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When do you what kind of pan?

post #1 of 18
Thread Starter 
I'm a novice (in the "don't know how to boil water" category.)

Will appreciate any general directions on what to cook in an aluminum pan, what to cook in a stainless steel pan, and what to cook in a nonstick pan (eggs, for instance)?

post #2 of 18

Regular aluminum pans aren't suitable for foods with much acid in them -- tomato sauces, vinegars, etc. This is because the aluminum reacts with the acid, which both alters the taste of the food and harms the pan itself. Otherwise, aluminum is inexpensive, heats very evenly, and is light enough to handle easily. Aluminum pans warp. Lightly made aluminum pans dent very easily.

Aniodic Aluminum, a.k.a. Hard Anodized Aluminum:

Some manufacturers, using electrolysis, bond a dark grey or black aniodic layer to the exterior and interior surfaces of the pans. This makes the surfaces non-reactive. It does not make them non-stick. Some people think these surfaces can be "seasoned" to make then non-stick, but they are wrong. These pans behave in exactly the same way as any aluminum pans, with all of their virtues and vices -- except they are not reactive. Two manufacturers, Calphalon and Lincoln (commercial sources only), really got it right. A third, All-Clad makes a beautiful aniodic aluminum but uses it as the exterior only for pans with a stainless interior.


Stainless steel pans are non-reactive and are suitable (chemically at least) for all types of foods. Stainless steel is available in a number of grades and hardnesses. Some grades are more stainless than others. Some steels are so soft they scratch very easily. Good stainless is comparatively expensive, comparatively heavy, warps easily and does not heat evenly.

Stainless Composites:

Better, modern stainless pans are not entirely stainless. They either have a fat aluminum or composite diffusion disk to prevent on the bottom to prevent hot spots; or are made in layers of various materials including aluminum which extends all the way up the sides, with a stainless insert forming the inside of the pan and contacting the food. Thiese constructions resolve most of stainless' problems, including warpage, but if well-made these pans also tend to be heavy.

For most people, the advantages are so great, they dominate the middle and better home cookware market. This degree of market penetration means there are a lot of manufacturers competing for customers. Most are good, but many are charlatans and scam artists who should be avoided. If you're getting ready to equip your first kitchen, this is probably what you should be looking for as your "starter set."


Non-stick pans are, by and large, made of some other material -- usually aluminum -- which is coated with some type of slippery plastic. The plastic coating cleans very easily. In addition, some foods may be cooked with less oil or other fat, giving the illusion that that non-stick cooking is "healthier."

However, most of the coatings are made from materials that scratch and chip relatively easily, then transfer some of the plastic to the food. In addition, the construction prevents foods from searing properly and developing something called "fond." Fond are the crystallized juices formed by high heat and proteins or sugars which stick to the bottom of a pan, and after a "deglaze" are used to make pan sauces. In addition, most non-stick pans require the cook to use special tools to prevent scratching.

After all these years, non-stick pans are still controversial in better restaurant kitchens and among professional and other good cooks. Non-stick pans are certainly not all created equal; there are certainly some which are much better than the run of the mill. Most home cooks find a piece or two of non-stick to be useful. I don't own any non-stick, but understand the best brand for quality/value is Swiss Diamond.


Copper is sometimes used as one of the "plys" is multi-ply bottoms or multi-ply pots and pans. While copper is one of the more conductive materials, there's not enough copper in these sandwiches to make a difference. Its presence is pure marketing, meant to trick you into wanting an expensive distinction without a performance difference.

Many pots and pans with copper exteriors are built to similar specification, and although significantly more expensive (and beautiful) will not cook better than their aluminum or stainless clad counterparts. There are several manufacturers selling this sort of "copper" cookware, notably All-Clad. Unless you're buying for looks, avoid it. Some copper pots and pans, usually from Europe are made with thick copper exteriors (at least 1.5mm), and stainless inserts. Here, the copper actually conveys a slight performance advantage as opposed to an aluminum exterior, or aluminum sandwiched between layers of stainless. However, the advantage is slight and is well beyond the point of "diminishing returns." Still, if you want the very best, love the looks and can afford it...

