Tuesday, July 15, 2008


At the request of a reader, this week’s column will deal with cookware and the advantages and disadvantages of certain materials from which cookware is constructed.

Cookware must have two basic elements to recommend itself for our use; it must be a good conductor of heat and its surface must be inert or non-reactive with the foods cooked in it. Keeping these facts in mind, let’s look at the options available to us.

Glass, ceramic, stoneware and earthenware are similar in that they are “varying mixtures of a number of compounds, notably the oxides of silicon, aluminum and magnesium,” as Harold McGee points out in his classic, On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. While these materials don’t conduct heat well and are unsuitable for use over direct heat, they do have advantages of being non-reactive with foods, they don’t corrode and they don’t change the taste of foods cooked in them. I have a number of French and Italian ceramic casseroles and bean pots, which I use, mostly in the oven, as they are fine for slow, even cooking like braising or roasting. Used on top of the stove over direct heat, you risk ceramic pieces shattering, although the use of a flame tamer to diffuse the direct heat can allow use outside the oven.

The best conductors of heat are copper and aluminum. I love my copper cookware and over the years I have collected quite a bit of it from saucepans to stockpots to roasting pans. I started buying cooper cookware, primarily from Bridge Kitchenware in New York city (www.bridgekitchenware.com) back in the early 1970s. Fred Bridge was a character in his own right (I’ve seen his toss elegant Park Avenue ladies, looking for marrow spoons, out of his store while bending over backwards to help Latino boys in chef’s pants who had been sent by their kitchens to pick up a fish poacher.) I was influenced to seek out copper by comments in Julia Child’s classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and photos of lovely copper pots brimming with soup that appeared in the first real cooking magazine, Gourmet.

Copper cookware has the benefit of almost instant heat conduction as it both heats up and cools down quickly. It must be thick and heavy; a minimum of 1/8th inch of solid copper. Those Revere Ware pots with a copper wash on the bottom are useless, the copper being merely a decorative piece that provides no benefit, and they are a pain to keep bright and shiny. Copper’s biggest drawback (besides the fact that it is prohibitively expensive in this new commodities driven world where copper has tripled or more in price) is the fact that it needs to be lined with tin or stainless steel to prevent reactions with the food placed in it. This tin surface can be easily scratched, revealing the solid copper beneath it, if a whisk or metal spoon is used in it. Once the tin lining is damaged, it must be repaired, and tinsmiths doing this type of work are hard to find. However, if copper cookware is used correctly, it will last a lifetime, and beyond, and it is beautiful to look at and speaks to the enthusiasm of the cook who has acquired such treasures.

Aluminum cookware, despite current concerns about the potential for carcinogenic reactions to long term use of aluminum in cooking, is the second best conductor of heat, and it has the benefits of being relatively affordable and light weight. The biggest downside for unlined aluminum in cooking is that is will react with certain foods, causing a discoloration and unappetizing appearance. Many aluminum pots today are coated with a non-stick surface or are anodized, where a thick, non-reactive surface is produced. All Clad is perhaps the best known name in aluminum cookware, although every celebrity chef today has his or her own line of cookware, much of it aluminum based.

Ubiquitous in country cooking is our cast iron cookware, of which Lodge is the last great American manufacturer. Heavy, impervious to damage, and relatively inexpensive, cast iron’s biggest disadvantage is that it can corrode and rust if not taken care of properly. It comes in about third behind copper and aluminum as a conductor, and we all know that when it’s hot, it stays hot. It also can react with some foods, but a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is almost non-stick and foods don’t tend to cook on. Seasoning a cast iron pan involves heating it slowly in the oven with a coating of oil for several hours. The oil penetrates the small crevices and scratches in the pan, forming a flat, hard surface that resists water and air. After use, the cast iron pan should be washed with mild dish soap or just rubbed out with a paper towel and/or coarse salt, used as an abrasive, if it needs some scouring. Avoid steel wool or detergents, or you may have to re-season the pot. When I wash my cast iron, I dry it by placing it over the burner on my range until all the moisture has evaporated. There’s nothing like cast iron for frying chicken or bacon, or making cornbread, although many people use it for their everyday cooking.

Cast iron also comes enameled, like Le Creusett or Staub, both French manufacturers, which is both attractive and functional. Perfect for a slow braise in the fall, they can also be used on the stovetop and because of the enameling, they are easy to maintain and clean. They don’t require seasoning and will last forever, if not chipped or damaged by abuse.

Lastly, there is stainless steel cookware. As stainless steel is not a good conductor of heat, most stainless steel pots and pans have a thick disc of copper sandwiched between two layers of stainless on their bottom to increase their conductivity. Stainless steel does not react with foods cooked in it and it is easy to take care of, so it is becoming more widely used. I cook mostly in stainless steel today, using Sitram, a French made product, although in Italy Paderno is a big manufacturer. Stainless steel has the advantage is easy maintenance with acceptable heat conduction, if it has a copper disk on the bottom, but it is relatively expensive for a quality product.

Whatever cookware you use, it is best to allow it to preheat, in most cases, before you put any oil or lubricant in it. Any pan’s surface has those myriad scratches and crevices that aren’t visible to the naked eye, but are there nonetheless. When the pan’s surface gets hot and the oil is added, the oil tends to fill these abrasions and shimmer over the surface of the pan, preventing the food to be cooked from sticking to the cooking surface.

Happy cooking, and see you next week.

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