What Makes a Good Pan?


The best thing since sliced bread

Last week I mentioned listening to Greg Foots interesting take on Pots and Pans (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001whj8), in his podcast “Sliced Bread”. And this was after a customer came into the Cobham shop a little confused over what Greg and the writer and broadcaster Tim Hayward had said in the interview, about multilayer pans, referring to them as ‘space age’ technology. The implication being that they were the answer to all culinary problems .

To give you the background to Greg’s podcast, his website said,

“There are a bewildering array of pots and pans on offer: stainless steel saucepans, cast iron skillets, even 10-in-1 cookware systems that use layers of various materials. But do they deliver on their promises to help you reach culinary bliss?"

And his listener Emily wanted to know…

“if the ones she's seen, live up to the hype or are just marketing BS. What do all the materials do? What about cleaning them? And just what is the much-vaunted 'hot spot' that lights up at a certain temperature?”

So some really good questions here!

Well, in my experience,  there is no such beast that turns culinary hell into culinary heaven. Having since listened to the podcast a couple of times, what I heard Greg and Tim talking about, were the types of multi-layer pans that do indeed do a very good job, such as Le Creuset’s 3 Ply Stainless Steel, Swift’s Supreme range, or the father of all these, the Demeyere Stainless Steel ranges.

When I first put pen to paper I imagined taking each of the points that Greg and his interviewees talk about and either agreeing, or adding further explanation or in a few cases, correcting. But that would have been a huge job and made rather boring reading I suspect.

So, instead I thought I’d start by telling you what I believe makes a good pan and then, at the end I’ll add the corrections to the podcast or just refer to aspects that I think, might need a little more explanation.
What makes a good pan? 


A good pan needs to pick up the heat from your hob and spread it evenly across the width of its base, whatever type of heat source you’re using. And this is because you don’t want your food over cooked in the centre of the pan where the heat source is, and undercooked around the edges, where the heat source isn’t!

So the metal’s ability to spread heat is a key to the success of the pan’s ability to cook food evenly. Some metals conduct heat fast and evenly, and others struggle. The common metals used in pots and pans these days are as follows, and the number beside them is the measure of thermal conductivity. Please though, don’t ask me for a technical explanation of “k”…I didn’t pass chemistry 0 Level!

So, starting with the least conductive, stainless steel, the list works its way up to the best conductors…

- Stainless Steel 14k
- Cast Iron 52k
- Steel 54k
- Iron 94k
- Aluminium 237k
- Copper 401k
- Silver 428k

From this list (ignoring Silver on grounds of cost) it’s easy to say I’d have all my pans made in aluminium, its light and conducts heat fast. And 30-40 years ago the majority of pans were made in aluminium.  But in the intervening years it’s gradually been joined by stainless steel. Which whilst this is a great metal that looks good and is easy to clean, it can’t spread heat if its life depended on it. So, to combat this, manufacturers usually add a disc of aluminium (a good conductor) to the base and this works well. Or, if you go up market a bit futher, some manufacturers make a “tri-ply” of stainless/aluminium/stainless sandwich, which is then formed into the pan itself, so you have a three layer pan that looks good, is easy to clean, and conducts the heat well because of the aluminium core (see the diagrams).
It’s this type of multi-layer construction that is referred to in the Podcast as ‘space age’ technology. This type of construction has been around since the 1970’s or 1980’s, and leaders like Demeyere have been using since then making multi-layer bases since, with companies like Le Creuset, Meyer et al catching up in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. And it is a very good way of exploiting the benefits of different materials, achieving even heat distribution, relatively cheaply, if £60 or £70 as a starting price can be considered “cheap”? It is less than a Demeyere pan and certainly less than a true copper pan* which will be several hundred pounds.

* not to be confused with our gorgous copper coated, but essentially stainless steel & aluminium, Samuel Groves range 

Speed, versus Even Heat Spread

Now, speed isn’t everything, which is why a company like Le Creuset, making pots out of cast iron (a relatively slow conductor of heat) produce very good results, especially in their casseroles and other pans where the cooking process is by its nature, slowish. Because, if you were to look at the speed with which it transmits heat, you could be forgiven for dismissing it! But so long as you are not in a tearing hurry, cast iron is a great material for cooking on, as it spreads heat evenly and retains it for a long time and in the case of the European brands, Le Creuset, Chasseur and Staub, it looks lovely as well.  

Metal Gauge

The other thing to consider is the gauge or thickness of the metal. This is important as the metal needs to have enough mass to spread the heat from the centre (where the heat source is) to the outer edge pretty quickly, before it gets through the base to the cooking surface of the pan, otherwise you will have a pan that’s hot in the middle and cool around the edge. This is a recipe for burning food.

So, when evaluating conductivity layers for aluminium (237k), a 3mm minimum thickness is needed to achieve a reasonable heat distribution throughout the pan, although the best pans are often thicker at approximately 5mm plus.  With copper (401k) significantly less metal is required because it’s a superior conductor, so here 2mm is considered more than sufficient, indeed 1.5mm is ok. Below either 3mm for aluminium or 1.5mm for copper, I’d say probably avoid these pans if you are serious about your cooking. Non Stick (or No) Coatings 

You've proabbly picked up my preference for uncoated pans by now, and learning to cook with an uncoated pan can certainly improve your cooking results.  If that's not enough to persuade you, then maybe consider that even the best non-stick pans will last you just 5-7 years, if you treat it well, compared to a good uncoated pan that might last a lifetime.  So, when judged on sustainability thats another tick for uncoated.  If I still haven't persuaded you, then here's what you might consider when making your purchase.

