A good cook can get by with a sharp knife, a sauté pan, a cutting board and a fork. There are things that definitely make it easier and there are certain things that cannot be produced without the right equipment. In the kitchen as in the workshop: the right tool for the right job.
Alton Brown has made his fortune as much on his tinkering and repurposing in the kitchen as he has on his Bill Nye: The Science Guy meets The French Chef. He’s written a book on the subject: Gear for Your Kitchen. He covers just about everything, but, today, I’m just going to talk about pots and pans and my own observations.
I sell cookware, among other things, at Ye Olde Pot and Pannery. We carry the heavy hitters: All Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset, and Mauviel. These are all top quality products that will last a lifetime and in the case of Le Creuset and Mauviel, purchases may very well become heirlooms.
Le Creuset manufacturs enamelled cast iron. Everything from roasters to grill pans to woks and tagines. The pieces are heavy and gorgeous and do that stove to table thing really well. The heaviness can be a down side and the cost is often prohibitive especially on bigger pieces. But it browns and sears beautifully and holds heat great for braising and stewing. It can chip and due to the process used to bond the enamel to the cast iron it is recommended that pieces with chips on food contact surfaces be discarded. In fact, enamelware is not recommended for commercial kitchens due to the risk of antimony poisoning. In many locales it is against the health code to have it in the kitchen at all.
Mauviel is French stainless steel-lined copperware. Unlike old school tin-lined copperware, Mauviel never needs to be retinned. Copperware is a dream to cook with especially on gas. It responds to heat like no other substance (aluminum is a close second but has other drawbacks) and comes in many forms that aren’t available in other metals, like a sugar pan. Like Le Creuset, Mauviel doesn’t come cheap, but it will last forever with care. Over time the pans take on a rich patina, but there are those who buy it for display and spend a lot of time polishing it (or a lot of money paying someone else to do it).
For those of us who don’t have a $1000 to drop on a starter set of Le Creuset or Mauviel there are the joys of All Clad and Calphalon. Neither are exactly cheap but you can get good deals on sales and they are high quality products that one shouldn’t have to replace.
All Clad comes in at least four lines that I know of: Stainless, LTD, Copper Core and Master Chef. All of them have a multi-layer construction. Stainless and Master Chef are stainless steel on the inside and outside with an aluminum core that runs throughout the pan. LTD has a coating on the outside that makes it look more like Calphalon but it has a stainless interior. I know that LTD and Stainless also have non-stick pieces with a multi layer non-stick coating. Copper core has five layers instead of the three that the stainless line has. The copper core has an aluminum layer on either side then stainless steel on the inside and outside of the pan. They also have a detail on the outside of the pan where the outer layers of stainless and aluminum are stripped away to leave a thin copper band around the outside. They’re very sexy and a bit more expensive than the other lines.
Calphalon is an anodized aluminum product. The new Calphalon One line is also infused with a polymer to resist sticking. There is also a non-stick line. Target carries a lower end non-stick line called Calphalon Kitchen Essentials. They are made with one layer less than the One line and don’t hold up as well over time. I bought 10″ sautés for Mom and me and I had to replace them both after two years of regular (almost daily) use. Mom’s went a little faster as she cooks on high heat more often than I do. Still, at $25 to $45 dollars they aren’t a bad buy and if you are just going to use it for omlettes or crepes you might get twice the time out of it.
What kind of pan you need depends a great deal on what kind of cooking you do. If you do a lot of stir frying, invest in a quality wok. If there is a weekly or twice weekly pasta night at your house, you need a good stock pot and made a pasta insert. All of the above mentioned manufacturers have “starter sets” at various price points with a variety of pieces. When I got married the first time, I bought a set of Faberware Millenium for $150 and spent an extra $50 on a 12″ skillet with a lid. Six years later, we still use it everyday. It ain’t pretty but it hasn’t warped and it heats evenly on an electric stove. I do have some newly acquired (I won it at work) All Clad that I love. It responds great even on electric burners and the reduction pan is amazing.
If you’re starting from scratch and you have the cash, I do recommend the All Clad Stainless. Just remember if you want it to resist sticking without non-stick coating you need to get the pan hot then add the oil, then the food.
Non-stick has been linked to some nastiness lately and you may want to rethink the whole PFO based non-stick option. One good alternative is good old-fashioned seasoned cast iron. It’s cheap and once you get a nice seasoning on it, it is virtually non-stick. Just don’t pop it in the dishwasher or wash it with soap and a scratcher or your layer of carbonized oil is gone and so is your non-stick surface. We carry pre-seasoned Lodge at Ye Olde Pot and Pannery or you can find it at any hardware store. You might also beg it off a grandmother or great aunt (good luck).