Thursday, January 10, 2013

Pots & Pans: Leveling Your Gear

Welcome back, Apprentices! Today, we are going to talk about pots and pans. Come on, admit're excited! This quest is to feed your brain because remember what we discovered last time, guys? Learning shit is fun!

This particular quest is to take a little of the confusion out of stocking your kitchen with the best possible tools to get the job done. Think of this post as your opportunity to seriously level some of your gear. You can't win a boss fight without a stockpile of kick-ass weapons, right? In the future, we'll be talking about knives, cutting boards and even some of my favorite appliances. But for now, the most important, and used, items in your arsenal will be your pots and pans. Today, we are going to discuss the pros and cons of different kinds of pots and pans, everything from heat conduction to health benefits. So, buckle up, Buttercup and get ready to have your mind BLOWN ...or mildly stimulated...

I'm just gonna cut to the chase, here... non-stick pans suck. Sure, they're easy to clean and most people worship at the altar of non-stick because they're too lazy to clean and don't bother to stop and think about what it is they are really using: a chemically coated surface to cook their food. The most popular among these chemical coatings is known as Teflon. As Dupont, the developer of this "miracle" product,  enthusiastically points out on their own website, "Teflon is used in paints, fabrics, carpets, home furnishings, clothing and so much more."

Um...and that's a good thing?

Tons of tests have been done by scientists both in and out of the industry and many of the results conflict. But most of the data has one common result; the pans are safe unless they get over-heated. So, now the question is; how hot is too hot? According to Good Housekeeping and Robert L. Wolke, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, the pans become over-heated at 500º F. Even Dupont concedes that 500º F should be the maximum cooking temperature for Teflon-coated pans. What happens at 500ºF, you ask? At 500ºF, the chemical coating starts to break down on a molecular level, releasing potentially toxic chemicals and gasses. These gasses aren't usually concentrated enough to cause harm to human beings. However, these fumes will kill pet birds because of their delicate respiratory systems.

    *This awesome and informative test was conducted by Good Housekeeping.

Over time, with wear, the non-stick coating will begin to flake off. Most scientists say that ingesting these flakes won't cause any serious health problems but I prefer not to take my chances.

Cooking with cast iron: An awesome alternative to non-stick pans are pans made with cast iron. Cast iron skillets, pots and pans are seasoned with oil and salt, creating a naturally non-stick surface. Most cast iron skillets are pre-seasoned. But seasoning your own cast iron skillet is not difficult. Cast iron conducts heat evenly, goes smoothly from stove-top to oven and is easy to clean. Never use soap on your cast iron skillet and never EVER put cast iron in the dishwasher as this will cause it to rust! When cleaning cast iron, use boiling water, scrub with a stiff brush and let it air-dry.

Another benefit to using cast iron is that it lasts forever. A couple of the skillets in my own kitchen belonged to my grandmother and are more than sixty years old. They are my go-to skillets for frying chicken and making biscuits and cornbread.

You can buy regular, seasoned cast iron skillets or you can buy the prettier, enamel coated cast iron. They both pretty much do the same job so it's really just a matter of how concerned you are with how attractive your cookware appears. A lot of people mistakenly assume that a black cast iron skillet is dirty so some prefer the cleaner look of their enamel-coated counter parts. The only downside to the enamel coated cast iron is that the enamel will stain and chip off over time. Personally, I just stick to the basic seasoned cast iron.

Cast iron is heavy. The weight of a cast iron skillet can work for and against you. On the up-side: it's not easy to accidentally knock over a cast iron skillet. The weight of a cast iron skillet keeps it fairly anchored to its spot. The downside is that if you're using larger skillet or pot, the weight can simply be too much for some people.

Cast iron gets HOT! As we already discussed, cast iron conducts heat evenly...but it conducts heat evenly over the entire skillet, including the handle(s). You have to be extremely careful when cooking with a cast iron skillet and always use potholders when you touch the handle. If you have little ones, you need to be clear with them that if their little hands grab on while you're cooking, they could lose some skin.

Cast iron is affordable and can be found online or at any Target or Wal-Mart. I recommend a brand called Lodge. They make a huge variety of great quality cast iron products and are very reasonably priced.  ...and no, I'm not making any money for this endorsement...I just like Lodge.

