Choosing Cookware

Guest Writer, Geoff Stiekes from The Traveling Kitchen
Smoke and burning smells coming from my kitchen?! 

            Over the last few years, I have found that cooking really is my passion. I had to stop working due to a back injury, so my wife picked up the baton and became the main breadwinner. I wanted to contribute and though I couldn’t even make scrambled eggs properly, I decided I wanted to start cooking to help out. It has now become a genuine love and from what my wife, family, and friends say, the role of chef suits me. I’ve definitely moved from a beginner cook to a more experienced self-proclaimed chef and I must say, I rarely burn things, but the smell was undeniably coming from the kitchen. Imagine my disappointment (and surprise) to find my pot was actually on fire!  I was only steaming vegetables!

Apparently the water had evaporated out and I’m not sure if this was user error or just how old the pot was (I’m leaning more towards the pot being the problem).  I had to throw the pot away and explain to my wife why the house smelled like burned metal and that we would have to go out to eat for dinner that night.

Of course, the silver lining was that I would be getting a new set of pots and pans! Why would I not just replace the one pan you ask? Then they wouldn’t all match and why not take the opportunity to improve my kitchen? Besides, I was already daydreaming while looking online and in the catalogs about a new set.   I could already see myself in the kitchen with a shiny set of new cookware cooking to my heart’s content.  (I promise, I didn’t burn that pot on purpose, really.)

I took my wife with me to pick out my new set of friends, I mean, cookware.  To someone who really enjoys cooking, your cookware and utensils become very important to you. We went to a few different kitchen stores and walked the aisles aimlessly asking that all too familiar question: “What’s the difference between each product?”  With choices between Stainless, Non-stick, Aluminum, Copper, and Cast Iron, there were just too many choices.  We were overwhelmed with our options and left the store without making a purchase.  We decided to take the time to do our needed research to find exactly what would best suit my cooking style so we didn’t waste our money.  If you’re in the market for a set yourself, let me share with you what we found. 

            As a note of caution before you do anything, look to see what you have room for in your budget.  Don’t start looking at features and cool designs before looking at what you can afford. Otherwise, you may just find yourself in love with a set that you can’t afford and end up going into debt just for some cookware.  When looking at your budget, decide whether this purchase is a short-term investment or long-term.
Also think about how much cooking you really do.  For instance, if you’re mostly a “weekend cook” and primarily use your kitchen for grilled cheese, mac and cheese, and spaghetti with an occasional fancier meal, you could probably get away with a more inexpensive set like a “starter set.”  If you’re more of a “foodie” that likes to try recipes out all of the time, then you may want to branch out to a larger set with more functionality and possibility.  And if you’re the family cook that is almost always in the kitchen making food for someone, it would be nice to have pots and pans that are going to stand up to all the wear and tear you’re bound to put them through.
So, let’s look at the difference between each set to see what’s going to be best for you.  First we’ll look at the basic designs and move up based on quality and cost. 

There are three parts to every piece of cookware.  There is the external part that is often referred to as “the shell.”  There is the middle of the product or the metals that are used to actually hold the product together, that is known as “the core.”  And then there is the interior of the product, which we will call “the coating.”  I’m going to review different types of cookware and try to cover a few of the different aspects of each product, weighing the benefits with the disadvantages.


Aluminum sets have come a long way over the years.  You have basic Aluminum sets that are solid Aluminum including the shell, the core, and the coating and then other sets that have a Teflon coating on the inside to create a non-stick texture.  The great thing about Aluminum is that it’s inexpensive and if you want a set that is going to color-match the rest of your kitchen, you can find it in almost any color.
If you do a lot of very basic cooking, Aluminum with a Teflon coating wouldn’t be that bad for a “starter set.”  The downside to Aluminum is that it’s not conducive to a very high heat which means that it’s easier to burn things in, and even burn up the bottom itself, as well as easier to physically melt the pan, pot, and handles.  Aluminum with non-stick interior coatings are less likely to burn up and can handle a little bit more heat.  Most Aluminum sets come with plastic handles, which means that you can never move your cookware from the stove to the oven.  Aluminum works almost only on an electric coil range stove, not gas, and not convection. 


