Overthinking a pan of beans.
December 27, 2011 5:55 AM   Subscribe

Need new cookware, can you educate me about pans?

Frying, saute', whatever, I need a good one in the 10-14" range. I don't really need smaller ones. I don't do much "saucy" stuff, (and when I do I use a deeper pot for that) but perhaps you can convince me I really do need a 3" deep fryer.

I also don't really want to spend $120 for an AllClad either, but maybe you can convince me I need to.

I've been intrigued by the so-called "Green Pans" that have sprung up recently, but most Amazon reviews aren't so hot for them. I have a beastly cast-iron, but for day to day it's a little unwieldy, and my fiancee' won't touch it. It also needs re-seasoned...again.

I think I kinda prefer non-stick, but I think what I need to do is cook with the gas down a little lower. I was watching "The Layover" with Anthony Bourdain the other day, and he went to some restaurant supply shop and picked up a sexy stainless pan for like $18...is that legit? Where is this pan?

So...stainless versus non-stick, educate me? What do you use, you epicurean mefite of lore?

So far this one has my attention, although it's huge but randomly half the price of the smaller ones of the same type.
posted by TomMelee to Home & Garden (34 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
A few years ago, Mark Bittman wrote a fantastic article about outfitting a kitchen on the cheap. Just like in the show you were watching, the pots and pans in the article came from a restaurant supply place, and my advice is to go and do your shopping there. I buy all my miscellaneous cooking stuff in supply stores because they are crazy cheap and the quality is really good. (Personally, I avoid the non-stick stuff, but that's an individual choice; the store will happily sell you either type.)
posted by Forktine at 6:14 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use stainless for most things. I have a cast iron skillet that I use about every day, one way or another, and a cast iron dutch oven for the situations that require it.

To my mind, non-stick has no advantages over stainless and cast iron in terms of cooking or ease of cleaning. Non-stick has a huge disadvantage in that you have to use plastic utensils and be super careful not to scratch the teflon surface. Personally, I'm not interested in that kind of care, and I have some metal utensils that you would have to pry from my cold, dead hands.

Your intuition is right about getting a sense for the right heat for stuff. This can be especially tough with an electric range because those coils are not very responsive. It will take practice.

Also, if you can afford it, spend the money on a big tin of olive oil ('cause it's cheaper in bulk) and don't be afraid to have a heavy hand with it when sauteeing things (say, 1-2 tablespoons as a start). It's good for you and for your pans. It will make your cooking better, most of the time.

You can usually get decent pans fairly cheap at your local marshall's / tj maxx / homegoods in the U.S. What you're looking for is an aluminum core for good heat distribution and a stainless surface. This time of year, you might find a decent deal on a set at a department store, but it doesn't sound like you feel like you need a set, so maybe buy the couple that you will use piecemeal.
posted by gauche at 6:18 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would go with a cast iron skillet for the most versatility and a well-seasoned one is pretty non-sticking. My favorite official non-stick pan is ScanPan, made in Denmark, of ceramic titanium and doesn't require plastic or wooden spoons. My work horse pan is the Sur La Table® Tri-Ply Stainless Steel Sauté Pan. It's a fabulous everyday pan.
posted by shoesietart at 6:24 AM on December 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so far...we legitimately have no restaurant supply stores here in smalltown West Virginia, although occasionally we pop up to the Strip District in Pittsburgh when we need a good sandwich or bowl of Pho. Feel free to recommend me a place in that area if you know one.
posted by TomMelee at 6:37 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as re-seasoning the cast iron: are you using soap on it? If you are, stop.

In general, for cast iron, cleaning means getting the food off through physical means and then using heat to sterilize. Soap gets the food off through chemical means which also strip the seasoning. Save yourself and the pan some trouble.

