Here’s how to choose the best stainless steel cookware

Southern Kitchen

It’s no secret that, at Southern Kitchen, we love cooking with cast iron. But I’m gonna be honest with you — it’s not always the first pan I reach for when I’m cooking at home. I’m just as often pulling out a stainless steel saucepan as I am my cast iron skillet. After all, tomato sauce doesn’t taste great after simmering all day in a reactive pot and, frankly, some days, I just don’t feel like dealing with cleaning my cast iron skillet. (Even if it isn’t really that difficult.)

But I am not just cooking in thin, filmy stainless steel. I donated all of those pots of mine when I finished college. No, I’ve made the investment in high-quality stainless steel cookware and I’m here to tell you that it is totally worth it, in (almost) all cases. 

Fully-clad cookware for the win

My favorite style of stainless steel cookware is known as “fully-clad.” This means two things: First, the cookware is not entirely made of stainless steel (we’ll get to why in a minute); instead it is made from at least three layers, the middle of which is most often aluminum. Second, these layers, which are “clad” together, reach all the way from the bottom of the pot or skillet up to the rim. These pieces of cookware will generally have an even thickness all the way around. There may be a rounded lip, or there may not, but the important part is those layers and their reach.

(Side note: Enameled cast iron, such as the cookware from Staub and Le Creuset, is also fully-clad, but the layers are made up of, well, enamel and cast iron.)

You’ll often see stainless steel pots and pans made with a single, often very fat, disk adhered to the bottom. They’ll have thinner sides as well. If well-made, these pieces of cookware can be totally fine for anything you’d cook in a large amount of liquid, such as pastas or soups. My stockpot is made in this way, and it works great. If you’re big into canning, don’t waste your money on a fully-clad pot for your Mason jars — those cheap, giant aluminum pots are perfect for this task.

However, for when you’re cooking anything that is going to need some even heat from your pot or pan’s sides, such as a thick braise or a custard, you’ll want to pull out fully-clad cookware. Anything I’m planning to cook over low heat will also turn out best cooked in such a vessel; the increased insulation from the multiple layers of metal will help your precious dinner maintain an even temperature.

But wait, back up, why are we “cladding” in the first place?

Good question. Much of the lower-priced cookware on the market today is made from thick, anodized aluminum. (Non-anodized aluminum easily reacts with both acidic and basic foods, as well as the hydrogen sulfide in eggs, discoloring your food and giving the cookware that fuzzy grey or black coating. Most aluminum cookware you’ll find today is anodized just for this reason.) These are great when you’re shopping for nonstick, which typically wears out after a while, no matter the rest of the pans’ construction. But they aren’t ideal if you’re looking for pans that’ll last for decades, or if you’d like your cookware to be able to go into the dishwasher.

For this, we need to turn to stainless steel, which is completely nonreactive, resists corrosion and is dishwasher-safe for the most part. However, stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat and is prone to hot spots. The solution to both the aluminum and the stainless steel problem is to mash them both together, making a sturdy, even-heating, nearly indestructible pan. Since aluminum is reactive, it is placed in between stainless layers to protect it. You’ll find pans made with anywhere from three layers (stainless, aluminum, stainless) to five or even seven layers.

The highest-end fully-clad pans are made with a copper core instead of an aluminum one; copper is a better conductor of heat, so these pans typically have a better performance than their (slightly) more affordable cousins. But there’s nothing wrong with the classic aluminum-stainless combo — it’s what all of us at Southern Kitchen use.

Hey, these pans are expensive

Yep. High-quality fully-clad stainless cookware is expensive, but I am of the belief that it is worth the cost for a pan that’ll last for generations. However, you absolutely do not need to outfit your kitchen with a full set of this style of cookware. Many retailers (not us!) try to sell full sets of cookware, but those often include pieces that aren’t really necessary. If you’re budgeting, you’ll save money by being picky about which pots and pans you want to purchase fully-clad. If you’re not — great! Feel free to ignore the next paragraph and buy as much fully-clad cookware as your heart desires.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need a fully-clad stockpot, or really even a skillet (even though I prefer it). Think about what you’re going to cook in your pot or pan and let those recipes be your guide. A really great fully-clad saucier, saucepan and Dutch oven are must-haves if you cook all the time, and you can add these pieces in over time. I like a fully-clad roasting pan, personally, because I feel like it makes it easier to whip up a pan sauce after I pull a turkey out of the oven, but it’s not entirely necessary. I also like to stock a variety of cooking materials in my kitchen at all time, whether that be stainless, cast iron, carbon steel, or even hand-me-down copper (I’m spoiled). 

Whatever you choose, make sure the handles are comfortable and the pan adds a practical use to your kitchen. Remember, if you don’t love it, you won’t cook with it.