How to Identify the Different Types of Dinnerware

Close up of dinnerware in cabinet
Yelitza Rodriguez/Getty Images

When you’re shopping for dinnerware, whether casual or formal, there is a wide variety of materials to choose from, including porcelain, stoneware, bone china, and earthenware. Each material has its own qualities, features, price points, and, yes, drawbacks. To make the best decision when choosing tableware, it’s a good idea to learn about the properties and pros and cons of each material. This way you will be better educated when you are shopping for dinnerware.

Earthenware

Often less expensive than other types of dinnerware, earthenware is ceramic that has been glazed and fired. It has a thick, heavy, and rustic look and feel, but is not as durable and strong as other types of dinnerware and is prone to chipping. It is what is typically used when hand-painted designs are added to the dishware.

Earthenware is often porous, which means it could stain or absorb liquid, so you do need to avoid leaving it submerged in water. Most glazed earthenware is dishwasher safe and can be used in the microwave, but it is wise to check with the manufacturer first. Tabletops Unlimited is a site that sells earthenware.

Stoneware

Another type of fired ceramic dinnerware, stoneware is usually a little more durable than earthenware because the clay has vitreous (glass) material added to it for strength. The body of stoneware is thicker and more opaque than finer materials like porcelain and China and can be finished with a variety of glaze textures such as shiny, satin, or matte.

Stoneware is typically used in casual, everyday place settings. Most good-quality stoneware is very versatile to use and easy to maintain. It can go in the microwave, dishwasher, oven, and freezer (of course, first check with the manufacturer for the specific qualities of your dinnerware) but should not be exposed to sudden or extreme temperature changes. Ironstone is a type of stoneware and brands to look for include Pfaltzgraff, Dansk (Lenox) and Fiesta (Homer Laughlin).

Porcelain or China

Porcelain and China are both terms that refer to dinnerware made of a fine-particle clay—typically comprised of feldspar, kaolin, and quartz—that is fired at a higher temperature. This makes the resulting dinnerware extremely durable and nonporous. This process also allows the body to be thinner and more delicately constructed which gives it a translucent appearance, as well as allowing for shaped details to be incorporated into the design of the body.

Most fine china is dishwasher-, microwave-, and oven-safe unless the manufacturer indicates otherwise. China that has a gold, silver, or platinum border should not be microwaved and lemon- or citrus-scented detergent might damage metal accents.

Porcelain often has an upscale look, lending itself to more formal dining occasions, but it also can be used every day to make any meal a little more elegant. Brands to look for include Lenox, Noritake, and Villeroy & Boch.

Bone China

Bone ash (which is made from animal bones) is combined with porcelain clay and fired at a slightly lower temperature than porcelain to produce a material that is very lightweight, translucent, and delicate in feel, with a milky appearance.

Despite its fragile presentation, bone china is actually the strongest and most durable ceramic dinnerware. Most bone china is dishwasher safe and, unless it has metallic banding, can go in the microwave and oven as well. Bone china, as with porcelain, can be used daily or reserved for a more formal dining occasion. Brands to look for include Royal Doulton, Wedgewood, and Mikasa.

Melamine

If you're looking for unbreakable plates, Melamine is the way to go. This plastic material is lightweight but has a sturdy, inflexible feel and a glossy finish. It is virtually indestructible and is ideal for children and outdoor use. It is usually dishwasher safe on the top rack, but not suitable for the microwave or oven and should not be heated with food in it. Melamine is BPA free. Zak! Designs is a good brand for Melamine dinnerware.

Vitrified Glass

Vitrified glass is glass, usually opaque in the case of dinnerware, that has been fired at an ultra-high temperature so that it is nonporous and extremely durable. The best-known vitrified glass dinnerware is Corelle, which is a proprietary glass laminate that is virtually indestructible—it will not break or chip even when dropped onto a hard floor.

Vitrified glass is safe to use in the dishwasher and microwave. Look at the Corelle brand for a wide variety of vitrified glass dinnerware.

illustration for common types of dinnerware
Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018