Lesson 10: Picking Kitchen Cookware

Picking Kitchen Cookware


Not all equipment is created equal! The first thing you should know about kitchen equipment is that price does not always dictate quality. In home goods, most items are priced based on the brand name, color, and material they are made of. If you can get your hands on a good set of restaurant grade equipment at your local restaurant supply company, you will be all the happier for it. Restaurant grade equipment is about the same price as medium-level home goods, but the quality and construction are much higher and can tolerate much more abuse. Having worked in restaurant kitchens, you wouldn’t believe the amount of times I have watched a cook try to destroy a restaurant grade sauté pan simply because they were angry, and the sauté pan suffered little to no actual damage. Restaurant grade equipment is not as pretty or decorative as home cookware, but I believe in function over form.

Below is a list of kitchen equipment, that if you owned, you can make just about anything. You do not have to own all of this, but working towards owning all of this equipment would allow you to be thoroughly covered for all different kinds of cooking situations.

8 inch sauté pan
12 inch sauté pan
2 gallon spaghetti pot
2 quart sauce pan
4 quart sauce pan
high temperature spatula
high temperature plastic flipper
high temperature plastic spoon
metal flipper
metal tongs
½ pan baking sheet
a set of ceramic or glass casserole dishes
8 inch chef’s knife or Santoku knife
boning knife
bread knife
paring knife
a pull through knife sharpener
bacteria-resistant cutting board
good kitchen towels
pot holders
measuring cups
measuring spoons
can opener
handy-dandy kitchen thermometer
rice cooker (one that holds at least two cups, but no larger than eight cups)

Very often, you can find barely used high quality kitchen equipment at your local thrift store. Make certain not to ever buy Teflon pans that are peeling. Also make sure that the pans don’t have any significant dents. Dents in your pans make even heating difficult to achieve and will cause burning.

How To Select Kitchen Equipment

Now that you have a list of kitchen equipment, let me teach you the subtle differences in kitchen equipment so that you know what to look for when you are at the store.

The Difference Between Cookware

Shopping for pans is like shopping for a car. Everybody has their own opinion as to which brand is best. Some like Chevy. Some like Ford. And others, they prefer a BMW. The best advice I can give you is to break down the differences in materials and their benefits. From there, it’s about thickness, personal preference, and application.

There are 3 materials that pans are commonly made out of:
1 iron
2 steel
3 aluminum

Let’s explore in greater detail below.

Iron Cookware
Iron pans tend to be thick, very heavy, and heat evenly, but very slowly. Iron can also be extremely durable. For example, I have a cast iron skillet from my great-grandmother that I still use often. It is at the very least 50 to 60 years old. I recommend everyone own at least one cast iron skillet in their collection. Iron pans also taste better with age as they tend to “season” with the natural oils of the foods you cook in them.

1 Very durable
2 Heats extremely evenly
3 Retains heat upon application of food product
4 Ideal choice when you need to sauté or braise your food with high heat and maintain the temperature

1 Difficult to maintain as you must use a special washing process and oil the metal after each use
2 Very heavy in weight, making it hard to perform simple tasks like sautéing and flipping with a wrist action
3 Heats very slowly

Steel Cookware
Steel is a good metal for making cookware. I view it as the best compromise between iron and aluminum. Steel does not need the same level of care as iron cookware, as steel tends to be stainless or no rust. This makes it an ideal choice as a replacement for iron if you don’t want to do all the maintenance. I like to think of steel cookware as the everyday version of iron cookware.

1 Durable
2 Heats evenly
3 Retains heat with the application of food product
4 Easy to care for and maintain
5 Ideal choice when you need to sauté or braise your food with high heat and maintain the temperature

1 Not as heavy as iron, but still heavier in weight than aluminum
2 Heats more slowly than aluminum, but more quickly than iron

Aluminum Cookware
Aluminum cookware is the absolute opposite of iron. When you buy aluminum cookware, thickness is the key. The thicker the pan, the more material that has to be heated. As such, it provides a more even distribution of heat. This leads to more even cooking temperatures, less burning, and better tasting food. Aluminum is my choice for everyday cookware. Since the aluminum is lighter than steel, using a wrist flipping action is less stressful to your wrists. This allows for less tiring cooking sessions.

