Designed primarily for stove top food preparation, cookware is available piece by piece or in a variety of sets. The criteria for good cookware include material, design, construction process and aesthetics, although without quality material and construction, cookware may look nice, but it won't ultimately last. Base materials include various metals that may or may not be coated with a stylish, protective layer of enamel. Composite cookware often features multiple layers of different metals to optimize performance. Other types of cookware include nonstick, glass, ceramic, glass-ceramic and silicone. In general, only metallic-based cookware is useful on the stove top.
Use stove top cookware for a wide variety of culinary tasks. Everything from heating up a can of soup or making a homemade stew to sauteing vegetables or searing steak can be easily accomplished with one type of cookware or another. Cookware comes in a number of different sizes and capacities as well as shapes for preparing specific foods. In sets, one receives an assortment of pieces, from shallow saucepans to deep stockpots. Virtually any stove top cooking application is achievable with a basic cookware component sold individually or as part of a set. Some exceptions include woks for stir-frying and large griddles, neither of which are typically included in a cookware set.
Most stove top cookware is durably constructed out of some type of metal. Enamel-coated cookware features a metal base with a porcelain or enamel finish. Metals include:
- Stainless steel
- Cast iron
- Carbon steel
- Anodized aluminum
The quality of cookware made from any of these metals is usually high, but there are some differences in terms of construction that make certain types superior. Multi-ply metal cookware, for instance, relies upon up to 9 different layers of metal. The materials are chosen for their heat conductivity, even distribution, look and non-reactiveness. Copper and aluminum are the best conductors of heat. Aluminum is the most commonly used encapsulated metal. Most stainless steel cookware features an inner layer of aluminum to move heat quickly, while the stainless steel ensures the best food flavors.
Anodized aluminum cookware is extremely hard, rustproof and is frequently used in various vessels such as saute pans and roasters. Cast iron and carbon steel must be seasoned periodically with oil so as not to rust. They are also more reactive metals, meaning the material can interfere with the taste of food. Some enamel cookware features a cast iron base, combining the conductive effects of the metal with the nonstick non-reactive enamel surface.
Whether it's enamel or some type of nonstick coating, a lot of cookware does not feature exposed metal. Enamel cookware has a metal base covered with a hard layer of porcelain or vitreous enamel. With enamel cookware, there is no metal to season or rust, cleanup is usually easy and food sticks less. Also, enamel cookware usually features bold colors for aesthetic effect. Other types of coating include a petroleum- or ceramic-based nonstick material. Teflon-coated cookware is one such example. Food won't stick, and cleanup is quick, but metallic utensils can't be used, for they may pick away at the coating. Nonstick surfaces can also break down at a faster rate and cannot be heated to high temperatures. Ceramic-based nonstick coatings are preferable to many people, for they contain no PTFEs, which can be toxic if decomposed and ingested.
Depending on the brand, each cookware piece may have subtle design characteristics, but the general size and shape of each component is fairly standard. Cookware is almost always cylindrical/circular. A square griddle is one exception. Baking dishes are often rectangular, however. Frying pans are typically very shallow and do not feature lids, while the sauce, saute and other pots and pans almost always include covers. Handles are commonly crafted from cast stainless steel, shaped ergonomically and often coated in silicone to stay cool. Stainless steel rivets fasten handles to the body of the cookware, while stainless steel is also used to rim the edges of lids or pans themselves. Other design features may include flared rims and colander-equipped lids. Lids are made from either stainless steel or tempered glass.
Stainless steel is often preferred for its scratch resistance, easy cleaning and mirror-like finish. The interior surface material won't flake, and it won't ruin the flavor of food. Cast iron is slow to heat but gets very hot when it does, making it ideal for searing steak or other extra-hot cooking applications. Copper is renowned for its attractiveness, but it can be heavy and very expensive. Anodized aluminum cookware is hard, strong and easy to clean and won't produce hot spots in the food. Clad cookware features multiple layers of metal. Often incorporating an aluminum or copper core surrounded on both sides by successive layers of steel, this type of cookware performs exceptionally well in terms of quick and even heating and results in foods that taste great.
Sets and Components
Whether purchased singly or in sets, the basic cookware pieces are the same throughout. Most sets include at least 2 saucepans, commonly from 1 to 3 quarts in capacity. Saute pans are generally 3-quart vessels, while stockpots come in 6- to 8-quart varieties. The most basic cookware sets feature 2 saucepans, 1 saute pan, a stockpot and typically 2 fry pans, from 8 to 11 inches in diameter. More comprehensive sets may feature a chef's pan, additional sauce or saute pans, a pasta and/or steamer insert, griddle, double broiler, casserole pan or even a wok with specialty sets. Some sets include utensils such as a slotted spoon and turner. Select Wolfgang Puck Bistro Elite sets include items such as cutting boards, prep and/or pinch bowls, tongs and cleavers. The majority of cookware sets, however, stick to the main vessels used on the stove top.
Brands and Prices
Cookware sets are offered from brands including T Fal, Farberware, Circulon, Le Creuset, Anolon and Viking, among many others. A good set can be purchased for $300 to $500, although it is possible to spend far less or far more depending on the number of components and level of quality desired. All-Clad's 30-piece copper core set, for instance, is priced around $4,000. Sets are typically sold in packs of 10 to 14 including lids, although 2-piece fry pan sets as well as full-kitchen setups are widely available.