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A subject near and dear to my heart, as friends and sometimes bare acquaintances have noted. I believe that the cookware you use often should be as well-made and suitable for its purpose as possible. A good cook can turn out something wonderful from almost any pot or pan, if they're familiar with it and can compensate for its limitations. But well-made tools are a blessing and a daily joy, no matter what your activity. Make your life in the kitchen easier and more enjoyable by knowing what to splurge on and why.
First, you need to understand what it's made of. There are materials used in cookware that:
Unfortunately, no one material has all of these qualities. So you have to pick and choose according to intended function. Combinations are common. Nonstick interiors, in particular, are often used with aluminum and steel. But for the moment, let's consider their pros and cons separately.
These never react with acidic or any other foods to change their taste, can go in the microwave and the fridge and the freezer, and are eminently suitable for oven use, such as lasagnas and casseroles and baked goods. They are cheap and available everywhere, including hardware stores. Pyrex and Corningware are the best-known of the breed. So far, so good.
On the downside, glass and ceramic conduct heat very poorly: that is, they are not quick to respond to, say, adjusting the range heat underneath (if used for stovetop, which I heartily disrecommend even if the glass is specially treated.) Don't ever stick glass under the broiler. Both glass and ceramic vessels are relatively heavy, can chip, and if you throw cold water into them while still hot, they can shatter.
Cast iron holds high heat remarkably well without the slightest damage. This makes it peerless for skillets in which to make home fries and blackened fish or chicken, and steaks or burgers where you want a well-browned exterior with a chance of a medium-rare interior. Covered iron pots are great for braises, where you want to brown the meat well and then give it a long slow cooking in a small amount of liquid. While the enameled cast iron like Le Creuset can cost a pretty penny, untreated or preseasoned cast iron is cheap as dirt--you can sometimes find three brand-new assorted skillets in a set for as little as $10, and people practically give them away at garage sales--and yet it's pretty much indestructible. Plus, you can't harm it with metal utensils.
Iron cookware is notoriously heavy for its size--and bear in mind when you heft it in the store that it's only going to be heavier with food inside. You will need to use a pot holder, for sure, as they're generally made in one piece and it all gets equally hot. Also, cast iron (if not lined with enamel as in Le Creuset and its competitors) can react with acidic foods such as tomatoes and wine, resulting in an off or bitter taste. But the single biggest negative to untreated iron is that it must be carefully maintained in ways that 21st century people aren't always prepared for. In essence, you have to season it by rubbing it all over with oil and baking it at low heat, repeatedly before the first use and every now and then thereafter, to maintain a thin coating that releases food relatively easily--though never quite as easily as nonstick. You can never soak it or boil water in it or it will rust, and soap must be used sparingly if at all, as you want that thin baked-on oil coating undisturbed.
This construction neatly sidesteps the seasoning and rust issues of plain cast iron, while retaining the ability to hold high heat, sear meats beautifully, and braise to a faretheewell. It's still horrendously heavy, and the best-known brand Le Creuset costs plenty (like $175 & up for a Dutch oven) but the results are by all accounts worth it.
Wonderfully nonreactive and virtually impervious to damage, stainless steel is the material of choice for people who like to use metal utensils, leave pans soaking in the sink for hours or days, and/or stick the pot in the fridge for a week with the leftover food still in it. If the whole pan or pot is metal, including the handles, then it's fine in the oven, same as glass or ceramic, and unlike glass you can even put it under the broiler to brown the top of your food. Steel is not particularly expensive, either. It cleans easily and always looks pretty good, though you may want to soak it & use scrubbing powder or a steel wool pad if anything burns.
Now for the bad news: it doesn't conduct heat well. In fact, it is so unresponsive that I'd say an entirely stainless steel pot is not fit to boil water in. Fortunately, it's almost always combined with one of the next three metals to improve the situation. Read on.
Copper is delightfully responsive to heat, which makes it ideal for delicate sauces. When you're regularly wrestling with butter and flour and egg yolks for hollandaise or the like, copper rules.
Alas, it costs an arm and a leg. Also, as copper can react with and release poisons into the food, it needs to be lined with steel or tin and may need relining occasionally. Copper tarnishes, so if the bright glow is important to you, prepare to spend some time polishing it. The handles are generally brass or cast iron and get hot, and copper pots tend to be heavy.
Very responsive to heat, relatively lightweight, and inexpensive, aluminum can be found somewhere in almost every piece of stovetop cookware you buy. It won't always be the star player, but it's great stuff. Very commonly used in restaurant kitchens.
Aluminum does react with acidic foods such as tomatoes and wine, however, so you may want to avoid slow-cooking marinara or refrigerating leftovers in it.
Reputed to have all the good qualities of aluminum but to add the significant advantage of being nonreactive with acidic foods. People who have this stuff often swear by it and love it to death. Avoid using metal utensils in it, as the distinctive matte-grey surface can get damaged and will look like hell once it does.
Nonstick finishes abound, and are enormously popular. The advantage is obvious: easy release of food--they're a natural for eggs in particular--means easy cleanup. The nonstick finishes have apparently come a long way from the inital Teflon offerings and are said to be much more durable.
To me, the negatives are overwhelming. I am not going to tell anyone to give up their beloved indispensable nonstick skillet. All I want to do is show why not every piece in your kitchen should be nonstick. To wit:
Let's face it, you don't need this combination of virtue and vices in every saucepan and saucepot--so do yourself a favor and get at least a few with stainless interiors.
