When it comes to cooking, any chef can tell you that pairing the right tools with the right methods is a vital component to getting the results you want. That need to use the right tool extends even down into the materials that the tools are made of--especially when it comes to cookware. Although anodized aluminum and stainless steel have been trendy for several years, and more and more silicone baking supplies seem to be developed every year, it can be difficult to know which material to invest in. Ultimately it comes down to what tasks you’re doing, and what kind of budget you have at your disposal. Of course, any good restaurant supply store carries cookware in all kinds of shapes and sizes, as well as a variety of materials, but having a starting point in making your choices can make a big difference.
Cast iron is a tried and true favorite in both commercial and home kitchens, and for good reason: it’s durable, versatile, and relatively inexpensive compared to some other materials. For searing well as stovetop-to-oven applications, its difficult to beat, as the material retains heat extremely well, and distributes it throughout the cooking surface. While it can take time to heat up fully, cast iron can take a huge amount of heat, again and again, without warping or wearing out. The downside to this is that acidic foods and sauces are not always best-suited for the surface, and of course there is the requirement to regularly “re-season” the cast iron to maintain it’s almost-non stick properties. It also isn’t the best for delicate foods like eggs.
Stainless steel is also a popular option in home and commercial kitchens alike, largely because it tends to be more lightweight than cast iron, as well as rust-resistant and easy to clean. However, stainless steel doesn’t typically conduct heat as well as cast iron does, so most heavier pieces will include a layer of copper or aluminum in the bottom for better performance. Dishwasher safe, and resistant to scratches and dents, it’s an excellent material for a wide range of cooktop uses from soups and stocks to sauces. It tends not to be a great surface for cooking eggs on, lacking non stick properties, and it can be in the pricier range, but general purpose cookware in stainless steel is highly reliable.
Aluminum, being the least expensive metal in use for kitchen materials, tends to also be one of the most popular, especially for those on a budget. From sheet pans to sauce pans, cake molds to pie tins, it’s a versatile material that does clean easily, and has the benefit of being widely available. Its downsides are worth considering when it comes time to purchase, however: while aluminum heats quickly, it also loses that heat quickly. In addition, untreated aluminum is not great for acidic dishes--the acid can leech the aluminum into the liquid, creating metallic taste and, in large doses, toxic reactions. But this can be overcome by using coated aluminum.
Finally, silicone, which seems to be appearing more and more in baking materials as well as cooking tools--though not, thankfully, as a material for pots and pans themselves. Silicone makes an excellent material for baked goods like cakes and muffins, being non-stick and flexible. It also makes it possible to created molded cakes easily, and is durable enough to stand up to aggressive washing and high heats. Since silicone doesn’t conduct heat itself, there’s no browning that occurs where objects are in contact with the surface--but this can be an excellent thing, and the insulating properties mean that it cooks gently and evenly.
When it comes to cookware, the best approach is to include a mixture of materials; each popular surface has its own particular strengths and differences. Depending on what you do most in the kitchen--whether it’s searing and long-cooking stews, soups and sauces, sauteing or pasta, or baking--the materials you buy will inform how well the end result comes out. Restaurant supply stores carry all kinds of cookwares in all kinds of materials, so use this guide as a starting point to finding the right tool for the right applications, and take your cooking efforts to the next level.