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 Heavy metal in the kitchen                       

                                        June 2010  

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Heavy metal in the kitchen

SaucepansI was going through a wedding list the other day from a young couple and was horrified to see the cost of some kitchen saucepans they had included. Obviously they were hoping to start their married life with some really special items, but the choice and variety of pans today is just frightening.

It wasn’t always like this. In the past everything was cooked over an open fire and the main pots were big cauldrons made of copper and tin. But in the mid 18th century kitchen stoves started to be introduced – and there was clearly a need for a new type of pan. Initially cast iron pans with tin linings were popular, but then aluminium arrived. This became very popular, it was light, affordable and very good at conducting heat and pans made of aluminium became the mainstay in kitchens for decades.

Stainless steel cookware was introduced in the 1960s and while it was popular because it lasted so much longer than aluminium, it was not a very good conductor of heat and so wasn’t ideal.

Today of course the choice of cookware is incredibly wide.

Copper is an ideal metal for pans because it provides exceptionally good conductivity giving fast and even heating. However, copper can react with acidic foods, and so they were lined with a thin layer of tin to prevent this happening. Then it was found the tin could quickly wear too thin to offer this protection, so today many copper saucepans are lined with stainless steel which lasts longer. Copper pans are heavy and expensive, although they are excellent for high-heat fast-cooking methods such as sautéing.

Cast iron cookware came back into fashion a few years ago after some time in the wilderness and is good because although it is slow to heat up plus it can withstand very high temperatures indeed, making it ideal for searing meat and many other forms of cooking were high even temperatures are required. However, it can react with high acid foods such as tomatoes or in recipes where you add wine, and even worse, it can rust if not treated carefully. Most people season a cast iron pan before use which creates a thin layer of fat and carbon to help protect the surface and prevent food reaction. But one of the main problems with cast iron cookware is that it is just so heavy – drop it and you could have a broken tile or even a broken toe to deal with!

Aluminium is tremendously popular for kitchenware because it is lightweight, has very good thermal conductivity and it doesn’t rust. However, it does react to some foods and sauces containing egg yolks or vegetables such as asparagus can cause oxidation of aluminium.

So the scientists got to work again and now many aluminium pans are made from anodized aluminium. This is a special electrolyte process which creates a hard and non-reactive surface. The dark grey colour gives is a distinctive look and it is easy to clean. Many hard anodized pans are also coated with a non-stick surface making it ideal for searing, browing, and sautéing; and non-stick anodized aluminium is also popular for roasting pans and stock pots.

Pans made from steel (not stainless steel) are available but they can rust and are usually sort only by specialist cooks for dishes such as paella and omelettes. Constant use at high temperatures will add a special surface to the steel making them naturally non-stick.

However, stainless steel is far more popular for pans and has a number of exceptional properties. Stainless steel is a mix of metals, usually steel with chromium and nickel. It is inert, so it doesn’t react with any foods, it is light and exceptionally durable and it can look great. The one problem with stainless steel pans is conductivity; stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat which means they take a long time to heat up and some parts of the base get hotter much more quickly than others, which can cause food to burn. Some stainless steel pans have a layer of high conductivity such as copper or aluminium fixed to the base to give better results.

A newer technique is called laminating when the whole body of the pan is made from three layers, stainless steel, aluminium and then stainless steel again. This gives conductivity up the sides of the pan as well as across the base for much more even cooking.

Another technique is to coat steel with enamel and this is especially popular for pan makers who want to offer a selection of bright colours.

Today of course pans are made from all sorts of other materials as well as metal. Glass pans drew some excitement as it was good to see how foods were cooking and also glass can be used in the microwave. However, glass pans are easy to burn and they also hold their heat for a long time, meaning you need to wait for them to naturally cool before plunging them into washing up water.

Glass ceramic is an interesting substance because it can withstand incredible temperatures. Pans made in this can be used in the over or on any type of hob; and can also be taken straight from a freezer into an oven without shattering. Along with other materials there is an array of different coatings – goodness, the choice of kitchen pans is a science in itself.

So perhaps I am glad that the engaged couple have stipulated the pans they want. They may cost a fortune, but at least I don’t have to range through the incredible selection of cookware now available to decide what might be best for them.



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