I may be a jealous dipshit who fucken sucks at life, but I do have one thing going for me — my pots and pans are awesome.
Thanks to my goofy interest in cooking — and my gala 2005 wedding — I am the proud owner of a pantry stocked with enough top-tier equipment to make even the most devoted fan of the Williams-Sonoma catalog jealous.
The base set is All-Clad Copper Core: three fry pans, a large saute, a large stockpot, two sauce pans, and a butter warmer. I also have small and large All-Clad nonstick stainless fry pans for eggs and other foods requiring a gentle touch.
Beyond the basics, I have a 12″ cast iron skillet for high-heat searing and oven use, a 10″ square cast-iron grill pan, an 8-quart Le Creuset stockpot, and a kick-ass carbon steel wok for stir frying.
But is it all worth it? Does my arsenal of expensive (except the cast-iron and the wok) weaponry make me a better cook? Would I be better off with the cheap-o sets available at Macy’s?
That’s what Harold McGee wondered also. In this article for the New York Times, McGee buys up a ton of cheap and expensive pans and does his own tests to see what you get for your money.
He found that for some types of cooking, it really doesn’t matter:
I started by timing how long it took the pans to bring a cup of water to a boil over the maximum gas flame on my stovetop. The copper and the cast iron each took 3 minutes, the aluminum-stainless combination 2.5, and the thin nonstick aluminum just 2 minutes. Light and cheap win for speed.
This makes sense, because more expensive pans are typically heavier. This means they heat up more slowly but distribute heat more evenly and retain it longer. My All-Clad Copper Core pans boast a 5-ply bonded construction of steel and copper.
In a good conductor, heat will flow quickly throughout the pan; with a poor conductor, the heat should build up into a hot spot in the metal just above the burner. To make the pans’ heat landscapes visible, I put a round of parchment paper into each pan, weighed it down with pie weights and put the pan on a medium-high burner. When I saw or smelled the paper browning, I removed the parchment.
The heavy copper and the light aluminum pans produced evenly toasted heat maps. The stainless-clad aluminum did pretty well, too. But the cast-iron pan scorched a small area, and the pattern was familiar. For years I made risotto every week or two in my favorite enameled cast-iron pot, and always found a solid brown ring of stuck rice grains right above the flame.
From there, McGee goes off on a tangent about butter, oil, and other elements that cause food to stick to untreated surfaces. He also discovers, to his surprise, that the less vigorously the pans are cleaned, the more likely they are to allow you to flip your eggs or fish. In this way, the best pans often have less to do with cost or construction than with how frequently you use them:
So what to do about getting pots and pans that work best? Choose the ones that you like, for their heft or their lightness, for cachet or economy, for finickiness or ease. Mind the rippling oil. And cook with them often.