Cookware manufacturers continuously experiment with materials and coatings to create the illusion, if not the reality, of durability, strength, and even cooking. Here are the attributes of cookware materials you're likely to see.
Heats and cools quickly, so it's ideal when temperature control is important. Because copper reacts with acidic foods, it's usually lined with stainless steel or tin, which can blister and wear out over time. Solid-copper cookware is expensive.
Some chefs say that it cooks best when it's been used for years, but when we compared a rookie cast-iron frypan (seasoned once) with a well-seasoned veteran, we saw virtually the same results: Both pans excelled at frying and browning; both heated pancakes unevenly. Cast iron is also slow to heat and cool.
Heats quickly and evenly, if it's heavy. Thin-gauge aluminum not only heats unevenly, it's apt to become dented. Matte, dark-gray, anodized aluminum (left, below) is durable but is easily stained and is usually not dishwasher-safe. Enamel-coated aluminum is typical in low-end lines. Other descriptions for aluminum cookware, such as polished, heavy-cast, and pressure-cast, are used in marketing, says Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association, but gauge matters most. Composites with high-tech materials such as titanium have little influence on cookware performance.
Can go in the dishwasher but conducts and retains heat poorly. For more-even heating, it's usually layered over aluminum or incorporates a copper or aluminum bottom.