Choosing the Right Cookware Based on Material
So it's time to choose new cookware for your restaurant kitchen, but you're a little stumped about which kind is best. Maybe you know which pieces you need - a couple of sauté pans and a sauce pan or two - but which material is best? Do you want affordable aluminum, heavy-duty stainless steel, or a set coated with a cutting-edge non-stick material?
The answer really depends on what you're cooking and you may actually find that you’ll need a few of each. It can be difficult to weigh all the benefits and shortcomings of each type of material, but with this guide we aim to help you sort it out.
Cookware materials are often compared using a number of traits they have in common. You'll hear a lot about heat conductivity. Different materials conduct heat better than others, meaning they'll transfer heat, get up to cooking temperature, and cool down faster, which can each be a benefit or a drawback depending on your style of cooking. Some metals are also softer than others, making them lighter and easier to handle, but also easier to damage, whereas harder metals can be virtually indestructible but a little more cumbersome. Finally, 'reactivity' describes a material's tendency to react to certain types of food, especially acidic ones, which can cause the pan to discolor and may impart unwanted flavors to foods.
Aluminum is by far the most popular cookware material in the restaurant world, for many good reasons. It's affordable, so even operators bound to a budget can afford to have a few extra cookpots on hand for when one bites the dust. Aluminum is also lightweight, so cooks are less likely to become fatigued from repeatedly using it.
Pots made of aluminum are renowned for heating quickly, and they also transfer heat quickly and evenly, so they can get dishes from cold to sizzling in no time at all. They'll cool down quickly once they're removed from heat, so there's little need to worry about food continuing to cook if it's left in the pan after its done.
Aluminum is the softest, most porous of the common cookware materials. Those attributes give it its strengths, but are also responsible for its weaknesses. Its quick heating means it can potentially scorch food if you don't maintain a vigilant eye while using it. It can also warp after it's been in contact with direct heat for long periods of time, and its porous molecular structure means it can capture and transfer flavor between dishes. Finally, acidic foods can cause aluminum to discolor and pit, so look for other types of cookware for those dishes. Aluminum can stain over the long run, which will affect its appearance only, not its usability.
Aluminum's affordability makes it a popular choice for all types of cookware. Aluminum stock pots are right at home on the back burner, where it can be trusted to boil water for pasta, cook low-acid soups, reduce stocks, and braise meats. Its high conductivity means it spreads heat evenly across the pot's base for a thorough boil or an efficient simmer. For slow-cooking wares such as braising bans and rondeaux, you’ll want to choose a thicker gauge of aluminum that will resist warping after long periods of exposure to heat.
Not all aluminum is the same. Manufacturers use different combinations of aluminum and other metals to make their wares, each of which has its own unique attributes. 1100 aluminum is at least 99 percent pure aluminum, so it's the softest and most susceptible to damage and warping, but it's also economically priced. 3003 and 3004 are alloys of aluminum, copper, iron, and manganese or magnesium. The inclusion of those other elements make 3000-series aluminum harder and more resistant to damage, but also raises the price and reduces the metal's heat conductivity.
Benefits of Aluminum Cookware
- Heats and cools quickly
Drawbacks of Aluminum Cookware
- Susceptible to pitting and warping
- Potential for flavor transfer
- Unsuitable for acidic foods
A step up from aluminum in terms of both durability and price is stainless steel. Significantly longer lasting, stainless steel is rugged and easy to clean. It's heavier than aluminum, so it may be harder for some cooks to handle, but it can take a lot of abuse without denting or warping. Stainless steel conducts heat at a moderate rate, meaning it might get up to cooking temperature a little more slowly than aluminum, but it can turn out food faster because it retains heat well. That means it can stay hotter when cold foods are added and lose heat slowly when they're off the burner.
Stainless steel is not a very porous material, so it won't transfer flavor between dishes, and its low reactivity makes it a good choice for acidic foods like tomato-based sauces. Stainless is a good choice in restaurants where kitchens are visible to guests because they tend to hold a sheen longer and resist stains better than aluminum. It also releases fat and will not discolor light sauces, making stainless steel a good choice for making sauce and deglazing.
A well-maintained stainless steel pan, when thoroughly preheated prior to cooking, will have a stick-resistant finish, making ideal for quick frying and sautéing. Its relatively poor conductivity means that hot spots are inevitable, so stainless is less than ideal for braising, roasting, and slow-cooking. A thicker gauge tends to exacerbate the problems associated with stainless steel, so stick to a thinner metal if you're shopping for a sauté or fry pan. The material's hardness will keep even the thinnest pans from warping.
Stainless steel is made with varying ratios of steel, chrome, and nickel. 18/0 stainless contains 18 percent chrome and no nickel, while 18/8 is made with 18 percent chrome and 8 percent nickel, and so on. Nickel and chrome increase the hardness, corrosion resistance, and durability of steel, but they also reduce its heat conductivity, so there is a tradeoff between lifespan and quick heating.
