How much do you know about the materials of your cookware? If you aren’t precisely sure that it’s something like copper or stainless steel, there’s a good chance you’re cooking with aluminum.
Aluminum is a ubiquitous cooking metal, helping speed the heating times of your pots and pans and providing responsive temperature changes whenever you need. Although the metal is typically lumped in with “cheap” cookware, there are quite a few benefits to aluminum.
Let’s explore the world of aluminum in cookware to find out if it’s the right material for your needs. There aren’t any specific cookware recommendations, but this information should be enough to help you.
The Structure of Aluminum Cookware
Aluminum does have a reputation for being cheap, but that’s because of the process of making the cookware in the first place. Basic aluminum is strongly reactive with foods, especially acidic foods. Cheap cookware tends to leach harmful metals into your diet, causing adverse health effects, not altered taste.
The other problem with aluminum is it’s a relatively soft metal. That makes it easier to manufacture, but also puts it more at risk of warping under high heat. If you’ve ever had a pan change shape after spending too much time on the burner, it was probably cheap aluminum.
The Solution: Anodized Aluminum
Aluminum oxidizes naturally if left out. That thin layer is actually protective of the metal, helping shield it from environmental effects. The natural oxidation process isn’t enough to protect the pan from cooking effects, but companies use this process to their advantage.
Anodized aluminum is put through a unique process to harden the surface of the pots and pans, providing them with a more resilient surface. Anodized aluminum is way tougher and less likely to warp under high heat or react with acidic foods.
The anodization process is an electrochemical one that creates this non-reactive “aluminum oxide” layer. Further reactions create a thicker layer, giving rise to hard-anodized aluminum. Both are much tougher than standard aluminum, but hard-anodized aluminum is thicker.
Hard-anodized aluminum is twice the strength of stainless steel and non-reactive. It won’t rust and is less likely to chip on the surface than other types of layers. It retains all the typical heat-responsive properties of aluminum, making it suitable for when you need to change temperatures frequently during cooking.
Anodized Aluminum Durability
Because it’s not a bonded layer or a paint-like substance, there’s no risk of it peeling off. The layer is a chemical process happening within the metal, so there’s nothing to separate. It’s highly resistant to scratches and dings, allowing you to use a wide variety of cooking utensils without damage.
Anodized Aluminum Non-Stick Capability
Although anodized and hard anodized aluminum aren’t technically nonstick, they are low stick due to the chemical composition of the surface. First, you can attack stuck-on food without worrying about scratching your pan all up, so it may be easier to dislodge stuck food anyway.
Second, the surface is mostly impervious to other materials, so it has a lower chance of sticking than some metals. While many hard-anodized pans are bonded with a nonstick surface to increase convenience, the material itself is classified as low-stick.
Why Purchase Anodized or Hard Anodized Aluminum
If you’re in the market for a new pan, simple aluminum can be really attractive for limited budgets. However, the downsides to simple aluminum make this type of cookware a no-go for all but the strictest of budgets.
Hard-anodized aluminum is a match made in heaven for nonstick coatings. First, the bond lasts a lot longer, so you’ll get a lot more usage out of your pots and pans. Next, as the nonstick coating inevitably wears off, you aren’t exposing your food to bare aluminum. It can withstand reactive foods and not leach metals into your meals or alter the taste the way regular aluminum can.
If you’ve got any wiggle room in your budget, hard-anodized nonstick pans are going to be a better, safer investment. The good news is that the cookware is still relatively affordable in the world of cookware, so finding the right set for your budget shouldn’t require too much footwork.
Frequently Asked Questions
You understand the structure of aluminum, anodized, and hard anodized pots and pans, but you may still have some questions about the metal and what to expect once you’ve invested in these types of pots and pans. Let’s take a look at some common questions.
Is Aluminum Safe?
The short answer is yes. A longer answer has a lot to do with how you cook with your pans, how you care for them, and the type of aluminum you use.
Bare aluminum can have some significant downsides because it’s such a reactive metal. When acidic foods are heated up on an aluminum surface, it can cause a chemical reaction releasing aluminum into your food, altering the taste, and adding in dangerous metal.
With basic aluminum, in theory, you couldn’t simmer your mom’s famous spaghetti sauce for hours on end because the prolonged exposure with the acid in the tomatoes would spell disaster for your pans. You’d also be hemmed in for how much heat you could use because of the reactive nature of aluminum.
You would also need to be very careful with the type of cooking utensils you use. Metal utensils can cause a lot of damage to the surface of your pan, potentially releasing more aluminum into your food.
Anodized and hard anodized aluminum is another story. These metals are highly resistant to reactive foods and use a much harder surface to withstand damage from even metal cooking utensils. It’s really hard to damage their surfaces, so if you’re worried about aluminum exposure or don’t like the taste of metal pans, this could be a good alternative.
Realistically, the danger is low even with simple aluminum. The trend of blaming aluminum cookware for higher aluminum levels began with a discovery in Alzheimer’s patients that aluminum was present in higher quantities in their systems. The start of a public scare turned a lot of people off aluminum for a long time.
Research shows that it would take a much greater exposure amount over a long period of time to bring aluminum levels to dangerous amounts. Those of you cooking with aluminum are probably safe, especially if you take care of your pans.
The connection between excess aluminum and Alzheimer’s has been officially debunked, outlined multiple times in websites such as Livestrong.com, noting that no conclusive evidence can point to a connection between the two.
Should I Replace My Aluminum Cookware?
Because the threat of aluminum exposure is low, you shouldn’t have to worry about running out to buy new pans. However, if your pots and pans are highly scratched, it might be a good idea to pursue replacing them just on principle.
Bare aluminum can affect the taste of your food and cause metals to leach into foods even in small amounts. Replacing pans can help with food sticking and help your dishes retain flavor. Plus, damaged pans are a bummer to work with because you’re limited with the types of dishes you can make.
Regular aluminum isn’t as great in the dishwasher or in the oven, either, reducing what you can do in your kitchen. If you’ve got the budget, you might consider getting something more durable.
How Do I Care for My Aluminum Cookware?
There are a few things to consider when you’re cooking and cleaning with aluminum. Let’s take a look at how to extend the life of aluminum cookware.
Because simple aluminum is so malleable, you’ll need to care for your pots and pans delicately. Cook over low to medium heat and allow the pan to transition naturally from each temperature change – no plunging your pan in cold water.
Gently hand wash your aluminum cookware with soft cleaners and soft brushes to ensure that you don’t scrape or chip the surface. The easier you can go on your aluminum pans, the better.
Anodized and Hard-anodized Aluminum
Because of the chemical oxidation process, these aluminum pots and pans can take a little more abuse. They can often go in the dishwasher and oven, and you can use a variety of cleaning tools or utensils materials when cooking.
Since many of these types have a nonstick coating, that’s what you’ll really need to baby when you’re caring for your cookware. It’s best to use softer cooking utensils, but if you chip the coating, you’ll never have to worry about chipping the aluminum underneath.
Investing in Aluminum Cookware
When you decide on aluminum, you’re getting a lightweight and highly affordable set of cookware that allows you precise temperature control. With the anodizing process, you get a more durable set of cookware.
The downside is that aluminum can be a delicate material if you don’t get the anodized version. Ensure that you care for your aluminum cookware and consider getting a nonstick coating on top of the anodized aluminum surface so that you have more flexibility.
Once you’ve decided on your aluminum cookware, ensure that you take care of it so that you have as much life with your pots as possible. It’s a good investment for those with a slightly stricter budget and can provide reliable performance for a good number of years.