What Are the Different Types of Cookware?

Published on 03/13/2024 · 10 min readFrom stainless steel to ceramic, explore the different types of cookware, each offering unique benefits for heat distribution, durability, and ease of cleaning!
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

Photo by Jack Frog

TL;DR: Cookware is used primarily on the stovetop. There are a few must-have pieces of cookware that will allow you to make a wide variety of dishes. When picking out cookware, consider what it’s made of, if it’s induction compatible, and if you want a nonstick coating.

I’ve been cooking since I was old enough to be trusted in the kitchen by myself. While every piece of cookware has its uses, there are certain ones I find myself using all the time: skillets, Dutch ovens, saucepans, and stockpots. With these pieces of cookware, I can make almost anything.

Thinking of adding a piece of cookware to your collection? There’s a lot of terminology that surrounds cooking and cookware, but our Curated Kitchen Experts are well versed in all of it, so they can answer questions, make recommendations, and ensure you get what’s right for you. Best of all, it’s free!

What Is Cookware?

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While this may seem obvious, cookware is pots and pans that are used to cook on the stove. The alternative is bakeware, which is primarily used for baking in the oven. Cookware is generally used on the stovetop, though a lot of them are oven safe as well.

The fact of the matter is that there are many varieties of cookware, though a lot of them are specialized. This article focuses on the essential types of cookware that every home cook should own. The majority of dishes can be made with just a few different types of cookware: skillets, stockpots, Dutch ovens, and saucepans.

What to Consider When Buying Cookware

Cookware is something that most people use daily, so it’s important to get the right pieces of cookware for your needs. When picking out cookware, there are a lot of factors to consider, so here are some questions to ask yourself.

What Material Is Best?

What the cookware is made out of has a huge impact on the way it performs. Which material is best for your needs is going to depend on what you like to cook and which features are important to you.

  • Cast iron: One of the oldest cookware materials, cast iron is primarily used in skillets and Dutch ovens. It isn’t very heat reactive, so it takes time to heat and cool, but it has excellent heat retention and spreads the heat evenly, resulting in uniform browning. There are two main varieties:
    • Seasoned: Seasoned cast iron has a thin layer of oil baked onto it, which results in the black patina that cast iron cookware is known for. This layer prevents rust, which cast iron is vulnerable to, and creates a nonstick coating.
    • Enameled: A ceramic coating is baked onto the cast iron, preventing rust and making it easier to clean. Soap can damage seasoning but doesn't affect enamel. It isn’t as good for high temperatures, and uneven or sudden temperature changes can cause it to crack.
  • Aluminum: This metal has excellent heat conduction, meaning that it heats quickly and evenly, which is why it’s prized for bakeware. It’s less common in cookware because it’s easy to scratch and is reactive to acids (it can cause discoloration and pitting). For those reasons, most aluminum cookware will be anodized. Hard anodized aluminum is bonded with its oxidation, causing it to be scratch resistant and nonreactive to acids. Most hard anodized cookware has an additional nonstick coating.
  • Copper: Copper has been used for cookware for a long time because of its excellent heat distribution. Modern copper cookware is usually lined with stainless steel because copper reacts to acids — cooking tomato sauce in a copper pot will make it taste like you stewed it in pennies. Copper has excellent heat distribution and is striking and long lasting. For these reasons, copper cookware is expensive, making it a specialty item.
  • Carbon steel: This is a rarer material that is mostly used for skillets and woks. Carbon steel has many of the same properties that chefs prize in cast iron, such as being long lasting, having good heat distribution, and being resistant to high heat (it’s great for searing). Like cast iron, it’s vulnerable to rust, so it needs to be seasoned. However, the metal is much harder, meaning that it can be much thinner — and therefore lighter — than cast iron.
  • Stainless steel: This is likely the most common cookware material out there, as stainless steel is durable, affordable, and easy to work with. It’s scratch resistant, so you can use metal utensils (though if you like to keep it pristine, wood or silicone is better), put it in the oven, and use it with the broiler. Its only real weakness is that it doesn’t heat as evenly as other materials, which is why stainless steel cookware usually has an aluminum core. That’s why stainless steel is usually described as being 3-ply or 5-ply — it means that there’s another layer of metal sandwiched between the stainless steel.

Do I Want Nonstick?

There are many different varieties of nonstick coatings, the most popular of which are PTFE (better known as Teflon) and ceramic. Neither option is definitively better than the other, which means that whether or not you want nonstick cookware depends on your preferences.

The benefit of nonstick is that food won’t stick to them, so you can usually just run a sponge over them for easy cleanup. That’s why many experts will recommend using them for sticky foods like eggs or delicate foods like crepes.

The downside is that nonstick coatings are fragile. You need to be careful what utensils you use (absolutely no metal). Once the coating starts showing signs of coming off, you want to discard it. Nonstick pans are also temperature limited, as heating some coatings, like Teflon, past a certain temperature causes it to emit gasses that can be bad for your health, hence the “Teflon flu.”

Should It Be Induction Compatible?

Induction cooktops are becoming more common, which means you should think about whether your cookware works with induction. Obviously, if you have an induction stove, it's necessary, but if you don’t, it’ll depend on if you think you may get one in the future.

