Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Gourmet Kitchen on a Budget: Part Two

In my previous installment, I talked at length on the importance of good knives for the well-equipped kitchen. Today, I'll discuss what I believe to be the second most important must-have: good cookware.

In college and in my pre-marriage days, I cooked with some middle-of-the-road T-Fal cookware. It came in a big (13-piece?) set at Target for the low price of about $60. In hindsight, it cooked fine for the most part, but almost all of it was non-stick, and it didn't heat all that evenly. After a few years of use, the Teflon coating was chipping in places and the enamel outside was scorched and looked awful.

Shortly after our wedding, MLB and I purchased a new set of All-Clad cookware from their Stainless line. When I switched to the All-Clad cookware, I couldn't believe the difference, even over the decent T-Fal set. It heats very evenly, heats very quickly, and when used properly, is nearly as non-stick as the Teflon-coated stuff. Temperature control is more precise, and clean-up is cinch. I found myself cooking better purely due to the improved cookware.

“Wait a second. That sounds a little loony. You’re saying you became a better cook just by using better cookware?”

Absolutely. I’m not sure how I’d set up a test to quantify it (maybe a thermal gradient test or something), but I guarantee the quality stainless steel stuff improved my cooking. There’s no question in my mind that the heat is more even and the temperature control is more precise. An ultra-low simmer is now achievable across the whole pan, where before just the part of the pan directly over the burner was controllable.

“Okay, you’ve established that you’re a fan of All-Clad’s Stainless cookware. Can you be a bit more general?”

Absolutely. Here are some of my basic guidelines:

There’s no question in my mind that stainless steel is where it’s at. Stainless steel is non-reactive to 99.99% of foods, so it won’t stain or discolor like an anodized aluminum pan might. I'd choose to avoid non-stick in most cases (one 12" non-stick frying pan would be okay) because it shouldn't be used for browning, sautéing, or anything hotter than about medium-heat. More on that later. Plus, with shiny stainless steel surfaces, I don't have to worry about scratching all those silly non-stick surfaces with metal utensils like whisks and spatulas.

I’d also choose something that’s relatively heavy. Heavy pans retain heat well and distribute it more evenly than light, thin pans. A copper or aluminum core clad in stainless steel would also be a major plus in this area.

“…clad in stainless steel?” What the heck does that mean?”

Think of a clad pan like a plain turkey sandwich. The two pieces of bread would be stainless steel, and the turkey in the middle would be copper or aluminum. The stainless steel totally surrounds the inner metal. Copper and aluminum have a thermal conductivity (or k value) of five to ten times that of stainless steel, which means that pan will heat more evenly and rapidly than a purely stainless steel pan would. Basically, you’re getting the best of both metals: the conductivity of the inner metal, and the non-reactivity of the stainless steel.

Try to find something that has oven-proof handles. This makes it possible to go directly from the stovetop to the oven and vice-versa. That means no plastic handles! Well, some manufacturers have plastic handles that they say are oven-safe, but I’d still shoot for metal. The drawback to metal handles though, is that they can get pretty warm, especially on the lids. When it comes to attaching the handles, rivets are way better than screws. Quality pots and pans will have big thick rivets holding the handles to the main part of the pan. Because the rivets are deformed strong pieces of metal, they'll never loosen or wear out. Lower quality pieces have handles held on by screws that are more likely to corrode and loosen over time.

“Okay. I know basically what I’m looking for, but those clad stainless sets are pricey! I thought this was going to be a budget deal!”

It is. I’m not saying you need to plunk down a grand for a full set of pots and pans. Most recipes and cooking techniques require only a single pan or two. There's no doubt in my mind that you can get by with just some basic pieces, and here’s what I’d pick, in the order that I'd pick them:

- 12" frying pan - This will probably be your "everyday" pan. With a tight-fitting lid, you can slowly cook risotto, quickly sear a steak, or pan-fry some tilapia fillets. Preheated properly, and with just a tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of fat (like oil or butter), it's nearly non-stick. Make sure you get one with gently sloping sides so that you can easily flip your food. Also try to find one with a gentle radius where the bottom meets the sides of the pan. A nice, gentle radius makes it easier for whisks and spatulas to get in there and move things around.

