If you've shopped for cookware lately, you've probably noticed the shocking price range for pots and pans. There are complete sets available for as little as $30, and then there are sets that run about $2,000.
What could possibly account for such a dramatic difference? Is it cosmetic, functional or simply a matter of status? Does the average cook, just making dinner for the fam four or five nights a week, gain anything from spending more?
The answer is fairly simple, although putting it into practice can be a bit complicated. There are so many different types of pots and pans, and each has different uses, strengths and weaknesses. Some of these apply whether you're looking at the cheapest or the most expensive lines.
So why would you want to go expensive? We'll start with the simple part.
Why It Matters
There are product categories for which a dramatic price difference does not necessarily indicate a dramatic difference in quality. Shoes, for instance. Or possibly makeup.
Cookware is not one of those categories.
When you're talking about cookware attributes, you're basically looking at three things. The first two are about science:
Reactivity. This is whether a pot or pan will react chemically with the food you're cooking in it, causing an undesirable change in color or taste. Nonreactive materials include ceramics and stainless steel. Reactive materials include aluminum, copper, steel and iron. Not even the most expensive brands can change the reactive properties of a metal.
Heat Conduction. This is how well a pot transfers heat from the burner beneath it to the food inside it. Copper is an excellent conductor -- when cooking with a copper pan, adjusting the burner temperature causes a quick resulting change in the pan. Aluminum and stainless steel also conduct quite well. Again, this is a function of the type of metal used in the pan; it can't be changed no matter how much money you put into it. The other big factor in conductivity is the placement of the pan's heating elements.
It's how a cookware line addresses these issues that, in large part, determines its price …
What's the Difference?
First off, copper pans are almost always the most expensive. They cook food evenly and carefully. They're reactive, so if you're cooking something like eggs or an acid, like tomato sauce, you'll run into problems; but if you're cooking something dark-colored and nonacidic, you're golden. Copper is worth the price.
But say you need a nonreactive pan (and you probably do), or you simply can't afford copper? In this case, you're looking at the construction of the pans, and price makes a big difference.
To achieve the pros of excellent metal conduction but avoid the pitfall of reactivity, higher-quality cookware will combine two metals. For instance, the surface of the pan will be stainless steel, so it won't react with your food, while the inner, unexposed core of the pan is aluminum or the bottom of the pan is copper, both of which are better conductors than stainless steel but are reactive. The reactive metal never touches your food, but it heats it perfectly.
Another big difference between a $200 pan and a $10 pan is the placement of the heating elements, the layer of metal that conducts the heat to your food. In lower-quality pans, the heating element typically is only on the bottom, placing the majority of heat in the middle of the bottom of the pan and causing uneven cooking. Expensive lines have heating elements not only in the bottom but also running up the sides of the pan, so all of the food in the pan gets (roughly) the same amount of heat.
The third issue we're dealing with here isn't a scientific one; it's a simple matter of construction. More expensive pans are just made better. Handles don't jiggle, and if you drop them, they're far less likely to be damaged. They also tend to be better balanced, so they're easier to handle.
So, the quick answer is: Yes, expensive cookware is worth it. But if you don't have a grand or two to drop on a set of All-Clad, it doesn't mean you're totally out of luck. There are ways to put together a nice set of cookware without completely breaking the bank. You just have some choices to make.
When to Spend
While not all of us can have all of the cookware we want, many of us can have some of it. Which pieces you invest in has a lot to do with the type of cooking you do.
For instance, do you love to braise? If so, you definitely want to spend on a braising pan, since hot spots can really ruin your work. A braising pan with a heating core that extends up the sides for even cooking is worth the money.
If you sauté every night, a pan with excellent conductivity is essential, because rapid temperature adjustments are so important in this type of cooking. While aluminum is a great conductor, it's not a high-quality metal. But a stainless steel pan with an aluminum core gives you the benefits of a tough exterior along with superior heat conduction. Stainless steel with a coat of copper on the underside is also a great way to go.
You can feel secure spending here.
For sauces, both temperature control and non-reactivity are fairly essential -- and if you cook a lot of sauces, chances are you're pretty into your food. So upgrade here. The stainless steel with a copper bottom or aluminum core will do you well.
And then there are the times when, for you, the splurge may not really be worth it …
When (and How) to Save
Can't have it all? One possible place to save is on nonstick cookware. While quality and heat conduction still matter here, the fact is the pan is probably not going to last you 30 years. Even expensive pans with nonstick coating tend to scratch eventually (though high-end warranties usually do cover that). If you're looking for a place to save some cash, consider buying a lower-price nonstick pan for your set.
There's also the aluminum option. Aluminum is the cheap choice, and you can certainly go this route on a pan you seldom use or one you plan to replace regularly -- but do spend a bit more on anodized aluminum. It'll cook your food better and last longer, and it's still a lot less expensive than the really good stuff.
Buying a lower-quality product isn't the only way to save, though. You'll find "irregulars" or "defective" pots and pans, from the highest-quality lines, that you can get for significantly below sticker price. Often, the issues that make them seconds are so small as to be barely perceivable, like a tiny dent or scratch, or a slight variation in shape or color. If you don't mind an imperfection that won't even affect your cooking, check out the high-end seconds found in discount stores and through online outlets. You can also buy them direct from the manufacturer, typically during periodic "seconds sales."
Even with all the factors involved in determining the real value of a cookware piece, the moral to come away with here is pretty straightforward: If you can afford the best of everything, buy it. You won't be sorry. Otherwise, mix and match. Spend on the pieces you'll use every day, and save on the ones you'll only use twice a year. Nothing bad is going to happen if all your cookware doesn't match.
For more information on cookware, including reviews and buying guides, look over the links on the next page.
- "Explaining Reactive and Non-Reactive Cookware. Food Science." The Kitchn. (April 19, 2011)http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/food-science/food-science-explaining-reactive-and-nonreactive-cookware-073723
- "Kitchen cookware guide." Consumer Reports. (April 19, 2011)http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/kitchen/kitchen-cookware/kitchen-cookware-buying-advice/kitchen-cookware-types/kitchen-cookware-types.htm
- Knowlton, Andrew. "Ask the Foodist: Is expensive cookware worth it?" Bon Appetit. April 14, 2011. (April 19, 2011)http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/bafoodist/2011/04/buy-good-pots-and-pans.html
- Szalavitz, Maia. "Are Nonstick Pans Dangerous?" Psychology Today. July 1, 2006. (April 19, 2011)http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200607/are-nonstick-pans-dangerous
- "Why Are All-Clad Pots and Pans So Expensive?" Good Question. The Kitchn. (April 19, 2011)http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/cookware-tools/good-question-why-are-allclad-pots-and-pans-so-expensive-037228
- Vogel, Mark R. "Buying Cookware for Home." The Reluctant Gourmet. (April 19, 2011)http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/choosing_cookware.htm