|It's that time of year, new pots and pans!
||[Jan. 2nd, 2014|04:17 pm]
It will come as no surprise if you read my screed on knife sets, that my answer to “Which cookware set should I buy?” is NO, DON’T, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S HOLY, DON’T BUY A DAMN SET.
A cookware set is nothing but the cookware company upselling – getting you to buy pieces that you don’t really need, in the guise of oh, but it’s cheaper to buy all of these in a set, rather than individually. Plus, now that you have a whole set of Calphalon, or All-Clad, or whatever, you’re sort of sucked in, from a loyalty point of view. And if you add another pot or pan, you’ll buy the same brand so they continue to match.
You aren’t decorating your kitchen, my friend, you’re buying tools. Unless of course, you really don’t use your cookware and it really IS décor, in which case, the less you and I talk about cookware, the more likely we are to remain friends.
But I would have bought all of these pieces separately anyway, you say, why not get the price break of a set? Hush child, buy the tool you need for the job you’re going to do, not because it all came in one box.
Hey, I once bought a set. Don’t feel badly if you did, too. You know what’s between that set I bought and the advice I’m giving you now? Nearly 15 years of managing Williams-Sonoma, Conran’s and Dean & DeLuca stores, back when D&D had a cookware department worth mentioning. (Joel Dean is rolling in his grave; and well he should – he built something beautiful and they flushed it down the toilet. Ahem, sorry, got distracted.) Plus, another ten years as a personal chef, where lugging said cookware from house to house helped me hone my ideas about essential cookware vs optional.
So, why not buy all Calphalon, or All-Clad, or Emeril or Rachel Ray or…whatever? Because different cooking tasks require different materials.
Do I love my Le Creuset pots? Yes. But they’re made of enameled cast iron. Cast iron heats slowly and evenly and holds heat a long time. Perfect for long cooking casseroles, braises, stews. The absolute wrong choice for a sauté, where you want to be able to turn the heat up or down and get a fast change. And a really stupid choice to boil water in, unless you like wasting energy and have a lot of time to wait for it to heat up. Why spend several hundred dollars on an All-Clad stock pot if all you’re really going to do is simmer stock or boil water? Now, I can’t tell you which of the pots/pans below are essential for YOU. I don’t know what the hell you cook. But let me give you some pros and cons of the various materials, and then a list of the shapes/sizes/types of cookware and you can decide what fits your life/cookingstyle best.
Just briefly on materials (brief, ha, like I know how to be brief. Brief for me.):
Copper – boy, if you want to raise and lower temperatures quickly, this is your material. However, it’s also a giant pain the butt if you want it to look like copper (include in your budget someone to polish it weekly), and it’s a relatively weak metal, so it’ll get all banged up and bent out of shape. (Why larger pieces are often “hammered”, because that hides the dents and marks, and adds strength to the walls) The best kind for conductivity is lined with tin. Tin will never look completely smooth, so just suck that up, and it’ll melt at a high temperature, so don’t walk away when you’re heating up an empty pan, or you’ll come back to melty tin. And if you use it a lot, it’ll need to be re-tinned, a dying art, and you’ll probably have to mail your pan somewhere unless you’re really lucky. Most copper is now lined with stainless steel, but that takes away the brilliance of that conductivity, and you still have to polish those bad boys. Personally, I think life is too short to polish my damn cookware, but I allow that you may be different. However, it still costs an arm and a leg. If you have room in the budget to splurge, then here’s where you’d go with sauté or omelette/fry pans, where conductivity is important. Oh, and so you don’t poison yourself, if it has no lining and is copper on the inside, then the only thing you should be using that cookware for is beating eggwhites or sabayon, or cooking sugar.
Aluminum – Not as conductive as copper, but better than stainless. (No, it’s not going to give you Alzheimer’s. The most likely scenario is that Alzheimer’s causes you to collect aluminum, so it’s a symptom, not a cause. Plus, most aluminum these days is treated in such a way, anodized, etc., that it’s not going to leach. Although those aluminum pots you inherited from grandma, or got really cheap at the Chinese supermarket…I’m not vouching for those.) Also, much sturdier than copper.
Cast Iron – while slow to heat up, mostly because it’s thick, it heats very evenly, and holds that heat. Makes it ideal for things that need slow, gentle heat. It’s very heat tolerant – you can throw that puppy right in a campfire – but makes for a relatively fragile utensil. Watch how you bang it around, you’ll cause weakness that can just fissure open, or crack once exposed to heat or cold again. Also a good idea, if you’ve had it in the fridge, to let it preheat in the oven or warm up to room temp a bit before you expose it to flame. Unless coated with enamel, they require seasoning, which isn’t difficult, but still takes some time and effort. And a properly seasoned pan shouldn’t be scrubbed out with soap or cleaners, which I personally find intolerable, but I admire people who can keep a pan properly seasoned. Properly seasoned, it has a nonstick surface, although you do need to use it fairly regularly, or re-season it to keep that finish up and non-rancid.
