Friday, December 5, 2008

Pots and Pans

Nov 2014 update: The concepts in this post still hold true, but the links might be out of date.  For an updated and more expanded list of pots and pans that I like, check out my amazon store.

I got an interesting message on my answering machine the other day.

* * *
Hi Helen! I remember you telling us in the Fish class about your favorite skillet. I'd like to buy it for my daughter for Christmas, but can't remember its name. Would you mind calling me back?

* * *

For the purposes of this post, let's name this caller "Nancy", so that we don't ruin the surprise for her daughter in case she is reading this blog.

I called Nancy back to chat about the skillets. In the Fish class, I use 3 of my favorite skillets (stainless, non-stick, and cast-iron), so I asked Nancy which dish she was talking about.

"The expensive one. The one you used to make the sauce for swordfish," she said.

Ah! The All-Clad skillet. This is definitely my workhorse. It does almost everything. Sautés vegetables, sears meats, caramelizes onions, makes sauces, poaches fish, and makes a fabulous tarte tatin.

"Yes," said Nancy. "That's the one."

"But remember," I said, "It's not good at searing delicate fish. You need non-stick or cast iron for that."

"That's right. I remember," said Nancy.

"It will be a great present that will last your daughter a life-time," I said.

I wasn't being romantic. All-clad pans literally do last a life-time.

Nancy's call made me realize that I haven't discussed pots and pans on my blog before. At least not thoroughly. Since all you cooking enthusiasts might be looking for a good way to spend the Christmas gift money, or looking for good gifts to give to other cooks, I thought this would be a good time to discuss this subject.

First things first. No sets! Just because one company makes a great stock pot doesn't mean they make a great skillet. Besides, you want to have control over the exact pieces that you get. You don't want to get a 10 inch skillet if you really needed a 12 inch one.

There are two exceptions to this rule. One for very rich people and one for penniless, college students. If you belong to one of these categories, see the end of this post for some cookware options.*

Now, the cookware for the rest of us.

09/24/2009 update: I have recently tried Tramontina 18/10 TriPly-Clad cookware from Walmart as a cheaper alternative to All-Clad. It's just as good at about one third of the price.

Stainless Steel Skillet

That's the work horse Nancy and I were talking about. You'll use it so much, it's worth getting a good one. All-clad is unbeatable in this department. If you normally cook for 1-2 people, 10 inch skillet (around $100) is all you need. If you normally cook for 4, get the 12 inch one (around $130). All-clad makes different lines, like "Stainless", "LTD," "Master Chef 2," etc. The only difference is in the outside finish of the pan. It will effect the look, but not the performance of your cookware, so get whichever look you like and can afford. "Stainless" is the most expensive one. The important thing is that the interior of the pan is stainless steel, so don't get a non-stick by accident. Non-stick pans have very limited applications and only last a few years, so there is no need to spend the big bucks on them.

Medium sauce pan with straight sides and lid

I used to think that I could live without an All-clad sauce pan. I did until this year. It's one thing to spend $100 on a skillet that cooks expensive steaks and racks of lamb, but to spend $180 on a pot that cooks soup and boils potatoes seemed exorbitant. It wasn't until this year that I finally got a 4-quart all-clad sauce pan. I can confidently tell you that it was worth every penny. Even heat distribution, great conductivity, balanced design, the long handle that stays cool, and a little helper handle that helps me get the pan in an out of the oven -- everything I wanted in a sauce pan. My soup production tripled after I got this incredible sauce pan. Need I say more? Make sure to get stainless steel interior, not non-stick. If you normally cook for 1-4 people, 4-quart sauce pan is the perfect size.

Small sauce pan with sloped sides and lid

All-clad again. While I view the 4-quart all-clad sauce pan as a luxury, the 2-quart sauce pan with sloped sides (around $100) is a necessity. You'll need it to make sauces and if your pot is mediocre, it will take a miracle to produce a good sauce. I also use mine to warm up small quantities of soups and stews, make risotto, and cook small quantities of pretty much anything that requires wet heat. Make sure to get stainless steel interior, not non-stick.

A non-stick skillet

Most home cooks think of a non-stick skillet as a necessity. It's not, but it does have its applications: searing fish fillets, cooking eggs, and frying crêpes. There is no such thing as a non-stick skillet that will serve you a life-time. After a few years, the non-stick coating will get scratched and you'll need a new skillet. Luckily, it's possible to get a good non-stick skillet for about $30. I am currently in the process of replacing mine and have ordered WearEver Premium Hard-Anodized 12-Inch Saute Pan per Cook's recommendation. I'll let you know how it is once it arrives.