Induction works by creating a magnetic field to generate heat. That means that the pan has to have a ferromagnetic bottom for it to work. Any steel alloy fits the bill, such as stainless steel, carbon steel, and cast iron. Neither copper nor aluminum (hard anodized or not) are induction compatible, which is why some modern copper cookware will have a stainless steel bottom.

Types of Cookware

There are a lot of varieties of cookware out there, many of which are specialized. The majority of home chefs, however, can get away with having just a few types. These are the must-have types of cookware.

Skillet

Photo by Oksana Mizina

Also called a frying pan or fry pan, skillets are highly versatile pieces of cookware. They’re a low-sided pan with a long handle. The sides are sloped, making it easy to flip foods. They’re sometimes confused with sauté pans, which have a similar shape and function but instead have straight sides.

Benefits:

  • Sloped sides make it easy to flip foods like eggs or pancakes
  • Can be used to fry, sauté, and sear

Be Aware:

  • Aren’t good for saucy foods, as it’s easy for them to spill over
  • Not ideal for large groups, as even a 12-inch skillet can only cook so much

Stockpot

Photo by Beats1

Stockpots are most often used for soups, stews, and stocks. Being a pot, they have two handles and high, straight sides, making them ideal for largely liquid dishes.

Benefits:

  • Great for boiling water, so can be used for pasta, corn on the cob, and lobster
  • Come in a wide variety of sizes, from 3qt up to 12qt

Be Aware:

  • Not good for frying
  • Are usually found in larger sizes (6qt and 8qt are the most common), so they aren’t good for small recipes

Saucepan

Photo by Goskova Tatiana

Saucepans are an in-betweener piece of cookware, being similar to a small stockpot. They have high, straight sides but only one long handle, making them decidedly a pan. These pans are usually in the 2qt to 4qt range and are designed for cooking sauces and fillings.

Benefits:

  • Their smaller size makes them excellent for delicate tasks, like making custard or pudding
  • Easy to handle

Be Aware:

  • Generally aren’t large enough for most soup recipes
  • Only have a handle on one side

Dutch Oven

Photo by Peter Kim

A Dutch oven is a type of pot with a tight-fitting lid. They’re generally cast iron and squatter than a stockpot. Their ability to retain heat means that they’re prized for a lot of cooking tasks.

Benefits:

  • Highly versatile, can be used for soups and chilis, as well as making roasts and baking bread
  • Most Dutch ovens last a lifetime

Be Aware:

  • Cast iron is heavy
  • Generally expensive

Features to Look for

There are a lot of things to consider when picking out cookware, but some features make the piece more versatile or showcase good quality. Here are some features to look for when picking out a new piece of cookware.

Oven Safe

Having a piece of cookware that can't go in the oven limits its utility. Look for cookware that’s made entirely of metal, even the handles, so that it can be used both on the stovetop and in the oven.

Domed Lid

Make sure that the lid fits properly and is convex. Having a sloping lid helps the moisture drip back into the food, which not only keeps it moist but prevents you from dumping water all over your stove when you pick it up.

How to Pick the Best Cookware for You

As cookware is something everyone needs, finding just the right one for you can require a lot of research. To streamline the process, I’m going to describe three different people and what I’d recommend for them.

Maeve: College Student Looking for the Basics

Maeve recently moved into her own apartment and wants to start cooking for herself. She’s pretty busy with classes, and she mainly cooks for herself, so she’s not looking to make anything complicated. She’d like something that isn’t chintzy, but she doesn’t have a huge amount of extra money to spend.

Features to look for:

  • Stainless steel for ease of care
  • Mid-range brands for affordability

Recommended products: KitchenAid Stainless Steel Non-stick Induction Frying Pan, KitchenAid Stainless Steel Induction Saucepan with Lid

Brian: Dad Who Wants Versatile Cookware to Make Life Easier

Brian does most of the cooking in his family, and he wants to get some better cookware to help make it easier for him. He doesn't mind spending some time on maintenance so long as he gets something valuable out of it, but he doesn't want to have to baby his cookware, either. He wants good-quality cookware that'll last and is willing to spend money on a solid product.

Features to look for:

  • Cast iron or stainless steel for durability
  • A name brand for quality and a good warranty

Recommended products: Staub Cast Iron Round Cocotte, All-Clad D3 Stainless 3-ply Bonded Cookware Fry Pan with Lid

Jordan: Cooking Enthusiast Looking to Invest in His Hobby

Jordan has loved to cook since he was a kid, and he’s now in a position where he can spend money on his hobby. He’s looking for high-end, eye-catching cookware both to improve his cooking skills and because he frankly enjoys having them.

Features to look for:

  • Copper, for performance and beauty
  • Name brands, for quality

Recommended products: Ruffoni Symphonia Cupra Covered Stockpot, Hestan CopperBond Induction Copper Open Skillet

Find the Right Cookware for You

Looking for a new piece of cookware? Start a free chat with a Curated Kitchen Expert! Our Experts are highly knowledgeable about all types of cookware, so they can answer your questions, make recommendations, and help you find your new favorite piece of cookware.

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