In many respects, stainless steel is an ideal material for cookware. It doesn't react with foods and doesn't oxidize in normal use, and its gleaming surface has a definite aesthetic appeal. Yet, many manufacturers punctuate their pans' glistening perfection with wooden or plastic handles, creating a visually jarring note. The reasoning behind this is simple and pragmatic. Although steel conducts heat poorly compared to copper or aluminum, steel handles could become painfully or dangerously hot during the pan's normal usage.
The traditional alternatives to all-steel handles are typically wood or heatproof plastics, such as Bakelite. They're relatively poor conductors and retainers of heat, so the handle of your skillet remains safe and comfortable for bare hands even after an extended session of stewing tough meats, or preparing pancakes and bacon for a crowd. Silicone is a more modern variation, providing a soft, textured easy-grip surface as well as excellent heat proofing. Wooden, silicone and most plastic handles are also oven safe, though their maximum usable temperatures vary. Consult your manufacturer's documentation, or website, before putting your pans in the oven.
Despite the inherent challenge of using steel handles, some lines of cookware incorporate them. They're safe to use in most cases, for specific reasons. For example, in a tall soup pot or Dutch oven, the handles are far enough above the burner to heat only moderately. If you cook over gas and turn the flame high enough to come up the sides of the pot, it's still possible for them to get hot enough to result in serious burns. Skillets and small saucepans take a different tack, minimizing heat transfer from pot to handle. The handle attaches to the pan by one or more narrow bands of steel, which cannot conduct significant heat to the handle under ordinary use.
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