The Four Most Important Features When Buying Cookware
I don't know about you, but there are so many different kinds of pots and pans out there that my wife and I need clarification when shopping and buying cookware. I have some old hard-anodized Calphalon, and some newer stainless steel AllClad pans that I like.
More recently, I've picked up a few new pans, some were searched out after a bit of research, but some were picked up because they looked interesting and were great bargains.
What factors entered into your last cookware procurement? Of course, price is always a consideration. But did the color influence you, or that neat little glass lid that allows you to see inside? Or the free utensils that came with it tempted you.
Much to the delight of purveyors, emotional inclinations and aesthetic trappings produce impulse purchases. Yet, how many of us recognize this kind of justification?
I just had to have that red (my favorite color) tea kettle, even though I own a perfectly functional stainless steel one. Not that there is anything wrong with these yearnings. We are human, and indulging our passions makes us feel good. But if you’re a serious cook, you will need much more than your desire to guide you toward the proper equipment.
The primary consideration in choosing cookware is the material it is constructed from. Copper is the most expensive but also the best heat conductor. Superior heat conduction allows for even cooking.
Some manufacturers combine different materials into one pot, utilizing each metal's strengths. For example, you will find pans made from stainless steel (a fair conductor but non-reactive) with a thick reinforced bottom containing aluminum (reactive but a better conductor).
The problem here is that the heat conduction must be evenly dispersed throughout the pan, and the bottom of your food will cook unacceptably disproportionately. You cannot braise food efficiently in such a pan. On the other hand, a thorough and even heat conduction pan eliminates “hot spots.”
These sections of the pan are hotter than others, usually dead center in the bottom, which renders browning your food uniformly a frustrating challenge.
Finally, a pan with good heat conduction rapidly responds to increases or decreases in temperature, thus allowing you quick control over the heat level. This attribute is necessary for successful sautéing.
The problem with copper cookware (besides the price) is reactivity. Copper, aluminum, and to a lesser extent, cast iron are “reactive” metals. That means they will chemically combine with certain foods, usually acidic ones, and alter the flavor and color of your preparation. Not to mention that you will be consuming unwanted levels of the metal.
Copper discolors and scratches quickly as well. Therefore, I recommend having one good copper bowl for beating egg whites. For reasons scientifically complex involving copper ions (which I will not bore you with here), copper is superior for beating egg whites to maximal volume.
Aluminum is a good heat conductor but, as stated, is reactive. Aluminum is also a soft metal and eventually wears down. Nevertheless, it remains widespread, especially in restaurant kitchens, because it’s inexpensive. In addition, there are anodized aluminum pans, which are chemically treated to prevent reactivity. If you insist on aluminum, anodized is the way to go.
Cast iron could be a better conductor, but once it gets hot, it stays hot for a long time, mainly because of its mass. Cast iron is heavy. It is also inexpensive. However, it has drawbacks: rusting, pitting, reactivity, and sticking to food. For these reasons, cast iron pans must be “seasoned.”
This means coating the entire pan, inside and out, with oil or shortening and baking it to seal the fat into the pan or polymerize it. This will thwart rusting and reactivity and give you a non-stick surface.
Of course, this protective layer breaks down over time, and the process must be repeated. Some cast iron pans are coated with enamel. This is an attempt to alleviate the dilemmas of cast iron while maintaining exceptional heat retention. I have one cast iron skillet for searing steaks.
Nothing aside from a grill will give you that deliciously charred exterior. Another thing to consider about cast iron is its weight. That 12" cast iron skillet might look cool, but will you be able to pick it up when it's full of food?
You’re probably realizing at this point that there is no perfect pan. So which material can give us most of our desired qualities without glaring deficits? Of course, stainless Steel is the ultimate compromise. It provides a mid-range price and heat conduction and is durable, easy to clean, and non-reactive. But wait, we can push the perfection curve even further.
To increase stainless steel’s heat conduction, aluminum is often sandwiched between an internal and external layer of stainless steel. This layer extends up the sides in a high-quality pan, not just across the bottom. So now we have a pan that embraces everything except price. Of course, you can’t have it all, but when you do, you have to pay for it.
If you want the ultimate quality and are willing to spend money on a cookware set that will last a lifetime, then I recommend All-Clad. No, I do not get free cookware from them to promote their products. I am simply steering you toward the best cookware on the market.
I recommend their stainless steel with an aluminum interior. It’s heavy gauge stainless steel with good conductivity and top-notch construction. But you will pay over $500 for a set.
If you are not concerned with buying a matching set, it is possible to pick up a nice piece of All-Clad or a pan of similar quality at stores such as TJMaxx, SteinMart, Tuesday Morning, and Marshall's. I don't know about places like Big Lots, but that might also be worthwhile.
Yes, the pan might have a slight ding or a scratch, but at a savings of at least 50%, you might be willing to overlook a minor defect.
The bottom line is better cookware will cook your food better. The degree of your culinary zealousness, cooking, and wallet will determine your final choice. You should buy the best stainless steel set you can afford, plus a few specialty pieces (non-stick, cast iron, copper, etc.), for unique items best suited to these materials.
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