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Ins and Outs of Pots and Pans
The Ins and Outs of Pots and Pans was Originally posted in the Chef's Forum by Mr. Food

I think much of what is important about cookware is a matter of personal preference. I like pots that in the best of circumstances work well, but are also somewhat forgiving if you do happen to overheat and burn something. While I try to use mostly wooden utensils, a pot that can't handle metal utensils is a real hassle for me. Bearing that in mind, some other things about cookware are close to universal. For example, thick is almost always better than thin to avoid hotspots. The cookware you select will inevitably be a compromise. Here are my experiences:

1. Stainless steel is trouble. The very inexpensive solid stainless steel is very susceptible to overheating in spots. Yes, you can pamper them and cook decently in them, but who needs the aggravation? I like cookware that lets you crank the heat up high without worrying. Once you overheat stainless, or scour it, it's dead. It will burn in that spot every time. It's nonsense to say you shouldn't cook on high -- ever hear of "blackened"? You also gotta use high for a stir fry, unless you want soggy. Chinese woks, BTW, are generally non-stainless steel and very thin so they heat unevenly. This is on purpose so different parts of the pan will have different temperatures. However, stainless is dirt cheap and works just fine for boiling and steaming.

To combat the uneven heating problem, most stainless steel pans are laminations of aluminum or copper on the underside to spread the heat around, and stainless steel inside the pan to provide a cooking surface that is impervious to whatever you might put inside. In my experience, this stainless steel surface is still too sticky to fry on, and if you ever burn it you get a permanent trouble spot. But, sometimes a stainless steel cooking surface comes in handy when you can't use aluminum (see below) so I keep some around. Choose something with a reasonably thick aluminum layer on the bottom.

2. Teflon and other nonsticks are also less than desirable. Food fried in a teflon pan just doesn't crisp up right. Eggs cooked in teflon (I like mine very soft) have a weird surface texture. Yeah, teflon's easier for sure and it doesn't make food taste bad, but if a recipe says "caramelize onions then deglaze", you are out of luck here because you'll go straight to burn before you glaze. Now, I reallyreallyreally don't want to discourage anybody from cooking. If teflon keeps you away from McDonalds, use it. But commercial chef's don't, and part of my enjoyment comes from learning the classic cooking techniques that they use.

3. Cast iron is great for frying . . . especially good at high heat. The grease/oil used to fry leaves a nice protective coat on the pan, and the carbon build up is very non-sticky. In this regard, a little burning doesn't hurt it at all. However, you gotta believe in them and never soak and never wash with soap. The best way to clean is to just wipe with a cloth (you actually want to leave grease on them). Avoid scouring as much as possible, but if you have to once in a while it's not the end of the world, but be sure to put some oil back on. Some things don't cook well in them. For example, long term boiling, especially a tomato sauce, will strip your hard-earned coating off lickety-split. Since you can't rely on people knowing how to care for them, you must patrol the kitchen when well-meaning guests volunteer to help out or to clean up. So, I always keep some cast iron in the stable for frying, but not a complete set of pots.

4. Le Creuset . . . is cast iron, with an enamel coated cooking surface. I don't have a lot of experience with it, but I've enjoyed using it from time to time at other people's houses. I had a Le Creuset stewpot I used for an extended period of time and liked it a lot, but I found it somewhat hard to clean (stains!) and was always worried about scratching the enamel.

5. Aluminum works great. Handles metal utensils, and the occasional scouring. The latest I hear is that it does not cause Alzheimer's. Get the thickest you can because it will distribute the heat most evenly which means high temp cooking with less burning. One cheap place to buy them is a cookware outlet store in Kittery Maine. It's on the righthand side heading north right after you get off I-95, a no-name place right next door to a name cookware place, RevereWare I think (hmmm... why can't I remember? Alzheimer's?) Or find a commercial cookware store. The only drawback to Aluminum is that it can get pitted over time if you cook acidic things in it. Somethings can't be cooked in it (again, can't remember . . . egg whites? cherries? The warnings appear in The Joy of Cooking.)

6. Even better is anodized aluminum, Calphalon (not the non-stick) being the most widely available brand. Anodized aluminum provides a super-hard surface that doesn't have the drawbacks of regular aluminum. The heat distribution and surface means you can leave a spaghetti sauce on higher, longer, with a lot less stirring. When used for frying, I find them much less sticky than stainless. Mine have held up well even when scoured occasionally with those green, scrungey things. Drawback is that they really are overpriced (but still cheaper than those very sharp looking All Clad stainless steel). Also, I was talking to a clerk at a store and she said people return them because they get screwed up when used to store things in them in the fridge. I never have so I don't have an opinion about it.

7. Miscellaneous. I used a ScanPan saucepan for a long time and liked it. It had some kind of non-stickness that was particularly good for cooking rice, Chinese style. I never abused it though, so I don't know how it can take it. Classic chef's rave about classic copper cookware but it's really expensive. Coated with tin on the inside, it is susceptible to and ruined by overheating. I've never used it myself. Friends of mine swear by Circulon, but I didn't like it. I want to cook on a flat surface, generally. I got a Corningware stewpot as a gift . . . it was a sticky, burning disaster . . . except it is serviceable for use in the oven as a deep casserole for stuff like Chicken Marengo, and it does work well in a microwave because you can see inside. Speaking of which, I'm not much of a microwave cook, but I have every now and then gambled and followed the instructions in the recipe book and you really can cook a spaghetti sauce in there, and more incredibly, you can a brown a roast.

8. General rules to follow

Don't heat any cookware with nothing in it. All kinds can be overheated though the damage will vary. This means, put in the oil etc. first. On the other hand, never add your "main" ingredients until the pan is heated unless the recipe explicitly says otherwise.

Avoid using metal utensils on all kinds of pans. Scratches cause problems. Get out of the habit of banging the utensils on the rim to shake off the liquid. You can get away with it with wood, but metal will hack up aluminum and chip enamel.

Avoid scouring. The only time you should ever have to scour is if you have burned something. (You should avoid that too, but what's done is done.) Crusted on things will come off some other way. If you have to scour, try first scouring with an all-plastic pad. Try scraping with a wood spatula. Try your fingernails. Try Bon Ami and a sponge. Never, ever scour with steel or iron. A copper scouring pad will be gentler, as will the various kind of scrungies. Scour very gently at first. The basic idea is to try to get the crud off with as little collateral damage as possible.

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