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Ask Dr. Gourmet

Which type of pan would you use for what purpose?

I was wondering if you would be willing to give me a quick run-down of what you like or don't like [about] the following cookware choices and what you would use each one for if at all:

  • teflon-coated aluminum
  • anodized aluminum
  • stainless steel
  • cast iron
  • copper
  • ceramic enamel (like Le Creuset)
  • soapstone or granite (like TemperatureWare)

Dr. Gourmet Says...

Copper pans

I have a number of different pans that I use for cooking. I choose each pan based on what I am going cook in it.

For instance, I have a number of sizes of cast iron skillets that I like to use for such recipes as Cornbread and my Apple Pancake recipe. The cast iron is porous and will absorb oils, giving it a natural non-stick coating. The same holds true for a cast iron Dutch Oven. The problem with cast iron is that it doesn't react to heat as well as other materials. It is slow to heat, but retains heat well, making it perfect for roasting and baking recipes in the oven.

Some manufacturers coat their cast iron pots and pans with a ceramic enamel. One of the most famous brands is Le Creuset®. These pans are great for cooking recipes that you want to heat slowly and for a long time, using the even heat of cast iron. Since the cast iron can react with acidic foods, the enamel coating is perfect for making sauces and such. Previously lead was used in the manufacture of some enamels. Le Creuset and other manufacturers do not use lead in their products today, however.

The best conductor of heat is copper. Traditionally the inside of copper pans were coated with tin, because copper will react with acidic foods. Most copper pans are now lined with a thin layer of stainless steel. There are very sophisticated pans on the market manufactured with a layer of copper sandwiched between stainless steel. This provides the quicker reaction to heat of the copper while affording the easy clean up (inside and out) of stainless steel. I use these pans for very quick saute dishes.

Stainless steel by itself is a relatively poor conductor of heat. Most better quality stainless steel pans today have an insert of another metal as noted. Copper is one, as it is highly reactive, but another alternative is aluminum. While not as good a conductor of heat as copper, aluminum is far less expensive. Stainless steel pans that do not contain a layer of a more conductive material are widely available and are inexpensive. The pans are usually stamped from a large sheet of steel and are very thin. Because of their relative thinness they can heat very unpredictably.

Aluminum is a good alternative because it is inexpensive, it doesn't rust, and it has very good heat conductivity. As with stainless steel, you can purchase pans that have been stamped from a large sheet of aluminum or made by casting. The latter is the better choice. I use aluminum for most of my day to day cooking because this is the most commonly used material for pans today and I want to make sure that readers will be able to easily recreate my recipes.

Many aluminum pans today are coated with non-stick surfaces like Silverstone® or Teflon®. These work very well to help reduce the amount of fat needed in cooking. I have different sizes of cast aluminum pans lined with non-stick coatings that I use for a wide variety of recipes.

Controversy has arisen recently over Teflon® and other non-stick coatings. It appears that the non-stick coating itself is safe, but some of the chemicals used to manufacture Teflon have been called into question about whether there may be a link to cancer. There is not clear evidence that using coated pans is associated with health problems. I am careful to not overheat my non-stick pans and I generally use wooden or plastic utensils to keep from scratching the surface.

There has been concern over the use of metal pans and how it might have an effect on people's health. There has been evidence as early as 1965 showing a link with aluminum and Alzheimer's disease, for instance. There are a number of other environmental sources for aluminum including many foods, packaging, and water supplies, as well as medications, such as antacids. So far there has not been any convincing evidence that these environmental factors demonstrate a causal relationship between Alzheimer's disease and aluminum.

A number of treatments are employed that can help reduce the tendency of aluminum to react with foods. The most common is anodized aluminum where the outer layer has been thickened and hardened through electrolysis to render the surface less reactive. This works well for most recipes and ingredients, but for recipes where there may be a reaction between the metal of the pan and the ingredients, I will use stainless steel or the enamel lined cast iron.

Thanks for writing,

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet