At some point we all have to take a brave step out into the world of kitchen equipment and buy our own set of pans. You could make a flying start with our guide to the best non-stick pans.
Like many things in our daily lives, it can be a confusing, overwhelming maze of marketing jargon, advertising and straight up inaccurate information. We’re here to clear up a few of those headscratchers and set you up with some sage advice, so hopefully your next set of pans will last you a considerable amount of time.
A good set of pans should last you the majority of your adult life if they’re well cared for. It can be tempting to go for cheaper options that look good, especially when it comes to non-stick pans, but investing in good pans early on will save you an awful lot of money and fuss in the long run.
I would also note that if you’re just starting to equip your kitchen, pans are much like the best chef's knives – you don’t need nearly as many as you think you do. Sets of 8 or 10 pans are a tempting proposition, but you’re much better off investing that money in a few top-quality pans and then adding to your collection with whatever you need. Go with the things you’re likely to use the most – a non-stick frying pan, a small and large saucepan and possibly a sauté pan.
The key, as ever, is to know what you’re looking for and looking at. We’ve pulled together this useful guide, so you don’t have far to look.
The best place to start narrowing down your options is with materials. A variety of different metals are used to make pans, and though some are better than others in certain respects, it very much comes down to how you want to use your pans and what your priorities are.
Copper has long been considered the best metal for cookery – it’s a superb conductor of heat and as a result, it stores and distributes heat very evenly and effectively. Chefs value consistency, performance and durability above all when it comes to equipment, and that’s why at the very elite end of cooking you’ll find most restaurant kitchens equipped with copper pans.
Copper is fantastic to cook with but it’s also very expensive, it requires more cleaning and maintenance than other alternatives, and it doesn’t work on induction unless combined with something magnetic (usually stainless steel). If you’re a keen, dedicated cook and you have cash to splash on the best of the best, copper may be the way to go. Be advised, though, that gas cookers are gradually being phased out in the UK in favour of electric and induction. It’s all well and good having a set of copper pans that will last you a lifetime, but unless you have an effective cooker to use them on, your money might be best spent elsewhere.
Aluminium cookware has become popular thanks to a mixture of affordability and performance. Aluminium is much cheaper than copper, but it conducts heat nearly as well, and it’s less labour intensive to maintain too.
Where aluminium cookware gets tricky is in the different methods of forging and treating the metal. Raw aluminium is reactive and not very durable, which means it picks up bumps and dents very easily, but it’s also liable to leach into food, especially acidic foods. If you do your research on the internet you’ll find claims that this can be a health risk – I’m not sure that this has ever been proven conclusively but it can affect the taste of your food. To avoid this, cookware manufacturers will sometimes anodise the aluminium – this bonds a layer of aluminium oxide to the surface of the metal, making it inert and also much more durable. My advice is to go for anodised aluminium pans where possible as they’ll last much longer than regular or even forged aluminium.
Aluminium tends to be used mostly for non-stick cookware – non-stick surfaces bond very effectively to aluminium and they also provide a protective surface, which solves the issue of aluminium’s natural reactivity. Non-stick cookware can be a bit of a minefield, but if you look for good build quality hallmarks and forged or anodised aluminium, there’s no reason aluminium cookware can’t last you a decade, but any more than that is a bonus.
Like copper, aluminium isn’t magnetic and therefore, aluminium cookware won’t work on induction unless it has been forged with a magnetic layer in the base.
Stainless steel is the workhorse of the cookware world – solid, dependable and easy to maintain. In purely scientific terms stainless steel is not as effective a heat conductor as copper or aluminium, but it’s still perfectly good – many professional kitchens still swear by stainless steel pans.
The downsides? Stainless steel is heavy, and slower to heat up than the aforementioned metals. That said, the best quality stainless steel pans are often augmented with layers of copper and aluminium so they conduct and distribute heat far more effectively.
