One of cast iron's great advantages is that it's so heavy―and therefore retains and distributes heat nicely. Of course, one of its great disadvantages is that it's, well, so heavy. Along the same contradictory lines: It lasts forever with proper care and seasoning, and for some this can take forever. (Seasoning means oiling and baking the pan to give it a nonstick surface naturally.) But one big advantage is affordability: A 10-inch cast-iron skillet costs about $14, while the same size stainless pan can cost up to $140.
How to identify: A cast-iron pot is extremely heavy and looks as if it should be hanging in Laura Ingalls's kitchen.
When to use: For nonstick sautéing or cooking dishes that need to go from stove-top to oven, such as potato gratin and frittatas. Also use it if you have to fry large pieces of meat straight from the refrigerator, because cast iron will not cool. Why does that matter? "When you've lost the temperature, you've lost the ability to sear and caramelize," says John Ash, a culinary teacher and the author of Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food From a Master Teacher.
When not to use: While conventional wisdom says not to use cast iron with acidic foods because it releases a metallic taste, Ash says this reaction is barely perceptible and actually adds iron to the food.
How to clean: Use a nonabrasive sponge and water. Never use soap or steel wool.
2 of 6Wendell T. Webber
Enameled Cast Iron
Unlike uncoated cast iron, these pots don't require seasoning, and they're attractive enough to go from stovetop to tabletop. Like regular cast iron, they're heavy and have superb heat-retention properties.
How to identify: An enameled cast-iron pot or pan is going to be the heaviest one hanging from the rack. The enamel interior is often white. Some are enameled only on the exterior (like the skillet pictured). The most popular enameled cast-iron pot is a Dutch oven.
When to use: As soon as the weather turns chilly―comfort foods and enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens go hand in hand. Cast iron retains a relatively even temperature over a long period, so it's perfect for making soups and stews. A thinner aluminum pan on the same burner over the same temperature will accumulate heat, and the food will stick or burn on the bottom. Also, like regular cast iron, this is a good choice for recipes that require stovetop-to-oven cooking.
When not to use: When you're in a hurry. Like regular cast iron, it retains even heat for long, slow cooking, but it takes the pan a long time to get to that point. When you have to sauté something fast, this is not the pan you want.
How to clean: Pans with metal or plastic (not wooden) handles can be put in the dishwasher. Or wash enameled interiors in hot, soapy water using a sponge scouring pad (never metal).
3 of 6Wendell T. Webber
Stainless steel is a poor conductor, but paired with an inner core or a base of aluminum or copper, it's the wonder metal of cookware. Stainless pots can be used for any kind of cooking, since they're nonreactive (meaning the metal doesn't interact with the food or affect the final flavor). It's incredibly easy to clean them.
How to identify: They're usually the brightest, shiniest ones in the pantry. The more affordable stainless pots have aluminum or copper disks bonded to their bases. (For optimum performance, the disk should cover the entire base.) The most expensive stainless cookware has the layer of aluminum or copper sandwiched between the steel on the base and up the sides. Such a pan's base may be stamped CLAD, which signifies the manufacturing technology, not the brand All-Clad.
When to use: Although you can use stainless pots for almost any kind of cooking, they're especially good for browning or for recipes that require gauging the color of a broth or a sauce. The light metal makes a neutral backdrop for what's going on inside the pot.
When not to use: Boiling water in a stainless stockpot with a heat conducting-disk forged to its base will take longer than boiling in an anodized pot, because the sides never get very hot.
How to clean: Stainless steel can withstand dishwashers and abrasive cleansers without scratching or denting.
4 of 6Wendell T. Webber
Nonstick aluminum is the unsung hero of cookware. It's not especially pretty, not really pedigreed, but you most likely use it all the time because it's versatile and easy to clean.
How to identify: A nonstick aluminum pan has a dark gray interior coating (Teflon is the best known) that feels slightly waxy to the touch.
When to use: Nonstick cookware is best for dishes that otherwise require masterful spatula wielding―pancakes, omelettes, crepes, delicate fish―and recipes that don't call for a lot of oil or butter. (Note: Dishes cooked in stockpots, saucepans, and Dutch ovens generally require the use of fat for browning, so there is no point in owning a nonstick version of them.)
When not to use: This is not the pan for browning meat. No matter how hot the pan gets, it will never give the sautéed meat those burned brown bits that make a sauce taste so good.
How to clean: With warm, soapy water and no abrasives. If you stack nonstick cookware, place a paper towel between each pot to guard against damage. To prevent scratches, never use metal utensils when cooking.
5 of 6Wendell T. Webber
The electrochemical process of anodizing transforms aluminum into a nonreactive, scratch- and stick–resistant surface. You don't have to worry about metal utensils scraping this surface, as you would with a nonstick pan.
How to identify: Hard-anodized aluminum cookware looks as if it belongs in a restaurant kitchen―it's matte gray, industrial, and extremely attractive.
When to use: Use it the same way you'd use a nonstick. Hard-anodized aluminum does it all (and has a high price tag to match). Although it will sear a tuna steak or a pork chop beautifully, its surface is chemically treated to be "low stick," and it releases delicate foods easily.
When not to use: When you have a lot of dishes to clean. The biggest and only drawback of hard-anodized cookware is that it can't go in the dishwasher.
How to clean: With its dull, easy-release surface, it cleans up like a nonstick pan: Hand wash with hot, soapy water and a nonabrasive sponge.
6 of 6Wendell T. Webber
The king of conductors and the doyen of durability, copper is what the professionals use. But unless you have access to a wholesale source or a Swiss bank account, the cost is prohibitive. (Copper cookware costs about 50 percent more than the highest-quality stainless.)
How to identify: They're the beautiful pinkish orange pots that are―let's be honest―most likely tarnished and tucked away because they were so hard to keep clean. The pots' interiors are usually lined with tin or stainless steel, because pure copper is a reactive metal.
When to use: Professional chefs like copper because it heats up and cools down so efficiently―crucial for making delicate sauces. But for mere mortals more interested in simple dishes than simple syrup, copper holds no dramatic advantage over stainless or aluminum.
When not to use: While copper is a wonderful heat conductor, it's a horrible insulator: When the burner is off, it doesn't retain heat, so don't use it for foods that need to sit on the stove and stay warm.
How to clean: Clean copper cookware with copper polish whenever it turns blueish or dark with oxidation. Perfectionists and nonperfectionists alike should know that using a tarnished copper pot has no effect on the food made in it. For regular cleaning, use soap and a sponge (not the dishwasher).