Stainless Steel – the least conductive and prone to hot spots, but the sturdiest and easiest to care for.
Hybrids – to get the best of both worlds, most stainless steel pans and some aluminum will have a layer of copper sandwiched between the layers of aluminum or steel. (Sometimes also aluminum between stainless steel layers. Aluminum isn’t quite as conductive as copper, so while that might be fine for sauce/stockpots, I’d still hold out for either straight aluminum or copper in between the stainless for your pans where heat control is critical – skillet/omelette/frypan and sauté pans) This can be just a disk on the bottom or extend up the sides. Generally speaking, look at where you’re going to be cooking in the pan – a straight sided saucepan/sauté pan doesn’t need copper all the way through, just on the bottom, because that’s the only way the heat’s coming in anyway. An omelette or fry pan, especially of stainless steel, might benefit from having a full layer of copper, since there will be times when the food might sit on the curved edges and a hot spot in the stainless steel will cause burn spots. Or, you could just turn down the heat so that it’s focused only where the disk is. I’m apparently not that mature, because both of my stainless steel/copper disk omelette/fry pans get burn spots if I’m not careful. (Hint: wet a paper towel, and then wipe the burn spot, if one pops up while you’re cooking. You can usually get most of the burn off without getting the carbon into your food…although you can also burn the bejeezus out of yourself so be careful.)
So, if you’re not exhausted yet, let’s talk about shapes, now that you have an idea about why I may or may not recommend a particular material.
Stockpot. This is the piece in every set that you could do much better buying on its own. What are you going to do with it? Just boil pasta, blanch vegetables, cook cobs of corn? Then get one of those nifty stainless steel pasta pots with the strainer insert. Or not, but for heaven’s sake, don’t spend a lot of money here. You can go as cheap as the enameled steel pots (usually blue or black with white speckles) although as soon as that enamel starts chipping off, you’re done. You’re just boiling water. If you mostly boil water but sometimes like to heat up a pre-made stew or chili and your cheap pot tends to have a burn spot, you can buy a cheap cast-iron diffuser plate (sometimes called a flame tamer) to put on top of the burner. You should probably have one anyway. If you’re actually going to make stock, or soup or chili, then get a stockpot with a disk or layered bottom so you don’t get hot spots (aka, burn spots) when you’re trying to sauté the onions, etc., first.
I have five different sizes…but that’s me. One giant one that mostly only comes out for homebrewing. Then two talls, one that’s tall and thin, one that’s squatter. And then a large and smaller soup pot. Think about the volumes you tend to cook in, and just how much of a pot full of hot liquid you can pick up. And whether you’d be picking it up, or just pulling out the crabs. Also, don’t be afraid to use a good sauté pan to sauté/brown the veg and meat, deglaze with some of the liquid and then transfer to a larger, cheaper stockpot where you add the rest of the liquid for the simmering.
Saucepans. Here, again, you need to think about what you do. Not many people make sauces in saucepans, anymore, it mostly seems to be a boiling a smaller amount of water, heating up smaller amounts of things than in the stockpot. So, odds are, again, you don’t need a high end pan here. Sizes? Think about what you usually cook. I’d go ahead and get something that’s got a copper disk (when I say that, it means a copper layer in between other materials) on the bottom so that it’s versatile enough to sauté some vegetables in, heat chili/spaghetti sauce without getting hotspots. But it certainly doesn’t need to be a really good one. I’ve got a Calphalon four quart (from that first cookware set), an old beat-up Farberware copperbottom 3 quart, a 1.5 quart SS with copper disk and a little non-stick, aka, the oatmeal pot. Because, seriously, oatmeal in a non-non-stick pan is a pain the butt. I’ve considered getting a larger nonstick for polenta, but polenta seems easier to clean out if you give it a good soak. Or maybe I make it less often. I dunno. Whatever you get, make sure they have lids, good-fitting. (Save energy by lidding anything you’re heating up unless it’s critical for liquid to evaporate or you’re looking for browning. I’ve become fond of glass lids, so that I don’t lose the heat by looking to see if it’s simmering too hard or too soft.
When is it a stockpot or a saucepan? Well, saucepans usually have a long handle. Maybe a short handle on the other side if it’s big. They’re also more square – as high as they are wide – while stockpots are rectangular, much higher than wider. And have two short handles. I’d say that a pan has a long handle and a pot short handles, but you’re going to run into pots/pans that are squareish, with two short handles, and you can call them whatever you want. Just remember that a single long handle can be grabbed one handed easily to take off the stove, and two handled usually require…two hands, unless you’ve got crazy strong wrists, and aren’t afraid of the contents sloshing.
