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5 Types of Cookware Materials
Material is important when selecting a new pan. Different materials have different levels of heat conductivity, heat retention, and reactiveness. Some of the most common pan materials include:
- Cast iron: A cast iron pan can be slow to heat up (give your pan about 10 minutes to preheat), but once it does, it stays hot. Cast iron’s heat distribution isn't as even as aluminum, so if you're cooking on a stovetop, the part of the pan directly above the heat source will be the warmest. Cast iron has a rough surface that builds up a natural nonstick coating through a process of seasoning. Highly acidic foods, soap, and heavy scrubbing can damage this seasoning, but you can always re-season a cast iron pan. (Cast iron cookware is not dishwasher safe.) Cast iron is affordable and, treated well, it can last for generations. Use cast iron for searing steak, frying bacon, and slow-cooking stews and braises.
- Copper: Copper is an excellent heat conductor that provides even heat distribution, but it's also one of the most expensive cookware materials. Since copper is reactive, it's usually lined with another nonreactive material, such as stainless steel or tin. Copper cookware is very responsive. Unlike cast iron, which takes a long time to heat up and cool down, pans with a copper core heat and cool quickly. Use copper for foods that require precise temperatures, such as caramel, sauces, and fish. Copper pots are also ideal for slow-cooking stews and braises.
- Nonstick: Nonstick pans are affordable and easy to clean. Though the nonstick coating isn't ideal for browning, it's useful for sautéing particularly delicate food, like fish or omelets. The downside? The nonstick coating tends to disintegrate over time, so expect to replace your nonstick cookware every few years; don't use metal utensils or spatulas on a nonstick surface, which will accelerate this process.
- Carbon steel pans: Like cast iron, carbon steel is good at retaining heat. Carbon steel pans also require seasoning to prevent food from sticking. The advantage of carbon steel over cast iron is that carbon steel pans are usually lighter weight and have sloped sides, both of which are useful if you're flipping anything in the pan.
- Stainless steel pans: Stainless steel is durable and non-reactive, making it a kitchen workhorse. It also has a tendency to stick to food, so it's not ideal for scrambling eggs or cooking fish. Stainless steel can work with almost anything else, provided there's enough fat or liquid to prevent sticking, or if you deglaze the pan after cooking.
10 Essential Types of Pans
Each type of pan is useful for a different cooking method.
- Sauté pans: A sauté pan is a deep pan with straight sides angled 90 degrees from its base, maximizing surface area and minimizing splatter. Ideal for sautéing food, sauté pans are typically made of stainless steel.
- Wok: A wok has a bowl-like cooking surface and a long handle to protect your hands from the high temperatures required for stir-frying. Most woks are made from carbon steel.
- Dutch oven: Heavy-bottomed Dutch ovens are ideal for slow cooking braises and stews. Many models can also travel from the stovetop to the oven, making them ideal for dishes that need to be browned first and then slowly cooked in an oven. Dutch ovens are often made of oven-safe cast iron or enameled cast iron.
- Grill pan: A grill pan is a pan with ridges that mimic the effect of a barbecue. Grill pans are often made of cast iron, which is slow to heat up, retains heat well, and provides excellent browning. Preheat your grill pan over high heat about 10 minutes before you plan to cook, and use it for anything you'd put on a real grill: kebabs, halved peaches, or pounded chicken breasts.
- Griddle: A griddle is a long, flat pan useful for cooking pancakes, eggs, bacon, and burgers. Home versions of restaurant griddles are usually made of cast iron and designed to take up two stovetop burners.
- Paella pan: If you frequently make paella, the Spanish rice-and-seafood dish, you might want to invest in this specialized pan with a large, flat bottom and shallow, sloped sides. Paella pans, like woks, are often made of stainless steel.
- Skillet: A skillet is similar to a sauté pan but with sloped sides. Also known as a frying pan, the best skillets are often made with cast iron. Cast-iron skillets take a while to heat up, but once they get hot, they stay hot, which makes them a great choice for searing a steak. Their high, sloped sides are also ideal for shallow-frying.
- Roasting pan: A roasting pan is typically rectangular with straight sides and heavy-duty handles ideal for pulling a whole turkey out of the oven. Roasting pans are often made of stainless steel, copper, or enameled cast iron—oven-safe materials that retain heat. Use a roasting pan for roasting anything too tall or heavy for a rimmed baking sheet, such as large cuts of meat or casseroles.
- Crêpe pan: As with a paella pan, a crepe pan is a specialty item. Crêpe pans are large, flat round pans with very shallow, sloped sides, ideal for cooking thin crêpe batter. If you want to make crêpes for the first time but you're not ready to invest in a carbon steel crêpe pan, use a stainless steel or carbon steel frying pan.
- Stockpot: A stockpot is a large pot you can use for any number of things. For long stewing and simmering, you'll want a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot, but if you're just boiling water for pasta, choose a thin pan, which will heat up quickly.
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