We love hosting dinner parties. We have several each year. Some are extravagant while others more casual. With school-aged children we frequently host other families whose kids are friends with ours. We also love having family over for these dinners.
A very important aspect to putting on a great dinner party is having a fabulous set of dishware that takes the dining table to the next level. However, choosing the right set of dishware isn’t easy. That’s where this article setting out the different types of dishware comes in handy. We break down all your dishware options to help you buy the perfect set for your home.
Table of Contents
- The Dishware Buying Guide
- A. Dishware Sets: Different Settings for Different Styles
- B. Before and After the Feast – The Practicality of Dishware
- C. Where to Buy Dishware
The Dishware Buying Guide
A. Dishware Sets: Different Settings for Different Styles
Arguably, the most important decision you are going to make when it comes to selecting dishware is to settle on a specific style. There are essentially two elements that influence this decision: Personal preference and dining room or kitchen aesthetic. If you’ve been in your home for a while, there’s a good chance these two metrics are connected. Rest assured, when the time comes for you to pick a set, you’ll have plenty of options at your disposal.
If you’ve ever taken an art class, you’re undoubtedly a tad bit familiar with ceramics. Even if you aren’t, you probably know it’s ubiquitous when you enter a home goods store or the kitchen section of a larger department store. Of course, it’s important that you recognize that the term ceramics is an over-arching term that allows plenty of room for different styles to bubble up to the surface.
A healthy chunk of the subcategories you’ve probably heard about when it comes to dishware can be neatly tucked under the ceramics umbrella. China, stoneware, and earthenware all stem from the same process of taking a piece of material and refining it through fire. Of course, there are a few differences that you should be aware of before you go fill your physical or virtual shopping cart. These differences could be the very elements that finalize your decision.
This is the good stuff; delicate, highly stylized, and verboten for use unless you have the very best foot to put forward. It’s what you put on your wedding registry, and it’s what may have set in your grandmother’s curio cabinet, seemingly keeping watch over trinkets of various preciousness. It doesn’t necessarily come from lovely bones. Its base is a chemical composition of clay, feldspar, quartz, and kaolin, although other materials can be occasionally included.
Its creation isn’t much different than stoneware, in the sense that it gets “fired” several times to achieve a specific design. This firing process makes it strong and non-absorbent, but because of its composition, it becomes extremely white and translucent.
The most important thing to realize about china, other than you should probably keep it out of the reach of children due to its price tag, is that it is not necessarily a catch-all term that covers various forms of china.
i. Fine China
What we usually call fine china is revered for its exquisite, delicate beauty. Usually, dishware classified as fine china will have the fanciest, most colorful designs and the types of price tags that typically go with such exquisite work.
Sometimes, fine china will be classified as porcelain china. This may cause a little confusion if you’re new to the high-end dishware game, as you may think it’s two different classifications in play. However, this is not the case – they are the same thing. The reason for the term discrepancy stems from a continental differentiation. Europeans tend to call the plates porcelain, while Americans prefer to call them china. Regardless of what you call it, you can rest assured it’s thought of as being something special.
ii. Bone China
The other category, bone china, gets its name because it uses calcified bone in the process. This usually comes in the form of bone ash; a white, powdery substance that is produced by incinerating the bone of an animal – usually a cow. Because it uses this substance, its firing temperature is typically lower. It’s also thinner compared to other china types.
But don’t mistake the thinness of bone china with fragility. Bone china tends to be stronger and less brittle than their fine china counterparts. This has a lot to do with the addition of the bone, which naturally adds extra resiliency.
Bone china is easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. These plates typically have an intriguing milky white hue, and tend to be a bit more translucent than regular china. They’ll also occasionally go by a different name, ivory china. However, rest assured this does not mean they add ivory to the mix. It just means that the plates are infused with a bit of ivory coloring.
This form of ceramics is older than the porcelain style that can somewhat define china. It also has a tendency to be lumped in with porcelain in some circles, albeit through qualifying language like “porcellaneous.” Yet there are enough differences that allow stoneware to command its own category.
