With so many different types of cookware materials on the market, it is difficult to sift through all the information, tell the right from the misleading, and know how to pick the best one for your exact use case. And even when most of them perform well in their own regards, there are health concerns to consider. What is the best non-toxic cookware material?
In this article, we discuss the best and safest cookware material for cooking, and how to pick the right one for your specific needs. We’ve laid out the answer to the best metal for pots and pans, along some guidance throughout the process to make it easy to understand!
Table of Contents
What Are The Safest Cookware Materials Around?
As of late, awareness around picking good cookware materials for health is peaking. That’s fair and understandable, with mainstream media reporting on the health risks of Teflon – king of non-stick coating – and even enameled and aluminum cookware, it’s hard not to be at least a little concerned. So what are actually the safest cookware materials that money can buy?
The answer might surprise you, but pretty much every material out there used for cookware, is to a certain level, safe. Wait but, what about the concerns of Teflon being a cancerous risk? Or the lead and cadmium contents of enameled pieces? Or even the reactivity of copper which could cause it to leach into your food and pose toxic risks?
In short, if you know the limitations of your cookware and the proper way to use it, everything is safe for normal home usage, even Teflon, as discussed in our article.
For concerns of toxic materials leaching into your food, these are often non-existent as well. In the most popular examples, lead and cadmium contents in enameled pieces are usually kept under a certain level – specifically a maximum of 3ppm of leachable lead as governed by the FDA – and copper cookware nowadays are mostly lined with tin or stainless steel, which prevents the metal from leaching into your food.
The general rule of thumb is, for synthetically-coated pieces e.g. Teflon, do not cook on high heat. For the materials that require seasoning, e.g. cast iron and carbon steel, follow the instructions to ensure it doesn’t rust. For most other materials, normal home usage is safe and does not require much special care.
The Best Cookware Materials For Cooking
To answer the question of which material is good for cooking, and provides a great kitchen experience, we’ve compiled a list of our top favorites, along with short descriptions of why we think they’re great.
Best Overall Cookware Material: Stainless Steel
One of the lightest materials around, most people fall in love with stainless steel instantly after owning their first piece of the kind, because of its ease of handling. It is easily one of the best metals for pots and pans. Well, technically an alloy.
A little about the material itself, it actually has one of the worst heat conductivities of all materials. Why then, is it crowned as the best overall? This is because modern science has found a smart solution to making it conduct heat better, whilst keeping its lightweight and aesthetically-appealing properties.
Nowadays, most stainless steel pieces (the quality ones, anyway) are at least triple-layer, with a metal core that conducts heat well positioned between two stainless steel layers. Common materials used as the core include aluminum and copper, which both hold the top spots for heat conductivity. This means you’ll get cookware that is lightweight, durable, does not rust, and has struck an excellent middle point between heat conductivity and retainability.
If you’re interested in snagging up a set for yourself, we have compiled a list of the best stainless steel cookware sets along with our detailed review of each one of them.
- Good heat conductivity from the core layer
- Good heat retainability from the outer two stainless steel layers
- Does not react with foods
- Does not rust
- No seasoning required
- Works readily with induction and flat stove tops
- Lower gauge steel might be less durable and may warp – solution is to look for heavy-gauge high quality 18/10 stainless steel
- Not as non-stick as a well-seasoned cast iron piece, or a Teflon-coated piece
Best cookware brands for stainless steel: Le Creuset, Calphalon, Cuisinart
Best Professional Cookware Material: Copper
If you’re looking for what some of the best of the best chefs vouch for, look no further than copper. Having the highest heat conductivity of all commercial cookware materials, it is of no surprise why many skilled chefs prefer this over all other materials.
Its very property of high heat conductivity allows it to react to temperature changes very quickly. This gives the cook a lot of control over the heat exposure, which makes it very achievable to cook food to a very precise temperature, or level of doneness.
While copper itself is reactive – and if used with acidic foods could leach copper into your food – it is not of concern in modern-day copper cookware. This is because most, if not all high-quality ones, have their interior lined with either tin, or stainless steel. This maintains the superior heat conductivity of copper, while making it safe to cook all types of food with. Tin is generally used as some condemn the use of stainless steel lining, in that they compromise the performance of copper. And when you’re paying the price tag a copper piece has, you expect the absolute best.
- Extremely high aesthetic values and will be the centerpiece of your kitchen
- Exceptional heat conductivity
- Modern options that are lined do not react with foods
- Does not rust
- Seasoning is not necessary
- Sacrifices heat retainability for conductivity, which means while it is able to heat up extremely fast, it loses the heat quickly when removed from the heat source as well, making it unsuitable for cooking techniques such as searing
- Very expensive, going up to the low hundreds for a quality fully-copper single piece
- Does not work with induction
Best cookware brands for copper: Mauviel, Matfer Bourgeat, Ruffoni, Lagostina
Long been a crowd-favorite, aluminum is here to stay. With its lightweight construction paired with excellent heat conductivity at an affordable price, it is of no wonder why it is the preferred material of many households.
If you’ve been paying attention to aluminum cookware, you would have noticed the term ‘hard-anodized’ being used a lot. So what does it actually mean?
Put simply, hard-anodized aluminum pieces went through a process of electrolysis, forming a layer of oxidation over the aluminum surface. This not only makes it more durable and scratch-resistant, but also prevents the aluminum surface from reacting with foods. If possible, always opt for hard-anodized aluminum over its regular counterpart. Although they are often pricier, what you’re paying for is worth it in the long run.