Scrub the thing with hot water and some kind of abrasive if necessary (those green scrubbers work well, as do steel wool pads). Then put it back on the burner to use heat to thoroughly dry the pan. If the pan is not in heavy (daily or so) use, rub it with a little oil once it's dry and warm to protect it. I have heard that flax-seed oil is pretty good for this but I just use whatever cooking oil is handy. If the pan is in heavy use, you shouldn't have to oil it but maybe every couple of weeks.
posted by gauche at 6:55 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're at a Ross, TJ Maxx, etc (places where it's good to hunt for cookware because you never know what you'll find) and you see something labeled Emerilware, that's actually All-Clad under a different name.
posted by azpenguin at 6:56 AM on December 27, 2011

I've used cast iron for years. Advantages: 1) Cheap. 2) Nonstick. 3) Handles the highest temps. 4) Goes in the oven. 5) Easy to clean.
Most cookware is a vanity-driven ripoff; knives are the worst. A good carbon-steel knife is better than the most expensive "chef's knife" on the market, because it's easy to sharpen with a steel. (A stainless steel knife keeps and edge longer, but it's much, much harder to sharpen -- because it's much harder steel).
posted by LonnieK at 6:58 AM on December 27, 2011

My mom warned me when I started outfitting my own kitchen not to waste money on stainless pans, that I'd do most of my cooking on nonstick.

Thank God I didn't listen to her, because it's bad advice. I really only use non-stick for "stickier" foods like eggs and some cheesier dishes to keep the cleanup easy. Stainless steel works just as well for most applications, and better for many. You cannot, for instance, properly sear meat on a nonstick pan. It'll brown, but it won't be the same. You can't put a Teflon pan under a broiler or use it for high-heat applications like stir-fry, or it will release a noxious gas (side note: do you have pet birds? If so, no Teflon for you. The gas will kill them).

I don't even do pancakes on nonstick, as I find cast iron works just dandy -- though, yeah, cast iron requires a bit of care. Not to mention that it heats slowly, which slows down your cooking time. Also the center of the pan gets a lot hotter than the edges -- where the myth of iron being "even heating" started, I don't know.

My go-to pans are a 10" and 12" stainless, a 12" nonstick, a small 6" nonstick for scrambling eggs, and the rest are an assortment of cast iron stuff.

You don't need All Clad, no, but they are awesome pans. Steel/aluminum clad pans heat very quickly, and therefore evenly. As to nonstick, the ScanPans are the best of the green ones -- you can use metal tools, put them in the dishwasher, put them under a broiler or over high heat, whatever.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:59 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

A lot of people are going to recommend cast iron (and they're not wrong). However, for health reasons I use only stainless steel.

Also - avoid olive oil. Yes, it's good stuff and has a nice flavor. But it also has a really low smoke point. It's worth it to try grape seed and/or avocado oil - they both have very high smoke points. It seems like I can use less oil when I use them as opposed to olive oil.

With stainless I've found that I sometimes don't even need to bother with oil. It takes some practice to really get good at cooking with them, but it's worth it.

I'd also suggest avoiding expansive (and expensive) pot/pan sets. I use two pans and two pots. (I actually have a bunch more, but they just sit in the cabinet.)

Just make sure the bottom is thick. The pan should be heavy. If it's light you're going to burn your food a lot.
posted by krisak at 7:04 AM on December 27, 2011

I have a set of All-Clad and love them. While the cost was steep, I figured I'd never need to buy another pan again, therefore, worth the cost.

As far as non-stick goes, I've been thinking about picking up a ceramic pan like these though I don't know how good they are.
posted by Jacob G at 7:06 AM on December 27, 2011

I think I kinda prefer non-stick, but I think what I need to do is cook with the gas down a little lower.

Well, this really depends on what you're cooking; it might be that you need to turn the heat higher, but stop trying to stir the food around so much; once the outside sears a bit it'll unstick itself.

I have a lot of nonstick pans we got years and years ago before I knew how to cook, and I now really wish we hadn't; they're not really all that much less sticky -- I'm perfectly capable of adhering egg to teflon, no problem -- and it really limits what you can do with the pan (no high heat, no metal utensils.)

