Whether you’re just starting out in the kitchen or aiming for a spot on the next season of MasterChef, using the right tools can make your culinary creations that much better. The material your cookware is made from can affect every aspect of the dishes you’re whipping up—and though it can be easy to grab the first pan you come across while prepping dinner or baking dessert, choosing the right one can vastly improve results and make cooking and cleanup easier. An aluminum pan, for instance, can speed up the cook time of a casserole, creating a dark crusty bottom before you realize it, while a glass dish is more likely to gently bake the delicate ingredients to perfection.
To make things easier, we’ve pulled together a breakdown of the different cookware likely to be sitting in your cabinets, along with when and when not to use each type.
Ceramic and glass
Best for: casseroles
Pans made from glass or ceramic conduct heat slowly and evenly, which makes them the perfect vessels for any delicate ingredients that can burn, curdle, or dry out easily. Common casserole ingredients such as eggs, cheese, and pasta do best when baked gently, which you can more easily do in a pan that heats slowly.
Although you can successfully bake a casserole such as lasagna in a metal pan if you keep a watchful eye on the oven, it’s too easy to overcook the bottom and sides in a metal pan because aluminum and stainless steel heat up more quickly than other materials (which means the ingredients making direct contact with the pan cook faster than the middle of the dish). You might have to adjust the cook time, as well, something that can be hard to eyeball if you’re used to following a recipe.
On the flip side, glass and ceramic aren’t ideal for baking brownies, cookies, or cakes. Most of those recipes are developed with metal pans in mind (unless they specify otherwise), so the cook times are shorter than they would be if their creators had written them for glass and ceramic pans. With glass or ceramics, your cake or brownies will bake more slowly, potentially throwing off the baking times and leaving you with undercooked sweets.
When it comes to cast iron, there are two main types people usually have in their kitchens: bare cast iron and enameled. Although the two types have many similarities and work equally well for many dishes, you can’t always use them interchangeably.
Bare cast iron
Best for: high-heat cooking and baking
Cooks have used bare cast-iron skillets for the past century. Often employed for pan-frying, searing, baking, and making eggs, cast-iron cookware is the workhorse of the kitchen. Able to withstand temperatures past 500 degrees Fahrenheit, this versatile and durable material can safely move from stovetop to oven to broiler. And because of the seasoning that develops with use and proper maintenance, these pans can even serve as an alternative to nonstick cookware.
Thick, heavy cast iron holds on to heat better than thinner stainless steel or aluminum does, which makes it ideal for searing and high-temperature cooking. As we note in our guide to the best cast-iron skillets: “All that stored heat translates to a thick sear on steaks and roasts, crispy fish skin, and deep caramelization on vegetables.”
But it’s for this same reason that you should pay careful attention when you’re cooking lower-temperature recipes in cast-iron cookware. Eggs, notoriously delicate, can overcook quickly because cast iron doesn’t distribute heat as evenly as materials such as aluminum or tri-ply. Take care with pancakes, as well, moving them around the pan to promote even browning. Although Wirecutter’s kitchen team suggests avoiding cast-iron pans to bake delicate cakes or cookies, it’s not uncommon to make heartier baked goods—such as a cornbread that can stand to develop a little crust—in a cast-iron skillet.
If seasoned properly, your bare cast-iron cookware can do almost everything enameled cast-iron cookware can do. But proper cast-iron maintenance is key—otherwise, food may stick or burn. Bare cast iron can also react with acidic foods, giving your dish a metallic taste, so if you’re thinking of making a shakshuka recipe, make sure your pan is well seasoned first.
Enameled cast iron
Best for: low-and-slow cooking and baking
Enameled cast iron is simply bare cast iron covered in an enameled coating. It’s an ideal material for vessels such as Dutch ovens and braisers that you use to cook stews and soups because it effectively retains heat and can transfer from stovetop to oven. And unlike bare cast iron, the enameled variety doesn’t run the risk of imparting a metallic taste to long-cooking or acidic dishes. Non-reactive with a smooth finish, enameled cast-iron cookware is a good choice for baking bread, deep frying, making stew and soup, and braising—a technique that relies on consistent heat over time to slowly break down and tenderize meat.
