Pots and Pans

Choosing the best cookware for you

THERE’S NO REASON to expect cookware to last a lifetime. After all, when was the last time you ran into a car owner still tooling around in his first Edsel? And if automotive purchases don’t, as a rule, hold up into perpetuity, why should a pan, a far less-substantial investment?

But rationality has little, if anything, to do with matters of the heart. And cookware, I propose, is a matter of the heart. All reason aside, most people have an almost primitive attachment to what they cook with. Which is probably why they either hang onto what was given them on the occasion of their marriage or first job, or go out and buy a set of whatever Mom had.

I know that part of my definition of home is the battered cast-iron fry pans and Revereware saucepans my mother bought in 1957 at the base PX in Fontainebleau, France. Twenty-five years later, they’re still going strong. But my mother was lucky; not all cooks are as fortunate in their first acquisitions.

My friend Richard, for instance, had to be bludgeoned into considering replacements for the thin, warped aluminum and Teflon pots and pans he had inherited upon leaving the family hearth. But once he saw the wares at a restaurant supplier, he was converted. In one afternoon, he replaced the flimsy tools of his youth with a battery of sturdy professional equipment. “To think that I didn’t know you could fry things without burning them,” he said, marveling at the memory of life in the kitchen before that historic trip to Gerber’s in Houston.

Of course, if you simply can’t cook, upgrading your equipment won’t help. But if you’re a good, or even a passable cook, quality cookware can help to push your efforts into the realm of the sublime. For the price of a few strategic replacements, you too can be a born-again cook. As Richard now advises those who haven’t seen the light: “You want pots and pans that are on your side, not ones you have to fight.”

You could begin your quest for quality cookware by asking people what they own and how they like it, but the theory of primitive attachment invariably comes into play. When I called several cookbook authors for this purpose, I got wildly contradictory recommendations, each cook passionately held and defended his or her equipment in the face of all evidence. Apparently, cookware represents an emotional as well as an economic investment.

I recommend taking an inventory and then doing a little driving. (The driving is a good idea so that you can look over the goods available in department stores, restaurant suppliers’ and kitchen specialty shops; their offerings are, for the most part, mutually exclusive.)

Certainly, you can expect to spend some money. However, there’s no need to take out a second mortgage. The best cookware is not necessarily the most expensive, and it’s possible to cook very happily with less than a dozen basic pieces.

Even The Cooks’ Catalogue panel of food professionals allowed that most cooks would do just fine with the following: a I-quart saucepan, a 2 1/2-quart saucepan, an 8-inch frying/sauté pan, a 12-inch frying/saute pan, and a 5-quart casserole that can also servé as a stock pot. (My only objection to the list is that the casserole/stockpot isn’t large enough even to boil a decent batch of spaghetti. Eight quarts is more like it.)

Elizabeth David, author of half a dozen books, including French Country Cooking, would agree: “Too much equipment is, if anything, worse than too little. I don’t a bit covet the exotic gear dangling from hooks, the riot of clanking ironmongery, the armories of knives, or the serried ranks of sauté pans and all other carefully chosen symbols of culinary activity I see in so many photographs of chic kitchens.”

As David suggests, you should acquire things you actually use, not things the kind of cook you wish you were would use. I know that in my early days of discovering the wonderful world of cooking, I bought a number of absurdly esoteric pieces of cookware. Someone who rarely cooks for more than two does not need a 20-quart stockpot, but I lugged this symbol of devotion to soup making around for three moves before I could bear to give it up. (I finally dispatched it in a garage sale.)

Go slowly, then, and build your repertoire only as you see the need. If you’re extraordinarily organized, you could assemble the recipes you use the most and analyze what would best ease their preparation.

But whatever you do, don’t use the fell-swoop approach and buy a set of anything. When manufacturers call them “starter sets,” they’re not kidding. They invariably include pieces you don’t need and don’t have pieces you do need. Beware particularly of huge pots and pans. If you have a normal-size stove, the burners will ineffectually sputter or slow beneath their huge diameter.

What follows is one cook’s tour of the advantages and disadvantages of different pots and pans. I don’t pretend that it is a comprehensive guide, since cookware currently rivals fashion for rapid, pointless change. And as the car ads say about mileage, prices are for comparison only. They will vary from store to store; and department-store standards, especially, can be frequently found on sale.

Heat conduction is a necessary concept to keep in mind as you weigh alternatives. Conduction, or how efficiently heat is transmitted, is important, but buying a pan strictly for good conduction is like buying a car strictly for good gas mileage. All the heat conduction in the world won’t help if you can’t pick the damn thing up or if you simply don’t like its looks.

Silver is the best heat conductor of all, but it is largely the subject of fantasy. However, at last report, the Marie Antoinette-style cook could buy a 10-inch silver frying pan from Tiffany for several thousand dollars, the specific price depending, of course, on the market value of silver.

Next comes copper, which conducts heat efficiently and sensitively. (Sensitivity in cookware means the ability to stop conducting heat quickly, too.) Properly cared for, copper’s mellow glow is alluring. However, copper is expensive, heavy and requires a lot of polishing.