09/24/2009 update: I've been using the WearEver non-stick skillet for about 6 months now and I love it.

A large stock pot

A stock pot to a professional chef is like a non-stick skillet to a home cook: something they think they think they need to survive in the kitchen. But will you be making stock or huge amounts of soup on regular basis? For most home cooks the answer is no, so I would only buy this pot after you acquired all the all-clad pieces mentioned above. I would also not spend a fortune on this pot. 8-quart stockpot from Cuisinart works fine. It's price seems to range from $20 for "classic" model to $100 for "multiclad-pro" model. $20 seems like an amazing deal. I bought mine for $50. $100 seems too high. You can buy a whole Cuisinart set for $100 which includes the 8-quart stockpot.

That's a good starting list. I'll leave the dutch oven and cast-iron skillet for some other time.

How to clean your stainless steel cookware
If stuff got stuck or burnt, fill the pan with water and boil for 5 minutes. Most of the stuck stuff will come off easily when you scrub with a sponge. If that doesn't work, there is always Bar keeper's friend. This stuff will get anything off your pan.

Where to buy your cookware
Definitely not in a cooking store! They might not have all the lines or sizes of pots and pans and their prices are not any better than what you'll pay on-line. When spending hundreds of dollars, I want what I want. is my first choice. They have free shipping on orders over $50 and deliver in 2-3 days. If there is something they don't carry, go to Amazon. It's a good idea to check both sites to see who has the best price, but take shipping into account. The links I give for all-clad are for the "Stainless" line. Remember you can often save $20-30 by buying LTD, Master-chef 2, etc.

I suggest you use this post as a guide, but check with Cook's Illustrated as well. You'll need an on-line subscription ($35/year) to get their equipment evaluations, but considering how much money they saved me over the years with their excellent reviews (the winners of their tests are often modestly priced models), I find the subscription well worth it.

* For the rich and the poor

If you have money growing on trees, and enjoy wasting it, buy everything all-clad. Don't get me wrong, it's all fabulous, but do you really need to spend $250 on a stock pot or $100 on a non-stick skillet? Absolutely not!

If you are a penniless, over-worked college student, a set might not be the worst way to go. You haven't cooked enough to know what you want, you don't have time to research the subject, and you don't have any money. You are relying on a gift from your generous parents who are already paying your college tuition, so you have to be careful what you ask for. In this case, a set will work. But at least let's make it the best set $150 can buy: Tramontina 8 piece Stainless TriPly-Clad set. Before you get too excited, let me warn you that 3 of those pieces are covers, so it's really a 5 piece set. But for $150, you couldn't do better.


blueberry said...

I would recommend going to a store and handling the pots and pans in person before ordering them online. As someone with arthritic hands, I find the All Clad U shaped handle downright painful when the pot is full and I need to move it. I found the Viking pans to be much more comfortable to work with. This is a personal choice that you really need to hands-on experience to decide.

Helen said...

Hi Blueberry,

That's a great suggestion to handle the pots and pan in the store first. I just don't think you should necessarily buy them there :) Can you send me a link to some all-clad pan that has a U shaped handle. I am not sure what you mean by it. All the pans that I suggest have a long stick handle, so I don't believe they'd be a problem.


Anonymous said...

This is really helpful. I've done a lot of searching online for quality pots and pans, but I never really spent a lot of time analyzing which ones I *really* need. One of the reasons I held off on buying them is the cost. But if they last 50 years, then $100 isn't all that much.
What do you think about Analon? Are there less expensive options to All-Clad that's really good?


Helen said...

Hi Anna,

I haven't tried Analon pans, but there is no such thing as "Analon is 85% as good as all-clad at half the price". It's piece by piece. For example, Analon 2-quart saucepan might be almost as good as all-clad, but a 10 inch skillet can be terrible. These are just examples, not my opinions about Analon. My husband always begs me to buy All-clad right away. When I buy some cheaper alternative, I use it for 2-3 years, and then get all-clad anyway, so it ends up being more expensive in the long run :) When you really think about it, what is $100? 1 dinner out? I'd choose a pan that I'll be using every single day any time.

Don't buy a set. Just buy 1 piece. Evaluate it for a few years and then decide what else you need.


Maggie said...

Thanks for your advice on the sizes of pans that are helpful. This is such a tricky question.
The differences in all-clad pans are not just about finish, though...Various levels have different numbers of layers of aluminum/steel in them.

Helen said...

Hi Maggie,

Would you mind sending me a link to info on the layers of aluminum in different lines of all-clad pans. I checked their site for Stainless, LTD, and Master-chef-2 info and they all say 3-ply construction with 18/10 interior. I have one MC2 can and two "stainless" pans and they seem to perform equally well. I don't really like the LTD finish. It looks like something you can't restore by thorough scrubbing and I worry that it might start to look awful with time. But I might be completely wrong on that.