Although Dutch ovens can be made from other materials, such as ceramic, aluminum, enameled steel, or bare cast iron, the Wirecutter kitchen team focused on enameled cast-iron vessels during testing because such pieces are better suited for braising. Enameled cast-iron braisers, very similar to Dutch ovens, are shallower with lower sides. As senior staff writer Lesley Stockton says, you can make almost anything you can make in a large Dutch oven in a braiser—including one-pot meals, casseroles, chicken and rice, roasted meat, fried chicken, sautéed greens, caramelized onions, and fruit desserts such as cobblers, buckles, and crisps.
We recommend a Dutch oven or braiser with a light-colored enamel interior. A darker interior doesn’t affect the taste or cooking of your meal but might make it harder for you to monitor the color of the fond—the browned bits at the bottom of the pan that serve as the base for sauces.
Avoid cranking the heat on an enameled cast-iron pan when you’re searing cuts of meat or fish. Unlike bare cast iron, enameled cast iron doesn’t handle sudden changes in temperature well. And adding a cool steak to a ripping-hot pan, senior editor Marguerite Preston adds, can cause the enamel to crack.
Best for: cookies or any other dessert that requires a baking sheet
Home bakers looking to perfect their chocolate chip cookies should stick to sheets made of bare aluminum, which heats up quickly and evenly. Most cookie recipes are developed with aluminum in mind, so you don’t need to adjust the cook time.
Bare aluminum alone is sticky—it’s why you need to line your baking sheets with parchment when making cookies, Marguerite explains. Though you may be tempted to use nonstick baking sheets instead, we don’t recommend them because they aren’t as durable as bare aluminum pans. Nonstick finishes break down at high temperatures and become less effective over time.
The color of your aluminum cookware matters, too. “It’s better to use light-colored bare aluminum for the same reason it’s better to wear a white T-shirt than a black one on a hot day: dark colors absorb heat, light colors reflect it,” write Marguerite and deputy editor Christine Cyr Clisset in our guide to the best baking sheets. “A dark pan retains too much heat and is liable to burn baked goods.” Nonstick coatings are often dark, which is yet another reason such pans are not the best choice.
Keep in mind that bare aluminum is highly reactive, so you should avoid using any type of cookware made from this material to prepare acidic dishes that use tomatoes, citrus, or vinegar. Also avoid using aluminum to cook delicate ingredients, which fare better in vessels that heat more slowly.
Stainless steel tri-ply
Best for: sautéing, searing, simmering, and oven-finishing
Stainless steel tri-ply skillets, pots, and pans sandwich a piece of aluminum between two pieces of stainless steel, thus combining aluminum’s quick and even heat distribution with steel’s durability and heat retention. Inexpensive tri-ply pans have only an aluminum-core base, while fully clad tri-ply pans have an aluminum core that extends up the sides.
There’s little you can’t do in a stainless steel tri-ply vessel, which is why we think it’s the best material for general cookware such as pots and pans. All of the cookware sets we recommend are tri-ply because of its durability and versatility. The material is good for sautéing, high-heat searing, and simmering, and it can safely move from the stovetop to the oven. We focused on roasting pans made of stainless steel tri-ply for similar reasons. Tri-ply is lightweight, less likely to warp, nonreactive, and flameproof, which makes it effective for stovetop tasks like gravy-making.
Cookware manufacturers also make five- and seven-ply stainless steel pans. We don’t think these expensive pans are worth their price tag: Multi-ply pans took nearly twice as long to heat up in comparison with tri-ply in our testing, and they hold more heat, which means they stay hot for longer after you turn down the heat on your stove and can thus produce scorched or burnt food.