For instance, stoneware tends to be opaquer than porcelain. Also, it only goes through a partial vitrification process, meaning that the creator of the ceramic will stop before it’s transformed into a glass-like substance. Stoneware is also less subject to scratching and tends to be less delicate-looking.
The backbone of stoneware is clay. This substance could be one that occurs in nature, although it could also be non-refractory fire clay. When the natural material is used, the end product tends to carry impurities that give it a distinctive, almost dirty appearance. This is a feature instead of a bug, though, because it gives dishware a uniquely rustic appearance that may tie an overarching kitchen motif together.
The stoneware category is broken up into various sub-classifications, including electrical stoneware, thermal stoneware, and chemical stoneware. But for the most part, when you’re looking to dress your dinner table, you’ll be dealing with either traditional stoneware or fine stoneware.
i. Traditional Stoneware
Traditional stoneware is chiefly defined by a body that’s dense and inexpensive compared to its finer cousin. These opaque pieces are usually made of fine-grained secondary, plastic clays. These substances allow for larger malleability, which allows the artisan to shape the material into large pieces.
ii. Fine Stoneware
As the name suggests, fine stoneware is made from a more delicate process. The materials sourced to make the ceramic is more carefully selected and more meticulously prepared. It’s soul is also more congruent with the stoneware you’d find outside of the kitchen section of your local department or home goods store, as the items designated as art ware is made from fine stoneware materials.
If you’re looking for something that takes the rustic vibe that naturally-made stoneware to the proverbial next level, earthenware may be up your alley. The dishware that falls into this category is a little more porous and coarser. Because of this, earthenware is traditionally glazed. This glazing allows for the dishware to store liquids, which is obviously key if you’re buying earthenware bowls or mugs. The extra coat also provides designers with a canvas to create elaborate artwork if they so choose.
Like china and stoneware, earthenware can be split up into multiple categories. There’s essentially two types of sub-classifications the ceramic falls into; these sub-classifications are essentially defined by its glaze.
Like the name suggests, creamware references the cream color that this type of dishware possesses. However, the source of the color is the earthenware body itself as opposed to the glaze’s hue. Usually, the glaze used in creamware is a transparent lead glaze, which allows the natural cream color of the dishware to come through unencumbered.
ii. Tin-Enameled Earthenware
Also known as tin-glazed earthenware, this category is covered with an opaque white tin glazed. Even though the glaze is white, it can be colored. This type of earthenware can also be tagged with more elegant names, such as faience, majolica, and delftware.
From a designer’s standpoint, tin-enameled earthenware is great to work with because the colors don’t run when the ceramic gets fired. This leads to crisp pigments that don’t erroneously blur together, which may ultimately make for a more refined, elegant look. This may create a nice juxtaposition with the earthenware’s naturally rustic bones, which may make it a more versatile dishware option.
Let’s say you don’t want to go the ceramics route. You want something that evokes a certain element of elegance, but you don’t necessarily want it to veer off into “special occasion” territory. You also don’t want something that’s too casual. Glass may be your best option.
Glass dishware is something that’s born from an artistic endeavor. If you’ve ever seen a glass-blower in action, you know it’s not an easy task to create one. And this artisanal touch helps to make the world of glass dishware a rather broad category to explore. From plain and basic to colorful and elaborate, there is indeed something for everyone here.
a. Clear Glass
Chances are, the first thing you think of when you think of glass is a clear substance. And indeed, there is an abundance of clear glass options for you to consider. What these see-through plates and glasses lack in color or opaqueness, they typically make up for in understated refinement.
Indeed, it’s rare that you’ll see just a plain old clear glass piece on the market. There will most likely be some sort of aesthetically pleasing element infused in the piece to keep things interesting, such as a raised pattern, grooved notches, and nuanced curvatures. If anything, you can argue that these are the most artistically driven glass plates you can find on the market, because the creators are doing so much with so little elements.
