What is Nonreactive Cookware?

two pans

A while back, a friend made the Apple-Red Wine Tart (in Ready for Dessert), which calls for the fruit to be cooked in red wine in a nonreactive pan. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many people don’t know what nonreactive cookware is and he called to tell me the dessert was great, but his pan was stained. (And this was someone who cooks a lot.) Which is why I specify in some recipes, most notably those that use citrus juice, certain fruits and vegetables, some brown sugars, or wine, to use “nonreactive” cookware. But I’m often asked – What does “nonreactive” mean?

It means to use cookware made of a material that will not react with acidic ingredients. The most common nonreactive cookware is made with a stainless-steel finish and will not discolor or pit when used with acidic ingredients. You can see from the two saucepans above, the finish on the one on the left (nonreactive stainless-steel) has remained intact and has not pitted, whereas the lining and finish (reactive) in the copper pan has become worn off.

Generally speaking, I do not recommend the use of “reactive” metals for cookware, such as unlined copper, those made of raw aluminum or tin, or any pan whose finish has deteriorated. Exceptions are my copper caramel pan, and I use aluminum cake pans since they conduct heat well and there is usually nothing acidic in cake batters to react with the metal. (And I line the bottoms with parchment paper when baking most cakes.)

glass and enamel cookware

Enamel or glazed finishes are generally nonreactive but can discolor, as you can see in the red pot, so I avoid using mine for anything like red wine or other ingredients that will stain them. There are some health concerns if using chipped enamel or glazed cookware, but anodized aluminum is considered safe. Although after time, the finish can be worn down as well, and they should not be used once the finish has been compromised.

Most nonstick coatings are considered non-reactive and I’ve had good results using “green” non-stick cookware. Glass and pyroceramic glass, such as those marked as Pyrex and CorningWare are nonreactive elements, although make sure before using them that you follow the manufacturers’ guidelines for proper usage to see if they can be used over direct heat or not.

cookware non-reactive

Materials to avoid when using acidic ingredients are unlined tin, unlined copper, raw aluminum, and unseasoned cast iron. (If well-seasoned, cast iron can be used with certain fruits and acidic ingredients.) My advice is to buy good-quality cookware; you don’t need a full batterie de cuisine, but some top-of-the-line cookware comes with a lifetime guarantee, which will save you money in the long run. And better quality cookware will perform better, have less hot spots, and most importantly, will make you happier in the kitchen.



Notes

-Please keep in mind that different manufacturer’s may have diverse recommendations regarding the use of their cookware. I always recommend you check with the instructions that came with your cookware, or on the manufacturer’s website, to determine the best way to use their cookware, include what temperatures it can be used up to.

-An excellent article comparing and discussing the different materials used in cookware, and any associated health risks, can be found at the Clemson Cooperative Extension website.

59 comments

  • In the first photo it looks like the copper pan is lined with something. I just inherited a few of those but haven’t used them yet. Are they lined with something different from what the All-Clad pans have (sounds like the answer is yes)? They sure are pretty to look at even if I never end up using them :)

  • Thank you for this post and the link. I needed to know these things.

  • it’s like cooking apples in aluminum pan, stains the pan balck and sticky and is almost impossible to get cleaned, is only removed by cooking the pan with rhubarb then you can use it again, the bright side is that you only do it once..or covering hot food with aluminumfoil on a silvertray, chemical reactoins stain the tray black.

  • What do you think of iron skillets, like the DeBuyer Mineral B Element pans? Do you use them? Very reactive, I’d guess.

    • I’ve not used that cookware. I pretty much like what I have (AllClad) and rarely buy new pieces because my have lasted so long. In general, DeBuyer is a good brand and I have their tarte Tatin mold, which is only sold in Europe (I think) and it’s great.

  • I just asked you this question yesterday and you answered immediately, but thank you for this more in depth explanation. You’d think I’d know these things since I’ve been cooking more than 40 years! Another question – when you put parchment paper in cake pans, do you only line the bottom (cut it in a circle) or do you have it go up the sides of the pan as well? Thank you for a wonderful blog, funny and entertaining as well as informative.