More and more often I find myself reverting to the same cast iron pan by default for most tasks (because it's easiest to clean and because it's so heavy I rarely take it off the stovetop so it's always sitting there ready for use.)
posted by ook at 7:10 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kitchen supply store is the real deal. You won't recognize any of the brands, they will be priced around a third of what the local department store charges for a name-brand pan of similar size, and they will be built like tanks, with thick-gauge stainless steel or aluminum, long, riveted metal handles and a substantial teflon coating.

I got mine 5 years ago for 16 bux, a stainless model without an insulated grip so I could pop it in the oven, and it still looks new despite regular use.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:15 AM on December 27, 2011

Every single day we use our All Clad MC2 pans, which we received as wedding gifts. And about once a week we use my parent's pans, which were not nearly as expensive. And every time, I thank in my mind the people who bought us those pans. They cook more evenly; they look almost the same as they did the day we got them (7 years ago); they can go in the oven; the lids are sturdy and don't warp; the handles are just right. Love them. We have a large pot, a smaller pot, a non-stick skillet, two sizes of regular skillets, and a saucier. They all get lots of use, except the saucier and maybe the smaller pot. They are worth every penny spent on them, and if they were stolen or ruined in a fire, I would spend the money to replace them.

We also have a large and a small cast iron skillet which see a lot of use.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:19 AM on December 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks all. I am aware of how to care for my cast iron, I'll be polite and say it's not me who keeps "unconditioning" it. It is currently in an electrolysis bath for the day, after which it will be reseasoned. Regardless, my SO will not touch it, and sometimes I don't want to do all the cooking...85% is enough for me. ;)

As for oil, I use sunflower on the advice of a chef at a big giant 4 star hotel, neutral taste + high smoke point, and I've been really happy with that so far, unless someone here wants to reeducate me.

Mostly we're talking meat in this pan. I use the Alton Brown Ribeye method for just about any steak-style red meats, and I use the cast iron for that---but we're not especially fancy around here, so there's a pasta pot and a roasting pan and smaller egg pans and one Big Ass Skillet For Everything Else (R).

Thanks for the heads up on the EmerilWare, and the advice to check TJ Maxx/etc. I will certainly do that. Keep the responses coming. I love it.
posted by TomMelee at 7:21 AM on December 27, 2011

A pan? Unless you're mired in abject poverty or live in a miniscule apartment you can have a nice stainless pan AND a nice cast iron pan AND a nonstick pan.

My philosophy:

Stainless... get the good stuff and never buy that size pan again.

Cast iron... too cheap to worry about.

Nonstick... get cjeap twflon pans and replace every couple years. I've tried fancy LASTS FOREVER nonstick and it doesnt. Likewise that green nonstick rapidly turned into actively adhesive.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:24 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

although occasionally we pop up to the Strip District in Pittsburgh

Head up Penn Ave away from downtown and You'll find a couple of restaurant supply places open to the public and while you're down that way, stop at Klavon's
posted by nnk at 7:27 AM on December 27, 2011

Kind of unrelated, but ties into the restaurant supply idea - I've always liked this No-Frills Kitchen article by Mark Bittman.
posted by nnk at 7:28 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you do make it to a restaurant supply store, you can do pretty well for yourself with aluminum pans (the ones with the rubber handles). They're cheap, the metal conducts really well, cleans up easily, and can go from stove top to oven without a hitch. Look in any restaurant kitchen, and you'll see stacks of this skillets on the line. Don't be afraid of the urban myths you hear about cooking on aluminum; just about anyone who has ever eaten out has had their food prepared in one of these skillets.
posted by Gilbert at 7:46 AM on December 27, 2011

Gilbert - I'm curious how quickly aluminum heats/cools? And do they get hot/cool spots?

I'm asking because this is one of the major reasons I use stainless steel - no hot spots (and efficient heat transfer). But if aluminum works better I'd switch.
posted by krisak at 8:22 AM on December 27, 2011

My original titanium ScanPan got lost/stolen, and the new ones are not of the same quality and get poor reviews on Amazon that do not match my user experience at all. It feels different in my hand, which lead me to question what had changed and research the Amazon reviews.