Cooking with stainless steel: Stainless steel is pretty and shiny and tends to distract me like a cat with a laser pointer. It just looks so clean and I can see my reflection! Stainless steel has many benefits. It's durable, affordable and non-porous so it doesn't absorb odor or flavor. Stainless steel is also safe in the respect that it will not have any harmful reactions with your food. Some metals will react in a way that your food will actually absorb them. Aluminum and copper, for example, have a tendency to react with tomato and other acidic dishes. Stainless steel is also easy to clean. A little olive oil on a soft cloth will remove hard water stains. For everyday use, stainless steel is my number one choice.

Quality is key! Look for stainless steel pieces with a high nickel content (a ratio of 18/8 - 18/10 is best). The higher the nickel content, the less reactive the stainless steel will be to your food and the more durable and less prone to pitting it will be. A quick and dirty way to test the nickel content of your stainless steel cookware is with a magnet. Using a relatively strong magnet, test the interior cooking surface of your pan. The less magnetic the surface = the higher the nickel content = the better the quality of your pan. Don't be shy about taking a magnet with you while you're shopping for cookware. You might look like a weirdo, but you'll sure as hell find some good quality pots. Another trait you want to look for is a heavy bottom and thicker walls for your pans. You want a multi-ply pan - when the steel has been folded multiple an awesome samurai sword...that you can cook with...Thin stainless steel will burn under high temperatures. Test the weight of the pan in your hand. If it feels flimsy, chances are it IS flimsy.

Bonded is better! Look for stainless steel pots and pans that have a bonded bottom. The stainless steel needs to have a copper or aluminum core. Stainless steel, on its own, is not a great conductor of heat. Stainless steel pots without a bonded bottom will conduct heat unevenly causing your food to burn or scorch directly over the heat source. I use a brand called Salad Master. They are a little known brand of cookware that can be purchased through private sellers. When I was a kid, my dad sold Salad Master and the set I use everyday is my father's demo set that he would tote around in a giant suitcase, putting on dinners for people to sell the cookware. I have a newer set, another demo, from a few years ago when my dad thought he might want to get back into selling Salad Master. Unfortunately, he passed away before he got the chance. Long story short: I still use those pots and pans. They are heavy duty stainless steel with an aluminum core and detachable handles so they can go into the oven as well. Salad Master is a bit on the pricey side, but that set of pots and pans has lasted more than twenty years. And whenever I cook an amazing meal, my dad is still right there with me.

*Pictured above: Salad Master Cookware

Le Creuset makes a slightly more affordable line of high quality, stainless steel cookware. The Le Creuset set has an 18/10 stainless/nickel mix and an aluminum core for even heat conductivity.

*Pictured above: Le Creuset 8 Piece Set

The basic point is this, if you invest in your cookware, it will invest in you. You get what you pay for...if you pay for cheap piece of shit, you're going to get a cheap piece of shit. There's something to be said for cookware that lasts twenty, thirty or even sixty years.

Cooking with Aluminum & Copper: Copper and aluminum both conduct heat really, really well. Which is good. And copper is really, really pretty. Which is also...good. Unfortunately, the cons with aluminum and copper far outweigh the pros.

Bad reactivity! Copper and aluminum both react badly with acidic foods, aluminum a little less so than copper (however, aluminum reacts badly with salt as well). Acidic foods and white sauces can discolor and taste like metal.

Aluminum is cheap! And for a reason...aluminum is thinner, softer and scratches easily. Aluminum will not last like cast iron or stainless steel.

Copper is expensive! Most people gravitate to copper because it's pretty. And it is. Copper cookware is really, really pretty. But the exterior luster oxidizes over time and requires regular polishing to maintain the shine. Copper, like aluminum, is a relatively soft metal and dents and scratches easily. You can only use wooden utensils with copper to prevent tinning. When a copper pan's tin coating wears off, the copper can destroy the vitamins and folic acid in your food and can also lead to ingestion of toxic levels of copper.

Basically, if copper and aluminum are combined with another metal, like stainless steel, I'm all for it. When bonded with other materials, they are an awesome addition to your arsenal. But, personally, I won't invest the money in pots and pans made with aluminum or copper alone. The maintenance is too high, they're not versatile enough and they just won't last long enough for the cost (especially copper).

*Pictured above: copper cookware set

*Pictured above: aluminum cookware set

For my time and money, cast iron and stainless steel are the way to go for everyday use in the kitchen. We'll be going over a few more in the future so you can better equip yourself for the battles to come. But for now, take the time, do some research and invest in your kitchen! I hope you found this quest a little bit helpful and informative!

Join me next time when we're baking bacon! Keep cooking! Follow me on Twitter @8BitCook.


+10 Kitchen Savvy

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