Dozens of pans hanging in a commercial kitchen

What Cookware Do Chefs Use?

Oh, the eternal question, What Cookware Do Chefs Use?

No matter what level of cook you are, from a novice just beginning to learn the ropes to a seasoned home cook experimenting with ways to take their cooking to the next level, the question of what chefs prefer to use in professional kitchens will come up.

And this is a good question that makes a lot of sense to ask. What do the people who cook day in, day out, breakfast, lunch, and dinner prefer to use? If it’s good enough for them, then it’s surely good enough for you, right?

Right-sort of. In general, I think it’s true that cookware (as in pots and pans) has the most overlap between home and commercial cooking. If it’s a tough pan that can take the heat and perform consistently, then it’s certainly a great option for both home and restaurant.

You probably won’t even find the need to get a 160 quart (or more!) stock pot for your home cooking needs, but the reality is that there is little separating a smaller 16-quart stockpot from a massive one, minus the size obviously. 

On the other hand, restaurants are a business. They’re always calculating costs and profits and will often lean towards the easily replaceable and less expensive. The fact of the matter is that at most restaurants, save perhaps a few at the very top levels of the culinary arts, the cooks and chefs are hardly using the handsomest of pots and pans.

So you’ll find some incongruities here. If you’re looking for cookware that enhances your kitchen in both the culinary sense and the aesthetic, you might want to look elsewhere for some options. I’ll tell you now, copper pans and enameled cast iron cookware is far from the standard at most restaurants.

Most restaurant cookware is going to be firmly on the utilitarian side of things. If this doesn’t bother you, since you are a supremely practical person, great! If it does, don’t worry. You’ll be surprised at the simple elegance some of the more utilitarian options offer.

Before we get into it, one note. The question “what cookware do chefs use” is a bit of a complicated one. Obviously, there’s a big difference between your favorite local mom and pop diner and Le Bernardin.

They’re just not going to have the same set up. That being said, you might be surprised at some of the overlap. When it comes to cookware materials (aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, etc), they’re going to be much the same across the board. The quality of the individual frying pan or saute pan or what have you will of course vary, but they’ll be doing much the same jobs everywhere.

Frying an omelet is, after all, just frying an omelet, whether it’s garnished with chervil and Beluga caviar or just tabasco.

I’m going to break down the most common commercial cookware options that chef’s across the world use by material, since in practice this is much how it works in a commercial kitchen. Certain types of pots for certain uses, and certain types of pans for specific dishes.

Overall, from the local taqueria to the world of Michelin starred fine dining, you’re going to come across two types of cookware time and time again. 

These are: Aluminum and Stainless Steel.

Aluminum

A professional chef cooking a sauce in a restaurant kitchen
Professional pots and pans may not be the prettiest, but they sure are the most practical!

Aluminum is the metal of choice for most restaurants these days…sort of. There’s a lot of reasons why many restaurants use aluminum pans, but they’re not always the “best” reasons, so to speak. Aluminum is not what most high end and high quality cookware is made of, but that shouldn’t totally dissuade you.

Aluminum comes with a long list of pros and cons. The biggest pro for restaurants is that its cheap, probably the cheapest of all the different options, especially for things like sauté or frying pans. Aluminum pans can be quite affordable, usually around about $20 for cookware like all purpose frying pans.

It’s also very easy to find nonstick pans made from aluminum at around the same price point, if a tiny bit more expensive on average. Nonstick pans are not used that much in restaurants mostly because their nonstick coatings are rather delicate, can’t be safety used with metal utensils, and are not always suited for rough kitchen life. However, if you prefer the more stress free life of cooking with nonstick pans, there’s no reason to shy away from these types of pans.

The main pro for aluminum cookware in general, besides it’s price point, is that aluminum is actually really great at conducting heat. These pans heat up super quickly and cool down very fast as well, making them very reactive to temperature changes. This of course means that they are also not so great at heat retention, since they’ll conduct heat straight into the food too quickly, making them a poor choice for searing.

These pans are great at tasks like sautéing, but not a ton else, though they’ll still remain serviceable for techniques like stir frying.

The fact that aluminum is not great at heat retention is one of its main drawbacks. Alongside that con, aluminum is also a rather reactive metal. It may come with a mirror sheen out of the box when it’s brand new, but it will quickly turn a dull gray through use. On top of that, aluminum is known to react with acidic foods and can potentially impart a taste to the food you’re cooking.

As the pans react and turn gray over time, reactivity becomes less of an issue, but it may be a problem early on if you decide to make an acidic sauce or reduce wine in the pan early on.

If the reactivity issue bothers you or you foresee it as being a problem when combined with your own cooking style and love of bright, acidic foods you can opt for hard anodized aluminum pans. These pans basically come “pre-reacted,” so you run less of a risk of changing the look of the cookware or changing the flavor of the food. These pans do tend to be more expensive, and while not used widely in restaurant kitchens, they might put your mind at ease when cooking at home.

All this being said, aluminum pots are actually common in all types of kitchens from top to bottom. If you’re looking for a large stockpot, aluminum is the way to go. Since aluminum is both cheap and gets hot fast, its a great option for larger pots, if you need one. As a rule, aluminum pots are great things, especially if you’re looking to feed a small army or deep fry a whole turkey.