1 Heats very quickly
2 Very light in weight
3 Easy to clean and maintain
4 Most common of all cookware materials

1 Easy to burn food when cooking
2 Aluminum metal tends to be very thin
3 Heats inconsistently (Pans will tend to have hotter and cooler spots when you cook with them.)
4 Easy to damage and warp

Non-Stick vs Bare Metal Cookware

Cookware is available in 2 surface finishes:

1 Non-Stick
Non-stick cookware is typically coated with a substance called PTFE (Teflon) that keeps food from sticking to your pans as they cook. This is most useful in sauté pans. Aside from Teflon, non-stick coatings include: ceramic and anodized aluminum. We will talk more about the pros and cons of each non-stick surface in just a moment.

2 Bare Metal
Bare metal cookware is any cookware that does not have a coating along the inside cooking surface. You will find bare metal in almost every piece of cookware that is not a sauté pan.

There are 3 Main Types of Non-Stick Coatings:

1 PTFE (Teflon)
PTFE is most commonly known by its brand trademark, Teflon. When you think of non-stick coatings your mind naturally thinks of Teflon. Teflon has a fascinating history going back to being part of the Manhattan Project. After WWII though, it was found to be extremely useful in creating non-stick cooking pans, as Teflon had at the time, the most slippery surface ever created. Teflon is applied to aluminum or steel in layers and either pressed on or painted. Better Teflon pans have more layers, which makes the Teflon adhere to the pan for longer and is more durable.

There are 2 drawbacks to Teflon:
1 You have to use wood or plastic utensils, because the coating is delicate and will easily scratch.
2 Once the coating is scratched, the pan must be thrown away.

There are some health concerns about Teflon. But as long as Teflon is used correctly, it is perfectly safe to use. When Teflon is heated above 660 degree Fahrenheit, it will emit a toxic gas as the Teflon breaks down. This gas is hazardous to humans and animals. But if you are properly using your pans, they should never ever exceed 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This keeps them in the safe zone. Even though Teflon can be a delicate coating, as long as you don’t scrape the coating, it can last for many years.

2 Anodized Aluminum
Most non-stick pans that you will encounter are anodized aluminum. This is because it is a much lower cost method of creating a non-stick pan. The coating is incredibly delicate, even more so than Teflon. Anodized aluminum cracks when exposed to foods that are highly acidic. Anodized aluminum peels extremely easily and comes off as little flakes in your food. Most often, you will find anodized aluminum in lower price and lower quality
cookware items.

3 Ceramic Coating
I have recently fallen in love with ceramic coated cookware. It combines the non-stick properties of Teflon with the grip of a non-coated pan. A ceramic coating is applied on the inside of a sauté pan. This is then polished and sealed. I really enjoy cooking with ceramic coatings as I feel they create a superior product. They are also available in many different colors, which makes for an visually interesting cooking experience. Ceramic coatings also do not have the same health concerns as a Teflon coating. Because ceramic coatings are still newer to the market, companies are still developing better products every year.

Personally, I use Teflon and ceramic coated sauté pans for my every day cooking. But as with all cooking related items, it is all about personal preference. I recommend buying a few of each type of coating and experimenting for yourself.

How To Purchase Cookware

Now that we know about the materials, lets discuss how to buy them. When you search for new cookware, no matter what material or coatings you select, you want to specifically look at 2 items:
1 the thickness of the material
2 the comfort of the handles

Thicker materials are always better. A thicker metal will always heat more evenly and lead to less burning than a thin metal. Always compare like to like when choosing between two sets of cookware. Always compare steel to steel, aluminum to aluminum, and iron to iron. When buying new cookware, you always want to consider the comfort of the handle when you hold it. Ask yourself: “Is this handle something I can hold in my hand for 30 to 60 minutes comfortably?” Also keep in mind that a cheap handle will begin to jiggle after a few uses. If you are me, the jiggling will drive you crazy.

When I buy cookware, I try to buy items that have been NSF certified. This tends to indicate (but not always) a more commercial grade of cookware. NSF means “National Safety Foundation.” It is a third-party safety and quality verifier in the United States. NSF certification may not be available in all countries. Commercial cookware tends to be of a more durable make, but that is not always the case. Some high-end cookware for personal use is of a much higher construction quality than cheaper commercial cookware.

In conclusion, the choice is ultimately up to you. But, I hope this has given you a road map to buying new equipment. Ultimately, the decision is yours. But with trial and error, you will learn what equipment works best for you. Once you learn what your personal preferences are, you will be
able to make more informed decisions. As with all things, practice makes perfect.

My last thought on cookware is that the experience level of the cook is the ultimate deciding factor on whether or not the cookware will work for your application. An experienced cook can make low quality cookware work for them, and an inexperienced cook can still ruin a dish in a $150 sauté pan. Just remember, there is no such thing as a “good” cook or a “bad” cook. There are only varying levels of experience and knowledge!

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