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enameled cast iron vs. stainless steel vs. ceramic vs. clay

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hello everyone!

This is my first post so hopefully I won't be asking a much repeated question. If I am, please direct me in the right direction and excuse the repetion! :)

I'm new to cooking (as in buying my first pots and pans and learning how to cook) and am very confused about the different types of pots and pans. What exactly is the difference between stainless steel or cast iron or ceramic or clay? Besides the material itself, which I've read tons about, is there a difference in the way food tastes? Which do you prefer and why? Which would you recommend that I buy first or not buy at all? I understand there's no one size fits all option, so which types material of pots and pans will you recommend that I purchase?

thanks a ton for your responses in advance! they're much appreciated :)

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  1. Enamel cast iron (or bare cast iron) is good for slow cooking. The reason is that cast iron cookware are rather thick and heavy with significant heat capacity. As such, they heat up slow and cool down slow. They are not optimal for fast cooking like pan frying and saute. They are very popular for Dutch Ovens.

    Stainless steel cookware are usually triply cladded cookware with stainless steel exterior and interior surface sandwiching a thick piece of aluminum. All Clad is particularly famous for this:

    http://a57.foxnews.com/static/managed...

    The idea is to have a cookware behavior more closely to an aluminum cookware but easier to take care of. Stainless steel cladded cookware are good compromise of many. They are not the best of a specific task.

    Ceramic and clay cookware are even slower than cast iron cookware. They are good for slow cooking like stewing, but bad for saute or stir-fry.

    There are many other existing posts like "bare cast iron vs enameled cast iron"

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/628230

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/761124

    There is the post of anodized aluminum vs stainless steel:

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/602735

    1 Reply
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      thank you for sending me links to the other posts! I'll def check'em out :)

    2. Two more good threads:
      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/756854
      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/607976

      Cookware has 3 major properties: Conductivity, responsiveness, and retention. Conductivity is, will the heat travel from one end of the pan to the other? If you have an induction cooktop, this is not so important. If you are cooking over a flame the size of a candle, it is. Aluminum and copper have good conductivity. Cast iron does not, and stainless has none at all. Responsiveness is how quickly the pot or pan responds to the heat change. This is important if you are working with delicate ingredients, like eggs or chocolate. Aluminum and copper is highly responsive. Cast iron is not. Retentiveness is the opposite. Copper holds no heat, but cast iron can practically cook on its own.

      Second, there is the issue of safety. Metal should not go in the microwave. I would not put ceramics over an open flame. Also, CI and copper is heavy. This could become a problem if you have arthritis, carpal tunnel, spaghetti arms, etc. The kitchen is not a safe place: there is fire and sharp implements. You must feel like you have control over your cookware.

      Third, the issue of price. Copper is pricey.

      Fourth, the issue of maintenance. Don't put copper in the DW. Toss the stainless in there.

      I wouldn't say that there is a difference in taste per se, but with some materials, there is a greater chance that you will ruin the meal (burn the chocolate, curdle the eggs, steam the meat, etc.).

      If you tell us what kinds of foods you like to eat, you can get a better response.

      As always, if anything above is incorrect, I apologize. I defer to the greater wisdom of Chem, Grey, Politeness, C_Oliver, Tanuki Soup, and a few others.

      3 Replies
      1. re: E_M

        Also, the issue of non-stick. Tin, the old way of lining copper pans, is naturally non-stick. On the other hand, it is very fragile and shouldn't be used for frying purposes or over temperatures of 400 (or 425 or something) as it will melt. A well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel is also naturally non-stick, but can go in extremely hot ovens--it will never melt. Its drawback is that the iron can react unfavorably with certain foods (tomatoes, wine, etc.) and in addition to making the food taste slightly weird, can break down the pan's seasoning. Stainless steel is as sticky as they come, unless you master the art of cooking with it, and use a lot of butter and oil.

        Important: when I say "stainless" I mean cladded, as Chem explained above.

        1. re: E_M

          thank you for such a detailed reply! I really appreciate it. :)

          I will mostly be cooking vegetables and beans and lentils... sometimes chicken and fish... very rarely beef but no bacon if that matters at all. I'll cook some rice and pasta for sure as I already eat that at most restaurants :p

          I don't think I'll buy copper because I read somewhere that it's unhealthy for you? maybe because it reacts with food and it can make the foods poisonous??? I don't know if I read correctly.. but it really scared me away from copper! heheh

          1. re: meerah

            Just to jump in here, based on what you like to cook, I think the Le Creuset would be perfect for preparing bean and lentil dishes. As mentioned in my post below, since it seems you don't eat a lot of red meat, I'm tempted to suggest carbon steel over cast iron for the frying pans. Finally, if you eat a lot of rice, buying a rice cooker would be an excellent investment (and will also free up a burner on your stove).

