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Pan Construction and Cost

We have found that the serious cooks want to know why one pan costs more than another. We hope the following helps.

It is generally true that the more expensive the pan, the more expensive it is to produce. Because of competition, manufacturers price their pans as low as they can and still make a profit. However, there are a number of factors that go into a pan's price that are worth understanding.

Kind of Metal
The first factor is the kind of metal used. Copper is the most conductive metal but one of the most expensive. A solid copper pan will cost more than the same pan with made aluminum, the next best conductive metal. Pans with copper sandwiched only in the base are usually less expensive.

It should be kept in mind that while copper is better than aluminum for heat conductivity, it is also a lot heavier. Thus a solid copper pan is a lot heavier than a pan with an aluminum core or a copper core only in the base. You want to be sure you get pans that you can handle in the kitchen.

Amount of Metal
The second factor is the amount of metal used in the pan. Pans with evenly thick sides and base, such as All-Clad use a lot more metal than pans with only thick thermoconductive bases.  Thus there is quite a price difference between these two kinds of pans.

It needs to be mentioned that most pans do not need thick sides; all they need is a thick heat conductive base. That is because the heat need only penetrate the food from the bottom up. Heat moving up the sides of the pan actually wastes heat. The only pans that need evenly thick sides and base are those used for stir frying, braising, and slow cooking meats, stews, sauces, and soups. For those purposes, it is good to have the heat come at the food from bottom and the sides and sometimes even the top.   

The pan with the most pronounced slow cooking and stove top oven performance is the Le Creuset cast iron oven. The cast iron holds the heat like no other metal and the heavy lid radiates it down into the pan: hence even heat comes at the food from all directions. However, like copper pans, they are quite heavy.

Emile Henry of France has introduced a ceramic made of Burgundy clay which can be used in the oven or directly on your stove top.  Their round ovens rival Le Creuset's in their ability to retain heat.  They are about 33% lighter in weight than a similar sized Le Creuset oven.  And, of course, they will never rust because they are ceramic.

Thermoconductive Base
The next factor worth mentioning applies only to pans constructed with thick thermoconductive bases. Six key things determine the cost of that construction.
(1) The conductive metal used in the base. It is usually copper or aluminum. Copper is more expensive than aluminum but conducts better.
(2) The thickness of the conductive metal.
(3) The diameter of the disc. To check for this, turn a pan over and look at how far the disc extends to the bottom outer edges of the pan.
(4) The thickness of the walls or sides of the pan.
(5) Magnetically responsive metal in the disc. Pans made for induction cooking must have magnetic metal; there is extra expense for that.
(6) The number of pressings to shape the pan's base and walls. Some pans may have sharper inside corners. It takes more pressings to achieve the sharper corner and thus costs more.

It needs to be noted that while these six factors affect cost, most have little effect on performance. When you buy a really good pan, even a less expensive one, you get a true commercial pan that will perform superbly. They are far better than most of the pans used in commercial kitchens.

Interior Surface
The feature we need to now discuss is the pan's interior surface. The least expensive interior is pure aluminum. It is also one of the least desirable. Aluminum reacts with acid foods and thus pits easily. It is also fairly soft and scratches easily. In addition, it stains easily. As a result, the surface readily deteriorates and aluminum can and will come off in your food and be ingested. We do not sell any pans with pure aluminum as the cooking surface. We do sell some aluminum bakeware. Baked goods are not acidic and do not deteriorate the aluminum surface. Also food is not stirred or whisked in bakeware.

Pure tin is a fairly uncommon interior surface. The only pans that have it are solid copper pans and copper molds. It is used because pure copper can react with food being cooked and produce toxins. It is also used because it is extremely thin and does not hinder heat transfer. Hot tin is actually spread or wiped on the interior of the pan or mold by a craftsman. The problem with tin is that if it is overheated, it will melt down into a puddle in the pan. It also wears away very gradually. Then the pan has to be retinned, and it is hard to find retinners. Baking molds do not experience the same heat and wear problems, so the tin will usually last forever. We recommend tin lined copper pans only for those who understand the problems and are experienced in cooking with them.