Clear glass dishware also provides you with a unique opportunity to be creative. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could use a glass plate as a canvas to paint your own pattern or designs. You could theoretically do this with ceramic plates, of course. Yet considering how elegant those pieces are – not to mention pricey – you most likely wouldn’t dare sully their surface with a few paint strokes.
b. Colored Glass
Buying glass dishware can be a colorful experience, quite literally. Indeed, the market has plenty of glass dishware options in which the elements within the set are one solid, consistent color. And their mere presence is a testament to the balanced line between art and science the designers need to walk to make these creations come to life.
The addition of color to the glass tends to be a deeply scientific process. The prime mover behind this process is the use of natural elements and compounds that you’d find on the periodic table. And while the process of making colored glass is far less hazardous than it was during, say, the times of the Industrial Revolution, the basic principles behind bringing colored glass into the world is not that different. That is, the proper inclusion of these elements into the firing process will create the scientific reactions necessary to derive the desired color.
What does this all mean for you, the consumer? For one thing, it means you have the power to purchase a plate that bursts with brilliant color. You may find that this added hue delivers a more heightened take on the refined-yet-approachable motif that you may be going for when you purchase a set of dishware.
c. Multi-Colored Glass
Multi-colored glass may exist in a unique realm; one whose soul consists of equal parts whimsy, art, and sophistication without pretense. The extra elements that are in place for colored glass are in play from a science and design standpoint, but they exist in a way that can be more playful or more serious, depending on the designer’s whim.
For instance, multi-colored glass could be something as simple as splashing a couple color bursts here and there on a plain plate. This minimal effect could create an enhanced element that could help to tie your kitchen’s overall aesthetic together. On the other side of the coin, an abstract pattern of three to four colors could ascertain the same effect, but in a different way.
Arguably, the most popular multi-colored glass plates are ones that have clear-cut designs on them. These ornate designs are possibly the best way to bring about a refined aesthetic that could rival that which can be derived from porcelain or stoneware. In some cases, these designs may be deemed so gorgeous, you may want to just have them out on display when you’re not using them for their intended purpose – much like you may with fine china.
d. Recycled Glass
It seems that society is getting more environmentally conscious with each passing year. This has had a profound impact in many aspects of our day-to-day lives, and this includes our dishware options. Case in point: recycled glass is a viable option for you to consider.
But don’t just consider this category for its planet-preservation tendencies. Consider them because they can be just as gorgeous as regular glass. Indeed, choosing recycled glass doesn’t automatically mean that you will have nothing more than clear glass options to choose from. You’ll have a bevy of vibrant colors and shapes to choose from. The fact that you’ll be helping to protect the environment is a total bonus.
Recycled glass is not the only way you can add a touch of green to your dinner table. And while bamboo dishware is a relatively new category of dishware for you to choose from, it’s also one that’s seen a surge in popularity. Its biggest selling point is that it’s environmentally friendly. If part of your purchasing dollar is focused on honing in on products that protect the planet in addition to looking good, bamboo dishware is a no-brainer. However, the biodegradable nature of bamboo dishware is not the only reason to consider this option.
Firstly, if you think that bamboo dishware is only good for one use, think again. While their biodegradable nature does make tossing them an option, bamboo dishware is sturdy enough to where you can use them over and over again. The only caveat to this is that the dishes should be washed and dried by hand. While bamboo dishware is strong, it’s also uniquely delicate.
Bamboo dishware is also lightweight, stain-resistant, and contain an aesthetic that manages to deftly straddle the fine line between rustic and elegance. This latter component makes them one of the most versatile choices on the market, as you don’t necessarily have to wait for one type of “special occasion” to break them out.
One other thing to note about bamboo dishware: They tend to be extremely kid-friendly. They’re far sturdier than plastic dishware, which means they can easily stand up to the wear and tear that inadvertently comes with the reckless nature of childhood dining. Plus, you don’t have to worry about any chemicals that may be present in plastic dishware making an unwanted appearance within your kid’s meals.
