The foundation of any impressive, nutritious and downright delicious home-cooked meal is cookware that suits its purpose. But where to start? There are dozens of materials, coatings and specialized items from which to choose. Trying to decide can feel daunting, until you learn about which types of pots and pans are best for different cooking styles. Here’s a primer to help you put your dream kitchen into action with cookware that suits your needs and style.

Copper

One of the first metals humans used for shaping cooking vessels, copper remains a popular choice for cookware because of its distinctive shine and warm, inviting tone. At first, pots made of copper were lined with tin to prevent the copper from leaching poisonous chemicals into food. Don’t worry though; we’ve come a long way. Nowadays, a layer of copper has been used in pots and pans made from stronger metals, making these pots and pans safe, functional and visually appealing. 

Copper Pot

Pros: excellent conductor of even heat, great for braising and simmering, heats up and cools down quickly, lightweight, attractive as kitchen décor on a pot rack, easy to clean

Cons: must be coated to prevent copper from reacting to alkaline or acidic foods, malleable and susceptible to damage, must be polished frequently to preserve shine, can be expensive, intolerant to high heat and should not be used in ovens

Bottom Line: If you’re looking for high performance and don’t mind a little maintenance, copper is worth considering. It's especially appropriate for a farmhouse-style kitchen

Cast Iron

For thousands of years, cast iron has been used for cooking over fire. Known for its ability to retain heat, cast iron has been shaped into everything from cauldrons over medieval fires to frying pans for fried chicken at diners. Although it fell out of favor when nonstick cookware was introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, cast iron has seen a recent revival in popularity with both professional chefs and home cooks. Bare cast iron must be seasoned to protect the iron from rusting and create a stick-resistant surface for cooking.

Enamel-coated cast iron is easier to clean and doesn’t require seasoning. Also, it prevents rusting and limits the leaching of dietary iron. Dutch ovens, made from enameled cast iron, can have a light or dark interior. They are good for baking or moving from stovetop to oven. You can purchase high-heat lid knobs if you’re planning to bake above 400 degrees.

Cast iron cookware

Pros: durable and reliable, can withstand and maintain a very high cooking temperature, great for frying and searing, excellent for making cornbread, usable on both the stovetop and oven

Cons: seasoning on bare cast iron requires maintenance, handle will be very hot, can leach dietary iron into food, can be heavy and cumbersome depending on size, may take a while to heat up, not good for cooking acidic foods (like tomatoes) because of reactivity of iron

Bottom Line: Everyone from cowboys to home chefs will find cast iron a useful tool in the kitchen. 

Stainless Steel

A more recent kitchen innovation, stainless steel saw widespread use in the 19th century and made its way into kitchens in the early 20th century. Once alloys with chromium, nickel and iron were introduced, stainless steel was perfected for cooking. Stainless steel pots and pans became popular in the 1980s and continue to be a best-seller due to their striking luster and durability.

Stainless Steel Pot

Pros: certain alloys can be durable, resistance to rust, attractive and shiny, available in a variety of styles, can develop a better fond (the brown spots that build flavors), inexpensive due to high availability, nonreactive with food

Cons: poor conductor of heat unless integrated with a copper or aluminum base for better heat distribution, easy to scratch (silicon or wood utensils are recommended), more difficult to clean because of lack of surface coating

Bottom Line: A fantastic all-around performer, stainless steel offers utility, especially if it has an added inner core made of copper or aluminum to improve heat conductivity. It should last a lifetime if properly cared for. Hint: look for substantial, heavier steel pans when shopping for this variety.

Nonstick

Created in the 1930s by a scientist who wasn’t trying to make a cookware coating, this accidental discovery led to the first aluminum pans bonded with Teflon™. Made popular in the 1960s for its ability to make cleanup a cinch, nonstick coatings have recently become healthier with the introduction of models manufactured without the chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). Coatings have evolved to become more durable, but the benefits of nonstick surfaces are still enjoyed for their ease of use and easy cleanup.

Nonstick Pot

Pros: easy and quick to clean due to slippery surface, typically lightweight, requires less surface lubricant (hello, healthier meals), can be oven safe if handles are heatproof

Cons: nonstick coatings have a limited life, can be scratched by sharp utensils, may contain PFOA, which the EPA has identified as harmful

Bottom Line: If you want to reduce the amount of time you spend cleaning, nonstick cookware is a great option. Unlike cast iron, these pots and pans can be lightweight and don’t require maintenance for their coating.

Whatever cookware material you choose, consider the type of cooking you’ll want to do and how much time you’ll have to spend on cleanup. Do you prefer dishwasher-safe skillets? How do the handles feel in your hand? If you have an electric stove, you’ll want to purchase cookware with a flat surface so they heat evenly. If your stove is gas, you’re less limited as the flame may wrap around the surface. Making careful choices about selecting your cookware will set you up for cooking success and satisfying meals for years to come.