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How to Choose the Best Cookware and the Most Useful Pan in the Kitchen


Le Creuset Dutch oven/Stockpot

Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Dutch oven/Stockpot


We’re going into the busy holiday season and I get more questions about cookware and cutlery than you’d believe.  Here’s a primer of sorts on cookware – in a future column we’ll chat about cutlery. Cut this column out and arm yourself with it when you shop for cookware.

Buying cookware can be confusing to say the least. Should you go by price? By looks? By popularity?  Buy individual pieces or sets? Do some soul searching, think about the way you cook, your lifestyle, and pick cookware that will serve you best.

Cook’s Illustrated has some timely information on their site about cookware choices.  For the most part, you get what you pay for, especially when it comes to stainless steel, aluminum and cast iron. The cookware that will last a lifetime isn’t going to be inexpensive, but you know what? In the long run, you’ll save time, money, the environment and, maybe most important, your sanity!  I won’t go into all the details of the how’s, why’s and what’s of cookware, but here are some timely points to consider:

Material: It can be stainless steel, aluminum, anodized aluminum, copper with a tinned or stainless inside surface, cast iron, cast iron with enameled inside, ceramic, tempered glass and nonstick, to name just a few.

Cast iron. I call this the original nonstick.  Heats up slowly and retains heat. When we left home, Mom gave us one of her heirloom cast iron skillets. I won’t fry my kibbi patties in anything else. Made in the USA, these are treasures. If you find one at a garage sale that’s made in the USA, snatch it up! Lodge, Wagner and Griswold are familiar names.  The downside is cast iron is heavy and needs to be seasoned, and dried right away after cleaning. The perk is you get a boost of iron when you cook with it. There are now cast iron pieces that are pre-seasoned. Metal utensils are OK.

Enameled cast iron. My time-honored Le Creuset, which doubles as a Dutch oven, has an enameled cooking surface, which gives the benefit of cast iron without the angst. Enameled cast iron has  great browning qualities and the Dutch ovens are wonderful for braising, due to their large bottom surface area.

For food you tote in a casserole pan, like my cranberry cheese dip below, a cast iron pan retains the heat. I just cover the pan with foil, wrap in a bath towel and it stays hot for a couple of hours.


Cranberry cheese spread in Le Creuset baker

Cranberry cheese spread in Le Creuset baker

What kind of utensils to use on enameled cast iron ? Best to use silicone or wooden utensils unless otherwise stated by the manufacturer. There are quality pans out there! Good questions to ask for this, and any cookware are:  where and how it’s made, if there are returns from customers (a telling sign), the warranty and if you have to return it to the store or manufacturer, etc.

Clad stainless steel. On its own, stainless is a poor conductor of heat. Buy a stainless pan with copper or aluminum in it.  The best cookware is “clad” which means it has aluminum or copper core that is sandwiched, or clad, between stainless steel. It’s  can also be called triple or  multi-ply.

There are two kinds of clad: fully clad like what I just described where the sandwiched core extends from the bottom of the pan all the way up the sides (creating layers) or bottom clad which have a disk of aluminum or copper on the bottom only. Both perform well but the fully clad is my choice and the highest quality. All Clad pans, made in Pennsylvania, are tops in my book.

Clad saucepan

Caramel sauce bubbling in AllClad Windsor pan

There are other good quality pans out there, as well. Ask questions! Do your homework! You can use metal utensils.

Aluminum. Look for anodized aluminum which means the pan has been put through a process that changes the aluminum structure to be non-reactive to foods, just like stainless and you can use metal utensils. You get great browning with this cookware.

Copper. Best conductor of heat but often the most expensive and needs maintaining to look good. Awesome browning. You can use metal utensils.

Nonstick. A lot of debate about this being a safe cooking surface. “Green pans”, nonstick pans with a ceramic type safe coating, are popular now.  Nonsticks do not brown as well, for the most part, as regular pans, but they’re wonderful for eggs, waffles, cheese sandwiches, low fat cooking, etc. You need no oil except for flavor/browning, and clean up is a breeze.  Unless otherwise stated, use silicone or wooden utensils.

To spray or not to spray: I don’t recommend using a pressure type spray on cookware. (And I know I’ll get a lot of debate about that).  The pump units you fill yourself are fine. What happens is cooking spray can sometimes bond to the bottom of a pan, creating a yellowish surface that is impossible to wash off.  It may not hurt the pan, but I still think either the pump units or simply wiping out the pan with an oiled paper towel are better choices

Sets vs. individual pieces:  A set is always a better buy, but the 3 essentials are a frying pan, sauce pan and stockpot. If you’re registering, register for both a set and individual pieces to give people choices.

The most used pan in the kitchen (you may be surprised): The 9″ skillet. At least in my house. When you go shopping for cookware, pick this pan up. If it feels good in your hand, most likely the whole set will.

Pans for induction ranges:  Induction stoves need special pans to conduct the heat. What happens is the stove top stays cool and the pan gets heated up. If you have an induction range, ask questions and read box labels to make sure your cookware works on these ranges. Take a magnet with you. If it sticks securely to the bottom of the pan, you’re good to go.


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