A Primer on Cookware Basics
If you’re stocking your first kitchen—or if the pans you inherited from a family member are so old the Smithsonian has expressed interest in acquiring them for a vintage collection—you may wonder which pans are essential for your kitchen. Before we get into all of the material differences (stainless steel, hard anodized, ceramic, nonstick, cast iron, copper, etc.), let’s look at the kinds of pans (fry pans, sauté pans, sauce pans, Dutch ovens, etc.).
- Frying pans: Frying pans, used for frying stuff and for dishes like scrambled eggs, omelets, and hot sandwiches, come in all sizes from 8-inch to 14-inch.
- Sauté pans: A sauté pan provides a broad, flat cooking surface for continuous stirring, shaking, and tossing, and straight sides to control spatters and keep food from sliding out. Sized from 1.5 quart to 6 quart
- Sauce pans: With deep straight sides and a perfectly flat bottom, sauce pans do it all—boil eggs, heat soup, and, yep, make sauces. 1 quart to 4 quarts. (Plus there are larger (10 quart) sauce pots.)
- Saucier pans: Similar to a sauce pan, only with gently sloping sides to facilitate stirring. 1- to 3-quart sizes.
- Dutch ovens: Used for braising, stewing, or baking casseroles and pasta dishes and simmering soups or chili. A “must have” for campers. Available in 4- to 9-quart sizes.
- Grill pans: Used for indoor or outdoor cooking, grill pans have a ridged cooking surface to make grill marks and elevate foods so fats drain to the bottom. Various shapes and sizes.
Those are the basic types of pans available (and later in this series we’ll look at some specialty pans you may want to consider depending upon how you like to cook). But, do you need them all? Especially to start? Probably not.
What you need
While every chef knows that the right pan for the task—if there are no other constraints—makes cooking easier and more enjoyable, you can get a good start in your kitchen with three basic pans: A 10-inch frying pan, a 3-4 quart sauce pan, and a 5-6 quart Dutch oven. If you can add two more—an 8-inch frying pan and a 1-2 quart sauce pan—then make your main frying pan 12-14 inches, instead of 10.
The great thing about pans is, if you buy your three starter pans from a good quality manufacturer, as you have the need—or the desire—to add to your collection, doing so should be easy. Manufacturers, while remaining innovative, tend to stay with a line of pans for a fairly long time. So, picking up more pans from the same manufacturer, within the same line, should be a breeze. That makes your choice of pan material pretty important if you plan to expand within the same line.
Later in this series of posts, we’ll talk specifically about nonstick pans and pans that work well on induction cook tops. And, if you’re interested in cast iron pans (they are wonderful in their own right), read this post. But for now, let’s look at hard anodized, stainless steel, and ceramic pans. While each type of cookware has its proponents, you have to choose the type of pans that will work best for you and the way you cook in your family.
Hard anodized: Hard-anodized cookware offers the durability of cast iron and stainless steel and the weightlessness of aluminum, making it a popular choice with both professional and amateur chefs. Hard anodizing is an electrochemically created gray coating of hard aluminum oxide on the exterior of aluminum cookware, but it is not simply a film. It is a built-in part of the cookware. Generally considered more durable than stainless steel, hard-anodized cookware spreads heat uniformly to the entire surface, allowing more even cooking. Hand-washing is recommended.
Ceramic: Ceramic cookware is durable and will not get dented or chipped easily. While it is available in a wide range of weights, ceramic cookware tends to be lighter. It is easy to clean using warm water, a mild detergent, and a sponge. Many brands of ceramic cookware feature an enameled or glazed surface that comes in a variety of bright, decorative colors.
Stainless steel: Stainless steel is a more affordable yet durable alternative to hard-anodized cookware. While plain stainless-steel cookware is available, generally a copper or aluminum disc is bonded to the bottom of the cookware to provide better heat conduction. Stainless steel is heavier than hard-anodized and has a reflective or metallic matte finish. Stainless steel is dishwasher safe, but should be dried immediately to prevent spotting.
Tomorrow: How to choose the pans that best suit you and the way you cook.