  • A great explanation!

  • A couple of other advantages to non-reactive cookware is that it won’t impart a “tinny” or metallic taste to acidic foods like tomatoes, and the real biggy, a lot of non-reactive pieces (stainless steel and glass) can be safely washed in the dishwasher.

  • Thanks David. This was an excellent post that was very informative and useful!

  • In response to James in Seattle, I use a heavy bottomed stainless steel pot from Lakeland (a British brand) to make caramels and custards and although I have no trouble there, I always detect a subtle (so subtle in fact, it could just be my imagination ;-) tinny taste when making fruit compotes. I could very well be wrong, but I suspect that all other brands impart the same taste (assuming I’m not just imagining things…). Perhaps enamel is a better idea for compotes but I can’t say because I’ve never tried it.

  • Thanks for this very useful post. It took me years to understand that cast-iron pans can be used with acidic ingredients IF, and only IF, they’re well-seasoned, which in effect makes them non-stick and non-reactive (yes???). How much use and time do you think it takes to build up such a surface on a cast-iron pan? I have a couple of my grandmother’s pans, which helps greatly. (Trying to build up a non-stick surface on a brand cast-iron pan seems to take a lot of patience and diligence.)

  • I made the mistake of reducing homemade lobster stock in a cast-iron pot because the pot was already on the stove from a lamb stew and I needed a big pot, so I grabbed it. This was the kind that comes “preseasoned.”

    The boiling stock, which I would hardly have considered acidic, ate away parts of the seasoned walls of the pan, and the stock color got darker. I emailed madly with the company and was told that I did not have to toss the stock (which had taken all day to make) and could reseason the pan by coating it with oil, putting it upside-down on an oven shelf with foil below to catch drips, and “baking” it for hours on low heat.

    I followed the instructions–twice–and the insides of the pot improved, but still don’t look smooth. I used some of the stock (which I had frozen) for a special fish soup on Valentine’s Day and we are still here to tell the tale but maybe my vital organs are coated with whatever used to be inside the pot.

  • interesting article. explains why i’ve gone thru so many pots/pans.
    thank you!

    question: what do u think of the original scan pans?

  • What is the brand of the lovely little white enameled frying pan that’s pictured?

  • Thanks for the reference article. One of my clients is Nordic Ware, a great American manufacturer of nonstick aluminum cookware celebrating its 67th anniversary this year. I am constantly having to calm customer fears about aluminum and nonstick coatings. Now I have a document to share with them.

  • Hi,

    David, what exactly are the dangers of using chipped enamel cookware? I have a large Le Creuset dutch oven that I slipped out my hands while I was washing it. Boom into the sink, resulting in a tiny (slightly smaller than a dime) chip in the enamel which shows the cast iron underneath. It’s right where the bottom of the pot meets the side. For years, I kept it in the back of the cupboard wondering if I should turn it into a planter, but lately have begun using it again. Am I poisoning my family?

    Also, I’ve had a lot of my Le Creuset become discolored by stews (with red wine) and chili. But I thought these are just the types of dishes this cookware was made for! What is a slow-cooking cook to use?

    Wondering,
    Maria

  • David; for your readers living in France you should maybe add the French words for non-reactive pans? I for one (E is not my native language) didn’t know what non-reactive pots were (but I guessed it alright because I learned that phenomena already as a child). It’s interesting; we bought products with a life-time guarantee for any damage – very expensive at the time but well, well worth the money. I cook absolutely anything in them.

