealing since the weld marks are visible.
The riveted handle provides the most durability; however, food may build up on the rivet heads on the pan’s inside, if it is not cleaned properly. Additionally, the rivet heads on the pot’s inside may hinder stirring.
The screw-on handle permits the pan to have a smooth interior, but the screw may loosen over time. If it is damaged, the handle can be replaced.
Lids vary in weight, shape, and the quality of their seal and must suit the type of cooking being done. For example, a domed lid can form a sturdy seal and prevent steam from escaping. As the water condenses on the lid, the droplets fall back into the pan, helping create a moist environment perfect for soups and stews.
Likewise, when cooking a sauce, it is necessary to use a lid to keep the sauce from spattering. However, a tomato sauce for example requires evaporation, making a domed lid the improper shape. A flat, more lightweight lid that permits steam to escape is a better lid choice in this instance.
Lids regulate the heat in the pot, and depending on the material makeup, their effectiveness can vary. A lid made of highly conductive metal with a quality seal can create a “little oven” inside the pot in which the heat surrounds the food and holds it at high temperatures for a long time.
How to Season Cookware
Cast iron, cast aluminum, and steel cookware are commonly seasoned to seal off the pan’s surface from water to help prevent the cookware from rusting. Additionally, seasoning prevents the cookware from imparting a metallic taste to the food being cooked and also creates a barrier that helps keep foods from sticking.
Wash the new pan in hot, soapy water; then rinse it well, and dry it. Place the pan over a heat source for thorough drying. Because the pan will be subjected to high cooking temperatures, it is important to use an oil, such as peanut oil, that has a high tolerance to burning.
To season it with the stovetop method, pour a bit of the oil in an unheated pan and spread it over the surface and up the sides. Place the pan on the stovetop over moderate heat and then remove it once the oil begins to smoke. When the pan has cooled down completely, wipe off the excess oil – now, it’s ready to use.
To season cookware in the oven, pour oil into the unheated pan and spread it over the surface and up the sides. Place in a 300-350°F oven for an hour. Remove, let cool, and wipe off the excess oil.
Seasoned pans should not be placed in the dishwasher. Further, if you wash a seasoned pan with soap, it will need to be preseasoned. It is recommended that the pan be cleaned with hot water and a scrubbing brush. If the pan rusts, sand out the rust, wash, and preseason.