There’s also a misconception that food sticks to stainless steel, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The surface of stainless steel is somewhat porous when it is cold, so if you warm a pan and try to fry something, the rough surface will stick to the food. When you preheat stainless steel correctly, that surface becomes smooth – as a result, most foods don’t stick, and you actually get a much better sear than you would in a non-stick pan, which should only be used at low-medium heat.
So, if you’re looking for a pan that’ll be a loyal, low-maintenance companion for decades to come, stainless steel is probably the best place to start.
It’s worth also noting cast iron as it has become increasingly popular over the last decade. Cast iron pans are extremely heavy, but as a result they hold heat incredibly well, and they’re practically bombproof, hence why many cast iron casserole pots and skillets become family heirlooms.
If you’re dealing with regular cast iron, it requires lots of looking after. Cast iron pans often require seasoning – a process whereby you bake lots of tiny layers of oil onto the surface of the pan to create a non-stick, protective surface. This also helps to protect the cast iron from rust and general wear and tear. A lot of cast iron pans today come pre-seasoned but you’ll still need to season your cast iron at least a few times a year.
An alternative is enamelled cast iron, as made famous by the likes of Le Creuset. The enamel coating essentially does the work of seasoning for you and makes cast iron much easier to clean and look after, but, consequently, enamelled cast iron is expensive. Enamelled cast iron makes fantastic casserole pots and the like, but it can be a little cumbersome for frying and smaller pans.
Ever wondered why two pans look almost identical, but the prices are wildly different? Well, join the club. This is what makes cookware such a tricky area – even once you get past the strengths and weaknesses of different materials, there are lots of build quality details that make a huge difference to the effectiveness of the final product.
There are some things that are impossible to judge unless you can actually hold a pan in your hand. A stainless steel pan, for example, should have a certain weight to it – there are plenty out there that look great but when you come to hold them, you realise that they don’t have a quality heft to them. We always recommend that you check out pans in person before you buy, or at least make sure you can return them if they’re not up to scratch.
If you’re a regular consumer of food media, you almost certainly have not escaped the importance of ‘heavy-bottomed pans’. It’s a pretty simple rule but a great starting point when you’re assessing the quality of a pan. Cheaper pans can look the business, but they will often cut down on material to cut down on costs. When a pan has a thin metal base, it doesn’t transmit the heat effectively – some parts of the base get hotter than others and you end up with hotspots on your cooking surface, which makes cooking much more difficult.
The pan also heats and cools much more quickly, so the pan itself doesn’t hold any heat. The heat from your burner is essentially coming straight through the pan, and that’s how you end up burning food.
A thick base absorbs that heat and gives it room to spread through the base, so when that heat reaches the cooking surface, it’s consistent and even. The pan holds the heat and distributes it. A great pan will be exactly the same temperature at every point on the surface, and that’s what you get with a thick, hefty base.
Ply and cored cookware
If you see, for example, a stainless steel pan with an aluminium core, it usually means that the base of the pan is made up of a central layer of aluminium, sandwiched by two layers of stainless steel. In a similar vein, ply cookware simply refers to the number of layers in the metal. Stainless steel tri-ply simply means that there are three layers of metal in the pan construction – this is often two layers of stainless steel with an aluminium core, but there are other options, such as the Robert Welch Campden, which combines stainless steel, aluminium and copper.
The idea here is that combining different metals gives you the best of those worlds. Providing stainless steel with an aluminium core means it distributes and retains heat more efficiently, but you still have the maintenance benefits of stainless steel. Likewise, a copper pan with a stainless steel core combines great heat conduction and induction compatibility.
Multi-ply and cored pans are generally better quality and more expensive as a result – they also tend to have thick, heavy bases by nature of the construction.
Handles come in many shapes, sizes and materials, and they can be a real giveaway with regards to quality. I would suggest for starters that plastic handles are almost always a sign of a cheaper pan. That isn’t to say that they don’t have a place, but any pan that is going to last you a significant amount of time will almost certainly have a metal handle. Heat-resistant plastics have come a long way in the last few decades, but plastic handles are still generally not advised for oven use – certainly not anything above 180ºC.