    AMC Alfa Metalcraft Corporation with its HQ in Switzerland
    http://www.amc.info/index.cfm?uuid=2252B469E19911D692540001028B2AC0&frame=main

    You really look after your readers; I never cease to be amazed by your wide range of interests, your great writing and fab photographs. Thank You

  • @herkkusuun lautasella – oh my – THAT’s quite an achievement! I’ve also made some horrendous experiences with tin foil; it’s a miracle I’m still here… but maybe we all have – as ‘a fan in New Jersey’ suggested – ‘metal lined’ stomachs! :)

  • I bought cheap pots when I was first on my own many years back… they lasted 9 months. Even though I had no money, I invested in a set of very heavy Calphalon pots… they are still awesome 25 years later. One pot did discolor some years back and they happily replaced it. The newer ones are much thinner, though, so as I have added pieces I tend to go with All Clad.
    Those pieces are anywhere from 2-20 years old and I will say that they look the same inside (stainless steel) and clean up like a dream!

    I do dream of having copper pots but I think it’s more for aesthetics as I am quite happy with the performance of my anodized aluminum as well as my stainless lined aluminum.

    My favorite is finding a piece on clearance at a retailer like TJ’s or HG’s where they are a steal!

    • I’ve seen All Clad at those discount stores, a piece here and there, and the prices are always good. They also hold an annual factory sale near their factory at the The Washington Country State Fair (in Pennsylvania) – but recently, I saw an amazing 14-piece set on Rue La La, a flash shopping site, for around $500 or so which was an amazing deal for a very complete set..although it sold out pretty quickly!

  • sarahb1313, agree about TJ Maxx, where every item seems to have “fallen off a truck” but you can get great bargains. In my quest to replace everything possible with All-Clad I have also done well with sales on the Williams-Sonoma website, esp. when they include free shipping–these mamas are HEAVY! Adoring my large high-sided saute pan even though I have no idea where to store it.

  • alors a quand le mariage pour david et son cher et tendre? plus d’excuses!

  • Thank you very much for this explanation. I’ve seen recipes that call for non-reactive pans & mixing bowls before, but never really understood why. I always just defaulted to glass in that situation, but it’s good to know about other options.

  • Thanks for a clear explanation. Clarified what I already suspected. — FWIW, most copper pans are lined with tin (also reactive,) but some are nickle lined. I don’t have any experience with them to know if they’re reactive. — I stained a LC pot so badly once that I wouldn’t use it because it was ugly, so I finally filled it with water, added a capful of bleach and let it sit overnight. Next day it was white again. Bleach isn’t recommended, but I don’t know why. Maybe it erodes the enamel although that doesn’t seem likely.

  • These comments apply to not only cooking acidic foods but also assembling a trifle-like dessert as in David’s Lemon Semifreddo. I was intending to use a square metal baking pan for this dessert when David saved the day and explained to use any nonreactive baking pan like Pyrex.

  • To Maria S –

    I also had a chipped Le Creuset. Mine was the au gratin pan. I had it for years; I don’t even think they make the small one any more. I mailed it to the company with a letter asking if it could be repaired. I never heard back, never heard back, never heard back. TEN WEEKS later, I received a package with a brand new larger size au gratin pan from Le Creuset. No note or explanation; just a brand new pan.

    To David –

    Thanks once again for a terrific article that helps explain things that we all wonder about. You’re the tops.

  • To Holly, I grew up in the Deep South and my mother and grandmother used cast-iron cookware for everything, and nothing stuck.

    Here’s how I was taught to season a new cast-iron pan: Rub a thick coat of salt tinto the pan with a neutral oil, like peanut or canola oil. Bake in a 250 degree oven for at least 4 hours. This method has always worked for me.

    –Nancy

  • Unfortuately, this is a lesson learned on-the-job by most of us! It never even occured to me that there might be a reaction between the food and pan when I first started cooking! I’m glad to see that many recipes now include instruction about the type of pan to be used or not used, to prepare it. I know experienced cooks think recipes (especially U.S. recipes) are laboriously detailed these days, but anything that makes a recipe more accessable anyone preparing it, even down to the type of pan to use, makes it a better recipe!