Remember that aluminum will not work with induction cooking surfaces since aluminum is a non-ferrous metal. For everything else besides maybe searing, these pots and pans are real affordable workhorses.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel pans hanging in a restaurant kitchen
Modern kitchens use stainless steel kitchenware with abandon. And so should you!

Stainless steel is the heavy duty workhorse of fine dining and kitchens from coast to coast. Ever since I first used them working as a chef de partie at a Michelin Starred restaurant, I can’t go back. Half my kitchen is now stainless steel.

There is a lot of things to love about stainless steel.

It’s stainless, so as the name implies, it’s not reactive. As long as you clean it well, it’ll keep it’s sparkling silver color.

It’s tough. You won’t be able to put a dent in it. Go ahead and try, throw it at a tree or something. You might leave a dent somewhere else, but it’ll remain as pristine as ever.

These pans are nearly always oven safe. They tend to have all metal construction, from base to handle, so you can throw the pan straight into the oven off the stove top with no issue.

Stainless steel itself is pretty darn good at retaining heat. This makes stainless steel cookware particularly good at searing, which is why you’ll see stainless steel on a lot of protein stations in restaurants where cooks sear steaks and scallops all throughout the night. Once you get the pan burning at a high temperature, they’ll maintain that temperature well even after you drop in a thick ribeye.

They tolerate high heat well. These pans preform well under pressure. Again, they’re searing machines.

Stainless steel pans are also relatively easy to clean. You can get them back to their original shining luster with a bit of Barkeeper’s Friend and elbow grease, no matter what you managed to burn to a crisp inside of them.

And while some would say its not the best way to clean them, they are perfectly dishwasher safe. They won’t rust or discolor if you leave them sitting in your dishwasher too long (which you shouldn’t be doing anyways but hey….life is like that sometimes).

Now that I’ve extolled some of the hardy virtues of stainless steel cookware, now is the time for the few cons.

Stainless steel needs to be seasoned, much like carbon steel or cast iron pans. Not a big issue for most, but important to keep in mind.

Also, even when seasoned, cold food tends to stick in stainless steel. Always make sure you bring your ingredients up to room temperature (or close enough) before you cook.

And since stainless steel is on its own, not that great at conducting heat, most stainless steel pans are actually clad pans. This means that on the inside, they have a different more conductive metal, like aluminum or copper, covered all the way around by stainless steel to protect it. This way you get the benefits of these more conductive metals with the added bonus of better heat distribution through the cladding. Plus, with the stainless steel cladding these other more reactive metals remain easy to clean.

Stainless steel is really the way to go, in my personal opinion. Though be aware that the price range is much wider than aluminum and can get quite expensive. High quality 5-ply copper and aluminum core pans can cost you a pretty penny. There performance certainly backs up the price, but it can be hard to stomach for some home cooks.

In fact, almost all the top chefs, Gordon Ramsey and many of the popular cooking shows included, use the brand All-clad, which is famous for their clad stainless steel pots and pans. They also offer stunning, top of the line cookware sets that perform magnificently in all roles to deck your kitchen out in.

No problem though, you can still find solid aluminum core stainless steel frying pans for an affordable price.

Stainless steel makes an appearance in many kitchens for good reason. They may take a bit of seasoning to get them working as intended, but besides that they can handle anything you can throw at them, and handle it well.

Stainless steel pots that are induction oven-compatible are also a good option if you prefer to use an induction stove top.

There’s a lot of good reasons why stainless steel remains a choice type of cookware for professional chefs, and all the same reasons it’s great in a commercial kitchen makes it great for the home kitchen as well.

Other Pans?

A quick note on some cookware that has conspicuously (and consciously) lacked on this list. Cast iron being the prime missing suspect, and carbon steel the not so obvious one.

Cast iron and carbon steel pans are not used very frequently in commercial kitchens. Why? You can’t really send them through “dish pit” to get cleaned in the commercial dishwasher. These pans absolutely require handwashing, which always slows down a professional operation.

You’ll only see these pans in particular circumstances.

In Asian restaurants you will probably see carbon steel woks, though they’ll be cleaned on station by cooks between dishes, usually using a pot filler spigot. No risk of it sitting in a dishwashing sink rusting while it waits for rinse.

Or maybe at a French Bistro you’ll find a carbon steel crepe pan.

Many steak houses and fine dining restaurants also have cast iron skillets dedicated to only searing scallops, both because cast iron skillets are great at searing and also to prevent shellfish cross contamination on other pans.

These types of pans are great for their own reasons, but you’ll rarely see them as the go-to cookware for most chefs. They require too much particular upkeep to make it worth it, especially when you’re cooking 40 steaks a night.

On top of that, almost every restaurant today has something called a “flat top” grill or griddle, which you can imagine as more or less a giant seasoned cast iron surface that remains hot all night.

A lot of this comes down to cleaning. Aluminum and stainless steel in particular, are easy to clean and get the job done.

Aluminum for sautéing and stir frying, stainless steel for getting crispy skin on fish and getting perfect medium rare steaks. Aluminum pots for the bit stuff like sauce and soup, and stainless steel pots for the precision an induction burner offers.

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