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What's Hot, What's Not, in Pots and Pans

That's the title of a 2008 New York Times piece by Harold McGee, author of the invaluable "On Food and Cooking." He tested the conventional wisdom about the virtues of different materials in cookware and found that they don't actually behave as many people believe.

The complete article is here:


Briefly, he found that cast iron is not an even conductor of heat on the stovetop. (It is in the oven.) He measured a consistent difference of 100° F between the center and rim of a "medium sauté pan," whether over flame or an electric heating coil. Low heat causes "even browning over a small area at the center of the pan, and none elsewhere." The most even distribution of heat was with heavy copper lined with stainless steel, and two inexpensive aluminum pans with nonstick coatings. In between was stainless-clad aluminum, which was also pretty good. Not so the cast iron.

He also found that all materials, not just cast iron, became more non-stick as they were seasoned by repeated use without scouring them down to the metal. People sometimes ask here whether stainless steel needs to be seasoned. According to McGee's experience, it's a good thing.

There's other information and more tips in the article - well worth reading. He concludes, "So what to do about getting pots and pans that work best? Choose the ones that you like, for their heft or their lightness, for cachet or economy, for finickiness or ease.... And cook with them often." Sounds good to me!

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  1. It all depends on what your trying to cook, what you have to cook with, and the chef's skill.

    In some parts of the world, chef's can cook a great meal on an old school metal hub cap over charcoal. While others can't use Falk/All-Clad/etc. on a modern gas/induction/electric stove to save their life.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Sid Post

      Totally agree. Some of these kitchens in shelter mags, look like they've never been kissed.

    2. Harold McGee has a bunch of good books about the science of cooking. "Conventional wisdom" really depends on which population you are talking about as different groups have different conventions, and one's groups conventional wisdom can/will contradict another groups (especially if they are doing very similar activities, but have very different end-goals in mind).

      I doubt that he was really surprised in 2008 that cast iron is a bad conductor and cast iron cookware produces uneven heating over the bottom of a large skillet or saute pan (actually that any of his experimental data or conclusions were a huge surprise either) - it is probably more a literary device to get those gosh darned readers to think that he is a regular kitchen schmoe like them, making them more receptive to his cooking-geek knowledge.

      His article is a good read, and the explanation about Bénard-Marangoni convection is pretty sweet. You might consider some of his cookbooks.

      1 Reply
      1. re: khuzdul

        I agree with your take on the supposed "conventional wisdom" and cast iron.

      2. Hi, JF:

        Pretty good article. Thanks for the link--I was surprised I hadn't seen it before.

        It is quite short on details and numbers. And it omits any real analysis on responsiveness--a water boil test on MAX heat isn't very informative.

        But if the takeaways are: (a) cast iron is slow and uneven; and (b) all surfaces benefit from "seasoning", and that message finally gets across, I'll be happy.


        1 Reply
        1. re: kaleokahu

          It would be great if those two messages got across. To me the major benefit of most CI is weight/thickness. If you get it good and hot and drop a steak on it the temp will drop but not like it would with a thin skillet made of most anything. But for that very specific application I have come to prefer a very heavy well seasoned steel pan. My big take away is that for many applications the weight/thickness is just as important as the material ( within my unreasonable limits, of course). The big steel pan in the photo is 14". Sure it is heavy, being about 3.5 mm, but with the nice French handle it is easy to maneuver. A typical CI pan of that size and thickness with its four inch handle would be unworkable for my 64 year old wrist.

        2. Thanks John. I read this before, and it has been cited afew times here before as well. A nice re-read.



          1. Naturally my sauté pan construction was left out (bi-ply Al/SS). I'm always the odd man out.

            1 Reply
            1. re: GH1618

              :) Al/SS is not the most popular construction, but I think most people can deduce that Al/SS has proximity the same heating distribution as SS/Al/SS, but better heat response -- assuming the aluminum layer is the same thickness. Of course, Al/SS construction often has even thicker aluminum, so the heat distribution will be even better.

