The 5 Rules of Good Cookware
Defining the ideal cookware
We generally want two basic properties in a utensil. Its surface should be chemically unreactive so that it won’t change the taste or edibility of food. And it should conduct heat evenly and efficiently, so that local hot spots won’t develop and burn the contents... [Multiclad stainless steel] hybrids are the closest thing we have to the ideal chemically inert but thermally responsive pan
- Harold McGee | On Food and Cooking
According to renowned food scientist and writer Harold McGee, effective cookware has two main attributes:
- Even & Efficient Heating
- Chemically Inert & Durable
Here we will explore how and why multiclad stainless steel cookware is the best combination of those two attributes, as well as how to evaluate the quality of multiclad stainless steel cookware.
Even & Efficient Heating
Cookware is made out of two basic types of materials:
Insulators such as glass, ceramics, or earthenware conduct heat very inefficiently because of their molecular structure. They can be used effectively in ovens but not on the stovetop.
Conductors are metals such as copper, aluminum, or cast iron that conduct heat much more efficiently given the free flow of electrons in metals. However, not all conductors are equally efficient - heat flows significantly better in copper and aluminum than cast iron, carbon steel, or pure stainless steel.
Thermal Conductivity (Btu/hr.ft.degF):
|Copper||Aluminum||Cast Iron||Carbon Steel|
Rule #1 of Good Cookware:
In order to heat efficiently, cookware must be made in large part out of a good conductor such as copper or aluminum.
Let's compare evenness of heating in three different types of cookware:
1. Thick Pan, Low Conductivity: Cast Iron, Carbon Steel
Because of the relatively low conductivity of cast iron and carbon steel, heat travels slowly through these pans. Combined with their thickness, this creates hot spots on the cooking surface that are unlikely to even out because of the heat lost at the surface via radiation.
2. Thin Pan, High Conductivity: Aluminum, Thin Multiclad Stainless
Heat travels much more quickly through aluminum than cast iron or carbon steel. However, when a highly conductive metal is used in only a relatively thin layer, it can create hot spots, as well as other problems in cooking performance.
3. Thick Pan, High Conductivity: Quality Multiclad Stainless
When there is a thicker layer of aluminum to travel through, the heat in the pan has a better opportunity to distribute itself evenly. This creates a cooking surface with little to no heat differential.
Rule #2 of Good Cookware:
In order to heat evenly, the body of the cookware must be both sufficiently conductive and thick.
Thicker isn't always better. There will always be a tradeoff between heat retention and responsiveness — thicker pans can hold more heat and are good searing or sautéing. Thinner pans can adjust more quickly to temperature changes, like if you want to bring a sauce from a boil down to a simmer.'
Fry pans, skillets, and sauté pans should be thicker for improved heat retention, ideal for searing.
Sauce pans and other pans largely intended for liquid-based cooking should be thinner for improved responsiveness to heat.
Rule #3 of Good Cookware:
The thickness of a piece of cookware should correspond with its intended use, promoting either heat retention or heat responsiveness.
Chemically Inert & Durable
No single material is both highly conductive and chemically inert:
A material whose electrons are mobile enough to conduct heat well is also likely to give up those electrons to other atoms at its surface: in other words, good conductors like metals are usually chemically reactive. By the same token, inert compounds are poor conductors. Ceramics are stable, unreactive mixtures of compounds whose covalent bonds hold electrons tightly
- Harold McGee | On Food and Cooking
How do different metals react?
Aluminum is highly reactive with acidic foods, which can alter the food's flavor and color. The pan can also degrade leaving a pitted surface, or dent and warp.
Copper ions can easily leach into foods, which build up in the body and can lead to health issues. It also suffers from general corrosion issues, and will easily tarnish and lose its luster without consistent polishing.
Cast Iron & Carbon Steel will leach iron into your food potentially affecting its flavor, especially when cooking with acidic ingredients. Rusting will also occur unless the cookware is thoroughly dried after each use.
Rule #4 of Good Cookware:
Cookware should not be made purely from a conductor, as it will chemically interact with food and its environment.
In order to solve the problem of conductivity and reactivity, many types of cookware combine materials, using a conductive core and a non-reactive surface. However, these combinations all suffer from drawbacks in durability.
- Non-stick pans cover conductive materials with various non-porous coatings that don't directly react with foods. However, these coatings will degrade at high temperatures and are prone to scratching and chipping.
- Enameled cast iron uses a thin layer of ceramic on the surface to prevent chemical interaction. The surface can, however, chip, scratch or crack, exposing the cast iron beneath and leaving an uneven cooking surface.
- Anodized aluminum uses a chemical process to create a thick layer of non-reactive oxidized aluminum on its surface. However, your dishwasher and certain cleaning agents will stain and degrade this surface.
Clad Stainless Steel
Clad stainless is a cookware construction that solves these problems. By using an aluminum interior sandwiched between layers of stainless steel, you can combine the conductive properties of aluminum with the non-reactivity and durability of stainless steel.
Stainless steel is a uniquely well-designed material for the exterior of cookware. Its high chromium content naturally creates a thick oxide layer that prevents rusting and chemical interactions with food, while also providing an attractive shine. Stainless steel is also uniquely durable, offering a lifetime of cooking reliability.
Rule #5 of Good Cookware:
Cookware should be designed for both functionality and durability.
Why Value Durability?
We believe that the lifespan of cookware should be measured in decades, not months or years. Cookware should consistently perform at the same level as the day you bought it, not force you to replace it once it corrodes, cracks, or scratches.
Cheap cookware becomes much more expensive when you have to replace it on a regular basis.
In Sum: The Five Rules of Good Cookware