        2. My wife and I are empty nester's. I use my Demeyere, Falk and All Clad cookware all the time. However. since I braise a lot of dishes that can be used for two meals, i am constantly using my LC or Staub in my cooking to braise dishes for two meals worth. What I am getting to is that there are times and uses for all types of cookware depending on your need at the time.

          1 Reply
          1. re: SpringRam

            all clad, le creuset and staub are all super expensive and I'd love to have them! maybe not today but perhaps a couple years down the line when I can afford them... good to know they last so long!

          2. Hi meerah, if you have the $$$ buy a piece of everything. stainless, enam cast iron, clay and of course Copper. Then as time goes by and you become more proficient, Keep buying more cookware like most of us do. Just keep reading the sage words of wisdom here at Chowhound. Oh, and have fun!

            1 Reply
            1. re: diamond dave

              ooh I'd love to buy a bit of everything... but the problem is that our first apartment is tiiiiiinnnyyy!!!! I can stand in the middle of the kitchen and reach end to end if I spread my arms :p

              I have a real shortage of cabinet space so I was trying to find out which type of material would be best to buy and if I can get away with just buying a "set" of stainless steel so I won't clutter up the cabinets.

            2. This is a great description of different cookware materials and styles:
              http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/...

              I'd agree with others that you should think about what you'd like to cook (I actually hated this advice when I was first asking!). It does make a difference if you like one pot meals or veggies and meat separate, etc. When I first started buying I found a list of kitchen essentials and thought I'd work from that but I realized that my own cooking style isn't that suited to some of the general "must haves."

              If you're able to, I'd try to buy a piece or two at a time. You might discover some preferences that you didn't know you had. Try to handle as many different styles as you can while you're shopping - you mind find that you don't care for certain handle types or certain materials might be too heavy for you, etc.

              You could consider getting a good starter set like Tramontina from Walmart and replacing or adding pieces as you need. Or, you could consider getting one really great piece of equipment that suits your style like an enamel cast iron piece if you love slow cooked, one pot meals or a copper saucepan if you love custards, cream sauces, etc.

              Two things that I've learned about along my own journey that I've really enjoyed are my blue steel trying pan as well as my pressure cooker - I'd not heard of either before researching cookware. My own collection which I probably started 3 yrs ago is a mix of clad stainless steel, enamel cast iron, cast iron and copper (with one piece of blue steel). Each has it's own strength.

              One last point - each material can have an effect on the way food tastes. If you love a good crust on a steak then you'll want something like non-enameled cast iron or blue steel. Some people swear by enameled cast iron for grains and beans whereas others love pressure cookers for these. Learning all of this can be hard and some depends on personal preference. Good luck and keep up with the reading!

              5 Replies
              1. re: olympia

                well I was thinking that I'd just invest in some affordable yet quality pieces right off the bat so I don't waste money on useless junk that I'll throw away in a year or so...

                we have a membership at Costco and they have this Kirkland stainless steel cookware set that has a lot of pieces at a price that I can afford. The reviews seem somewhat encouraging but I wasn't sure if that was the one size fit answer to my question...

                Costco also has this Kirkland enameled 6 qt. round dutch oven and some other ceramic pot which interested me. I don't know about those but I thought they might be useful or necessary?

                ooh I'm gonna buy the fagor pressure cooker! that seems like an easy way to cook meals without screwing it up... and best part is, even if I screw up, I'll still have time to re-do it quickly! :D

                1. re: meerah

                  I'd really strongly suggest this set - it's had good reviews here. It's got about everything you need for starting out.
                  http://www.walmart.com/ip/Tramontina-...

                  If you're interested in a pressure cooker I'd get a 6 or 8 qt from Fagor. It seems Macy's has them 40% off somewhat regularly.

                  1. re: olympia

                    ooh thanks for the link! I'll check it out. :)

                    I don't want to sound biased, but i LOVE costco and their return policy! I know that if I don't like something I can simply take it back and they'll accept the return.. so buying the cookware from them is sort of my insurance policy knowing I can take it back.

                    1. re: meerah

                      This is a good point. My recommendation for Tramontina comes from reading so many positive reviews including a recommendation from Cooks Illustrated (they compared it favorably with All Clad).

