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Claire - Chef's Cookware

Why Stainless Steel Pans Need a Good Base

Aluminium or Copper?

17th March 2007 00:00

Stainless steel is a poor heat conductor. To disperse heat (prevent "hot spots" and burning), an aluminium or copper disc must be added to the bottom of the pan.

The performance of stainless steel cookware is largely determined by how well the pan spreads heat, thereby reducing or eliminating "hot spots." This is directly related to the thickness of the copper or aluminium disc. The thicker the disc, the better the heat distribution.

Note: Aluminium requires three times the thickness of copper to get the same heat distribution. Therefore, aluminium discs are always thicker than copper ones. When determining a pan's quality by weight, compare the same kind of pans: copper to copper and aluminium to aluminium.

Your choice between copper and aluminium pans should be governed by your needs:
If you want heat control, copper is better. If you want retained heat, aluminium is better. In order to properly cook the delicate sauces of their cuisine, French chefs prefer copper pans. A copper pan gets hot very quickly and cools off very quickly. Aluminium heats up more slowly but retains heat after the stove is turned off. This is an advantage for stovetop-to-table serving, and suits the less organised chef.

Base Attachment

There are two methods of attaching a copper or aluminium disc to the bottom of a stainless steel pan. These are brazing and impact bonding.

Brazing, is the most common way of applying a copper disc. The disc can only be brazed on the flat portion of the pan's base. The disc may stop short of the side wall, exposing the corners of the pan to the heat source and creating "hot spots." Food sometimes burns on the inside corners of a stainless steel pan if the heat source is not monitored.

Impact (friction) bonding is a heat-pressure technology that allows the aluminium to be spread to the outside edge of the pan, which eliminates the "hot spots" and consequent burning in the pan's interior corners. With impact bonding the possibility of disc separation due to user abuse is substantially eliminated.

The "Tri-Ply Base" Advantage

Since aluminium and copper are soft metals that tarnish easily, a "tri-ply base" - stainless (pan body)/aluminium or copper (heat conductor)/stainless (bottom protector) - is used to increase durability. Exposed copper requires substantial polishing to keep it shiny. Exposed aluminium cannot be polished but needs to be scoured on a regular basis, as stovetop burners and food particles can easily discolour it.

Clad Metal Stainless Steel Pans

Clad metal pans, made of stainless steel and aluminium metals sandwiched together need no heat conductor added to the base because the entire body is a tri-ply material (stainless/aluminium/stainless). The centre aluminium core is the heat conductor. These pans conduct heat evenly up the side walls instead of just on the base. However, the manufacturing process of clad metals limits the thickness of the aluminium core. Therefore, food is more susceptible to burning at the base when high heat is used. Many pans with an added tri-ply base have thicker aluminium discs to prevent burning on the interior base. In short, depending on quality, both tri-ply based and clad metal pans can provide excellent cooking performance when low to medium heat is used.

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