If you’re looking for everyday dishware that is completely bereft of pretense or secondary agendas, melamine may be more your speed. You may have not heard of the name, but you’ve seen it. Melamine is the organic base chemical that’s generally used in plastics, like plates that we’d consider “plastic.”
Melamine plates are convenient, versatile, and can be festooned with all sorts of designs and patterns. However, they’re not without their controversy. There are concerns that using these plates could be unsafe, particularly amongst kids. And while the FDA has said that the melamine dishes are generally safe to use, they do caution that this may not be the case in certain culinary conditions, such as if you use it to heat up something highly acidic in the microwave.
B. Before and After the Feast – The Practicality of Dishware
While the prime mover behind buying a dishware set is envisioning the way it looks on your kitchen table, there should be some thought given to how it will perform before and after it’s intended purpose is carried out. This is particularly the case if you’re looking for something that transcends the realm of special occasion use.
1. Dishwasher Safe Dishes
One of the biggest selling features you’ll find when you’re shopping for dishware are claims that a set is “dishwasher safe.” It makes perfect sense why this element would be promoted. After all, having a dish you can put in the dishwasher saves you a whole lot of time and effort. Yet can this claim always be trusted?
The best way to answer this question is with a question of your own. Specifically, how much do you intend on using these dishes? As with anything, your dishes are going to experience wear and tear over time. When you consider how the heat of a dishwasher may exacerbate such wear and tear, you may think twice about putting your bone china in the dishwasher every time you use it, even though it’s claimed to be dishwasher safe.
Think of it this way. In some cases, you’re not just protecting the durability of the plate. You’re preserving its aesthetic-driven integrity. If you have a plate that has a painted-on design, for instance, too much exposure in the dishwasher may cause unwanted scratching or buffing to the plate, which may compromise its design.
If you are planning on using the dishwasher on “dishwasher safe” plates, be sure to wash the dishes in a gentle cycle. You’ll also want to use a mild detergent on the dishes to further protect from abrasiveness.
There are some dishes that you should never think about putting in a dishwasher. For instance, running your bamboo dishware in the dishwasher is a recipe for disaster, as the journey through the machine could cause warping. And even though you may assume a plastic or melamine plate is safe, double check with what the manufacturer says. If you don’t, you could be in for a bad surprise.
2. Microwave Safe Dishes
The mighty power of a microwave and its ability to heat things up rapidly may make you reluctant to place your dishware in its chamber. However, you may be surprised to find that modern manufacturers will stamp microwave-safe claims on their materials, even the delicate stuff like china.
With that being said, this doesn’t give you a green light to ignore your instinct and common sense. Much like it is with dishwashers, running your dishware through the microwave constantly is eventually going to cause wear and tear over time. If you have a special occasion set that you find particularly precious – say, porcelain you got for your wedding – you may want to do the rapid-fire cooking on another plate.
Much like dishwashing, there are certain styles of dishware that should not be considered for the microwave. Bamboo, for instance, should be avoided because of its natural, delicate properties. You should also be careful about using overusing plastic or melamine plates in the microwave, as they may not be able to handle the heat.
And if you have dishware that has an added-on design element, such as a hand-painted item or an applied pattern, avoid putting it in the microwave at all costs. The heat of the microwave may cause a loss of integrity to the material, which may in turn cause it to bubble up, peel off, or otherwise warp. This could have some rather unpleasant secondary ramifications, too. The last thing you want to have happen is to have whatever adhesive or bonding element that’s holding the design in place to inadvertently seep into your food.
C. Where to Buy Dishware
Now that you have a general idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to use that knowledge to your benefit. The following places are what we consider to be some of the best online merchants in cyberspace. These places offer a good variety of dishware that can suit every occasion imaginable, from the exclusive dinner party you’ve been dying to throw to the casual dinner at home with your family.
- Crate and Barrel
- Bed, Bath, and Beyond
- Williams Sonoma
- West Elm
- Pottery Barn
- Pier 1 Imports