Non sticks coatings vary in quality along with most other things in life, but generally if you are buying good quality non stick pans you will be buying a good quality non stick coating. 14 years ago I wrote an article on non sticks as they were then, which has been updated a couple of times since. But, if you want to know quite a lot of background on non sticks and how to make them last longer, then you could do worse than read it. 

If you really can’t be arsed, then the one thing that I’ll say, is that the biggest enemy of non stick is heat. Overheat a non stick pan once, badly, and that will be the beginning of the end of the coating. Most non sticks are plastic based and start to degrade at about 270 degrees C. This is easily achieved with gas and far from impossible with electric hobs especially induction. So, cut down on heat and your non stick will last a lot longer. Never put a non stick pan on the heat without food or oil in it.

Ceramic non stick coatings (GreenPan are the originators and the ones we stock) are also mentioned in the programme, and these I’m quite a fan of (but only in the context of non sticks, which, being a purist, I’m really rather against). They do tend to be less non stick after a bit of use, than the plastic based ones, but they are tougher, and if you have a gung-ho attitude to coatings or family members who are, then they can be a good choice! Ok so back to the Podcast. I’m bullet pointing the areas that I felt needed some further explanation.

1. Hayward says that everything is non stick if hot enough. Broadly speaking that’s true, but with fish and meat they must be dry,  the pan needs to be dry (no oil), the pan must be hot enough, and you need courage to not disturb the food while it’s doing its stuff. And if attempting this sort of cooking, don’t use non stick.
2. Hayward says that its difficult to get to 260 degrees C. Having seen many non stick pans ruined by heat over the years, I think I disagree.
3. Hayward later repeats his assertion that nothing sticks to his plain stainless pan with a heavy base. I don’t doubt his word, but he is a chef and restaurateur….so he knows what he’s doing (see point 1).
4. Greg says at one point, don’t use vinegar or metal scourers on stainless steel! This is wrong. One of its great qualities is that you can use pretty well anything you like on it to clean it. I use, wire wool, metal scourers and vinegar to clean our Demeyere pans at home when the occasion demands it.
5. Greg says aluminium heats up quickly like iron. This is wrong. As you can see from the table above, Spun iron (e.g. Netherton pans) rate of conductivity is less than half that of aluminium. Cast iron (e.g. Le Creuset) is even slower, requiring almost 5 times as long to heat up as aluminium.
6. Tefal products that are referred to in the programme, and that have a red spot in the centre which disappears at a certain point, we do not sell and I’ve no recent experience of. Judging from the comments left on the Tefal website, I’d say that they are probably good value for the money.  But be aware, although the red spot helps, one mistake, as I mention above, could ruin the non-stick layer

If I was going to be critical of his programme, I’d say it needed an impartial industry expert, to summarise all the points he discussed during its course, because (and maybe its just me) I wasn’t left with a clear idea of what I needed to do to achieve my culinary nirvana. Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, as we are all different and have differing needs and budgets….so making a one answer solution impossible!

If you’ve got questions as result of what I’ve written or what was said on the programme, then please do email me back , or better, leave it as a question on the form below which potentially will help others, if I get the answer right!

I’m off to Copenhagen this weekend, and in fact shortly after you’ve read this, I will be sitting sunning myself in a Copenhagen café, eating croissant, or whatever the Danish equivalent is, watching the world go by. I’m back Monday afternoon. I hope you have a pleasant and peaceful one. I’m hoping for an unusually exciting one… Over a pint earlier this week my friend Simon, thought it was one of the more boring places to go in Europe. I shall work at proving him wrong! Warm regards,


Andrew Bluett-Duncan



  • Andrew Bluett-Duncan

    Hello Steve
    As we discussed on the phone, Le Creuset themselves would honour such a claim/problem, should it happen again in the future.
    Warm regards

  • Steve

    Thank you Andrew. Yes, the one prior to our current model was the Kone design, in black (I liked the shape of it a lot and the size was right for us). Sadly the fitting on the end of the spout fell off!

  • Andrew Bluett-Duncan

    Hello Steve
    Thank you for your question. I think before I can answer it I’ve got a question for you, because to get through 4 in 10 years is pretty unusual I’d have thought. Were any of these Le Creuset kettles(when you say a high-priced French brand) and what were the particular problems that you experienced with them/it?
    Let me know when you have a moment. I’ll be traveling back tomorrow so may not get a chance to answer until Tuesday.
    Kind regards

  • Steve

    Hello Andrew, I am a fan of stove top kettles (non of those new fangled electrical things for me) and I assume that much of the very good information above applies. However, a question I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while is ‘can you recommend any good stove top kettles which have good longevity (in addition to performing well)’. In the past 10 years, we’ve got through four in total – some of a high priced French brand and others inexpensive from a certain online bookseller – however, no matter the cost or brand, all seem to fail after 2 to 3 years. Main issues are flaky paintwork (the kettle must be black), failed spouts, failed handles. Are my expectations too high and is 2 to 3 years normal? I would ideally like something which would last for 10. NB we use a gas stove, in case thats relevant. Many thanks in anticipation, Steve

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