- Excellent heat conductor, just right below copper – combined with its density, makes it both retain and conduct heat relatively well
- Durable and scratch-resistant
- Not entirely rust-proof but generally resistant
- Relatively affordable
- Most come with non-stick coating
- Again, most come with non-stick coating – which may be a con depending on your preferences
- By itself, does not work on induction cooktops, however some manufacturers have added a magnetic plate on the bottom of aluminum cookware which makes it compatible
Best cookware brands for hard-anodized aluminum: Calphalon, All-Clad, Cuisinart
Now, the moment some of you have been waiting for – a mention of cast iron! With a glass top stove or equivalent, most people don’t use cast iron for the fear of scratching the surface, so this material is mainly reserved for those who use gas ranges. Not our personal favorites, but we get why this is a popular material choice for many.
Famous for its durability and longevity, cast iron pieces are able to withstand some abuse, and will still be able to hold up to years of use. It also retains heat extremely well due to its poor conductivity, which makes it excellent for searing and browning.
However, they do require higher maintenance though, e.g. regular seasoning, the need to wipe it dry to prevent rust, etc. Although the rules also apply to carbon steel, they are less stringent there, and as a result is easier to maintain.
If you don’t mind heavier cookware, enameled cast iron pieces are a great alternative. They retain most of the advantages of cast iron, without the need for seasoning nor prone to rusting.
- Highly durable
- Retains heat well, suitable for high-heat cooking styles like searing
- Generally oven-safe
- Quality pieces can be had for a relatively low price
- Works with induction, but most avoid it for the fear of its rough surface scratching the glass surface
- Hand-wash only
- Regular seasoning required to maintain non-stick properties and prevent rust
- Need to wipe dry to prevent rust
- Reacts with acidic food and leaches iron (which is harmless in small quantities)
Best cookware brands for cast iron: Lodge, T-fal
Now moving on to carbon steel, which sort of combines the best of both worlds of cast iron and stainless steel, in a way. When talking about their chemistry make-up, stainless steel has a higher chromium content compared to carbon steel, while carbon steel has more of, well, carbon.
To compare it with cast iron, it inherits some of its properties such as durability, the need for seasoning, the tendency to rust, and more. In a sense, it’s closer to cast iron than it is to stainless steel, which only similarity is being lightweight.
That being said, carbon steel has something that both of these don’t – a relatively good heat conductivity. This means that it is able to react to heat changes quicker than the other two. Although if you find a quality stainless steel piece with a core like aluminum or copper, carbon steel would probably lose the lead anyway. So unless you’re attracted by its durability or the lower price tag, we would suggest considering stainless steel over carbon steel.
I am personally quite a fan of the material, and have several other write-ups on cookware made with this material. If you’re in the market, definitely check out the list of best carbon steel pans, or maybe even carbon steel woks, if you’re into stir-fried foods.
- Relatively lightweight
- Conducts heat well
- Suitable for induction and glass cooktops
- Generally lower-priced than stainless steel
- Require seasoning, although on a lesser frequency compared to cast iron
- Need to wipe dry to prevent rust
Best cookware brands for carbon steel: de Buyer, Made In, Matfer Bourgeat
How to Pick the Right One For Yourself?
We get it, after all that rambling about what each material is good and bad for, it might still be difficult to make a choice. In this section, we break it all down for you, and provide you with a bird’s-eye view so you can make the right choice.
If you’re using an induction stove, not much choice here. The options are stainless steel, carbon steel, or magnetic-plated aluminum. If you’re looking for non-stick coating, aluminum is the way to go as steel pieces are not applied with synthetic coating (read: best non-stick pans without Teflon). Between the two steels though, our favorite would be the stainless steel. For glass stoves, the smoother stainless steel is also a good choice as to avoid scratching the surface.
If cooking is more than a necessity for you, and more of a passion, we recommend going for the copper pieces if you’re able to. They are expensive, and you might wonder if the price is justified, but to add a beautiful piece to your collection that is highly sensitive to temperature changes is a desire fulfilled.
All in all, we recommend stainless steel with an aluminum- or copper-core as the default for most home cooks. Unless you need to sear a lot – in which case go to cast iron – or need non-stick coating – in which case go to hard-anodized aluminum.
Best Material for Cookware Utensils
Now, selecting the right cookware material is only half of the equation. Thankfully, this is a much easier and straightforward question to answer.
For cookware of any material, utensils made out of wood (or also commonly, bamboo) or silicone would work absolutely flawlessly.
But if you’re using a non-stick or ceramic pan, avoid metal utensils, as they may damage the non-stick coating and cause it to degrade and flake. For more durable materials like stainless steel or cast iron though, metal utensils are fine to use.
On the other hand, plastic utensils should be avoided if you’re doing a lot of high-heat cooking. As you may already know, plastic’s melting point, at only around 340°F, is absurdly low to be used as a cooking utensil. It melts even before you’ve had the chance to burn your pot.
If possible, we would recommend avoiding plastic and metal altogether for compatibility with all your cookware pieces. There are no shortage of quality wood and silicone utensils out there for you to pick up!
There you have it, the best cookware materials that are safe to use, broken down for your exact needs.
To recap, stainless steel is our top recommendation for most people. Here are some special circumstances where we would recommend another material instead. If you:
- need to sear a lot: cast iron
- see cooking as a passion and enjoy exquisite cookware: tin-lined copper
- need non-stick coating: hard-anodized non-stick aluminum
- want the advantages of cast iron but deem it too heavy: carbon steel
Anyway, we hope this article provided value, and that you’re well on your way to picking the right cookware material for your next piece, for your exact use case. Until then, happy cooking!