Food & Home

cookware

What’s the Best Way to Use and Clean Your Cookware?

Knowing how to use and care for your cookware properly can do just as much for your food life as knowing how to cook. But memorizing rules for which types of pots get cleaned which way can feel arbitrary when you don’t understand why. After we nerded out and learned some of the science behind what different cookware types—nonstick ceramic, cast-iron enamel, and stainless steel—are made of and how they conduct heat, we found it a lot easier to make sense of it all. The essential tips are below (we spared you the unabridged version of the lecture on thermal shock), along with some of our favorite recipes for when you’re ready to take your favorite pan out for a spin.

NONSTICK CERAMIC

What is it?

Most nonstick pans have traditionally been made with synthetic plastic coatings, like Teflon. But there were many concerns about toxic PFOAs leeching into the food if the pan got too hot or if you scraped away at the coating with metal utensils.

Fortunately, nonstick ceramic is different. Ceramic is a sand-based coating applied to a pan and then cured to achieve a nonstick finish. This coating is permanently adhered and won’t evaporate, chip, or flake off.

How do I use it?

Ceramic is a great conductor of heat, so you don’t need to use more than medium-high heat to do serious cooking. If you’re using heat that’s on the higher end, try for an oil with a higher smoke point, like avocado, coconut, or sunflower seed oil—it’s less likely to burn than oils or fats with lower smoke points. Also, avoid any kind of spray oil, be it aerosol or even a pump spray. When you spray oil, it beads on the surface of the pan and can lead to carbonization (burning). Metal utensils are not recommended, though unlike traditional nonstick, it’s not because of potentially toxic elements—it just causes damage to the surface of the pan over time. If your ceramic nonstick has an oven-safe handle, it should be able to go from stove to oven as well. Other than that, use it as you’d normally use a nonstick: It’s great for all sorts of everyday cooking projects, and especially helpful for anything sticky or delicate like eggs, grilled cheese, and crepes.

How do I clean it?

Before cleaning, allow the pan to cool fully. This will help you avoid thermal shock—when you shock a hot pan with cool water, which can cause damage and warping. Then handwash (while the dishwasher isn’t inherently unsafe for nonstick ceramic, most detergents are quite abrasive and can damage the nonstick coating over time). Use warm soapy water and a gentle sponge. If cared for properly, your nonstick ceramic pans should last at least five years.

Troubleshooting

If you notice your pan starts to stick more and there are some stubborn stains on its surface, you might suspect that the coating has degraded, but actually this is due to carbonization. This happens when the pan is brought to too high of a temperature and the oil essentially burns and sticks on top of the nonstick ceramic coating. You can avoid carbonization by making sure never to use more than medium-high heat and by using oils with a higher smoke point. If soap and warm water aren’t cutting it, you can try gently heating some water in it over low heat to release some of the oils from the surface. If that still doesn’t work, a melamine sponge should do the trick.

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CAST-IRON ENAMEL

What is it?

Cast iron can be a joy to cook with. It’s probably the best in the business when it comes to heat distribution—meaning the entire surface of the pan will be evenly heated without tricky hot spots—and heat retention. Plain cast iron is rustic and can seem nostalgic or almost romantic if, say, you’ve inherited your great grandmother’s perfectly seasoned and maintained skillet. It’s not without its challenges though. That layer of seasoning—which is akin to nonstick when properly maintained—needs maintenance. And the best way to clean cast iron is a source of much contention—just Google it and see how many articles with differing advice pop up. Cast iron can take on the flavor of soap if left to soak. Or rust if not properly dried. There are also some acidic foods that react with the unfinished iron surface, like tomatoes, wine, citrus, and vinegar. None of these are insurmountable problems, but it takes commitment. If that seems like a bit much for you, there is an easier way: Cast iron with enamel coating.

You get all the benefits of cooking with cast iron—that heat distribution and retention—and none of the hassle or guesswork. Better yet, choose cast iron with a matte enamel, like Staub. Other enamel finishes are smooth and glossy, but the matte finish Staub has developed mimics the surface of traditional cast iron, making it ideal for searing. Glossy enamel finishes also tend to show every scratch and can stain easily—Staub’s black matte finish looks chic even after years and years of use.

How do I use it?

Similar to nonstick ceramic, cast-iron enamel doesn’t need maximum heat because it’s so good at retaining and distributing heat. Medium to medium-high should get the job done. Beyond that, there are so many ways to use it. Fast-and-hot cooking like seared or grilled steak or veggies, long-simmered stews, low-and-slow braises, one-pot wonders, and stove-to-oven dishes like cassoulet all work well in a cast-iron enamel. Wood utensils are preferred for maintaining the integrity of that matte enamel surface as long as possible.

How do I clean it?

Clean your cast-iron enamel pots and pans as you would normally handwash anything—with warm soapy water and a nonabrasive sponge. You can soak difficult messes without worrying about rust or the pan taking on a soap taste since the enamel coating protects the cast iron. It’s always a good idea to let your cookware cool down before washing it to avoid thermal shock, no matter how sturdy your pieces may seem. Last, while Staub cast-iron enamel is technically dishwasher-safe, this is one of those just-because-you-can-doesn’t-mean-you-should scenarios. Handwashing is a better way to protect and preserve your cast-iron enamel cookware.

Troubleshooting

There really isn’t much to troubleshoot here if you follow the use and care steps above. The matte enamel coating eliminates most of the quirks of traditional cast iron, so you don’t have to stress over maintenance.

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STAINLESS STEEL

What is it?

High-quality stainless steel pans usually have an aluminum or copper core—making them even better conductors of heat. Stainless steel is loved by chefs and home cooks alike because it’s sturdy and durable: no need to worry about chipping or breaking. It’s a real workhorse. It can handle high-heat cooking, though again, a good aluminum or copper core will ensure that it’s a good enough conductor of heat to not need to be pushed beyond medium high.

How do I use it?

Stainless steel is incredibly versatile—use it to sauté veggies simply as in this pasta sauce or seamlessly transfer from stove to oven when pan-roasting chicken. It’s not a nonstick surface, but you can get near-nonstick performance by properly heating your oil in the pan before adding other ingredients and by making sure your ingredients are close to room temperature. Cold food in a hot pan is more likely to stick.

How do I clean it?

Let your cookware cool before handwashing with soapy water. You can let heavier messes soak in warm water or simmer on low heat with water for a few minutes and loosen the stuck-on bits with a wooden spoon. Stainless steel cookware is usually dishwasher-safe, but there is some disagreement among experts about the long-term effects of the abrasiveness of dishwashing detergents. As a rule, if your manufacturer says it’s okay (the folks at Brigade Kitchen do!), you’re probably fine. Handwashing, however, has no adverse effects on your cookware.

Troubleshooting

The issues that tend to come up with stainless steel are cosmetic. It’s prone to watermarks, chalky calcium buildup, and slight discoloration. In most cases, this can be avoided by immediately drying your cookware with a cloth instead of drip-drying, and using a gentle cleaner like Bar Keepers Friend on pesky trouble spots.

In Our Kitchens