                      I'll back Tanuki Soup in his/her recommendation for Lodge. I don't have the signature but I've got the 12" skillet and 11" square grill pan and they are great. I think being extremely careful you could get all the pieces you need on a small budget. TS recommended some great starter pieces and I agree that Le Creuset is a great brand.

                2. re: olympia

                  Where's the edit butting in the morning when you need it!? I shouldn't be typing as I'm going to bed - apologies for the typos!

                3. IMO, you really can't go wrong buying the following essential pieces:

                  12" cast iron frying pan - Great for searing meats, cooking bacon, browning onions. (Lodge makes good ones. They are amazingly cheap and last forever. You might also consider getting a carbon steel frying pan instead of cast iron if you cook vegetables a lot more often than meat.)

                  5 1/2-quart Le Creuset French oven (enameled cast iron) - Perfect for braising and making soups, stews, chili, gumbo, etc., etc. (Expensive, but essential, and it will last for many years. If cost is an issue, I'd look for a nice factory second.)

                  10" or 12" good-quality nonstick aluminum frying pan - For eggs, omelets, fish.

                  2- and 4-quart stainless steel saucepans with thick aluminum disk bottoms (or fully clad) - You will probably use these every day.

                  8- or 10-quart stainless steel stockpot with thick aluminum disk bottom - For boiling pasta, making big batches of spaghetti sauce, boiling ears of corn. Getting one that comes with a pasta insert and a steamer insert would be nice

                  I'm sure you will eventually want to get other things, but you can add them later as needed. In the meantime, you can probably do 99% of your daily cooking with the above pieces.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: tanuki soup

                    thank you for this list!!!!

                    I have my eye on the 12" lodge signature series frying pan and grill... that sounds like it's the answer to what you're describing... I don't know what a carbon steel frying pan is... or the blue steel one... i've never even heard of those!

                    do you think I can get the Costco version of the enameled french oven? It's also made in France from what the website says... and it's soooooo much cheaper!

                    I'm trying to stay away from aluminum cuz I read some health safety alerts about it and it super scared me! i could've read it wrong too.

                    the costco version of the stainless steel cookware set has all those stock pots and pans you described... I thought it would be most convenient to just get that set instead of buying one at a time... but then I'll have to learn to use them all at once! yikes!

                    1. re: meerah

                      Hi, meerah,

                      I have the Lodge Signature 10" and 12" frying pans and 12" grill pan and absolutely love them. They are pretty pricey though, especially for cast iron. Personally, I'd recommend that you consider getting the non-Signature Lodge pans, which should also last several hundred years. That would probably free up sufficient funds to cover the cost of the Le Creuset French oven over the Costco. (I should admit that I have no experience with the Costco, and it may be very good, but Le Creuset has a well deserved reputation earned over many, many years, so recommending it is a no-brainer.)

                      With regard to carbon steel frying pans, they are a lot like cast iron but a bit lighter, smoother surface, faster to season, and great for sauteing vegetables. They are also pretty reasonably priced. Chemical Kinetics knows a lot more than I do about carbon steel pans, so I'd suggest you seek out his expert advice. (However, based on your reply to E_M's excellent post above, I suspect that you might find carbon steel preferable to cast iron.)

                      As for the stainless steel, I agree with olympia that Tramontina makes good-quality stainless steel cookware at an excellent price. I have their Lock & Drain Multi-cooker and really like it. The set that olympia recommends looks quite nice, but I personally prefer buying separate pieces.

                      1. re: tanuki soup

                        Ditto the recommendation to start with just a few pieces of plain cast iron, either Lodge or, if you find it at a flea market or can afford eBay prices, older pieces (like pre-1950s) of US manufactured cast iron. Wagner and Griswold, for example. Then expand your collection as you can afford it, according to what you find you're missing based on what you find yourself wanting to cook. You can make quick pan sauces with tomatoes or wine or other acidic ingredients using the cast iron -- you just don't want to cook or store them for hours in the pan.
                        With good cast iron -- especially the older pieces that have smooth, machined interiors, you may find yourself very happy cooking eggs and not missing a high-tech, non stick coating, so you can save space by not getting a specialized pan for that.
                        Other than a skillet and a saucepan, to begin with (and those should be sized for the amount of food you will be cooking), if you cook pasta or want to make a big batch of your own spaghetti sauce you'll want a large pot -- say 4 or 5 quarts minimum -- pretty quickly. Stainless steel, especially with an aluminum or copper disk at the bottom, is a fine choice and you can easily find something to fit your budget. Cast iron is pretty heavy and has the issue of reacting with acid and so not particularly well adapted for such purposes, but it CAN be used to boil water for pasta if you haven't anything else.

