When it comes to cookware many of us can fall into the “all or nothing” train of thought. For example, I began my collection of cookware at the end of my college years with my first piece of hard-anodized Calphalon. I was hooked. I loved the look, the weight and the performance, and couldn’t wait for the next gift-giving holiday to receive my next piece. I was the easiest person to buy for.
As I made a few mistakes here and there, using plastic utensils when I should have used metal, using metal when I should have used plastic, not informing someone who will remain nameless to keep it out of the dishwasher, I began to feel like I was often using my cookware for an unintended task. It was a slow, pre-Internet education of trial and error, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Today I am often asked, “Why would you buy anything but nonstick? Why not all nonreactive pans?” While I still enjoy massive amounts of Calphalon and All-Clad, I’ve grown to supplement those with many others for specific tasks. One guitar cannot meet all musical needs, nor can one skillet meet all cooking needs. Diversity is the key to any functional kitchen.
Cookware deemed reactive simply means it will react with acid-heavy foods. Anything citrus or tomato based can cause an undesirable reaction in these skillets and saucepans. When I say reaction I don’t mean a life-threatening reaction such as an explosion or a chemical reaction that could poison you and your guests. But you may notice a discoloration in sauces. Aluminum, tin, copper and cast iron can be considered reactive.
Some of these softer metals can be excellent conductors of heat, and therefore are much needed in a situation that requires a quick action. You don’t need a giant, heavy enamel pot that takes half an hour to boil water just to cook a cup of rice or grits when you can get the job done in a fraction of the time with a lightweight copper or aluminum pot.
On the same hand, a sauce in some of these pots may be discolored by a hint of acidity and exacerbated by the use of metallic spoons, wire whisks or other stirring devices.
Although cast iron is considered reactive, its properties can drastically change. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet (check Lagniappe’s archives for seasoning tips) is as good as any nonstick cookware money can buy. This places it in the nonreactive category, with exceptions.
Cast aluminum will be considered reactive, and you don’t see it very often. There was a scare that cast aluminum was linked to Alzheimer’s disease, so many threw out their inherited pots and pans. I’m not buying it just yet, but as a precaution I tossed my great-great Aunt Jessie’s cast aluminum Dutch oven when my boys came along. By the way, she knocked on the door of a century, smoked until she was in her 80s, and drove a 1967 Chevy Malibu until her eyes were of no use, so maybe cast aluminum causes blindness.
Hard-anodized aluminum differs from cast. When cookware is anodized, an oxide essentially coats the pan and creates strength. The pan is immersed in a chemical bath and given a jolt of Alabama Power. The resulting current creates an oxide that hardens the aluminum and helps resist corrosion. Hard anodized is the same principle, but uses higher voltage and lower temperature. This creates an even stronger material. Both can still be considered reactive.
One might consider stainless steel, glass and hard-enamel cookware nonreactive. There are many upsides to nonreactive cookware, but it isn’t all cupcakes and rainbows. Sure, nonreactive pans open you up to many possibilities in the kitchen. But have you ever fried an egg in a stainless steel skillet? Have fun with that one.
Most nonstick pans are considered nonreactive. This makes them largely the most versatile of the fleet, but they have their limitations. I don’t enjoy cooking larger portions of meat on nonstick surfaces. My grill pan isn’t Teflon coated. These pieces also are not dishwasher safe, and many are not oven friendly.
Most of the nonreactive cookware I own is a mash of poor heat conductivity. Modern skillets may have an aluminum core with an outer shell of stainless steel that speeds up the heating time. Glass is a great insulator of heat, and the thick walls hold the temperature well, but that’s because it is a poor conductor.
My kitchen cabinets are loaded with a hodgepodge of cookware, each piece with a certain amount of specificity. I have something for nearly every task. Dumb it down to the simple classification of reactive and nonreactive and you’ll see both sides have their limitations and strengths. A good rule for utensils is if the surface material is metal, then use a metal utensil. If the surface material is nonstick, then opt for a plastic utensil to preserve the coating. For either type of surface, wood is always good.
There is no single box of cookware that suits all needs. Purchase a piece at a time as needed. Now that I have most of the other materials I need for everyday life, I’m still open for more Calphalon. Christmas is but a few months away if you’re buying.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).