From Cast Iron to Copper... Why Does Material Matter?

Written by Kymberlie Quong-Charles

Enameled Cast Iron Braiser Crane

Buying cookware often coincides with major life markers like moving away from home for the first time, getting married, remodeling a kitchen, or even paring down at a critical point in one’s life.  As such, we believe making thoughtful and well-informed choices about your cookware collection is a must.  The right decision can last a lifetime, carry with it nostalgia for when and why it was purchased, and be passed down as an heirloom to future generations.

Rather than buying a matching set of frying pans, sauce pans and soup pots in large quantity, we encourage people to identify the type of home cooking they already do or aspire to do the most, then mix and match pieces based on what will be most functional for their needs.  Familiarity with the materials with which cookware is made and their properties is helpful in gauging the utility of a piece to a home cook.

Thermal conduction is a key concept in cookware materials.  Conduction cooking refers to cooking food inside of a vessel that makes direct contact with a heat source.  For most of us this means stovetop cooking (unless you’re a primitive cooking enthusiast who cooks over a wood fire at home. Bravo!) The thermal conductivity of a vessel’s material will determine the way it performs over heat and how it cooks various types of food.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is insulation. Where high conductivity is ideal for flash frying due to it’s nimble response to temperature changes, insulating materials with their slow build tend to retain steady heat making these types of cookware well suited for braising and stewing. Depending on what you’re cooking, select the type of material appropriate for each dish. Below we dissect the material and characteristics of Kettle & Brine’s stovetop cooking lines in order of conductivity, from the slow and steady work-horse to the fast greyhound.

Enameled Metals

Enameled cookware is metal cookware (carbon steel, stainless steel, cast iron, or aluminum) coated in glass that is applied to the piece’s surface at extremely high temperatures.  This method is thought to have been developed in Biblical times and was originally used as an artform, even in the construction of functional objects.  For some, the ability to acquire pieces in a variety of colors makes enamelware appealing.  Enameled metal is odor, chemical, stain, and scratch resistant, is highly durable and does not require special cleaning. Depending on the substrate material, conductivity properties vary from metal to metal.

Enameled Cast Iron, being more insulating means greater temperature stability maintaining high heat after you throw in a bowl of cold potatoes. This type of cookware, highly coveted by home cooks and professional chefs alike, is ideal for frying, braising, and stewing. Enameled cast iron, like our Staub and Crane pieces, takes a little longer to heat up, but once hot, it stays hot for some time. It’s got a hefty weight to it, but is also tolerant of extremely high heat, making it more suitable for frying, searing and retaining heat. It can be used on the stovetop, oven, or over direct flame or woodfire. 

Staub Enameled Cast Iron

Enameled Carbon Steel is dishwasher safe, making them easy go-to pieces. Like enameled cast iron, enameled steel is non-porous and ideal for stovetop and oven, yet weighs less and easy to clean due to its polished surface. The lighter carbon steel allows for some heat control as compared to its cast iron cousin which helps when cooking things that could burn quickly like milk or other more delicate foods.

Riess Enameled Cookware

Cast Iron (Nambu)

Cast iron cookware has been popular in American kitchens for generations and for good reason.  In addition to being extraordinarily durable, cast iron is well-known for its ability to evenly distribute heat and retain it for a long time.  When cleaned and seasoned properly it also forms its own non-stick surface over time, that glossy black surface that has become synonymous with this kind of  cookware.  Cast iron can be placed on the stovetop or directly in the oven and is wonderful for browning, frying and baking (think frying pan cornbread!)  Cast iron is mixed with other materials like carbon and silicon to create proper hardness and durability, but be cautious; not all mixes are created equal.  Poor materials will result in uneven heating that can lead to cracking.  These impurities may be visible as striations or “white metal” streaks in the cooking vessel.  Our favorite cast iron comes from Japan. Japanese cast iron is superior due to its higher conductivity, superb heat distribution and higher resistance to rusting using tea tannins for pre-seasoning process.

Nambu Japanese Cast Iron

Carbon Steel (DeBuyer)

A close relative of cast iron is carbon steel which, in the U.S., tends to be more commonly found in restaurant kitchens than in homes.  But we contend that there are plenty of good reasons for home cooks to introduce carbon steel pans into their collection.  Like cast iron, carbon steel retains heat extremely well but is also lighter in weight and can be used on the stovetop or in the oven.  With proper cleaning and seasoning, carbon steel will develop its own non-stick surface which tends to be even smoother than that of cast iron. Combined, these qualities make carbon steel ideal for sauteeing and searing while also being more forgiving on the wrist and forearm.  One important caution with carbon steel is that it is a reactive metal, which means that long term cooking of acidic or alkaline ingredients is not advised.  Beyond these material qualities, for such a versatile and high performing product, carbon steel is affordable, making it easier to acquire several sizes and shapes at once.  K&B’s carbon steel collection comes from DeBuyer, of which we stock six different diameters and shapes.      

DeBuyer Carbon Steel

Copper (Mauviel)

Copper cookware is coveted by many and acquired by those who are either very serious home chefs or who really love the aesthetic of copper’s warm glow on a pot rack (hey, we get it Downton Abbey fans) , as the price point on copper pieces is higher than other materials.  In terms of heat conductivity, copper is the top of the line.  It’s especially desirable for high heat flash cooking, like sauteeing,  but can be used with excellent result for nearly everything on the stovetop. Copper cookware is generally lined with stainless steel or tin and the copper exterior will patina over time.  Polishing removes the patina, although many love this well-used-and-loved look. We carry Mauviel copper cookware in several different saucepan and fry pan diameters.   

Mauviel Copper Frying PanMauviel Copper

We are always happy to provide individualized advice on what cookware pieces will work best for you.  Give us a call or stop in if you’d like to discuss your needs.  In the meantime, be on the look out for our next “Anatomy Of…” feature on vessel shapes and their various purposes.






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