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May 1, 2011 03:43 PM

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

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:

    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"

    There is the post of anodized aluminum vs stainless steel:

    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:

      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!

            2 Replies
            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.

              1. re: meerah

                Then go for just 3 things: All Clad 3 ply SS in 4 quarts (it'll enable you soup and many stews), a 1.5 sautee pan (it can double as a frying pan if you need to) and a tiny aluminum frying pan with teflon. This is a great starter and you'll use it for years. I don't recommend a cast iron frying pan to a starter because it needs very specific care not suited for a beginner. I had that in my first appt and still have the 4 quart pot, after 25 years!

            2. This is a great description of different cookware materials and styles:

              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.

                  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!