  • Marie,
    Michael is right. Le Creuset replaces damaged cookware even after years and years of wear. I think I paid to send the old one to them, but they paid to send me a new one. It did take a loooong time, but knowing they mean it when they say “life-time guarantee” is wonderful.

  • Hi –

    In reference to pros and cons of some of the brands mentioned… I’ve been using de Buyer steel pans, All Clad original (happily 2 copper clad), and Staub pots, collected gradually over the years. I was introduced to Staub at the airport when leaving Paris where marvelous chicken (airport food no less!) was dished out from a huge pot with the amusing chicken finial, and I was besotted. It took a few years to find them at a reasonable price, and they are favorites for slow cooking. They are preferable to le Cruset because the nipples on the interiors of the covers collect steam and drip moisture back into the pot, and they are lined with a black mat enamel which is pretty non stick, super easy to clean and absolutely does not stain.

    The All Clad are my every day standards, except for 2 lightweight stainless pots from supermarket purchases with minimums spent eons ago, in which I steam vegetables, because the steamer inserts fit perfectly and they are lightweight.

    The de Buyer are for stove top (sometimes oven thereafter) steaks, chops and searing at very high temperatures. Once they are seasoned they are divine and easy to maintain. They are preferable to my old cast iron for heat retention and lack of hot spots. They are so effective that I’ve been giving them for gifts to favorite people. I still look at new pots as they come to the market, but I have everything I could possibly need for slow, medium and fast cooking. There are a few glazed and unglazed open clay casseroles and an unglazed cookie sheet for open oven cooking in the mix. There is also a colander, lemon squeezer and wooden spoons from 50 odd years ago which were used on an alcohol stove while cruising on a 24 foot sailboat, but that’s another story.

    Best regards David. I love your generosity to your community, and your clarity and attention to detail. Because of you I am happily addicted to the Korean pepper threads and Aleppo Peppers. Poor Aleppo.

  • I have been trying to get away from the chemical-ized “nonstick” cookware and going to stainless steel, but have been unable to find a good cake pan. I don’t like my food directly on the “nonstick” part or on the aluminum…Do you have any recommendations? I don’t know if wax paper makes a great barrier or not…but I want good looking cakes!

  • Another fantastic post, David! Thank you.

  • Thank you for this practical advice… actually it now makes a greta deal of sense for me… I am about to change a lot of my cookware… so this is so helpful…
    Enjoy the weekend, david… xv

  • Theone: It’s a vintage Le Creuset that I picked up at a flea market.

    Nora: First, lucky you for finding good food at CDG airport! I just bought my first Staub pot, from a flash-shopping site (Vente-Privée) in France, and it’s pretty great. I like the finish since you don’t have to worry about staining and things don’t seem to stick.

    Jasanne: I have an All Clad cake pan that I really like, and there are glass/Pyrex ones you can get, although things seem to stick to them. (I actually have an earlier version of this cake pan, which they no longer make. But it’s pretty great – although not cheap. A friend who used to work with the company sent it to me to try out when they introduced their line of cake pans.)

    MIchael and Sue: I had a Le Creuset tagine and the first time I used it, wearing oven mitts, I took off the lid…which slid out of my grip and crashed, and broke. When I called to mention this design flaw (and ask for a new lid) they wouldn’t send me one. But I do notice that they have changed the design so there is a raised lip; I guess I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with it! (I think I got the wrong person when I called the company because I think they are usually responsive to customers in other circumstances.)

    John: That’s interesting you had luck with bleach in Le Creuset. I have a vintage casserole that is stained and I tried a light bleach solution (which I don’t think the company recommends), baking soda, and even putting it out in the sun, which folks told me would fade the stains – and nothing seems to work. So I just don’t use it with anything red wine-based, or that will stain.

    • Well, maybe I will try sending my chipped LC back to them. . .