Handles can be attached in a variety of ways. At the bottom end of the scale they can be glued, which is never advisable. Sometimes you’ll see handles screwed into the base, but usually they’re spot welded or riveted. Rivets are traditional, and still my preferred method – you ensure a solid connection between handle and base, and the only downside is that the rivet attachments on the inside of the pan can be a pain to clean sometimes.
A welded handle gives you a smoother cooking surface on the inside edge of the pan, but my concern with welded handles is thus – if the welds fail (and sometimes, spot-welded handles are only attached with two welds), the handle is coming straight off, probably whilst you’re cooking. That’s a recipe for disaster. By comparison, riveted handles tend to loosen gradually over time before they fail, giving you ample opportunity to get them repaired.
Then there’s the little things. If you live in a small apartment and you want to hang your pans rather than stacking them, you’ll need handle loops. The shape and weight of the handle matters too. As previously mentioned, see what the pan feels like in your hand before you make any decisions.
PTFE vs. ceramic
Broadly speaking there are two types of non-stick surface on the market – PTFE and ceramic. PTFE is a synthetic fluoropolymer that exists under many brand names, the best known of which is Teflon – it’s sprayed onto the surface of the metal pan to provide a frictionless, water-repellent layer that requires minimal oil for cooking.
Ceramic non-stick is a silicone-based coating that is sprayed onto metal cookware and then baked until it hardens. It has become popular as an eco-friendly alternative to PTFE, which has yet to escape a variety of safety and environmental concerns about the chemicals used to manufacture it.
There isn’t a huge difference in performance between PTFE and ceramic. On balance I would say that PTFE boasts superior non-stick properties, but the difference is marginal. Both recommend hand washing over being stacked in a dishwasher (though the latter is often acceptable).
If you read up on reviews of ceramic pans – GreenPan, for example – you’ll find a fair number of people complaining about food burning onto the non-stick. However, this is not the fault of the pan, necessarily.
Ceramic and PTFE pans should both only be used at low heat – if the former gets too hot, it’ll ruin the non-stick surface, and if the latter gets too hot, it degrades and can release potentially toxic fumes. And it ruins the non-stick surface.
How to make pans last longer
There is no great trick when it comes to looking after your pots and pans – as long as you treat them with care, they’ll last you most of your life. Or in the case of non-stick, at least a decade.
The first point to make is, just because the instructions for a pan say you can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean you should! Many non-stick pans these days are advertised as being dishwasher-safe, for example, but the aggressive detergents and high heat of dishwashers will almost certainly lower the effectiveness of the non-stick and the life expectancy of your pan. The only pans I would consider putting in the dishwasher are stainless steel ones, and even then, I prefer to hand wash them with a mild detergent.
Likewise with non-stick, some hardier versions are resistant enough for you to use metal cooking implements, but my advice is, don’t. In the long run the micro-scratches caused by the metal will reduce the lifespan of the pan.
When it comes to washing non-stick pans, they should rarely require more than a wipe out or a tiny amount of mild detergent. Anything more than that suggests that the non-stick isn’t doing it’s job.
Seasoning pans also helps to protect them long term – this is essential for maintaining cast iron but you can season stainless steel as well. Seasoning involves the building of a thin layer of polymerised oil over the surface of the pan, which protects and provides a non-stick surface to cook on top of.
Use an oil with a high smoke point – flax seed and grapeseed oil are commonly used. Wipe a very, very thin layer all over the inside surface of the pan, then bake the pan in a 200ºC oven for half an hour. Repeat this 2 or 3 more times and you should have a hardened, non-stick layer of polymerised oil.
Last but not least, just treat your pans with care. The extra effort of handwashing, drying, storing them carefully is a small sacrifice for pans that will last you a lifetime.