- 2.5 to 3 quart sauce pan - Again, make sure you get one with a nice, tight-fitting lid. This pan will be absolutely essential when you make any sauces or small batches of soups or pasta. A second handle opposite the main handle is nice for pouring or draining, but it’s really not necessary.

- 5-7 quart casserole - This can be a rather expensive piece, but it'll be able to serve many purposes. It can easily handle big batches of pasta, soup, and with oven-proof handles, can even be used as a make-shift roasting pan and casserole dish.

"Okay, so those are the three critical pieces. What about any others?"

To be honest, the other pieces you'll get with a set are likely just slight variations of the above three pieces. Some are bigger, some are smaller, some are taller, and some are wider. If you find yourself saying "Gee, this would work a bit better if this pot were a bit wider," pick up something that fits the bill. You may be happy with just those three pieces.

Personally, I've got several frying pans, and several other pans, but I nearly always reach for the above three pieces. Seriously.

"Okay, all these pans you've mentioned so far are not non-stick. I'm scared to fry an egg on anything but Teflon!"

I understand. If you've tried to cook something high in protein (like an egg or cheese) on a cheap standard pan, it's likely that it stuck. So, now you're apt to use Teflon as your crutch. Fine. I'll agree that there are some foods that are a bit easier (and less nerve-wracking) to cook on Teflon. If you absolutely must buy a non-stick pan, make sure you look for certain characteristics.

First, make sure that the Teflon coating is very smooth. There are a lot of non-stick pans out there that are ridged or bumpy. I don't understand why. If you want something to slide around easily, why would you make the pan bumpy, and add surface area? Second, make sure that the pan is still high-quality and heavy. Even heating is still critical with a non-stick pan. Finally, try to find a pan that uses the same lid as the pans you already have. Lids take up lots of space, so the more they can do double-duty, the better.

"I've completed my shopping list and I think I'm ready to buy. But, I'm a little queasy about maintenance and cleanup. Won't stainless pans be a pain?"

Not at all. Even with the worst baked-on gunk, my All-Clad stuff cleans up easily. You've just got to remember to get it clean in a reasonable amount of time. If you leave a pan sit overnight with burnt crusties on it, it'll be much tougher to clean that if you just cleaned it right away.

Most of the time, my pans clean up with just soap and water and a sponge. If it's tougher gunk than that, it may have to soak in soapy water for a couple of hours. Only occasionally do I use a fine powder cleanser to get the really stubborn stuff. Check with the manufacturer of the pans you choose, but they're likely dishwasher safe, too. That's great for when you're really lazy like me.

"Throughout this whole post, you've been pretty anti-non-stick. How come?"

A couple reasons. First, aside from crepes it's almost never necessary, and I don't want to have a ton of pans cluttering up my cabinets. Second, Teflon gives off toxic gasses at high temperatures. This outgassing is fatal to pet birds (not that I have one) and can cause "polymer fume fever" or "Teflon flu" in people. That's why you should never do high temperature cooking, like sautéing or broiling in a coated pan. Third, it limits your utensil usage. Teflon can be easily gouged and scratched with metal utensils, and sometimes a wire whisk is the best way to get the tasty bits off the bottom on the pan. I figure that the less I have to concentrate on not scratching my pan, the more I can concentrate on the food.

So, if you're still a non-stick user (and I am too, occasionally), just make sure you never use range heat higher than medium, never use metal utensils, and never broil in your pans. If you're okay with that, they should last a long time.

There are certainly places to save money when stocking a kitchen, but I don't think cookware is the place to do it. Besides, when you purchase quality cookware, it should last a lifetime, and I fully expect to pass my All-Clad set down to my children eventually. There's no doubt that high-quality cookware is expensive, but to me, the All-Clad Stainless cookware is worth every penny.


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