            2. The owner's manual for my smoothtop range specifically advises against using cast iron, for fear that the heavy cookware would damage the stovetop. I still own 2 cast iron Dutch ovens, though, which are mostly used in the oven - but occasionally get stovetop use, too (for searing a chicken to be pot-roasted with veggies, or for cooking side dishes for holiday meals, when I need a LOT of large pots).

              2 Replies
              1. re: CatherineMcClarey

                I'll pitch my smoothtop stove before I'll discard the cast iron cookware. :-)

                1. re: condie

                  Heh heh. Nice, but except one is much more expensive than the others. I do like my cast iron cookware.

              2. Uneven heat is easily counteracted by stirring and has never caused a probem for me with my cast iron pots or pans. I have had problems sauteeing in stainless and aluminum pots and pans that tend to scorch along the sides above the bimetalic bottoms.

                3 Replies
                1. re: mudcat

                  Hi, mudcat:

                  How do you stir pancakes, steaks or whole chicken?


                  1. re: kaleokahu

                    I don't stir my steakes and whole chicken and I do my pancakes on a non stick griddle. The chicken goes in the oven and the steaks on a ridged bottom black iron pan or charcoal grill. I'm a little set in my ways but houseboken. Thanks for asking.

                  2. re: mudcat

                    <Uneven heat is easily counteracted by stirring and has never caused a probem for me with my cast iron pots or pans. I have had problems sauteeing in stainless and aluminum pots and pans that tend to scorch along the sides above the bimetalic bottoms.>

                    Yes, this is true for smaller items -- say pan frying green beans or sauting shrimps. For larger items which are difficult to move, heat evenness can be more important.

                  3. Thanks for the link! It's an interesting article.

                    "So what to do about getting pots and pans that work best? Choose the ones that you like, for their heft or their lightness, for cachet or economy, for finickiness or ease.... And cook with them often."

                    This seems a bit wonky to me. His conclusions in the article, except for this one, all seem to bear out the technical realities of the materials used in each type of pan. Given these varying characteristics, there often is a specific pan that "work[s] best." For example, if you need to saute, a copper saute pan will work the best, and, if you want to sear a steak with very high heat, then a cast iron skillet will work best. Of course there are always cost and care considerations for the end user, but when it comes to "work[ing] best," telling people just to pick whatever they want and then to use it is not particularly helpful, especially after identifying the particular strengths and weaknesses of each material. Was he afraid of drawing the conclusion that vast majority of the pans on the market are not the best for the job? Maybe he didn't want to hurt the self esteem of any pan that might read his article!

                    Choosing what you like for the reasons he listed is not good advice in seeking pans for their function. A lot of people like Le Creuset. Buying an entire set of cherry reds will get you a great dutch oven and a very nice skillet, but it will ensure that you don't have the best functioning sauce pans, stock pots, or saute pans.

                    Better advice would have been to start by considering the material characteristics of the best pan (for any given type of pan) and then weigh the cost, maintenance, and aesthetic factors against the decreased performance of lesser performing materials. Then make your purchase, and use it.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: jljohn

                      Hi, Jeremy:

                      Well put. McGee has encyclopedic knowledge and is an excellent writer, but I've always thought his judgment's a little off.


                      1. re: jljohn

                        <Was he afraid of drawing the conclusion that vast majority of the pans on the market are not the best for the job?>

                        No, but because people have different priorities. I like cast iron skillet for my steak. It stores much heat. It gives a very nice favorful sear. It can take up high heat, and it remains relatively nonstick at the same time. However, some people may want to deglaze from the steak and they may weight that very high on the list. In which case, stainless steel surface is better than cast iron for that. Some people may really need the automatic dishwasher option. Their lifestyles prefer it. Again, the stainless steel cladded cookware will work better for that. Some people have Arthritis, and it is painful for them to carry heavy cookware around. Some people love cookware which they can take directly from the kitchen to the serving table and they considered that an absolutely must, and they consider an enameled Le Creuset cookware to be much better than a bare cast iron Lodge cookware.

                        So yes, he did a study on the heat evenness of the cookware for this particular article, but he is aware that it is just that, and not about everything else. At the end, because everyone have different priorities, we do need to choose the ones which fit our priority.