There are two primary versions of pans within the non-stick family, but between these two, there are many different brands and features.  The two primary types are a sprayed on Teflon and Non-stick Calphalon.  Teflon is actually used for many different things but within cookware, it has become a relatively sturdy interior coating.  Most Teflon cookware comes with plastic handles or rubberized handles.
Rubberized handles can normally handle higher heat, and some non-stick cookware, even though it is made primarily of Aluminum, can still go into the oven (always check your product manual first).  Almost all Teflon cookware is made from Aluminum (including the core), though the shell can vary between other products (such as porcelain and enamel).
Teflon is a chemical coating that is sprayed on the interior of the product and can chip away over time and after heavy usage.  Once the Teflon starts chipping, it should be discarded and replaced because although the Teflon coating is good for preventing foods from sticking to the pan, it is very bad for human consumption.
The other non-stick choice would be Non-stick Calphalon.  Calphalon is a brand of cookware but they have developed a non-stick inner coating that is not sprayed on but is rather built in to the metal during their molding process.
Calphalon tends to hold up better over time and heavy usage compared to Teflon.  Calphalon’s shell is made with an exterior Anodized Aluminum, which makes it harder than stainless and very durable.  Most Calphalon is made with stainless steel handles and can go from the range right into the oven at heating temperatures normally up to five hundred degree.
Calphalon is not however impervious to the same wear and tear that Teflon gets, even though it generally does last longer than Teflon. Calphalon will eventually need to be replaced as it too breaks down from usage, but it will more than likely give you a couple more years over the Teflon cookware.
The key in helping non-stick last longer is to always use plastic spatulas and spoons when coming in contact with the cookware; even wooden spoons can be too harsh at times.  Hand washing these products will also prolong the life of the cookware, as dishwashers tend to break down the chemical coating much quicker. 

Copper and Stainless Steel

There’s not a big difference between Copper and Stainless Steel pans.  Copper pans have a shell and coating made of copper (hence the name), normally containing a large percentage of the copper at the very base of the exterior to help build a better and more even heating element.
The core is what is most important with both Copper and Stainless.  Most pots and pans look the same from the outside but the core is what actually allows the cookware to heat up and disperse that heat efficiently throughout the piece.  Aluminum pans are almost always aluminum throughout.  The types of cookware that this really makes a difference in is Copper and Stainless.
Copper can be a little more efficient in heating than Stainless, depending on the quality of the product, but what you will really need to consider is the cost and the upkeep of the Copper compared to the Stainless.  Copper cookware is more expensive and requires special cleaning.

Although some Stainless cookware comes with a copper base, most are stainless on the shell with mixed metals in the core and stainless again for the coating.  When looking at Stainless, it’s important to look for one key item called “Tri-ply.”  There can be single, double, and triple layers that make up the base of the shell for proper heating.  “Tri-ply” means that there is a triple layer of metals that help to disperse the heat evenly throughout the entire product, even up the sides, instead of only keeping the metals at the base.  The most efficient pots and pans will have the core layered all the way up the side walls so that no matter where your food is sitting in the pan or pot, it is still getting efficient heat. 

With Stainless, you don’t have to worry about a chemical component ever chipping off from your pot or pan and mixing with your food. In the end, this makes it safer for you to use over non-stick coated pots and pans.  Consider though, that cooking is different with Stainless compared to non-stick.  You need to pre-heat your pans first and keep them well coated with cooking oil or butter for the duration of your cooking time.  You may also need to keep the food moving in the pan so that it doesn’t stick or burn up.  Stainless keeps you more active in the kitchen. 

Stainless handles do get some of the heat transferred from the pan so make sure that whenever you are working with stainless or copper that you have a mitt ready to grab the handles.

Cast Iron

There are two primary types of Cast Iron.  One type has the entire core, shell, and coating all made of cast iron.  The other is normally cast iron on the shell with an enamel coating on the interior.  Cast Iron cookware is more limited and can be found in the form of Dutch ovens, baking dishes, and skillets, with skillets being the most popular. 

Although Cast Iron can be really nice to cook with, it would be better for the average family chef to maybe have just one skillet on hand and not a whole set.  I would suggest a skillet that is at least ten inches in size.  The reason I suggest only one is because cast iron is very heavy and hard to maneuver in the kitchen.
The heat of cast iron cookware is distributed throughout the length of the entire product, which means an increased risk for burns when moving the handle if you’re not careful.  Cast iron cookware weighs more than any other aluminum, stainless, or copper on the market.  You also wouldn’t want to cook everything in a full cast iron skillet because cookware that is entirely cast iron are designed to absorb the seasonings that you use in each dish and the pan actually becomes “flavored” or seasoned after time.  Cast Iron is designed to constantly be “seasoning” the pan with whatever it is that you made so that it builds up different flavors that come through with the next thing that you cook.  This is why it is best to use similar types of dishes for cast iron cookware.  