      David and others in regards to staining and Le Creuset:. I found this tip on the Apartment Therapy website. It seems slightly bizarre, but I’ve used it twice and it really, really works. Very well. Previously, like David, I’ve tried light bleach and scrubbing with various cleansers such as Bon Ami (not recommended, I know) and nothing else really worked. The laundry detergent mixture even considerably lightened a pan stained black on the bottom from a popcorn burning incident involving my kids, the devils. The advice, which allegedly comes from LC is as follows:

      “For cleaning we would recommend using a laundry detergent such as Tide or one that has an enzyme in it. Make a mixture of one part detergent and three parts water to fill the interior of the vessel. Allow this to boil for about 5-7 minutes. Afterwards, allow to the vessel to cool and proceed with cleaning with your dish detergent.

      If needed, you may use a nylon or plastic scrubby to assist. Once your item has been cleaned, lightly coat the interior with white vinegar using a soft cloth or paper towel. This step is used to return some of the sheen back to the glaze. The longer you allow the vinegar to remain on the enamel the more of the sheen it will bring. Your item can be stored away with the vinegar on it until next use. When ready to use, wash and dry. “

  • The interior of two Calphalon sauce pans that I’ve had since the 80′s have worn off. I’ve heard it has a lifetime guarantee and they will refinish them — must look into that…

  • Fascinating topic! Thank you. So my question is, which type of dutch oven to use for making beef bourgignon with wine. I think you aresuggesting the acid may actually pit the enamel on a LC pot? Or is the concern just cosmetic?

    • I have a large stainless-steel (All Clad) Dutch oven that I’ve used, as well as a new Staub casserole. The Staub has a dark lining, so no worries. I don’t think the red wine will pit the Le Creuset, but do check with the manufacturer or their instructions. However it may likely stain it.

  • I feel as though I am reporting from the First Ice Age. Much of my cooking is done with a set of Farberware pots and pans that I bought at a local department store when I rented a “furnished” condo in Santa Barbara years ago. The cooking gear was awful, so I bought new and these were moderately priced with a good reputation. That was 31 years ago. They are stainless steel with – I believe – heavyish conductive aluminum bases. My late Mother, who taught me about reactive and nonreactive pans when I was a kid, always used Revere pots – stainless with copper bottoms.

    Not terribly chic, but they get the job done and go on forever. I have used mine on both gas and electric burners.

    I have a very large assortment of Dehillerin restaurant grade copper pots with tin linings – virtually new – which I bought at their store in Paris in the ’70s.. Gorgeous, but now packed in boxes. Maybe I’ll find a new home for those?

  • Question concerning cast iron skillets, acid foods and eggs.My friend has a cast iron skilled that he only uses to cook eggs. According to him acid foods would ruin the skillet’s coating causing the eggs to stick. Fact? Fiction?

  • I don’t care for the taste of iron in food so do not cook anything containing acid in cast iron. Some don’t notice the taste – I can pick it up.

    I once seasoned a new heavy cast iron skillet using directions I’d gotten from a chef.

    They involved first washing and drying the skillet. Then coating the inside of it with a layer of salad oil (I probably used corn oil) wiped on generously with a paper towel. I then put the skillet over a burner on high to get the skillet quite hot, then immediately rinsed it under cold water (be careful – the handle is hot, too) It really sizzled. Put the skillet back on the burner, carefully swiped inside with oil, heated it very hot, and back under cold water.

    The protocol called for doing this at least 4-5 times – more if one had time. I occasionally “refresh” it by going through those steps once again after washing it. And I always dry the washed skillet on a hot burner.

  • Just a quick hint on how to remove stains from the inside of enameled cookware.
    Pour water into the pot to a level of 2-3 inches. Then drop in 2-3 Efferdent tablets and let soak overnight. Efferdent is a denture cleanser for cleaning teeth and I think there must be some sort of bleaching agent in the product, and thus, the stains in the pot are removed. Works like a charm!

  • Hi David,
    Thanks for another great article for the cooks out there!

    I have many copper pans. When using copper for regular use they must be lined with something silver that in Spanish is called estana, don’t know what it’s called in English.
    The thing I know for certain, it costs a fortune for each pan, but if used carefully only has to be done about every 10 years.