Saute pans. Remember that sauté means to fry quickly in a little hot fat. So, a sauté pan has a wide surface area and straight sides. So, why a sauté pan, and why not just use omelette/frying pans/skillets? Typically, after you sauté the beginning ingredients, you’ll then deglaze the pan with liquid, perhaps add some more ingredients, perhaps a sauce. In a restaurant kitchen, you probably won’t see a straight sided sauté pan, as it all happens in an omelette/fry pan. Although they’re likely to call those skillets/fry pans, whatever, sauté pans. Because that’s mostly what they’re doing in them. Confused yet? Right. Well, I’m telling you that you probably want an actual sauté pan and a good sized one, probably bigger than the one that would come in your typical set. It’s the pan where things like “season meat, sauté until browned, remove, add more fat to the pan if necessary, sauté onions, garlic, etc., possibly other veg, deglaze with liquid, put meat back in to simmer/braise/warm, add greens or delicate veg to wilt” happens. In a restaurant, that would happen in several different pans at several different stations. I don’t know about you, but I’ve only got one station and that’s me and my sauté pan. 3.5 to 3 quart is too small to be of much use, but the really big ones can take up a lot of room. I’ve got a SS Italian copper disk one that’s about 4.5 quarts and a six quart Calphalon one. That Italian one is my kitchen workhorse and I treasure it.
Omelette pan, fry pan, skillet. Omelette pan because it’s got rounded sides and you can just slide an omelette out. Like saucepans, you probably need a couple of different sizes. Think about what you cook. I have five, three non-stick and two stainless steel with copper disks. The non-stick are what I use most. A 12 will be fine for most people. As a singleton, I find the 8 inch is perfect for searing a single pork chop or a couple of sausages. But it’s too small for much else, honestly. A ten inch would be fine if you mostly cook for one or two people, although for a family of four, you’ll probably tend to crowd the food too much. And a 14 inch might be necessary if you cook large quantities. If I wanted to minimize, I’d get a 12 inch in nonstick, and a 12 inch in regular.
Wait, non-stick, won’t that kill me? Okay, nonstick technology has changed a lot. You still shouldn’t let it preheat for very long, if at all, while empty. Don’t let it burn, ideally. Don’t put it in the oven at over 350. Keep forks and knives out of there, although that’s true of all cookware. And keep it out of the dishwasher, also true of all but your cheap stainless steel that you don’t intend to pass down to your kids. It is NOT a lifetime pan, so don’t spend $200 bucks on it. If it gets scratched and gouged, throw it out. Although again, the technology has changed so much that with the higher end cookware, you can use metal spoons and tongs without a problem, and take them up to a much higher heat, and even get a nice good sear. Plus, you can get away with using so much less fat, it’s easier to clean, and just easier in general than a conventional pan.
However, you won’t get a good fond with nonstick, fond being the browning that would then be deglazed to make lovely jus, gravy or sauce. So, while I use my non-sticks most of the time (somewhere there are legions of chefs shuddering…tough toenails, kids, I’ll bet you aren’t washing your own pans, are you?) I do have a conventional pan for when I really want a nice browning, and support you if that’s all you have. But do it because you think it cooks better, not because you’re afraid of nonstick surfaces.
Handles conduct heat as well, which is why you see metal handles that are open in the middle to try and drop some of that heat. Or you can just get used to it and assume that you might need a pot holder, dishtowel, bar mop to pick up that pan. Please don’t use the end of your t-shirt. I do all of the time and I’m an accident waiting to happen. on your skillet/omelette/fry pan and on your sauté pans should be oven safe to 350 degrees or hotter so that you can put the food in the oven to finish or keep warm. They’ve made great progress in plastics that can stand that kind of heat, although I still prefer all metal handles, maybe because I’ve grabbed enough 425 degree metal handles straight out of the oven and then walked around for days with a clawhand, branded and curled, that I regard them with suspicion and I feel as if I’d have to learn caution all over again with a plastic or padded handle. Whatever you get, make sure you can hold it comfortably. Especially your skillet/frypan/omelette pan.
Casseroles. Here I’m a huge fan of Le Creuset, enameled cast iron, which you can usually get at a discount, especially if you’re not fussy about colors. There are other brands, some of which I own, that are also fine…I’m just old school and like that I can easily buy a replacement knob for the lid, etc. If you’re going to do long slow braises or stews, nothing beats the slow, even heat of enameled cast iron. Okay, maybe regular cast iron, but again, with seasoning and extra care. Plus, once you’ve heated something in enameled cast iron, wrap the whole thing, lid on, in aluminum foil, then wrap a beach towel or two around it, and you’ll make it to the pot luck with it still piping hot.