The Happy Foodie has heard from one correspondent who owns titanium cookware. He says the cooking performance is excellent, it holds high heat very well and it's lighter-weight than most metal pans without being less sturdy. Its chief problems seem to be that: 1) they haven't perfected a comfortable stay-cool handle yet, for lack of a way to weld a non-titanium one to the body of the pan, and 2) you need a second mortgage to buy one. (Thanks, Craig.)
So, in a nutshell: all of these materials are ideal for certain uses, but none is perfect for everything. The best all-around combination the Happy Foodie has seen is a sandwich of stainless steel exterior and interior with a full aluminum core, often called "tri-ply": that, is, the aluminum goes all the way across the bottom and up the sides of the pan, and isn't just a layer across the bottom. The result combines the easy care and nonreactivity of stainless steel with much of the responsiveness of aluminum. Such a pot heats up and cools down readily as you adjust your burner or take it off the heat, and holds the heat evenly while you cook, so food is less likely to burn.
The best known brand of sandwich cookware is All Clad, but there are a number of worthy competitors such as Meyer's top-of-the-line Anolon Advanced Clad and Anolon Commercial Clad (not to be confused with regular Anolon with its nonstick interiors); the discontinued KitchenAid Tri-Ply, still available now and then on eBay; and Calphalon's Tri-Ply. If you can afford these pots at retail or find them on eBay, they are worth every dime to a frequent cook because they are virtually indestructible and will give you decades of pleasurable use.
The Happy Foodie has also heard very good things about anodized aluminum, of which the best-known brand is the classic Calphalon, from friends who swear by it. We cannot vouch for it personally, but it does make intuitive sense that a pot made entirely of aluminum would be more responsive to temperature changes than one that's partly stainless steel, and the anodizing makes the aluminum less reactive with acid foods. You may need to take a bit of care to not scratch it up or stain it, though, and avoid storing marinara in it in the fridge for long periods.
Finally, if you're just learning to cook, moving into a dorm, or for other reasons don't want to spend a lot, any brand od stovetop cookware that has stainless steel construction with a layer of aluminum across the bottom will be acceptable for daily use, supplemented with a nonstick skillet or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet as desired.
Of course I have my own opinion about the best cookware. You can't have mistaken me for indifferent if you've read this far. BUT you still have to decide for yourself. Here are the factors you need to juggle in your head. Don't panic, it's not that hard!
Do you saute in a little oil or stir-fry? You need skillets or saute pans or woks.
Do you steam vegetables & seafood? Do you boil a lot of pasta, make a lot of soups? Look at stockpots, with or without a steamer or pasta cooking insert.
Do you stew meat and mixtures for long periods to make them tender and blend flavors? Dutch ovens and braisers may work best.
Do you roast large pieces of meats and poultry? Do you mostly bake, as in casseroles, breads, and/or sweets? Look at roasting pans, casseroles, rectangular and square glass dishes, loaf pans, baking sheets, and pie tins. Note that these can often be all-stainless (for any temperature) or glass or ceramic (usually for moderate temperatures only) as responsiveness is nowhere near as important for a vessel that only goes in the oven as it is for stovetop cookery, where you may frequently need to adjust the heat.
Try to make do with a few versatile pieces. Pot roast can be made in a stockpot with a tight-fitting lid, or soup in a Dutch oven, or a casserole in a loaf pan, or even a steamed dish in a covered wok, with a little effort. Cluttering your kitchen with underused items will slow you down, so get a specialized item only if you often make a particular type of dish or preparation that calls for it.
If you're cooking for six, or four including teenage boys, you're probably cooking larger quantities than a person living alone--unless you're lazy like me, and would much rather cook 6-8 servings at a time & microwave the leftovers than cook something fresh from scratch every night. A too-small pot will frustrate you & is more likely to overflow. A too-large pan may cause burning if the contents are spread too thin while you cook.
I believe that great cookware is worth whatever you have to pay for it. It's a really cheap luxury once you divide it by the number of years of enjoyable use. And you're less likely to burn the food if the pan is heavy and well made. But if you're outfitting your kid who's going to cook in a college dorm, if you seldom do more than boil pasta and reheat takeout, or if you are just plain strapped for now, then paying $200 or more for a stockpot clearly makes no sense.
By the way--even if you have ample dough, buying one of everything in an expensive line of cookware is unnecessary, takes up limited kitchen space, may make it hard to lay hands on what you really need, and (contrary to popular opinion) doesn't make you look like a great cook if the stuff is clearly never used. Buy a few pieces in the sizes and shapes you'll use most often. You may find that one brand makes a great Dutch oven or braiser for your purposes, but that you like the saucepan handles on another brand more, so a large matched set may not be the bargain it seems.
I mention this for completeness. Personally I could not care less, as my cookware is in the cupboard, but if you like to keep yours on a display rack, this may matter to you.
Cast iron and sandwich metal cookware are wonderful, but not if you must avoid using them for fear of hurting your wrists or dropping them on your foot.
You can't soak cast iron, or routinely use metal utensils in nonstick, without causing problems for yourself. (You *can* ignore the tarnish on copper, though, and many people do.)
Very much a matter of personal taste, this. All-metal handles add weight and get hot, but are advantageous if you're looking for maximum durability and/or like to put the pan under the broiler for browning, or into the oven. Plastic or rubberized handles are lighter weight and stay cool, but have temperature limitations and can melt or be damaged. Some handles on smaller saucepans are heavy enough to make them likely to tip over. Feel the handle yourself whenever possible; don't take anyone else's word (not even mine) that it's comfy, any more than you would with shoes. And remember, every pan will be heavier with food or liquid inside.
The Happy Foodie gratefully acknowledges Oliver Sharp's invaluable FAQ on cookware, posted 1993 on Usenet, as HF's starting point for learning and writing about this topic.
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