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The Right Pan for the Job: Understanding Aluminum, Anodized Aluminum, and Nonstick Coatings

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Friend of The Food Geek, Valerie, asks somewhat cryptically:

In the arena of the kitchen, where equipment battles are won and lost depending on partly on merit, partly on style, and partly on sheer pig-headedness, a nonstick pan and an anodized aluminum pan aren’t going to really fight all that often. Though they share a similar shape and color, they have different purposes in life.

A nonstick pan is a pan that has been coated with a nonstick substance, most famously Teflon®. The great thing about nonstick pans is that they don’t stick. (Of course.) The downsides of nonstick pans are that they are often very fragile and will give off a toxic gas when they’re heated, according to DuPont, 660°F, though I’ve heard reports that gas particles will be emitted by nonstick coatings at temperatures around 400°F. Still, with proper care both in cooking and maintaining, nonstick pans save a lot of trouble in the kitchen, especially for people who are not skilled using non-nonstick pans.

Anodized aluminum is aluminum which has been oxidized so that its surface is no longer reactive. Aluminum in and of itself is fantastic in some ways, because it conducts heat very efficiently, so it responds to changes of temperature quickly. It is also an inexpensive metal, especially when compared to, oh, copper. The problem with aluminum is that it is pretty reactive with foods, and aluminum is not a metal that you really need a lot of in your daily diet. It also can discolor your food.

Anodized aluminum is still very conductive, but the surface is much harder than regular aluminum. It is much more durable than, say, a nonstick pan. On the other hand, like a nonstick pan, you should never wash it in the dishwasher, as it will ruin the surfaces in both cases. Hand-washing only for both, though the anodized aluminum can withstand more vigorous washing than a nonstick coated pan. Which is good, because it’ll probably need more vigor during the washing, as food will be much more likely to stick to it.

In order to keep food from sticking to a metal pan, there are two key factors. First, the pan needs to be hot before you put the food in. If you were to, say, put a piece of chicken in a cold pan and heat it up, then imperfections in the surface of the pan, pores effectively, will get smaller as the pan heats. When that happens, the metal will literally grab the food and not let go, even after the pan cools. You will have much scrubbing to do after. So heat the pan, add in cold oil, and add in your food. That will save you plenty of dishwashing.

Speaking of dishwashing, Chef Angela Larson asks:@thefoodgeek What is the best way to remove cooked-on grease from the bottom of a pan/pot? via web in reply to thefoodgeek

I had suggested on Twitter that stern words with the person who washes dishes is the easiest path, but failing that, I find that a powdered cleaning agent such as Bon Ami or Bartender’s Friend is the way to go. Of course, you have to be careful about the surface that you’re cleaning, but most metal pans should be okay with either of those. Combine one of those with a scrubbing pad and some muscle behind it, and you should be able to get the surface nice and shiny.

And, finally, since we’re on the subject of aluminum, Schmutzli asks:

@thefoodgeek ever used heavy cast aluminum? What did you think of it vs. cast iron? via Twitter for iPhone in reply to thefoodgeek

I have not used heavy cast aluminum, but I tend to lean more towards cast iron. Cast aluminum is still just as reactive as regular aluminum, though because of its structure, it’s not quite as conductive. If my pan is going to be reactive anyways, I’d prefer just to use a mineral that’s more generally useful to my body, and iron is very useful nutritionally. However, cast aluminum is more conductive than cast iron, so it will heat up faster and be a bit more responsive to heat, while having enough mass to retain heat.

The major advantage of cast aluminum, for the consumer, is that it’s lighter than cast iron. That could certainly be useful in a camping situation, or if you have trouble lifting cast iron, but I haven’t seen any compelling arguments that would convince me to trade in my cast iron skillet for a similar one made out of aluminum. The major advantage of cast aluminum in general is that it’s easier for the manufacturer to make certain shapes out of it, especially if they are complicated shapes.


Leave a Comment


  • erna | 02/22/2012

    What non stick pan is best to use for the purpose of sear roasting?

  • pudg | 09/21/2010

    So, what are the best pans to use?I like anodized aluminum for sauteing. My son would be very upset if he didn't inherit my stainless steel stew pot. I have a wonderful hodgepodge collection of cooking equipment. Never thought I would ask for cooking equipment for Christmas!

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