Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dine-In Diva's Guide to Buying Pots & Pans

As the holiday season approaches, new pots and pans (and other kitchen gadgets) often appear on wish lists, but how do you decide just exactly what are the right pots and pans for you? With a myriad of finishes, sizes, types, and manufacturers, the task of selecting a workable collection can be daunting, especially for the beginner cook.

Whether you are purchasing them as a gift, or for yourself, the first question you should ask, is 'What do I cook?' The number of people you cook for also can influence your purchases.

Should you buy a set? Besides the expense of buying a collection, vs. individual pieces, there is a likelihood that some of those pieces are going to go unused, so it wouldn't be my preferred method.

I think there is a tendency to lean towards the set your mother used, and my first set was the same as my mother's, a heavy duty Club Aluminum set consisting of a dutch oven, a large frying pan, and two sauce pans, each with a heavy lid with a large plastic handle.  Club Aluminum is apparently out of business, no doubt due to the persistent reports that cooking in aluminum contributes to Alzheimer's Disease, but a quick search on the internet reveals there are still plenty of devotees, with sources to buy replacement parts, and plenty showing up on EBay as collectibles. And I am sure my mother's avocado green pieces are still in service.

Since I really didn't know how to cook when I got married, I graduated to a set of completely non-stick pans, probably Calphalon.  I really think non-stick everything was invented because people didn't know how to cook and freaked out when something stuck to a pan; in fact I overheard a couple complaining in Williams Sonoma that things stuck to the Le Creuset they were browsing and I wanted to shout at them - "IT'S BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T GET THE PAN HOT ENOUGH AND THEN LEAVE THE FOOD ALONE".  But I decided that probably wasn't going to change their minds and kept that information to myself.

I had the dark anodized set and it was hard to see what was going on in the pans most of the time, which wasn't totally critical, since I wasn't that proficient anyway.  The set itself, was functional enough, and like high thread count sheets, until I cooked with some stainless All Clad, you probably couldn't have convinced me it was THAT much better.  Of course now I am ruined for both the All Clad and the high thread count sheets.

Attempting to create and use fond, the delicious brown flavorful bits, left in the pan after browning and sautéing, is virtually impossible in a non-stick or anodized pan.  You're cheating yourself out of an important flavor component by not learning the technique properly, using the proper equipment.

Thanks to the twice yearly All Clad factory sale, coincidentally that is going on this weekend, I have accumulated quite a collection, but there is a core collection of pieces that I use most frequently, and the winners are:

1 - All Clad French non-stick skillet 7.5"  - about the only thing I want non-stick for now is my morning eggs, so this one gets used nearly every day. Get a larger one if you are making more than 2 eggs at a time

2 - A large, heavy bottom stock pot - this doesn't have to be a fancy brand, but it does have to be heavy and feel sturdy, stainless steel preferred. I've tried cooking with the cheap, thin ones, and it's just no fun. You'll use this for boiling water for pasta, making stocks & soups, blanching water for veggies, so get a minimum of an 8 quart size, bigger if you can afford it and store it. You can also use a larger one, fitted with a rack or towel in the bottom, as a makeshift canner for small batches of jams.

3 -Large Saute/Skillet/Frying Pan Stainless Steel - there are a variety of sizes available, you are looking for something in the 10" - 12" range (14" if you have a big family, and a big stovetop). The sauté pans have straight vs. sloped sides in the skillets, and will hold a larger quantity of food, so I am recommending this 3 quart stainless steel sauté pan, over the others because you will get the most use from it. Make sure it can go directly into the oven - the All Clad is safe to 500 degrees. Use this pan to sauté or sear roast meats and vegetables.  A lid is nice, but honestly I very rarely use a lid with this pan, and when I do I use a a universal lid or foil.

Caramelizing Onions 

4 -  2 or 3 quart saucepan with lid - for making grains, heating soup, making sauces. I am, of course,  partial to my All Clad, but as long as you find a sturdy one, you'll be fine.

5 - 5 to 6.5 quart enamel covered cast iron dutch oven  - The best in this class is Le Creuset, which is pricey, but if you don't get too hung up on getting your preferred color, and there are lots of pretty ones, you'll find them often at TJ Maxx or Homegoods.

In fact my first Le Creuset was a beautiful lime green 9.5 quart that I scored at Homegoods.  I loved that pan so much that I started using it as often as possible.  Shortly after I got though, I was shopping for a personal chef client, and when I opened the hatch of my truck, the pan shot out, barely missing my foot, and bounced off of the asphalt, leaving it with a pretty sizable crack.  While they are warrantied for normal use, I am pretty sure this would not have been considered normal.  I couldn't bear to throw it out, so it is now a flower pot on my front porch.  I bought the Lodge version to replace it, but I never fell in love with it like I did the Le Creuset, which I eventually replaced with an orange version at Homegoods.

For soups, stews, and braises, including tender pot roasts, this is my go to pan.  I also use them when I make jams and jellies. It is also an essential tool for the popular no knead bread.  If you are getting one mostly for the bread, make sure you get one with a metal handle (there was a rash of handle thefts when the plastic ones melted, and Le Creuset now sells the metal lids separately), and I probably wouldn't use a Le Creuset for it, because the high heat will discolor your pan. (You can see the discoloration on my green one below from baking bread in it) I saw a nice one at Sams Club for about $40, and TJMaxx and Homegoods have knockoffs.

Stock Pots and Le Creuset hard at work on soup and stock day 
6 - 2 to 4 rimmed half sheet pans and parchment paper  - I am partial to the ones from Sams Club, sold in a 2 pack for around $12. They are a little more heavy duty than "cookie sheets" and are probably my most used pans - I can get 6 at a time in my oven if need be.  Even with the parchment liners, which I buy in bulk and pre-cut to fit, they will turn ugly in no time, but at that price when they get too nasty, I just replace them.

My other preference, is to keep your most used pans on a hanging rack; mine was custom designed at a sheet metal shop to fit over the window. They also crafted the hooks.  You have to use the pans though, otherwise you've created a dusty, sticky centerpiece.  I like a tiered rack for the Le Creuset because they are heavy and bulky to store.

*Disclaimer: I have an Amazon affiliate account and your purchases through any of my links will put a few pennies in my account.  I earn enough to buy a couple of cookbooks a year.  I promise there isn't enough for a nice vacation or I'd already be gone.

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