There is more bad news. Copper chemically interacts with air (turning dark green) and food (creating chlorides); the changes can make food taste funny. What’s more, copper is usually lined with tin, which has its own entertaining little set of problems. Tin lining melts at high temperatures and must be replaced every five years or so.

Sauciers swear by copper, but if you can’t remember when you last whipped up a batch of hollandaise, then you probably don’t need copper. If you want copper, remember that it must be at least an eighth-of-an-inch thick. 1 would not have copper, but if I did, I would have Lamalle, which is particularly hardy and attractive, with its hammered exterior and curved iron handles that stay surprisingly cool. The $110 2-quart sauteuse could be successfully used both as a frypan and saucepan.

Runner-up aluminum conducts heat only 60 percent as efficiently as copper, according to Consumer Guide, but it is lightweight, strong and usually cheap. There is a catch: Like copper, aluminum is chemically active. And since aluminum cook-ware, unlike copper, is usually not lined, this means acidic foods.

With cast iron, we’re getting pretty far from ideal heat conductivity. But its virtues are considerable: It’s hard to pay more than $10 for a cast-iron fry pan, and it can survive for decades. The thickness of most cast-iron pans makes up for the middling conductivity. And it holds heat well, which is bad for sauces (cast-iron saucepans are ridiculously heavy anyway), but fine for simple fare waiting on the stove while everyone comes to dinner.

Vladimir Estrason, food columnist for the Village Voice and author of Waiting for Dessert, is a passionate advocate of cast iron: “I don’t think there is any substitute for a good, heavy, cast-iron frying pan. The thing that I have treasured and carried with me through thick and thin is a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, suitable for so-called pan-broiling of meat, cooking bacon and so on. I’ve had it for 20 years; I don’t know if it’s getting better, but it’s not getting any worse; and after 20 years of a relationship, that’s pretty good.”

Cast iron can shatter if you drop it. It also can rust badly if it’s not properly seasoned. (That means keeping a thin layer of oil present so rust can’t take hold in the first place.) Lodge, Wagner and General Housewares are good names to look for. Beware of foreign-made cast iron: It’s often thinner than it should be.

I don’t recommend enamel-covered cast iron for three reasons: It’s expensive, the enamel tends to chip, and food will not brown in this stuff. Copco, Le Creuset and Dansk are the big names to buy, but you’ll pay a price for their pretty primary colors.

Non-stick pans with nylon plastic (e.g., Teflon, Silverstone) bonded to them also won’t brown food. What’s more, they’re generally pastel and insipidly middlebrow-looking.

“1 don’t have any Teflon in the house,” Robert Farrar Capon, author of the classic Supper of the Lamb and Food for Thought, says proudly. “The trouble is that you can’t really heat it; you can’t ever get it roaring hot.”

Stainless steel, which is made stainless by a nickel-chromium alloy, is not stainless at all, but it is easy to clean and hard to harm. It doesn’t interact with food like copper or aluminum, but it also doesn’t conduct heat as well as they do.

“The fact is, there is no ideal pot,” concludes The Cooks’ Catalogue, and it has a point. However, I think the closest thing to an ideal pot is one made of a combination of metals (referred to as sandwiches in the cookware trade). A stainless-aluminum sandwich is easy to care for and, depending on the quality of construction, very good, if not great, at conducting heat.

All-Clad Master Chef is made of stainless-steel-lined aluminum. It’s not as pretty as a stainless-aluminum-stainless sandwich like Cuisinart, because dull aluminum is what shows on the outside. However, because there is one layer less of different metal (heat transfer is slowed with each change of material), conduction is better. It is unostentatiously serious-looking, with metal handles that stay relatively cool and are comfortably shaped. A 2-quart saucepan runs about $30, if you can find it. (Check with restaurant suppliers.)

Cuisinart looks expensive, and it is: about $50 for a 2-quart saucepan. Its sleek stainless-steel exterior surrounds aluminum innards. I don’t like the compressed wood handles, which are peculiarly angular, hard to handle and include brass rivets that can burn. Cuisinart’s wood-knobbed lids, however, fit so accurately that they form a perfect seal. Do avoid the stock-pot, which is not at all the right shape: It’s nearly as wide as it is tall.

Another stainless-surrounding-aluminum combination, Farberware, was rated first in overall quality in a Consumer Reports’ evaluation of 39 lines of cookware. Homey-looking and resolutely un-chic, it has squat lines and is topped by domed stainless lids with black knobs of phenolic resin, whatever that is. The handles are also comfortable.

Paderno is made of stainless steel with an aluminum bottom. It has an almost-scary, straight-sided, New Wave look. In spite of its looks, it would be my first choice for a stockpot: Its shape and sturdy loop handles are exceptionally well-designed for its function. However, the smallest stockpot is 10 1/2-quarts.

As for Revereware, you really can’t go home again: The consensus among the cooks I talked to was that my mother’s standby isn’t what it used to be. At $21 for a 2-quart saucepan, it is still no bargain. The stainless steel pans are merely washed with copper on the bottom.

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