Benefits of Stainless Steel Cookware
- Resistant to denting and warping
- Easy to clean
- Releases fat easily for deglazing
- Low reactivity preserves color and taste of acidic foods
Drawbacks of Stainless Steel Cookware
- Higher price
- Slower to heat
- Uneven heat distribution can cause hot spots
Carbon steel cookware may be the unsung hero in the crowd. As the name indicates, carbon steel is simply steel with a high concentration of carbon, which makes it dense and strong. While significantly heavier than stainless steel and aluminum, carbon steel caramelizes sugar and browns meat better than any other type. Ergonomically speaking, it's on the heavy side, but carbon steel is simple in composition, so it's simple to produce, and its lower price point reflects that.
Only a few types of cookware are commonly made of stainless steel, a fact that speaks to the material's core strength - high-temperature applications. Nothing beats a well-seasoned carbon steel skillet for blackening and searing delicate items and thick steaks alike. The best woks, which are typically used for high-intensity stir frying, are also made with carbon steel. With a little simple maintenance, the steel will develop a natural non-stick surface from cooked on polymerized oils that rivals that of cast iron.
Benefits of Carbon Steel Cookware
- Develops a natural non-stick surface with proper care
- Ideal for high-temperature applications
- Long-lasting and resistant to damage
Drawbacks of Carbon Steel Cookware
- Non-stick seasoning requires maintenance
While it's a bit of a niche item, copper is favored by many classically-trained chefs because of its superior heat conduction. It heats and cools quickly, even more so than aluminum, so it lends itself well to finicky recipes that require precision control over temperature. Although copper might be initially valued for its aesthetic appeal, it does tend to discolor easily over gas burners, although this has no detrimental effect on its ability to get the job done. A diligent maintenance schedule and the right type of cleaning solution can keep it looking beautiful for longer.
Because copper comes at a significantly higher price point and is easier to damage, it should only be used in kitchens where staff are sure to handle it with respect. Table-side preparations, demonstration cooks, and restaurants with sight lines into the kitchen will benefit from the aesthetic appeal inherent to copper. No cookware is made entirely of copper, which can leech into food on direct contact. Rather, most copper cookware is lined with stainless steel to prevent leaching and to keep it from discoloring food.
Benefits of Copper Cookware
- Excellent heat conduction
- Attractive appearance
Drawbacks of Copper Cookware
- High cost
- Susceptible to damage
Cast iron wares make popular serving items for sizzling dishes like fajitas and baked desserts in restaurants, but they're beginning to find a place in the commercial kitchen, as well. Dense and heavy, the material can be slow to heat, but it retains heat well, making it a valuable piece for searing steaks and baking bread. Its inability to be washed in a dishwasher used to bar it from being used in commercial kitchens, but dishwasher-safe pieces are now available.
While cast iron gets a bad rap for being difficult to maintain, most of the cookware now comes preseasoned from the factory and the coating only gets better with age. Take care to wash it properly and the seasoning will rarely need to be reapplied. The one caveat is that you’ll need to avoid using them for cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes, as that can weaken the seasoning and can potentially give your food a metallic flavor. Everything else is pretty much fair game.
Benefits of Cast Iron Cookware
- Excellent heat retention
- Virtually indestructible
- Non-stick surface
Drawbacks of Cast Iron Cookware
- Non-stick seasoning requires maintenance
- Typically not dishwasher safe
- Not suitable for acidic foods
Non-stick cookware has become widely popular in both residential and commercial kitchens. If care is taken to use only plastic or silicone utensils, synthetic coatings can last for a good while, but will eventually wear off. An alternative, and one that is perceived to be healthier, is cookware with a ceramic coating. Ceramic provides virtually the same benefits and will last longer before it starts to deteriorate.
Both of these options provide not only easy clean-up, but they also make it possible to cook with little to no fat or butter. In the hands of inexperienced cooks, these coatings create a no-worry way to fry fish and delicate cuts of meat, and make omelets with less chance of food sticking. These are best in kitchens where labor can't necessarily be expected to maintain the seasoning required to perform those tasks in steel or iron cookware. Generally, non-stick pans are considered dishwasher safe, but most manufacturers recommend hand washing to maximize the life of the coating.
Benefits of Non-stick Cookware
- Generally dishwasher safe
- Can be used to cook with less fat
Drawbacks of Non-Stick Cookware
- Finite lifespan
- Not suitable for high-temperature applications
- Doesn't brown dishes well
If you're shopping for cookware to use with an induction cooktop, there are some special considerations to take into account. Induction can only produce heat in magnetic material. That means that only cookware containing iron can be used, so no aluminum and no copper unless a magnetic layer has been worked in to the design.
Many manufacturers make cookware that is specially designed for use with induction. Play it safe and look for cookware that is specifically marked as induction-ready. A handy test to determine if cookware has that capacity is to see if a magnet will stick to it.
Build a Versatile Cookware Tool Kit
As you shop for commercial cookware, just keep in mind the way in which each piece will be used according to your menu. If you’ll be blackening fish, you’ll want a fry pan made of cast iron or carbon steel. If you’re making a delicate butter sauce, consider a stainless steel saucier that won’t transfer flavors between dishes. If you’re making a quick tomato sauce, a ceramic-lined pot will fit the bill. In essence, sticking to one cookware medium can limit your ability to get as creative as possible in your kitchen. Aim for a well-curated collection of cookware that's been assembled around your specific menu.