“What are the best materials for cookware? Some people are nuts about clay, other swear by cast iron or stainless steel. And what about aluminum—is that bad for you?”
Pots and pans are the workhorses of the kitchen, but it’s hard to say what the best materials are—they all have their own advantages and drawbacks. That’s why this discussion should really start with you, the consumer, who should consider what quality of cookware fits your budget, how much time and energy you want to put into cleaning and caring for it properly, and choosing the right pan for the job. A cast-iron skillet sears meat beautifully, for instance, but unless it is very well seasoned, it’s reactive with both acidic foods (such as tomatoes, vinegar, wine, or lemon juice) and alkaline foods (such as dried beans or corn). This causes finished dishes to have an unpleasant metallic flavor, be discolored, and can even pit the surface of the pan. And even though cooking in cast iron can increase the iron in your diet, it depends on the type of food you’re cooking and how seasoned the skillet is.
Aluminum, of course, is the cookware material most often avoided for perceived health risks. Decades ago, a possible link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease emerged, but according to the Alzheimer’s Association (where it’s on a list of myths about the disease) and a consensus of medical experts, further studies have failed to confirm that aluminum plays any role in causing Alzheimer’s.
And that’s a good thing, too, because unless you live in a bubble, you’re being exposed to aluminum every single day, no matter what cookware you use. The third most common element on Earth, aluminum is naturally found in the soil, and thus a tiny amount finds its way into fruits, vegetables, and meat—organic or not.
Aside from natural sources, aluminum is also present in products such as buffered aspirin, some antacids, antiperspirants, and pickled and processed foods. If you are intent on limiting your exposure, then consider it one more reason to avoid the inner aisles at the supermarket. Compared to those sources, the one to ten milligrams of aluminum we ingest naturally every day is insignificant, as is the amount that will leach out of an aluminum pot into your dinner. According to an account in Cook’s Illustrated (January 2012), lab tests run on tomato sauce cooked in aluminum for two hours, then stored in the same pot overnight, showed that the sauce contained only .0024 milligrams per cup. In contrast, a single antacid tablet may contain more than 200 milligrams. Just contemplating that fact is enough to give me indigestion.
Cookware Cheat Sheet
Aluminum: Aluminum is lightweight, strong, conducts heat well, and is relatively inexpensive. If, after reading the preceding paragraphs, you are still concerned about aluminum leaching into food, replace any worn or pitted pans with anodized aluminum cookware—which is sealed with a coating to make it harder, denser, nonreactive, and nonstick—or go with another material entirely.
Cast-iron: If you come across a well-cared-for cast-iron skillet at a tag sale, find out why you should pounce in one of my first columns for TakePart. You’ll also see a mention of enameled cast iron, which is expensive, but nonreactive and easy to maintain and clean.
Clay: A clay pot needs to be seasoned, but it will reward you on a number of levels, including superb heat distribution and retention, great depth of flavor, and the simple pleasure of cooking with such an ancient and beautiful piece of equipment. I suggest starting out with an inexpensive Spanish cazuela from La Tienda or a coquette from The Spanish Table; I’ve had both for years, and everything I make in them tastes delicious. For more about clay-pot cooking, I recommend Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, by the Mediterranean cookery scholar Paula Wolfert.
Copper: Copper is ultra-responsive to heat, both spreading it quickly and evenly throughout the bottom and sides of a pan and then losing it rapidly when the temperature is lowered. Because it’s more reactive than cast-iron or aluminum, it’s sold “tinned,” that is, lined with another metal such as stainless steel to prevent toxic amounts of copper from leaching into foods. The downside? Copper is very expensive, must be hand-washed, and needs regular polishing to maintain its gleam.
Stainless Steel: Stainless steel is an alloy that, in cookware, is made with 18 percent chromium and from 8 to 10 percent nickel. A pan marked “10/18” has the highest nickel content, giving it a more durable, lustrous finish. Stainless-steel pots and pans are practically perfect: they are nonreactive (i.e., chemically stable), nonporous, virtually maintenance free, and resistant to scratches, dents, and, yep, stains. But because the metal is a poor conductor of heat, manufacturers often combine it with a better heat conductor. They may coat the bottom of a stainless-steel pan with copper, insert an aluminum or copper plate in the bottom, or make the pan out of several layers, with a good conductor right under the surface. These embellishments add to the cost of stainless-steel cookware, but, as the food-chemistry authority Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, “these hybrids are the closest thing we have to the ideal chemically inert but thermally responsive pan.” And that, in a nutshell, is why so many professional chefs and serious home cooks swear by them.