50 or 60 years ago, the "best" cookware was copper coated with tin. However, tin coatings do not hold up well to abuse. It used to be easy to get copper retinned, but now it's difficult, time consuming and expensive. Don't buy. While uncoated copper can be used for a few purposes -- beating egg whites by hand for instance -- it's generally unsuitable for cooking because it's so highly reactive. Don't buy. Revere and a few other manufacturers coat the bottoms of some of their lines with a copper wash. Absolutely worthless.

Other materials:

There are a variety of other materials used for cookware. The most common so far unmentioned are the various types of steel, cast-iron, enamel over steel, and enamel over cast-iron. Each of these as its virtues and vices. However, the sort of discussion that would convey enough information to be useful would fill the chapter of a book. I'm not willing to go deeply into it, at least right now.

What's best for you?

This is one of those "depends" questions. Mostly it depends on your budget and what you already have. For most people, on a budget, starting without much of anything, it's best to buy a small, mid-priced set of multi-ply stainless, or at least stainless bonded to a diffusion disk; then slowly add a variety of pieces made of whatever materials are most appropriate for their purposes and aesthetics. In my experience people with professional cooking backgrounds tend to be more eclectic and have more fun squeezing a dollar, while people without tend to like more matching pieces and are willing to spend a bit extra. Truth is at a decent level of quality -- other than for highly specialized pieces, a paellera for instance -- it really doesn't make much difference. People obsess.

I get the feeling there's an underlying questions here. You want to know what kind of cookware you should want and buy. The more you tell us about yourself, what you think you'll be doing with your pots and pans, and how much you're willing to spend, the better we can help.

post #3 of 18
If we're going to discuss plusses and minuses of various materials, then the open-question of aluminum's relationship to alztheimers disease has to be addressed.

Just FYI, Novice, the controversy is this: In alztheimer's patients there is a build up of aluminum compounds in certain sections of the brain. That's an established fact. What isn't understood, as yet, is the causual relationship: Does aluminum build up, and thereby cause or contribute to the disease? Or is there something about the disease that causes aluminum to build up?

Obviously, there are significant ramifications to how that question is answered. But, until it is, many people avoid using raw aluminum cookware.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #4 of 18
to keep my novice answer non-scientifically simple.....

i use stainless (triply) for almost everything I can, with a few exceptions.

omelets. I'm just not that good with eggs (yet) other than sunny side up or over easy with LOTS of butter to do them in stainless so I do them with a cheap-O non-stick. I'm getting there though....

I also use cast iron grill pan for certain things like meats, bacon,etc.

for sauce pans and stock pots, i use stainless for pasta and most things but sauces/chili, etc. I use le creuset enameled cast iron.

oh yeah, pancakes I use seasoned cast iron griddle or non-stick griddle.
post #5 of 18
It's not an open question. There's no evidence that exposure to aluminum causes Alzheimer's disease. There's no increased rate of Alzheimer's among people who have long-term exposure to it, or who have limited ability to remove aluminum from the body.

It's not even a fact that the neural plaques of people with Alzheimer's disease have increased aluminum content. The studies published in the mid-sixties were poorly done, didn't show a full understanding of good technique, and would never get published today. The aluminum that showed up is almost certainly the result of contamination in the lab.
post #6 of 18
Thread Starter 
Wow, I'm overwhelmed with your terrific descriptions of the different types of pots and pans. Thank you!!!

A couple of questions - i purchased a couple of inexpensive aluminum pans; i notice that I need to put a good amount of oil in them if I fry an egg. Am I using the wrong kind of pan for this? Should I be using a stainless steel pan?

Regarding stainless steel (and the other types also), how do you know which kind of aluminum or stainless steel the pans are made out of? Or, as you mentioned, if you are at least at a decent level of quality, it doesn't really matter anyway?

