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Cookware: Should You Splurge or Save?

By Kris Jensen-Van Heste

Splurge and save by buying quality cookware in money-saving sets - but only if you cook regularly and want a large variety of cookware. Here's a quick guide to help you choose new cookware:

Cookware Choices

Cookware prices largely reflect the quality of materials and design. The most common are made of copper, aluminum, stainless steel or cast iron; each handles heat differently and all have advantages and drawbacks.

  • Copper cookware is valued for its superior heat conductivity and luster, making it ideal for sauteing, but it's also the most costly. It also tarnishes easily, requiring constant care and cleaning. Copper is reactive, especially with extremely acidic foods such as vinegar, citrus and tomatoes, and can leach into foods, causing diarrhea, vomiting or nausea. For this very reason, unlined copper cookware should be avoided, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Fortunately, most copper cookware is lined with stainless steel, which is durable and safe to use.

  • Aluminum cookware offers the best heat conduction next to copper, and it's less expensive. Its major drawback is that it scratches easily and wears down faster than other metal cookware, because it is a soft metal. According to the FDA, a small amount of the metal can also leech into foods, particularly if acidic or salty foods are stored in aluminum cookware, or if the cookware is pitted or has deep scratches in it. Aluminum cookware is considered safe to use, however, although you may want to choose a different kind of cookware if you plan to use it frequently.

  • Anodized aluminum cookware undergoes an electro-chemical process that seals the aluminum with a durable, non-stick surface. It retains the conductivity of regular aluminum cookware, resists scratching, and is far less reactive with salty or acidic foods, thus reducing the chance of leeching.
  • Stainless steel cookware is a good utilitarian choice based on price, performance and durability. What you'll pay depends on what's bonded to the steel to enhance its conductivity. Some have a copper disc sandwiched between layers of steel; less expensive and less effective is a layer of aluminum. Stainless steel cookware also frequently has copper clad to the bottom exterior to improve heat conductivity. Unbonded steel cookware is cheaper, but it generally an unwise choice because it conducts heat poorly and can warp with prolonged heat exposure.

  • Cast iron cookware is a low-cost workhorse that's also nonreactive with foods. Once it's seasoned and treated with care, its heat-retaining density delivers results that no other cookware can, especially when it comes to browning. A big drawback is its weight - you may have to use two hands to heft a large skillet. If not dried thoroughly, it will rust and corrode. Most manufacturers don't recommend washing with any type of soap or detergent, just hot water and elbow grease. After it's been dried diligently, it takes a light coating of cooking oil or spray before being gently stored.

More on Cookware Choices and Safety

Clemson University's Home and Garden Information Center conducted a review of these and other kinds of cookware to address health and safety issues. It's a worthy read if you have concerns about cookware. About.com's Environmental Issues guide also discusses cookware safety.

Cookware Construction

Weight is extremely important when shopping for cookware. In general, the thicker the metal, the better the cookware. Handle construction is also important. Look for stainless steel handles that have been bolted or riveted to the side of the cookware; avoid plastic handles that have been glued on, attached with screws or spot welded. Lids, whether made or metal or glass, should fit snugly.

Save and splurge

If you plan to cook on a regular basis, or if you want everything from a small saucepan to a large stockpot at your disposal, invest in a set of premium cookware by such respected makers as Calphalon, Revere, All-Clad, T-Fal and Farberware. If you rarely cook or typically use only one item like a skillet or saucepan, you're probably better off buying your cookware piece by piece. Do a little comparison shopping, and you can come away with an all-purpose stainless steel cookware set that includes covered saucepans, skillets and a stockpot for about $150. With the money you save, you can splurge on some gourmet ingredients and whip up something heavenly in your new cookware. Bon appetit!

Read More About Cookware

Cookware Resources & Tips
Cleaning & Caring for Stainless Steel Cookware
Buying Tips for Roasters & Roasting Pans
Cookware Racks
Cookware Repair - Fixing Loose Handles
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