One question about tin. Given the toxic reaction that can occur with food, why are some copper pans, such as a caramel pot, zabaglione, and an egg white bowl, unlined? One reason is that food preparations high in sugar do not react with copper. The other is that supposedly raw egg whites react with the copper bowl in such a way that the egg whites gain more volume and stability. There is some debate about whether that is true, but tests seem to show it is the case.

A stainless steel interior surface is more expensive than aluminum and tin, but lasts indefinitely. It resists corrosion and scratching, thus is good for stirring and whisking and cooking over high heat. It does not conduct heat well; hence, unless the pan is a roasting pan where gradual heat comes at the food from all angles, it needs to have a good heat conductive core or base to get the heat evenly into it. Most companies use a copper, aluminum, or iron core to conduct the heat into the stainless steel.

There are two widely used stainless steel formulations: 18/8 and 18/10. The first number refers to the percent of chromium and the second to the percent of nickel. Chromium and nickel are the main elements that give the steel its corrosion resistance. The higher the nickel content, the better the stainless steel will resist corrosion. It is also more expensive. All of our pans, except Endurance, are 18/10.

Demeyere's Silvinox is a special case. It is the most durable stainless steel pan surface. The 18/10 stainless steel pan is put into an electrolytic chemical bath which removes impurities and iron atoms from the surface. This leaves a higher concentration of chromium and nickel in the surface. Hence, it resists acids and harsh dishwasher detergents. It also has a soft silvery glow because of the high proportion of nickel and chromium in the surface. Because of its superior durability, it is becoming very popular with American cooks. The Silvinox process obviously requires extra work and thus the pans cost more than typical stainless steel pans.

The next interior to discuss is anodized aluminum. Aluminum anodizes naturally at the metal surface where it contacts air. The anodization is aluminum oxide, that is to say, aluminum with an oxygen atom. It is extremely hard, as hard as sapphire. Natural anodization looks clear and protects the aluminum. Pan companies put the raw aluminum pan into an electrochemical bath to deepen the anodization.  Because of the extra processing involved, an anodized pan costs more than a regular raw aluminum pan.

It is important to note that an anodized interior surface can react with acidic foods. The reaction will both pit and discolor the interior of the pan. The pans should not be used to cook tomatoes, tomato sauce, strawberries, cranberries, or lemons. Nor should vinegars be used. Also, foods high in alkali (baking soda) should not be simmered in the pans. In addition, foods should not be stored in the pans in the refrigerator. Furthermore, dishwasher detergent and oven cleaner should not be used to clean the pans; they should be hand washed. Finally, metal utensils can scratch the anodized surface. It is hard, but also brittle, and is only the surface of the aluminum. In short, while an anodized aluminum cooking surface is a lot tougher than raw aluminum, it is not as tough and durable as stainless steel. For these reasons we do not carry any pans with an anodized aluminum interior.

A porcelain interior is used for some steel and iron pans, such as Le Creuset. Porcelain is harder than metal and generally non-reactive.   It, like stainless steel, is an excellent interior. Any foods can be cooked, simmered, and stored in it. Because porcelain is generally non-reactive, it is somewhat non-stick. It does, though, have two drawbacks. First, it can discolor. However, a soaking in water with a bit of bleach can remove the stains. Second, it can be cracked or chipped if abused. Overall, porcelain is an excellent cooking surface for cast iron pans which are used for long gentle simmering. It is expensive to apply the porcelain, which itself is costly, and thus so are the pans. But the pans, particularly Le Creuset, are worth the money. They perform superbly and with proper treatment, will last for over 100 years, which is Le Creuset's warranty period.