Last year, in an effort to replace that ScanPan and fill in my collection, I bought blue steel, ceramic, the missing size on my cast iron (I love mine but it is NOT that versatile because no wine/vinegar/acid can be used or the whole dish will taste like sh&t - not versatile if you want to make a pan sauce!) and.....

I ended up with good quality stainless steel after spending about $200 on the adventure to replace my original titanium ScanPan!

Yes restaurant supply! My favorite over-sized stainless steel stock pot with an extra heavy bottom was made in Italy and comes from CostCo. CostCo! Definitely some better deals there than at restaurant supply.

I would buy AllClad second hand without hesitation from an Estate Sale. Or the Internet if the pics are good.

And if you find a ScanPan on the internet second hand, manufactured circa 1996, be kind and notify me via memail. Please?

To round up...

- correct answer is stainless steel
- CostCo, restaurant supply, estate sales, eBay - in that order.

Happy Cooking!
posted by jbenben at 8:32 AM on December 27, 2011

When I got pregnant I (for health reasons, nasty toxic coating ick) replaced all the nonstick stuff with a set of Cuisinart stainless steel pots and pans that looks like it's really similar to the pan you linked to. That was almost two years ago and I am SO SO GLAD I got the stainless set! I love it to death, it's practically nonstick, it goes through the dishwasher with no problems, the other night I accidentally let all the water boil away and the resulting burned stuff in the pan washed away easily, the stuff is bulletproof. The Cuisinart pots and pans have a good heft to them, they are well-balanced and have a fine curled lip on them that makes pouring (sauces and stuff which you say you don't do very often so don't know if that matters to you) a breeze. LOVE. Get the Cuisinart!!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:35 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I totally second ROU_Xenophobe's comment. Expensive stainess (like this Allclad), cheap cast iron, and an inexpensive non-stick that you replace when the non-stick wears off (this Cuisinart looks like a good middle-of-the-road nonstick).
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:36 AM on December 27, 2011

Adding to my comment above, I just searched Amazon and this is the set I have. I love it to death, though my one complaint is it didn't come with a steamer insert so I got this which fits on the medium-size pot just fine and now I don't need to buy another pot or pan ever.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:44 AM on December 27, 2011

That Cuisinart you link to looks really good, and especially for the price, but I don't see any mention of the inclusion of a lid.

I got rid of all my cast iron because the seasoning gave everything I cooked in it a faint overtone of rancidity.
posted by jamjam at 9:15 AM on December 27, 2011

I am pretty well against non-stick coatings for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is I try to avoid ingesting as many Dupont products as possible. Besides directly eating them as the coating breaks down, there are chemicals used in teflon production that are found almost every human in America and in arctic animals that have pretty much no contact with humans. Yuck. Also, many of these coatings can break off if scraped by a cooking utensil or can break down into toxic products if overheated. I am a good cook but not disciplined enough to make sure neither ever happens.

Sorry for the sad news on this if it is the fist time you heard it, here is more positive advice:

I have had luck in a lot of different places I have traveled for work and needed to put together a camp kitchen at second hand stores like The Salvation Army. It is pretty tough to kill a cast iron pan so I guess they tend to find themselves needing a new owner. Often you can also find some nice stainless steel or other workable pans. For pan frying and sauteing, look for something that will spread the heat out as much as possible. That is where cast iron is the best. A lot of the fancier pans have copper cores etc, but I think really what you are looking for is a substantial chunk of metal so it has some thermal mass. Along these lines I love my Le Creuset enameled cast iron pot, but I don't know if there is a cheap alternative (I got mine by getting married, the best way to gear up a kitchen I know of).

I agree with the above comments that cast iron is the way to go. If you feel it is a pain to keep the pan seasoned maybe you should spend a couple minutes looking up instructions. gauche nails it above as does LonnieK. Another key thing with the cast iron is that since you are really cooking on an accumulated coating, you can't add very wet or acidic products to the pan, they will dislodge the coating and add some unwanted flavor to your dish.
posted by JayNolan at 10:30 AM on December 27, 2011

Sorry, I didn't notice the comment above that the cast iron was in the electrolysis bath. As somebody who never turns down an opportunity to play with electricity and water, I would suggest that if you really need a do-over on a cast iron pan, just get some steel wool and soap and give it a good scrub. I think this might also work down some of the raised bumps and you will end up with a smoother surface than if you reduce the iron back onto the pan. I also don't really go through much of a process for seasoning except for just making a bunch of bacon in small batches and wiping out and raising the temp between batches. I have only really had to properly clean and season a pan when I first bought it.