Regarding background of myself, I have very little cooking experience. My 11 year old son has been diagnosed with a digestive disease called crohns. We're going to try a specialized diet called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet in order to tryu to help him get better. It's a very specialized diet (no grains, no dairy, no added sugars; mostly meat, fish, and non starchy vegetables).

I want to learn how to cook for him so that I can make it as appetizing, and as healthy, as I can.
post #7 of 18
Thread Starter 
I went into a kitchen / restaurant supply store recently and a salesperson there told me that some are concerned about a possible alztheimer's connection, but I wasn't sure what to think about it. I bought a couple of aluminum fry pans that he said restaurants use. Do restaurants really use aluminum fry pans?
post #8 of 18
Thread Starter 
I'm sure this is a rediculous question for all of those who have tons of cooking experience, but here goes: if i want to cook a scrambled egg, what kind of pan should I use (aluminum, stainless, nonstick?).

If I want to fry an egg, does it make any difference?
post #9 of 18
I have successfully cooked scrambeled eggs, fried eggs(in the various levels of doneness) and omelets in cast iron, aluminum, stainless and various nonstick types. Some of the stainless pans, possibly Revere ware, were a little more difficult to clean, but nothing that was a show stopper.

There was a point in time when all the cooking I did was in cast iron because that was all that I had. Now we have a mish mash collection of stuff, much of it junk IMO.
post #10 of 18
This has been de-bunked (along with using aluminum chlorhydrate in deodorants). I always check out this kind of rumor at Urban Legends Reference Pages: Rudolph Valentino

I have some aluminum pans I bought in France some years ago (and hauled home on the plane!). They have cast iron handles and are very heavy gauge metal. The only marking on them is a stamp, "Le Cuisinier". Cast aluminum pots I bought in France - ChefTalk Photo Gallery
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post #11 of 18
You can use aluminum pans for anything other than high acid or a lot of loose salt.

There are a range of weights. Some restaurant supply "pro" aluminum pans are quite light. Others, by makers like Vollrath and Lincoln Wearever are much sturdier and can take more abuse. If you're making something (not eggs) that uses a lot of pot slamming -- oh forget it. If you'd worked in a restaurant kitchen you'd know what I meant. If not, it's not a problem.

Aluminum pans really are pro pans. Partly because they're inexpensive -- but mostly because they heat so fast and so evenly, and because they're so light that it's easy to toss-turn food. So that's when you most want aluminum -- when you need heat changes, or when you're going to be doing a lot of toss-turning.

You don't want it when you cook high acid, lots of salt, or you want a very stable temperature -- despite fooling around with taking things in and out. Frying chicken, theoretically; although my chicken fryer actually is aluminum and works fine, thank you very much.

On to your real question: Eggs

Aluminum is fine for cooking eggs. Just about everything works with eggs. The egg is our friend. That being said there are certain techniques which make the pan work well. The pan must be brought to approximately the right temperature (a) without any fat in it; or (b) with a very thin film of oil, as wiped on and off with a paper towel. When the pan is at temp, if you're very worried about sticking add just a tiny bit of light oil (such as canola) to the pan. Bring the oil to temp and swirl the pan to make sure it's very evenly coated. Add your butter. If the butter starts to melt too fast hold the pan off the heat and swirl. If too slow, raise the heat. When the butter has melted and the foam begins to subside, the butter is ready for the eggs.

Scrambled and fried eggs should be cooked at medium heat or slightly below. When cooking scrambled eggs, cook them underdone, turn off the heat, and let them coast to doneness. This point occurs when you notice the eggs have begun to lose their gloss when you turn them. Omelettes should be cooked at medium heat or slightly above so the surface browns slightly while the interior maintains a custard texture. A French style omelette is thin, folded twice, with the filling in the middle and takes a lot of practice to get right.

A good aluminum pan will cook omelettes better than non-stick, because it browns them better. It will cook scrambled and fried eggs equally well.