                        My understanding from Harold McGee many articles (which I do read quiet a few) is that he presented the factual findings, and he draws a very precise but also very narrow technical conclusion. He does not overreach his conclusion. For example, he won't say things like: aluminum has better heat evenness than cast iron, so that's what you should get for pancake. He is more like: aluminum has better heat evenness than cast iron, now take this information into account and form your own opinions and draw your own conclusions.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          You are absolutely right Chem, and I acknowledge that fully. But he wrote an article about a set of functional characteristics and concluded by advising consumers to select the best pan by choosing what they like based on a list of priorities that have nothing to do with the function. Maybe it was just bad wording, but taken alone the advice is poor, and as an editorial matter it is a terrible closing statement for the article it concludes.

                          1. re: jljohn

                            <Maybe it was just bad wording, but taken alone the advice is poor, and as an editorial matter it is a terrible closing statement for the article it concludes.>

                            That is a good point, and I agree with this. It does seem like a sudden change of tone without something to transition to it. The way I see it is that McGee has a more hands-off or Laissez-faire approach to his readers. He is the kind of person who would do an experiment comparing aluminum and cast iron cookware, tell us about his observation, and let the readers draw the final conclusion.

                            I think cookware can be a very subjective thing. Some people love a copper pan for great heat conductivity. Others love a cladded pan for the versatility, and others love a nonstick pan for the ease-of-use. Let's say a person really valve the ability to put the cookware into a dishwasher. It is counterproductive to tell this person that his priority is wrong. McGee's most significant point of this article is to debunk a myth that cast iron is more even heating than aluminum based cookware. Now that the technical observations have been stated, the readers should take this new information into account. If I previously cooked with cast iron for its nonstick property and good heat capacity, then I have little to change. If I previously selected cast iron because I thought it is more even heating, then it is probably time to change.

                            I think that was what McGee getting at: there is this myth. This is what I (McGee) found. The old myth is wrong. What cookware to use? At the end, you choose the one which works best for you -- just know that you should be choosing your cookware based on the correct assumptions.

                            P.S.: There are certainly things which are more set in stone, and more black and white. For example, one cannot make highly acidic sauce in a seasoned cast iron cookware, because the seasoning will get eaten away. One should not do high temperature sear with a nonstick Teflon pan because Teflon is not build for that. A lot of other things are more grey.

                        2. re: jljohn

                          McGee didn't advise getting one type of pan for every application, but I agree his concluding advice was not particularly helpful. He does not help the reader know which type of pan construction is best for each application.

                          On the other hand, I agree with his implication that the type of pan isn't as important as many consumers think it is. "Buy what you like" is good advice, but you don't have to like only one type of pan material for use everywhere.

                        3. FWIW, cast iron is fine if you have patience and consistent behaviour to keep them re-seasoned after burning, Stainless is a total bust - it looks great but never gets seasoned to a level that food does not seriously stick. I finally found some Korean-made nonstick pans that ljust might ast forever, never warp from excessive heating, and keep the food raised from the oil by concentric ridges to keep oil saturatio n to a minimum.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Steveinjapan

                            Hi, Steve: "Stainless...never gets seasoned..."

                            I formerly also believed this, but I've changed my mind after acquiring an omelet pan and following a famous chef's instructions. SS and Al don't season in the same sense as you want with CI. I've posted the method here a few times, so you can search it out.

                            As McGee points out, one key is to refrain from cleaning the pan down to bare metal. Theoretically, you COULD scour to bare metal--and then reseason every time--but that would be an Imperial PITA. I submit to you that the real key is to toggle a tiny internal mental switch to accept that Magic Kitchen state of affairs where you just clean with salt and oil. As Sam F. suggested--God rest his soul--it may be the mentally healthier way to live and cook.

                            I am evaluating one of the new Williams-Sonoma Thermoclad frypans at present, and I can assure you there is a tremendous difference in stickiness after "seasoning".


                            1. re: kaleokahu

                              Thanks - I will search for your directions.

                              1. re: kaleokahu

                                Agreed after learning how to cook with SS I'd never use anything else

                                1. re: blade

                                  Hi, blade: "...never use anything else."

                                  I wouldn't go *that* far. This method improves all linings, IMO.