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What's in your pot? Basic guide to choosing cookware

Choosing cookware should be based on budget as well as the type of foods you cook

What is your current kitchen cookware made of? Are you looking for new pots and pans? Not only does a purchase such as this depend heavily on your budget, but you should also base it on the types of foods you cook.

Here's a short and sweet overview of "pretty versus practical."

Pretty. In this category, we'll put copper, glass, and ceramic materials.

We think glass looks beautiful as a serving piece and some of our own casserole dishes are glass. They're a bear to clean, however. If you are looking at stovetop glass saucepans, keep in mind that you may get some uneven cooking.

Copper no doubt tops the pretty list. It's beautiful, in fact. Especially if you go through the painstaking polishing process regularly - that means often.

Ceramic cookware is easier to clean, but should always be handled with care. Chipping and cracking can occur.

Practical. We'll put aluminum, cast iron, and steel clad here.

We recommend that all cooks should have some cast iron in their lives, no matter what shape. It's the work horse of the cookware crowd and once it has been seasoned properly, it will last forever. However, the drawbacks include that very perfect seasoning process, which can add extra, unwanted aromas to your food. If not cleaned properly, bacteria is prone to develop; if not oiled properly, food will definitely stay behind.

Aluminum. We have two aluminum pots; one for chili and one for lobster. We use the lobster size for tamales, too. It does heat up nicely, but has a tendency to stick unless you babysit the process. Plus, it can cause the food to become discolored.

Steel clad. That means a double layer: steel on top of aluminum or copper. Pricy, but will last longer than all other products except cast iron. Heat distributes well and easy to clean. No drawbacks here that we can see.

If you're thinking about non-stick cookware, proceed with caution. The coatings, when heated, can give off a gas that is deadly to birds. For the average birdless household, there are other precautions. Don't use these things over high heat. Medium only. Even if you don't use metal utensils - ever - some pitting is going to occur, probably sooner rather than later. These little non-stick particles will indeed start sticking to food. These pots and pans should be replaced regularly - at the first sign of wear. On the good side, you can use cooking spray and a lot less oil for general cooking and that gives it a healthy advantage. Most kitchens will benefit from the ease of owning a non-stick skillet and pan or two.

When you're ready to make a purchase, research all the options and brands. Ask around and check out cooking forums - the members will have some excellent recommendations. Before you rush off to your favorite kitchen store, look on the Internet - you never know where you'll find the best prices. Typically, sets are cheaper than buying individual pieces, but only if they include the cookware that you need.

You probably won't find everything you need in one perfect cookware set, so plan on supplementing your purchase with a few odds and ends. They don't have to match in color or style. They just need to be practical and fit your budget and cooking style!


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