                  2. How many people are you cooking for? I usually cook for 2 and rarely need something larger than 3 qts. I have used a 5qt dutch oven for a 5lb roast, and a 6 qt pressure cooker for a whole chicken.

                    Also what kind of stove? I have electric coil. Given the limited size of the burners, anything larger than 10" does not heat well.

                    Cast iron and carbon steel require care when cleaning and drying so they don't rust. Also if you want to make use of their non-stick potential you have to spend time and attention to seasoning them.

                    Stainless steel is a good all around work horse. It will take more abuse than other materials. However food can stick more easily in it. But for simmering, sauces, and such it is great. If you get a Fagor pressure cooker you are also getting a large stainless steel pot.

                    Enameled cast iron (or steel) is like stainless in all around usefulness and ease of use.

                    Earthen ware that is glazed on the inside is nice for long slow cooking and oven use. Depending on the brand it may work fine on a gas stove, but probably not on an electric one. It cleans fine, but has to be handled gently.

                    For things that stick easily, it is hard to beat a non-stick coating.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: paulj

                      thanks a lot for all your help everyone! I really appreciate your feedback and detailed comments.

                      1. re: meerah

                        There is a tremendous amount of information here on Chowhound and many therads on what cookware to buy. Keep this in mind as you shop, just about anything can be cooked with varying amounts of ease and success in just about anything. And, every piece of cookware is a trade off of one charicteristic for another. Also, what you cook is as much a factor in what you need to cook in, as any of the trade offs with regard to heat transfer and retention. In other words, each cooking task has it's own set of requirements and certian materials handle those tasks with better or worse results. There is no one size fits all. Copper pots and pans are almost always lined (either stainless steel or tin), always, with the excepton of pots for very specific purposes, so you should have no fear of copper. It's great for certian tasks, especially those where heat evenness and sensitivity are critical. Enameled cast iron is fantastic for slow cooking stews or a pot of beans, or browning a roast before you put it in the oven. The enameled surface is non-reactive and very safe, however thermal shock and high temperatures are issues, so it's not ideal for certian cooking tasks. Stainless Steel is almost always clad to get some of the thermal properties needed to cook well, and although it does just about everything, it probably doesn't to anything the best. Aluminum is a great low cost thermal conductor, but there are issues with it as well. It will not take the dish washer and some will question reactivity with certian foods, while others will question general food safety. Ceramic or clay, is best left for the microwave and the oven, most are not well suited to stove top use.

                        So pick your cooking vessels with what you cook and how you cook in mind.

                    2. Don't overlook non-stick. Julia and Jaques commented it's really useful some times, like for omelets. They did use steel utensils, NOOO...a nice perk of having a TV show, free replacement pans.

                      All-Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset and Cuisinart make teflonique pans ( DuPont or generic polytetrafluoroethylene), so the plastique has been "vetted by authorities". Is it toxic? Some parrots have been bumped off by overheated teflon. Then too, your cellphone may give you brain cancer.

                      If you're young, and have a lifetime of exploration, you'll find things that work better for you, and things that don't. Try classic materials, like porous clay, glazed clay (ceramic), glass and cast iron. Figure out what they are great at, and avoid subjecting them to things they are not so great at.

                      The most even-heat would be provided by silver, not currently made in pots and pans, then copper close behind, followed distant-third by aluminum.

                      With multi-layer clad pots and pans, be careful about subjecting them to thermal shock. Alu sandwiched in stainless steall is much more shock-resistant than ceramic/clay/glass , or even enameled cast iron, but it can be "popped" as I discovered trying to instantly cool a seriously overheated All-Clad using cold water. I still use it, but it doesn't sit flat anymore. ;o

                      It would have been fine if I had just turned the heat off, and let it cool slowly.

                      If you overheat oil and it is smoking, turn off the stove, and pour a bit of "cold" oil from the bottle. That works.

                      1. It really depends on what you are cooking. If you are cooking Indian food a lot then calphalon stainless cookware , a decent pressure cooker and one or two non stick pans should do. Pressure cooker pot can be used for cooking pasta, rice, noodles and stir fry pan can be used to prepare sauces and mix pasta, make fried rice, etc. If you coat a stainless pan generously with oil, then heat, it temporarily work as non stick. The brands I love are calphalon, fagor and scan pan for non stick ceramic cookware. Good luck and happy cooking!!