By: Mark R. Vogel
What factors entered into your last cookware procurement? Price is always a consideration. But were you influenced by the color, or that neat little glass lid that allows you to see inside? Or maybe the free utensils that came with it tempted you.
Much to the delight of purveyors, emotional inclinations and aesthetic trappings produce impulse purchases. I just had to have that red, (my favorite color), tea kettle, even though I own a perfectly functional stainless steel one. Not that there is anything wrong with these yearnings. We are human and indulging our passions makes us feel good. But if you're a serious cook, you will need much more than your desires to guide you toward the proper equipment.
The primary consideration in choosing cookware is the material it is constructed from. Copper is the most expensive but also the best heat conductor. Superior heat conduction allows for even cooking. For example, you will find pans on the market made from stainless steel, a fair conductor, with a thick reinforced bottom containing aluminum, a better conductor. The problem here is the heat conduction is not evenly dispersed throughout the pan and the bottom of your food will cook at an unacceptably disproportionate rate. You cannot braise food efficiently in such a pan. A pan with thorough and even heat conduction also eliminates "hot spots". These are sections of the pan that are hotter than others, usually dead center in the bottom, which render browning your food uniformly a frustrating challenge. Finally, a pan with good heat conduction rapidly responds to increases or decreases in temperature, thus allowing you quick control over the heat level. This attribute is necessary for successful sautéing.
The problem with copper cookware, (beside the price), is reactivity. Copper, aluminum, and to a lesser extent cast iron, are "reactive" metals. That means they will chemically combine with certain foods, usually acidic ones, and alter the flavor and color of your preparation. Not to mention that you will be consuming unwanted levels of the metal. Copper discolors and scratches easily as well. I would recommend at least having one good copper bowl for beating egg whites. For reasons scientifically complex involving copper ions, (which I will not bore you with here), copper is superior for beating egg whites to maximal volume.
Aluminum is a good heat conductor but as stated, reactive. Aluminum is also a soft metal and eventually wears down but remains popular because it's inexpensive. There are anodized aluminum pans, which are chemically treated to prevent reactivity. If you insist on aluminum, anodized is the way to go.
Cast iron is also a superb heat conductor and inexpensive. However it has drawbacks as well: rusting, pitting, reactivity, and sticking to food. For all of these reasons cast iron pans must be "seasoned." This means coating the entire pan, inside and out with oil or shortening and baking it to seal the fat into the pan. This will thwart rusting and reactivity, and give you a non-stick surface. Of course this protective layer breaks down over time and the process must be repeated. Some cast iron pans are coated with enamel. This is an attempt to ameliorate the dilemmas of cast iron while maintaining exceptional heat conduction. I have one cast iron skillet for searing steaks. Nothing aside from a grill will give you that deliciously charred exterior.
You're probably realizing at this point that there is no perfect pan. So which material can give us most of the qualities we desire with no glaring deficits? Stainless Steel is the ultimate compromise. It provides the mid range in price and heat conduction, is durable, easy to clean, and non-reactive. But wait, we can push the perfection curve even further. To increase stainless steel's heat conduction, aluminum is often sandwiched between an internal and external layer of stainless steel. In a high quality pan, this layer extends all the way up the sides, not just the bottom. Now we have a pan that embraces everything with one exception: price. You can't have it all and when you do you have to pay for it.
If you want the ultimate quality, and are willing to spend the money on a cookware set that will literally last a lifetime, than I would recommend All-Clad. No, I do not get free cookware from them for promoting their products. I am simply steering you toward the best cookware on the market. I would recommend their stainless steel with aluminum interior. It's heavy gauge stainless steel with good conductivity and top-notch construction. But you will pay over $500 for a set.
The bottom line is better cookware will cook your food better. The degree of your culinary zealousness, the type of cooking you do, and your wallet will determine your final choice. I suggest you acquire the best stainless steel set you can afford plus a few specialty pieces, (non-stick, cast iron, copper, etc.), for unique items best suited to these materials.