Also, I feel your pain about keeping the kitchen staff properly trained. I haven't had much luck that way either. I save my criticism for keeping my favorite knife out from under a bunch of stuff in the sink!
posted by JayNolan at 10:41 AM on December 27, 2011

Non-stick doesn't last. It's handy to have a frying pan with a non-stick coating, but I haven't replaced the last one that wore out. I have Revere pots; stainless with a copper bottom that conducts and spreads heat well. I've had them for 30+ years, and they've lasted well. They can take high heat, but work quite well with low heat. (My sister bought pots that have a warning about high heat; do not buy cooking gear with such a disclaimer.) They can often be found on Craigslist or ebay for good prices.

I have a selection of cast iron pans. They are fantastic. I don't baby them; they're made of cast iron, and they've been used and scrubbed so much that they are pretty non-stick. Iron distributed heat well, and is a pleasure to use.

I also just got a nice paring knife at Ikea. Good size, pretty sharp, pretty cheap. Paring knives randomly vanish, so I seem to always be buying replacements. I love really good knives, but it's useful to have several paring knives.
posted by theora55 at 12:16 PM on December 27, 2011

Call the All-Clad factory in Canonsburg, which is on your way to the Strip. They used to have a tremendous factory sale twice a year in December and June (not advertised on the website).

Failing that, you can get All-Clad seconds at Cookware and More. I've bought several pieces with cosmetic flaws at more than 50% off retail; but they don't always have what you want in stock.
posted by Wet Spot at 12:29 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cast iron -- I deep-clean all mine every 6 months by putting them in a 500-degree oven for 30 minutes. ThenI wipe em out and re-season em. No muss, no fuss.

BTW, I want to try combining this operation with the oven's self-cleaning function, which relies solely on high heat, no chemicals. Anybody ever try that?
posted by LonnieK at 1:09 PM on December 27, 2011

Just a note on Theora55's comment: the Revere Ware sold today is apparently not even remotely the same quality as the stuff she has had for 30 years. Everyone kept recommending Revere to me when I was shopping around for pots n pans a couple years back, but if you look at the reviews, the new stuff is much more cheaply made.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:21 PM on December 27, 2011

Came in to mention the twice-a-year All Clad sale that Wet Spot references above. My MIL went a few years ago and gave us an amazing set of pots and pans as a Christmas gift.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:58 PM on December 27, 2011

Oh man, have I ever gone through the pans. I have a set of original Calphalon hard-coat anodized sauce pans and a stock pot from the early 80s, back when they had a uniform quarter inch vessel-wall thickness as opposed to today's eighth-inch models. Much of the anodized gray color has been scrubbed off and they remain in daily use but I am careful not to cook highly acidic foods in them these days for fear that the anodization layer is completely gone in places.

I use a gas cook-top.

Sticking just to saute/fry pans:

In one of my first ventures out with higher-end cookware, I ruined an original (mid 90s) titanium ScanPan saute pan trying to pan-fry steak au poivre. The crushed black-pepper burned to the non-stick in a way that nothing, and I mean nothing, would remove the charred mess. The vapor rolling off the pan brought water to the eyes of everyone in the house including my wife's aunt and uncle who had the misfortune of ringing the doorbell in the midst of the pepper conflagration. Nasty. It seemed that the very surface was somehow metallurgically altered by the pepper burning and, after fussing with it periodically for a few months without any success in removing the charred adhesions, I regretfully threw it out.

As far as I am concerned, their (ScanPan's) claim of non-stick without PTFE/Teflon appears to me to be bogus. Maybe it is different today but I remain skeptical of any non-PTFE non-stick claims. I think the best non-stick out there is the cheap-ass stuff you can buy at a restaurant supply store. As Alton brown recommends, I just buy a cheapie non-stick saute/fry pan at Bargreen's for $25-40 every year or so. They have horrible heating characteristics but for scrambled eggs or other sticky stuff, they're more than good enough.