    Best to you, Geraldine

  • @Geraldine…do you mean estaño? That would be tin in Spanish.

  • Hi David,

    Thanks for the post; it was really helpful.

    I just have a question about the “green nonstick pan” you have that you reviewed a while ago. Do you still like it? Does it still perform well? Has the finish held up? I’m thinking about replacing a Bialetti Aeternum pan that I bought that has disappointed in that the finish is worn, and it’s no longer nonstick. I have tried to be very careful with it and follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but I guess I got a dud. Thanks!

    • My pan, the one that I wrote about, has held up well with no problems to the finish. However after a few people mentioned they had problems with “green” nonstick pans, I did some scoping around and it seems that if the material of the outside of the pan is cheap or thin, when heated, the warping can damage the finish. (I think it was the surface developed microscopic or small cracks when it warped.) I don’t know the pan you have, but mine has held up. I use it a few times a week.

  • Good to know, my copper pan definitely has discoloration in the bottom. Always assumed it was because it was poor quality but I definitely have used for quite a bit of ‘reactive’ cooking.

  • When I was very young I cooked some artichokes in a cast iron dutch oven. Ever seen black artichokes?

  • Thanks for this posting. My son gave me a beautiful but old and tired copper pot that needs to be retinned. I hadn’t thought about whether the tin would be “reactive” so am glad to learn that it would be. Now I just have to decide whether it is worth the cost to have it repaired since I have many other pots that work just fine.
    Another subject, but you might want to talk someday about how overheating stainless steel causes it to discolor.

  • Katie- re the calphalon- I asked a salesperson in Bloomies and she told me to bring in the pot and they happily replaced it. I even told her I had bought them at Pottery Barn (remember when they sold pots?!?).

    I will use and love any pot that loves me back (ie gooks well and cleans easily).
    I will buy them anywhere.
    But if it is copper, and it is either old or very well made- I will buy it even if a double in my kitchen!! Photo

  • As much as I was inspired by Claude Monet’s long row of copper ware in his Giverny home, I don’t think I will be going to E. Dehillerin to shell out big Euros for a copper pot after reading this. Their products are coated inside with non-reactive stuff, but maybe I’ll just get an All-Clad comme vous? Let me have another look at E. Dehillerin’s site…

  • Hi AnnaC…

    I love my All Clad pots, every last one of them. They are the gold standard for both cooking and cleaning up beautifully. They are a fine investment, and one can always acquire them one at a time. However, if there is a specific pot for which you want super fine tuned heat control and retention, the creme de la creme of the All Clad are their Copper Core pots. Beautiful, and much much easier to maintain than the classical copper pots and not quite as expensive!

    Have fun shopping and cooking.

  • Thanks so much for featuring CorningWare in your post! I love my CorningWare pots and pans – grew up cooking with them – and still use them for all of my sauces and soups. I’m still amazed every time I can use them on the stovetop, throw them in the oven and then put them in the fridge or freezer.

    I ended up collecting a vintage set of my own that has a gorgeous black fleur-di-lis on it from eBay. I recommend shopping there first to anyone looking to invest in some CorningWare.

    @TheonePerloff – the little white fryer is a CorningWare product.

  • Nora,
    Definitely not going with copper, but will look into the Copper Core All Clad. Thanks for the info.!
    Anna

  • thanks for the link. That is my alma mater. I forgot they have a ceramic engineering program.

  • Great post! One quick question. .. Can anodized aluminum cookware be used for baking?

  • I have yet to be disappointed by my All Clad. Except for finding places to put it in my cabinets etc, it’s my go to stuff. I do have a LeC dutch oven I picked up years ago at an outlet store that I love. It’s stained of course but the food coming out if it is wonderful. Who cares. I looked at Staub but I am not enough or at all dissatisfied with the LeC. But any pot, pan etc gets replaced by an All Clad.

    Thanks for the discussion!