Stocking your kitchen with thrift-store finds or a starter cookware set provides a pragmatic option when you're starting out in life. But upgrading to a set of high-quality cookware is a worthy goal. You're much more likely to get consistent results when all of your pots and pans perform the same way, and good-quality cookware will outlast several sets of low-cost pots. Most high-quality sets are made of either stainless steel or hard-anodized aluminum, and each material has its own distinct benefits.
Not Your Grandma's Aluminum
Conventional aluminum is widely used in cookware, because it's relatively lightweight and offers superior heat conduction. Unfortunately it's soft -- easily damaged by hard use and metal utensils -- and tends to react with salty or acidic foods. Hard anodization changes that. It's an electrochemical process that physically alters the aluminum, leaving it stronger than steel and non-reactive with acidic foods such as tomato sauce. Hard-anodized cookware is stick-resistant -- meaning foods can be somewhat easily released by a spatula -- if not quite as slick as the best non-stick coatings, and retains conventional aluminum's superlative heat conduction.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Hard-anodized aluminum's combination of strength, light weight and stick-resistance make it a compelling option for cooking. Foods can stick to the surface under some circumstances, but this is usually an advantage; truly non-stick pans brown foods poorly, because they don't caramelize properly if they can't adhere at least briefly to the cooking surface. With hard-anodized aluminum, they'll stick initially but then release when browned. Unfortunately, hard-anodized aluminum can be damaged by harsh dishwasher cleansers, so they're not dishwasher safe unless they're coated or lined. Check the manufacturer's instructions before purchasing your set, to be sure. Anodized aluminum is also unsuitable for induction cooking, which requires iron or steel.
Though it lacks copper's warm sheen, stainless steel's bright, silvery gleam has an eye-catching beauty of its own. It's a tough and durable material, non-reactive with foods, dishwasher safe, and very easy to keep clean. Unfortunately, despite these many virtues, it's a relatively poor conductor of heat. Almost all stainless steel cookware compensates for this by sandwiching a thick pad of aluminum or copper inside the steel at the pot's bottom. In superior cookware, this inner, heat-conducting layer extends beyond the bottom to the pan's sides as well. This provides even heat from all directions, as you'd get with aluminum cookware, rather than simply from the bottom.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Steel's physical strength, beauty and ease of cleaning make it an appealing choice, though it's not perfect. For one thing it's heavier than anodized aluminum, a potentially significant consideration for mature or physically challenged cooks. Stainless steel doesn't provide a non-stick or stick-resistant surface, another drawback, though some brands are lined with other materials to provide stick-resistance. On the other hand, stainless steel can withstand very high temperatures with no ill effect other than slight discoloration. As a ferrous metal, it's also usable on induction cooktops, though performance will vary sharply between brands. Those with the thickest layer of steel at the bottom give the best results.