December 23, 2011

Nonstick and Stainless and Cast Iron, Oh My!

Last night I walked into an empty house. My things were there, well most of my things at least. Without going into any major detail, my ex-boyfriend/roommate decided to pack up all of his things yesterday and sneak out while I was at work, leaving me with a trashed house, an interesting hole in the wall, and a very scared kitten. All easy fixes, no problem, I'm better off now, etc.... I did a walk around and inventoried what was left, or rather what wasn't left. A couple towels are gone, so is all my bedding and the last of the beer I brought home from Montana. Again, no issue, all that can be replaced after work tonight. Then I got to the kitchen.

I knew all the cast iron pans would be gone. They were not mine and although I will miss them I can go out and buy my own. I did, however, have a sneaking feeling that when I opened up the cupboard with all my pots and pans it would be empty. That feeling turned into sad reality when I knelt down and opened my cupboard doors. At the sight of empty shelves I actually shut the doors, stood up, poured myself a shot of Pendleton whiskey and then re-opened the doors to look at the bare shelves. I'm not sure if I thought all my beloved cookware would magically appear or if I had just missed them, but with the second look I realized they were gone. Gone forever....

I should probably rewind and explain why these pots and pans warrant a blog post. I can't remember when they came into my life, they have always been there. They were there in California and then in Montana. They were in my first apartment in Whitefish and made the trek to Missoula with me years later. Finally they made the journey in the back of my Moms car to Oregon with a majority of my things. I learned to cook in those pans and have been with me from burnt macaroni to Southwest Corn Chowder and Carne en su Jego.

And now they are gone. Probably forever. All that is left of my cookware is the lone griddle. Lone lonely loner. Which is a lot of aloneness. (I hope Ice Age Dawn of the Dinos is on TV soon, totally want to watch that movie.) I'm not ready to move on from them. I am well aware that they were inanimate objects, but damn it, those were my inanimate objects!

Anyways, I will have to find new pots and pans tonight and start breaking them in. I have some big decisions to make and so, without further ado, I will delve into the world of cookware...

I never realized how many different kids of cookware there were out there until about a month ago when I was thinking about getting a little tiny sauce pan. I walked into the kitchenware isle at Fred Meyer and was instantly overwhelmed with the choices. Nonstick, enamel, Paula Dean, stainless steel, copper, anodized steel.... the list goes on. I was in wholly uncharted territory - the last time I bought a piece of cookware was probably close to 7 years ago.

I know I don't want everything to be non-stick. It is nice to have a non-stick pan (my griddle is non-stick) but I prefer cookware that is essentially naked. Non-stick pans just seem so high maintenance. Don't overheat, don't use metal utensils, don't put in the oven.... Also, why would I want a pan that, if I do accidentally overheat, could produce toxins that are harmful to people and will kill birds. Yup - if you overheat a non-stick pan (+400 degrees) you could kill a bird. Non-stick pans also don't pick up the little bits of flavor that you can make a pan sauce from. I know for my style of cooking, non-stick is out. Onward!

Stainless steel cookware is my next option. They are everywhere, relatively inexpensive, and won't scratch or dent. They also don't react to acidic/alkaline foods, which I cook quite a bit of. The downside is that most stainless steel pans are not oven safe and I don't want any bad reactions or flaking of the steel. Although I don't usually put my sauce pans in the oven, I do cook over high heat on the range. Stainless steel is also a poor heat conductor and that can raise some issues in the kitchen. If I can mix and match I would probably think about getting at least one sauce pan made from stainless steel. Next!

I not going to talk about enameled cookware because I know that I cook with a variety of ingredients that would damage the enamel over time. Enameled cookware is best for slow cooking with water-based dishes. Copper is another metal that I would not purchase as cookware. It is very reactive to acidic foods and would not be practical for me. Moving on.

Aluminum cookware is probably going to be my best option. My old pots and pans were (I think) cast aluminum. Sturdy. Heavy. Grey. They were heavy enough that they didn't feel like toy pans, but still light so they weren't impossible to move around with one hand when full. They are sticky enough to retain food bits to make sauces out of, but were great for sauteing veggies with a small amount of oil. In my opinion, aluminum is ideal for the home cook. They make you think about what and how you are cooking food.

I will not get un-coated aluminum though. Without an anodized coating, aluminum can react with acidic food and alter the taste. It also can turn spinach and asparagus black while cooking. Yuck!

Last consideration is cast iron. I will definitely be getting a large cast iron skillet. It has become an indispensable piece in my kitchen arsenal. Cast iron has perfect heat distribution and can easily go in the oven for finishing meat or skillet dishes. They season over time, boosting flavor to dishes and are simple to clean. If you have really stuck on food, just boil water in it and wipe with a sponge. Cast iron does take some getting used to though. They heat up quickly and stay hot for a while, even after the burner is turned off, so food will continue to cook. Recipe timings can get thrown off this way.

Cast iron also works best if it is used on a gas range. Having experienced both gas and electric ranges with the cast iron I will always favor the gas. Electric ranges concentrate the heat too much under the pan, creating a significant hot spot right in the middle. A flame spreads out better under the pan and seems to distribute the heat better. One last, and important, note about cast iron. When you buy one new it is imperative that you grease and cook in some animal fat (like bacon grease) to season the pan. This gives it a non-stick coating, prevents rust and will protect food from any iron reactions. Never ever ever ever ever ever ever use soap to clean a cast iron pan, it will de-season the iron and will promote rusting.

Going to the store tonight will be the deciding factor. I don't want to buy a set in a box because I probably won't use a majority of the dishes in it. If I can pick and choose what I want I will design my own set with a non-stick saute pan, cast iron skillet and aluminum sauce pans. Maybe I'll just head to Goodwill. Who knows, maybe they will have the same type of pans that walked out on me yesterday.

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