What's your favorite all-clad line? Or do you use a different company?


blueberry said...

I'm slow in replying... the handle as a whole is straight, but if you sliced it off cross-wise it is U-shaped, like celery. All of their long handles that I have seen are like that.

Helen said...

Ah, I see. Thanks for clarifying about the handles, and thanks again for your wonderful suggestion to handle the pan in the store before buying.

Maggie said...

ah, you may be right.

I was looking at Williams-Sonoma's five-ply brushed stainless pro...I covet this pan:

I agree that the LTD finish isn't as nice-looking as polished.

I think I'm going to register for the five-ply brushed fry pan and saute, and regular all clad stainless for saucepans/stockpot etc.

Anonymous said...

I am loving this post! Thanks so much for sharing so much information. I had been using the same non-stick pots and pans for the last couple (maybe few) years till my mom got me a set of stainless steel pots and pans from Pampered Chef. I know you said not to get a set, but you wouldn't turn down a free one, right? :) Anywho, having only cooked on non-stick, the stainless are driving me crazy b/c they seem so much more needy with the care time. It seems they are always getting discolored or get water spots. So far, the 1 part water/1 part vinegar soak trick has worked on the discoloration and water spots (that plus towel-drying), but I also just got a blackish-brown stain on my pan b/c I seared chicken breasts on it. I'll try the boiling water trick, but I'm so glad you told me about the Bartender stuff. I'm probably going to need it. I don't know if the vinegar concoction is going to do it this time.

Do you have a hard time cleaning your stainless steel pots and pans ever?

Thanks!! Diana

Helen said...

Hi Diana,

I don't really worry about water stains, discoloration, etc. As long as my pots and pans cook well, I don't care how they look. I make sure to scrub them completely clean so that the cooking surface is smooth and doesn't have anything stuck to it, but besides that, I don't worry about it. Once in a while, I give them a good scrub with Bar Keeper's Friend and it makes them look like new again :)


Unknown said...

Hi Helen

Love your post.
I recently came accross copper (french made) coockware in HomeGoods that is probably 1/5 of the original cost. What do you thing about copper cookware?

Helen said...

I've never tried copper pans. I hear they are great, but take some getting used to since they might conduct heat much faster than other pans. Again, I am sure that not all copper pans are created equal, just like not all aluminum pans are created equal. If they are that cheap, buy one and see how you like it. If they cost almost the same as All-Clad, I don't know if I'd risk it. Remember that not everything made in France that's cooking related is good. I had a Sitram (it's a French company) stock pot that was aweful! I finally threw it away and bought Cuisinart pot that I like.


Anonymous said...

Hey Helen,

Thanks so much for answering my question! That's good to know!


Diana :)

~M said...

I am one of the lucky few with a set of all-clad stainless steel. I got it for my wedding from my husband's parents. My husband and I plan to install an induction cooktop once we move into a house, so that's my reasoning for ferrous cookware.

However, I wanted to add that I think Le Creuset french ovens (dutch ovens) are just as indispensable (and also ferrous). I use mine ALL the time...for roasting chicken, making stock, pasta, etc. It's heavy as hell, but, hey, I'm building muscles (same goes for my cast iron skillet!). The black french oven that I have (I think 28") has a metal pot lid knob so it's oven safe to even higher temperatures than normal. Definitely "life-time" cookware! I received a smaller white one for free with some promotion. Also, you can often find great deals on Le Creuset at the outlets.

Anonymous said...

Here's the link to the All-Clad Comparison guide. I hope this helps!

jane said...

Blueberry I agree you want to make sure that you feel comfortable handling the pots since you are going to have something hot in them. I definitely prefer the stainless steel pots and pans. They work the best for.

In search of green said...

I have found a site that sells All-Clad irregulars called Cookware & More. I purchased the 14" saute pan and love it.It was the lowest price I could find. I can't fin any marks or anything that woul make it considered a "Second" - nor would I care - as long as it functioned properly.
Helen - would the 2 qt. sauce pan with the sloped sides you mentioned be the "2 Qt Saucier with the lid" by All Clad? Cookware and More sells it for $98 and it has the loop handle which I think costs more.

Helen said...

thanks for the cookware & more recommendation. Yes, the 2 qt sloped sides pan is All-Clad saucier with lid.

Shoaib Shahriar said...

Marvelous post about pots and pans. I really appreciate this kind of writing. As hobby blogger I always feel proud to read this kind of kitchen blog.