Wok? You might want a wok. Okay, let’s be straight, here…the point of a wok is that it’s cheap rolled steel that doesn’t conduct heat all that well, so that it’s really, really hot at the bottom and much cooler up on the edges, so you can move food from the hot to cool spots and back. It’s also designed to be used on a ring on a gas flame, so that the flame really does move up the sides of the pan just a bit and provides that gradation of heat. If you have an electric burner, you will need a flat bottomed wok to get anything near the same effect. If you have a gas burner, it’s probably still too wimpy to get a genuine effect, but go ahead, but remember that a really heavy, good one will defeat the purpose of wokking. And, honestly, unless you’re really, really into it, or cook stir-fries often, you can probably get similar results from a large nonstick skillet.
Doubleboiler? Meh, King Arthur Flour (and others, I’m sure) sells a lovely insert with handles that fits on top of most sizes of saucepan. When you’re not feeling lazy like me and just microwaving that chocolate in a glass measuring cup covered with plastic wrap.
Grillpan? I don’t feel the need for grillmarks, but here’s how you get that inside the house. I am so in love with a great seared surface on meat that I want every freaking bit of that meat to be on a flat, hot surface. But you may feel differently. Yes, okay, the fat can run down into the channels. But…I know, you’re shocked, I also like that fat sizzling on the meat surface. So, go ahead, I just can’t give you much useful advice here.
Griddle? It’s something I pine for, from time to time. And then I get paralyzed between a cast iron one (work and I’d use it so rarely, it’d be even more work, since I don’t do a weekly pancake, bacon and eggs for the family) or a non-stick one (easier but what if I really want to sear something) and then contemplate making room for two of them…and decide I really need more wine glasses instead. Look back at the different types of material and decide what you’re up for.
There are plenty of other specialty pans, but I figure if you’re really into crepes enough to buy crepe pans…you’re going to do your own research.
Wait, what brand, though, what brand should I get? Honestly, my branded cookware I’ve had so long that it’s nothing like what’s on the market today. Now all of the name brands have several lines within their brand. I’ll tell you that you can assume the top of the line is probably pretentious-ware, and may well cook brilliantly, but is mostly priced on looks and exclusivity. Is All-Clad good? Yes. Is it worth it? Ummm. I wouldn’t spend that kind of money, but if it makes you happy…Calphalon is good and more reasonable, although again, they have so many variations that I can’t speak to without going in and handling them. Although I’m loving one of their nonstick skillets, despite having gotten one of their nonstick skillets, oh, back in the dark ages, 20 years ago and hating it so much I threw it out. This one, more recent, although probably still ten years old? Love it. Cuisinart used to be the lowest of the high end, it may be better or worse now. Anolon makes great nonstick skillets; I have one of those I can vouch for. And remember, you’re only going to worry about your critical pans – your skillets and sautés, really, if you want to get as much bang for your buck as possible. Get into a store and handle them, look at them, heft them. My most favorite pans – the smaller sauté and one of my soup pots – I don’t even know what brand they are. But they felt good in my hand, seemed like they had good heavy bottoms with a solid disk.
Where do I buy most of my cookware? Homegoods. Seriously. You can’t always count on what you need being there, and if you’re looking for a 14” skillet, you’ll be out of luck – but if you’re not in a rush, replacing a piece here or there, that’s my first go-to. Or I work the 20% off coupons at Bed Bath and Beyond, especially for nonsticks. When I first saw Anolon at a department store, it seemed like garbage. But then they sent me a sample skillet and that was way more impressive, so I’m wary of department stores – they sometimes carry a line made especially for them that isn’t quite the same as what you might find elsewhere. You will pay extra for the privilege of shopping at Williams-Sonoma, or Sur La Table, but you can certainly heft all the big names there.
My advice would be: don’t throw out everything you have and whammo, replace it all at once. I know that feels good, but it’s so American – I must have all new things for I have decided that my old things are CRAP! Change them one or two at a time, as opportunity arises – you see a great deal on a piece, or heft a pot at HomeGoods or Ikea, or wherever (I got one skillet I love at Rodman’s once) and your hand and eyes like it, the material and size are what you need. Replace the most used, most hacked up, tired piece, first. If nothing else, if you wind up not loving the replacement, it’s only ONE piece, instead of a whole kitchen full. It’ll take you longer, but I guarantee you’ll wind up with a better “set” of pots and pans for your money and your cooking style than you would from picking a pre-made set off the shelf.