Is a copper pot the same as a stainless steel pot? Would I ask you that question if the answer was yes? The composition of your cookware will have a significant effect on your cooking process and unfortunately there is no best choice so it will be important to understand the differences. I’m about to start throwing a few descriptors at you left and right so I feel it would be prudent to make sure you know what I’m talking about first. Thermal conductivity refers to how quickly a material gets hot and how quickly it loses that heat. Heat transfer is a measure of how evenly or unevenly the material conducts heat. Reactivity is the ability of material to be chemically altered or chemically alter foods it comes into contact with. With these metrics at our disposal we can evaluate the most common cookware materials.
CAST IRON: Cast iron is that ancient-looking, heavy black metal stuff dutch ovens are made out of. Pots and pans made from cast iron have excellently uniform heat transfer and stay hot much longer than other materials. With some effort and little complication cast iron cookware can be “seasoned”, making it more non-stick than the fancy teflon stuff, however, incorrect washing and maintenance will ruin the treatment and your vessel will need to be re-seasoned. By far the greatest shortcoming of cast iron is its high rate of reactivity. Cast iron cookware will react with a wide range of foods resulting in added iron and metallic flavors as well as a lot of maintenance for your pots and pans.
ENAMELED CAST IRON: I’ll admit that cast iron cookware is a little advanced and time consuming for most people, the enameled variety offers a nice compromise. You’ll lose out on some of the non-stick of a well seasoned skillet but the porcelain enamel makes these vessels entirely non-reactive and much easier to clean.
COPPER: No pan metal heats up faster or more evenly than copper. Copper performs. Copper is beautiful. Copper is incredibly expensive and highly reactive. Acid and alkaline foods alike will react with a copper pan resulting in discoloration and strange flavors as well as deterioration of the vessel. If you want to spend a lot of money and limit your diet, go nuts. I love copper cookware but I cannot recommend it.
ALUMINUM: Aluminum is a pretty cool metal, it makes up like eight percent of the Earth’s surface, heats up quickly and evenly. Sounds good right? Aluminum also has a tendency to scratch easily and warp under high heat. On top of that it’s also reactive and prone to oxidizing. You don’t want any of those things. If slow stewing is too damaging for the vessel and you can’t use it for high heat because it will warp, then what can you use it for? In my opinion, not a whole lot. Another option is anodized aluminium which is less reactive, but not non-reactive, and heats up a lot slower. Anodized aluminum does heat evenly though, it’s also a lot more expensive than regular aluminum.
STAINLESS STEEL: So stainless steal is affordable, durable, and non-reactive. Unfortunately this material rarely displays even heat transfer, your pan will probably have hot and cold spots. This is a shame, but not necessarily a deal-breaker. To find out where the hot spots are put a very thin layer of flour in the pan, and turn the heat to medium, after awhile the flour will start to brown and burn giving you an accurate map of your pans hot-spots. As long as the uneven heat transfer is not too egregious stainless steel is a good option, it’s hard to damage, inexpensive, and won’t try to pull any chemical bullshit with your food. If you’re willing to spend a lot of money you can buy stainless steel cookware that has a special copper or aluminium core, which will help mitigate the heat transfer problem.