I prefer aluminum to almost all stainless steel pans for eggs, because treated right, old scuffed aluminum offers less stick than old scuffed stainless. Actually, I prefer aluminum to stainless for most skillet tasks. However, there are a lot of reasons to like stainless and a lot of everyday foods require a non-reactive surface. And, as I said, if you're building a pan collection the nucleus should be decent stainless or anodized aluminum.

The best surface for cooking eggs is carbon steel. Carbon steel, when properly seasoned, offers a truly non-stick surface but it browns and sears as well as anything else. Like aluminum, carbon steel is very inexpensive. You don't see it much in home kitchens anymore. It's primary use in this country may well be pro. The major issue most people have is figuring out how to wash carbon steel pans, while preserving the season.

Your pots and pans should not be cleaned in the dishwasher. Eventually they will pit -- and this includes stainless although that can go through years of washers before it starts to show. But it will eventually show. It's a function of having hot particles of detergent shot at the pans, think of it as a wet sandstorm in there. Aluminum is relatively soft and will pit very quickly.

Anyway -- there's your answer.

post #12 of 18
Thread Starter 
If I can make eggs in either aluminum, stainless steel, or cast iron, that effects how much oil / fat I use?
post #13 of 18
Thread Starter 
I have a few questions about cast iron pans. Say I cook a hamburger in a cast iron pan. When I'm done, I don't actually wash the pan? I just wipe it with a cloth and rinse it with hot water, then put oil in it and heat it a bit? What's the effect on bacteria growth - this somehow prevents bacteria from growing?
post #14 of 18
It shouldn't. The right amount of butter, fat or oil for the right taste is more than enough to lubricate the pan.

If you want fat-free eggs, poach them or cook them in the shell.

post #15 of 18
Most Americans who love their cast iron and/or carbon steel don't use soap at all, or at least very seldom, once the pan is seasoned. Most people wipe, rinse, wipe and dry.

Drying over heat is a good thing, but not always necessary. Getting the pan that dry, that quickly is a way of avoiding rust. If the pan is well seasoned, it won't rust easily anyway. Drying in a rack and/or with a dish towel is all that's necessary.

Drying over heat, after wiping the pan down with oil ... isn't actually the way you do it. You wash, dry first, then wipe down with oil, then heat to refresh the seasoning. You can't oil over a damp pan.

If you don't use soap you might want to heat the pan to kill any bacteria which may have resulted as a result of holding food, or from allowing a dirty pan to sit for awhile. As long as you're heating it, you may as well refresh the season. A few minutes at 140F or higher is enough to kill bacteria.

You actually can use soap to wash a seasoned cast iron or steel pan without harming the season, as long as it's soap without detergent and as long as you don't scour. The oil used to create the season is no longer oil that the soap will float off. The prolonged heat of the seasoning process changed it to a mix of complex polymerized organic (carbon) compounds that bond a layer of pure carbon to the pan at the molecular level. Use a the sort nylon brush or pad you'd use for non-stick. After drying, refresh the season with a light coat of oil and a brief, gentle heating.


post #16 of 18
You may have to scrub out some food bits, but hot water and scrubbing brush and sponge should take care of it. Dry it thoroughly--many use some heat to get it really dry. Rub it with a little oil. You've removed the food the bacteria would use to grow on. It's dry so bacteria can't grow. It's not technically sterile but neither are pans you washed with soap. The high heat of the next cooking takes care of that.

Most soaps/detergents don't kill bacteria either, the soap helps remove them from surfaces.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
post #17 of 18
Thread Starter 
There's a lot more to using a cast iron pan than I realized.
post #18 of 18
Since reading about carbon steel omelet pans a few months ago, I bought one soon after. I highly recommend a carbon steel pan. They are inexpensive and once seasoned make great scrambled eggs, fritatas, and omelets.

I have both high quality stainless lined multi ply pans and a very well-regarded non-stick pan. However, for eggs, nothing beats the carbon steel pan.

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