This Cookware Term Will Change How You Shop

Repeat after us: Fully. Clad.
By and

Published Dec. 20, 2022.

At America’s Test Kitchen, we’ve reviewed just about every style of cookware a person can buy, from saucepans to sauté pans to stainless-steel skillets. Each testing has its own discoveries and conclusions, but one cookware term comes up again and again. 

Fully clad.

Understanding that term will change the way you shop forever. Here's what you need to know.

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What does “clad” mean? 

Cladding is a technique for making cookware. It involves layering sheets of metal and bonding them together. Most commonly, a sheet of aluminum (or copper) is sandwiched between sheets of stainless steel.

Why? Each metal has unique pros and cons—and combining them offers the best of two materials. 

The advantages of stainless steel are that it doesn't react with acidic foods such as tomatoes and vinegar. It's durable and retains heat well. Some stainless steel is induction compatible. The downside is that it's not very responsive to changes in temperature, making it sluggish to heat up or cool down when you adjust the heat level on the stove.

Aluminum is very responsive to changes in temperature, heating and cooling quickly. But it's highly reactive to acidic foods. Copper is even more responsive to heat than aluminum (and even more reactive to acidic foods), but it's expensive so it's used less frequently. And neither aluminum nor copper is induction compatible.

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What's the difference between "clad" and "fully clad"?

When only the bottom of a pan is composed of multiple layers of metal, it’s clad. When the entire body of the pan—and not just its cooking surface—is made of these bonded layers of aluminum and stainless, it’s fully clad. 

We find that a fully clad pan with aluminum (or copper) sandwiched between layers of steel becomes more heat responsive, while spreading and retaining heat exceptionally evenly. It’s nonreactive to acids and can be made induction compatible. And the walls on fully clad pans offer protection against scorching and ensure that food cooks evenly. 

illustration of a fully clad pan and one with a disk bottom

If fully clad pans are good, do more layers of metals make them even better? 

No, more layers of metal are not necessarily better. In our tests of stainless-steel skillets, we found that pans with five layers performed similarly to pans with three layers.

In fact, there are actually some potential downsides to those extra two layers of metal. If they are thick layers, they make the pan sluggish to respond to heat changes. They can also make the pan heavier. And if the layers are thin, they’re essentially the same as three layers, even though the pans generally cost much more. 

In other words, having more layers sounds good but doesn’t offer a real advantage.

Look for fully clad cookware marketed as “tri-ply”—a fancy way of saying it’s made of three layers of metal bonded together.

Watch Dan Souza explain why you should invest in fully clad cookware.

What are “disk-bottom” and “aluminum encapsulated–base” pans and why should you avoid them? 

In an effort to use less metal and cut costs, manufacturers can form a pot or pan out of a single layer of stainless steel and adhere additional metal on its underside. It’s an improvement over “single-ply” cookware made from just one layer of stainless steel, but it’s still not a very good investment. 

The terminology used for this style of cookware can be confusing. We’ve taken to calling them “disk-bottom” pans because it’s literally a disk of metal attached to the bottom of the pan. Some companies market it as having an “aluminum-encapsulated base.” Others describe it as a “tri-ply bottom” or even “a fully clad base.” In all cases, it means that the aluminum and additional layer of stainless steel exist only on the flat bottom of the pan. 

In general—particularly for skillets and saucepans—avoid cookware made this way. The thick bottoms tend to heat up very slowly and then retain too much heat, so all of a sudden the pan goes from too cold to too hot.

Because the walls have just one layer of stainless steel (as opposed to fully clad pans), food at the edges is prone to scorching. Bad cooking results are even more likely when the thick base is smaller in diameter than the body of the pan.

As a general rule, these pans aren’t very durable. In our tests, we’ve seen an encapsulated base detach completely and fall off from the body of the pan.

a badly damaged skillet whose thick metal base has fallen off completely
In extreme cases, the disk bottom can fall off the pan entirely.

How can you tell a fully clad pan from a lower-quality option? 

Fortunately, it’s easy to spot disk-bottom pans. 

You’ll see a seam that runs around the exterior of the pan just above its base—a telltale sign that a thick base has been attached to the body of the pan. 

On fully clad pans, there’s no such ridge or seam. The multiple layers of bonded metal go all the way up to the rim of the pan.

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