In the kitchen

Having always done at least some of the family cooking — and lately doing most of it — I have developed my own biases and preferences about the equipment and tools. These are a few of the things I wish I had known when we started equipping our kitchen.

I shudder to think of all the money we have wasted trying to save money on pots and pans. The best rule is to buy the best you can, buy it once, and don’t buy specialty items that do just one thing. A saucier? It’s just a little pot. A double boiler? Use a heat proof bowl over a regular pot.

We bought a number of sets of pots and pans over the years, always getting the cheapest thing we could find that seemed okay. I remembered an experiment Mr. Wizard did that proved you can boil water in a paper cup, and my mother certainly didn’t have premium cookware in her kitchen. So I assumed that “pretty good” would be plenty good enough.

But after just a few years, we ended up replacing about all the cheap pots and pans because handles started breaking or the finish wore off. And most of the so-called bargain pots and pans proved harder to cook with than good quality ones, what with hot spots and such.

Eventually I got tired of buying short-term cookware. After some research, I started accumulating All-Clad cookware, the brand generally recommended by Cook’s magazine and other cookware testers.  We bought from open stock and got just one or two pieces at a time, so it took us a few years to get our basic set.

We never could find a set that had just what we needed and nothing extra. Also, the sets have sizes that are a little small for family cooking. For instance, instead of a 10 or 12 inch skillet, many sets have an 8 inch, or a 1 1/2 quart pot instead of a 2 quart, and so on. The total cost for our open stock set ended up being several hundred dollars.

We probably spent more on lower quality over time. There are some less expensive lifetime quality pots and pans out there, but I got tired of fooling around and went with one that came with independent expert recommendations.

The All-Clads have a lifetime warranty, so if anything does go wrong, we can get a replacement.

When our daughter got married this year, we bought her a similar basic set of All-Clad. This way she won’t have to wait to inherit ours.

Another good purchase, and a much less expensive one, is a cast iron skillet. If you take good care of one, it will last several generations, and it is simply the best material for frying just about anything. It makes a great pan for baking cornbread, too. Properly seasoned, it’s a great non-stick surface.

Speaking of that, I no longer buy non-stick pans of the more modern sort. Regardless of what anyone says, they have a short life, as the non-stick surface wears off quickly regardless of what utensils you use or how careful you are. And all of that worn-off material is going into your food. Frankly, if my pan is going to shed into my dinner, I’d prefer it to be iron instead of a plastic with a name so long it has to be abbreviated into three capital letters.

People cooked with unprotected pots and pans for generations before Teflon and its cousins came along. In fact, those recipes we tend to think can’t be cooked without non-stick were probably developed without it. After learning to use my stainless steel and cast iron cookware properly, I’ve had little trouble with sticking or clean-up. My one remaining non-stick frying pan sits unused in my cabinet.

If you can afford only one good pot, make it an enameled Dutch oven. If I were hard-pressed, I could probably cook everything we eat in one. The bare cast iron ones are good also and much cheaper, but you can’t cook acidic foods (tomato sauce, for instance) in them.

Here again, the best enameled Dutch ovens are probably worth the exorbitant price. I currently have an “almost as good” Dutch oven that cost only about $40. The inside stains badly, and none of the recommended cleaning techniques help. (And, yes, I tried Bar Keeper’s Friend, as well as the “Dutch oven stain remover/cleaner” at the kitchen specialty store.) This Dutch oven is made in China rather than France (the country of origin of the expensive ones). When all the news hit a few months ago about lead in shiny toys from China, I began to look at my shiny bargain with some suspicion. Besides, the enamel is already chipping around the edges, and I feel sure we’ll have to replace it eventually.

Ultimately, we do almost all our cooking in the Dutch oven, a stainless steel frying pan, a cast iron frying pan, a 2 quart pot and a 4 quart pot. We also bought a 3 quart pot, but if I had it to do over, I’d get another 4 quart instead. In searching for the perfect saute, I’ve acquired several different sizes and styles of skillets and frying pans over the years, but a 10 or 12 incher of any style will suffice for most things.

One note of caution: a 12 inch Lodge cast iron skillet is heavy! Our large cast iron skillet is an old 10 3/8 inch made by a defunct company. We got it as a wedding gift in 1974. It’s much lighter than the comparable modern day Lodge (10 1/2 inch, I believe), and it’s been large enough for almost everything.

We also regularly use a stock pot (one place it seems fine to buy a cheaper brand as long as the handles are sturdy), a pressure cooker, a Crock pot, a roasting pan, and a couple of half sheet pans (I prefer steel because it’s more durable than non-stick or aluminum). If you have a larger family or cook elaborate meals, you might need an extra pot or two, but most anything else is just taking up cabinet space.

I used to worry that some of my fry pans didn’t have matching lids. I scoured the Internet looking for the proper lid. But watching old Julia Child shows on PBS, I noticed she tended to grab anything that came to hand when she needed to cover a pan. I found that the lids I already had — including some from those old broken pots — would fit well enough to cover each of my pots and pans.


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