PTFE is a material used for non-stick surfaces.  PTFE is polytetraflourethylene, commonly known as "teflon," originally developed by DuPont. It has the tightest electron bonds of any element and under normal conditions will not interact with other chemicals. Thus, virtually nothing sticks to it, or it to them. There are three main manufacturing challenges when producing PTFE coated pans. The first problem that arises is getting it to stick to the pan's interior. The porous character of aluminum was first used; the PTFE lodged in tiny holes in its surface. The second problem is that PTFE is soft and the third that it deteriorates when heated to over 530 Fahrenheit. For quite some time, the second problem was not solved; non-stick surfaces had to be treated with special care using only plastic utensils and were simply very limited in their life. However, Whitford devised the system of blowing tiny shreds of white hot metal into the interior surface, creating a web of peaks and valleys, which would hold the PTFE in place. The metal shreds would also protect against damage by metal utensils. After that, non-stick surfaces became more durable; they also could then be applied to stainless steel interiors. The third problem has never been solved. PTFE pans must not be over heated or they will lose their non-stick quality. The extra work to apply PTFE of course raises the cost of a pan.

To enhance the durability of PTFE, some pan companies use ceramic dust, which is harder than stainless steel, to create fine peaks and valleys. They then apply the PTFE over the ceramic base. A ceramic base for PTFE is more expensive than a stainless steel base.

Even though PTFE has its limitations, with a little care, a PTFE-coated pan will last a lifetime. It is worth the expense particularly for frypans, crepe pans, and saute pans. And, since anodized aluminum cannot handle high acid and high alkali foods, PTFE is a necessity in anodized interior stewpots, saucepans, actually any anodized interior pans used with those foods.

Handles
Pan companies want their handles to be non-conductive. Thus they use materials that are slow heat conductors and they design the shape to minimize conduction.

The least expensive heat resistant handle is phenolic. Swiss Diamond uses it for all of its handles; Le Creuset for lid, saucepan, and frypan handles. There are two problems with phenolic. First, it can melt under high temperature. Le Creuset's withstands temperatures up to 455 Fahrenheit; Swiss Diamond to 500. That is sufficient for most uses. Second, phenolic can crack and break. However, when that happens, they can be replaced. For home use, phenolic is fine and will last a lifetime if not abused. For commercial kitchens, phenolic is typically not durable enough; metal is desirable.

The second least expensive heat resistant handle is wood. Because wood deteriorates under dishwasher use, it is no longer common. Up until several years ago, Le Creuset used it for some saucepans and frypans; now they use phenolic.

While less durable than metal, phenolic and wood handles are more heat-resistant. They are true stay cool handles. Metal handles, if the pan is heated long enough, will get hot.

Among metal handles, the most common are cast iron, stainless steel, and brass. Cast iron is the least expensive and brass the most. For years, cast iron, sometimes coated with tin, was the most common metal handle. A lot of Mauviel French copper cookware still use cast iron. It is strong and slow to conduct heat. The next most common metal was brass, used for pans that came to the table, either for food preparation over a portable grill (grill rechaud) or for food serving. Mauviel French copper cookware used at the table still has brass handles for beauty. All-Clad Cop*R*Chef used to, but now uses stainless steel.

Today the metal of choice is stainless steel. It is strong; more heat resistant than cast iron or brass; resists rust, tarnish, and corrosion; and is dishwasher safe. Most of our pans lines now have stainless steel handles.

The metal handles, usually stainless steel, are also shaped to minimize heat transfer. There are two basic designs: solid and hollow. The solid is more expensive because it uses a lot more metal. The solid handles usually have narrow necks and much larger gripping areas. The narrow neck hinders heat transfer.  All-Clad's pans have such handles. The hollow handles have air holes usually at the neck to provide air circulation to cool the handle.

Swiss Diamond have ergonomic handles on their pans.

There are four ways to attach handles: screws, welds, rivets, and integral molding as part of the pan. Rivets are the most expensive.

Costs other than Construction
You now know most of the construction factors that determine a pan's cost. Pan costs are also affected by the country in which the pan is made, the scale of production, and the amount spent on advertising.

A Final Note
First, pan warranties are only as good as the pan company. It is better to buy a pan from a financially solid, reputable company with no warranty policy than one from a new comer with a lifetime warranty. When a company goes out of business, the warranty is worthless. With a reputable company, you can always negotiate to get a defective pan replaced.

You can find all of the pans discussed here on our Pans Directory.
For more information, see our discussions on Choosing Pans, Pans: Question and Answer, "PTFE" Nonstick Surfaces, and The New Non-Stick Coatings.


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