Lodge cast iron is great and I own a 12" fry pan but admit that I am less enchanted with it than I thought I'd be when I bought it. It's just such a bitch to clean despite my repeated attempts to season it correctly. The casting is just too textured. When I lived in Denmark, I bought a fantastic, inexpensive Italian-made cast iron pan at Ikea whose casting finish, or perhaps machined finish, is much smoother than the Lodge pans and it truly became non-stick with time. Plus it had a hilariously badly translated care instruction booklet. Alas, I left the pan in Copenhagen when I returned stateside.

A friend has an old Griswold #13 cast iron pan that, a few years ago, she paid over $500 for second- or third- (or fiftieth-) hand and it is an awesome pan with a machined smooth bottom surface. Seasoned, it is better than any non-stick pan could ever hope to be. I haven't yet tried to buy one but may someday. I do wonder if i could have a machine shop mill a Lodge to be smooth but the castings seem to be inherently more porous than the Griswolds which seem very fine-grained, if that's possible.

I was given a straight-sided All-Clad saute pan a few years ago and really tried hard to like it but found that it had really uneven heating and was hard to clean. In a fit of faith in high-end stuff, I broke down and bought one of their copper-core saute pans and the difference was very noticeable--it heated much more evenly and today I use it for most of the high-heat sautéing of things like scallops but still have a hard time getting the pan truly clean, usually having to heat water in it to loosen the burned on stuff.

For really high-heat cooking of things like country-style has browns or thin strips of meat or true stir fry on blazing heat, I have found a cheap Vollrath carbon steel pan is simply unbeatable, especially for potatoes. It needs to be seasoned but, wow, a higher performance high-heat piece of cookware I have yet to find. Same is true for woks. Go carbon steel.

So, beyond my trusty Calphalon old sauce and stock pots, I have ditched most other pans except for a cheapie 8” non-stick, a good All-Clad copper-core stainless sauté pan, a cheap Vollrath carbon steel fry pan and...

The best, most all-around great pan ever: the Costco Kirkland Signature brand enameled skillet. It is just so versatile, combining the heating characteristics of cast iron with the toughness and relatively easy cleanup of enamel, this has become my go to pan of choice for almost everything except really high heat stuff. With the lid on, it can do slow cooking, lid-off and it's a great all-around saute pan or, at low heat, a poaching pan. I love the thing. It performs just as well as a Le Creuset costing a lot more.

Just don't ever use an abrasive cleanser on it as that will ruin it forever and make it impossible to clean.

I bought their matching enameled cast iron Dutch oven and it is also amazing but, alas, they seem to no longer produce it.
posted by bz at 9:44 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wanted the All-clad, but as I move around a lot and don't have a lot of money, the price tag was a bit much for me. After reading lots of reviews on metafilter, amazon, and cooking websites, I settled on a mix of cast iron, one small non-stick for quick eggs, and a bunch of Calphalon tri-ply pots and pans, which we acquired at Bed, Bath, and Beyond with the use of coupons and sales. I love my calphalon tri-ply. It has a lifetime warranty, and they can go in the oven up to 450F and the dishwasher (although I wash them by hand). If you have someone in your house who doesn't know how to cook with them, then they can turn colors from overheating, but a dash of Bar Keeper's Friend has them shiny and brand new again. They heat up much faster than my cast iron, so I find myself using my pans more than I expected I would.

It does take a little bit of getting used to, but I find them easier to use than cast iron, so I have my guests use these. The biggest problem you'll have at first (unless you read the guide that comes with them) is food sticking to the pan, but once you get used to them, you can cook pancakes and eggs without a problem.
posted by PrimateFan at 8:30 AM on December 28, 2011

Definitely go to discount stores regularly. I found a stainless Calphalon pan that retailed for about $50 and was selling for $25. I noticed a scratch on it and got 10% off that price - woot!
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