Care and Cleaning
One of the differences to consider as well is the care and cleaning of your product.  Non-stick is cleaned with hot and sudsy soap and water.  Stainless can be cleaned the same but will start losing that pretty shine very quickly.  At least once a month, it is important to use a special cleaning agent such as “bar keepers friend” to keep that Stainless shine.  You have to do the same with copper, plus get an exterior cleaner that is specified for only Copper to keep that shine.  If you are using a Cast Iron with an Enamel coating you can wash it just the same as non-stick.  With full Cast Iron, you can clean it with hot water if you desire but you mostly just scrape remnants off the interior and let it sit and dry. Because of Cast Iron’s ability to “absorb” flavor, you never want to use soap with a cast iron skillet.

A Few Side Notes

*Do not trust anything coming out of China.  It doesn’t matter who puts their name on the item, it is almost always a cheaper quality because their standards are not as strong as USA standards.  

*If you are looking for good name brands for Stainless, I can suggest All-Clad, T-Fal, Cuisinart, and Calphalon.  Most brands have a low end and a high end so make sure you do your research to find out which brand and type is best for your cooking style. 

*Some cookware have well-known chef’s names attached to them, but many times I have found these pans to be sub-par and you are only paying for the name rather than the quality. For better quality cookware, look for only the company name without any endorsements. 

*Before making an in-store purchase, check with online companies that don’t make money based on the endorsements of the product, like Amazon.  Amazon allows its customers to honestly review the items that they purchase without any bias. The reviews can be helpful in making your final decision. 

*Always do your homework for big purchases.  Don’t assume that just because some chef says that their cookware is the best or that a whole set of cookware is on sale that you will be getting the best quality for your money.

*Don’t be afraid to ask the pros.  Ever go to a nice restaurant where you can see the food being made?  What kind of cookware do they use or what do they suggest? 

*Make sure you get something that is comfortable for you.  Before choosing the set that looks the best with your kitchen, pick up the handle and see how comfortable it is in your hand and if it has any extra functions you may want.  Make sure that it’s completely user friendly for you. Shop around and look for something you really want.  If you want to be able to see your food as it cooks, make sure you get glass tops.  If you want to be able to measure out how much you’re putting into that pot, make sure it’s the kind that has the built in measuring labels.  Most pieces are different in one way or another, the key is finding which one is the best for you.  Don’t just get what everybody else is getting; get the one that will meet your specific needs the best.

If you can, take your time finding the right product that best suits your budget. Sometimes you can actually save money by ordering your cookware online, but if at all possible, try to find a store where you can check out the type of set you are looking for to make sure it is what is best for you. If you can’t find a store that carries the set you want, go ahead and order it online but make sure that you check the return policy in the event you decide you don’t like the set after all.

Also, almost all sets are listed with fine print identifying on what type of heating source they can be used, so always look carefully before you buy.  Make sure you look at the package well and always read the fine print. There may even be a warranty on your cookware, so be sure to read through and save your paperwork for the unknown future. Some companies offer “lifetime warranties” with certain limitations. You never know when you might need a replacement, one that could be cheaper to pay the shipping than to buy a new one.

Take me for example. I ended up purchasing Calphalon’s Stainless Steel set without any non-stick coating. I LOVE my set and it gets A LOT of usage. When I first got the set, I felt like one of my primary pans was a little crooked. As time has passed, I have confirmed that the cooking isn’t as even because the pan really is crooked. I am now going to send the pan back to the company and although I may have to pay shipping (depending on if it is a defect or just my error in possibly making it crooked), in the end it will still be less expensive to exchange it and still have the pan I really want to use in cooking. I’m not sure what I will do with myself while I anxiously wait for the new one to come, but my wife says I’ll just have to try new dishes. Hmmm…guess I should get to that! There’s always a new recipe to try and I can’t neglect my other pots and pans!

If you have any questions, you can contact Geoff at thetravelingkitchen(at)icloud(dot)com
Happy Hunting
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