Getting Below the Surface: Exploring Cookware Choices

cookware_1I remember my first cookware set like I do every “first” in my life—with fondness and an eagerness that can only be matched by the naïveté and joy of childhood.

A complete kitchen cookware set is every cook’s dream! Whether you’re in the market for a professional stainless steel cookware set for yourself or are interested in purchasing the best stainless nonstick set as a gift for someone special, you’ll find quality cookware sets available to suit every budget. Ideally, a cookware set should include a 12-inch traditional skillet, a 10-inch nonstick skillet, a 12-inch cast-iron skillet for frying and searing, a 4-quart covered saucepan, a 2-quart covered saucepan, a 6- or 7-quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven and a large stockpot.

Most cookware sets fall into one of two categories: stainless steel and nonstick. Each has its pros and cons. Stainless steel cookware heats evenly on gas or electric stovetops and is safe to use under broilers and in ovens up to 500 degrees. Stainless sets also do a superior job of browning food. Some drawbacks: Stainless cookware can be trickier to hand-wash (though most stainless pans are dishwasher safe), plus food like eggs don’t release easily without using cooking spray or added fat such as oil or butter. Stainless cookware can also scratch or “rainbow” easily, a discoloration that can occur when pans are heated to temperatures beyond 500 degrees.

Many home cooks still prefer nonstick cookware. Their coated surfaces prevent foods from clinging so you can cook with less fat. However, some experts say nonstick coating impedes optimal heat conduction and isn’t as durable as stainless steel. Their coatings are usually Teflon or a similar material. Though most scientists say that using nonstick cookware is perfectly safe provided you use it correctly, more manufacturers are making alternative nonstick sets of cookware that avoid the use of harmful chemicals. This alternative cookware usually features a silicone or ceramic-based coating; however, performance of these new nonstick cookware sets is hit or miss so far.

cookware_3Core Values
Classic stainless cookware receives high scores for performance and value, and it’s a favorite of owners posting comments on the Internet. A fully encapsulated aluminum disk is built into the base of this cookware, which makes this set less expensive than All-Clad, whose aluminum core runs up the sides of the pans as well. This cookware is oven-safe to 550 degrees —a particularly high temperature rating for budget cookware.

If price isn’t a consideration, I’d spring for All-Clad. Its heavy aluminum core is sandwiched between a stainless steel cooking surface and an exterior layer of magnetic stainless steel. This combination ensures uniform heat distribution and retention, meaning food won’t scorch and the pan’s temperature recovers quickly when ingredients are added. The aluminum core extends up the sides of the pan to the rim, which makes it a good choice for use with gas ranges, where flames can walk up the sides of cookware. It’s safe to use in an oven up to 500 degrees, and the All-Clad cookware is dishwasher-safe.

Many experts say you shouldn’t pay too much for nonstick because the coating will eventually wear off. So unlike stainless steel pots and pans, nonstick isn’t considered “lifetime” cookware. In tests, nonstick gets especially high scores when it comes to even heating and ease of cleaning.

cookware_2The Stone Ages
Stoneware, or cooking stones, are dishes made from clay and kiln-fired at a high temperature (over 2000 degrees), which enhances baking results in a regular oven. Baked goods are lighter, crisper and more evenly browned. Meats are juicier as lidded stoneware allows even the toughest cuts to baste in their own juices and tenderize as they cook. Stoneware retains heat for a longer period of time, allowing you more flexibility when serving. As most of us can’t afford our own brick-lined oven, stoneware solves that problem, and at quite an affordable price.

Is stoneware only good for baking pizzas?
No. Actually the beauty of stoneware is that it can be used for anything you would bake in an oven or microwave. Stones come in a variety of sizes and styles. You can purchase flat stones, circular and rectangular; stones with sides, such as 9″ x 13″ and 9″ x 9″ bakers, (some even have lids for roasting meats), and even stoneware muffin pans, bundt pans, loaf pans and shortbread pans.

What should I look for when purchasing a stone?
Look for quality. Red clay versus white. Make sure it has been fired at a very high temperature (over 2000 degrees). What is the manufacturer’s guarantee on the product? Is the product made from lead-free clay? Check the user’s guide for care and handling. If the user guide promotes the product as “dishwasher safe,” be suspicious! Good stoneware should be “seasoned” like a good cast-iron pan. The use of any soap on the product should not only ruin the seasoning, but also affect the taste of items baked on or in the product later. A good piece of stoneware should never be put in the dishwasher.

How do I season my stoneware?
You can season a stone by spraying vegetable oil on it or by baking high-fat foods (crescent rolls, cookies, a chicken, etc.) on it or in it the first few times it is used. After this, your stoneware will begin to season and you will notice that it has developed a non-stick surface and doesn’t require non-stick sprays anymore. A good motto to remember is, “The worse it looks, the better it cooks!”

I really can’t use soap on my stoneware?
No, because stoneware is seasoned, and soap is used to attack and cling to grease. If you try to clean your stoneware with soap, it will end up clinging to the oil and leaving a soapy- tasting residue behind. Soap will also cause a breakdown of the seasoning process, which is essential to the baking performance of your stone. A well-seasoned stone should be a cinch to clean. Simply run hot water over the stone (after is has cooled to room temperature!) and scrape off stubborn pieces with a nylon scraper, or brush the surface with a clean nylon kitchen brush.

Can I put the stones in the microwave?
Yes! However, items cooked in the microwave may not become crisp or brown when you cook them. Good stoneware can be placed in refrigerators, freezers, microwaves and ovens. Be sure, however, when transferring from one element to the next that you allow the stoneware to adjust to the temperature change. Going immediately from a cold freezer to a hot oven could cause your stone to crack. Bring a stone to room temperature before you add any water, immerse in water, or rinse in water. Frozen prepared foods (French fries, breaded meats, pizzas) may be placed directly on stoneware and cooked. Frozen meats, entrees, etc. should be thawed before baking.

cookware_5Still Confused?
Step One: Browse
Head to the supermarket or department store. You don’t have to have a list. Just go there to browse. If you don’t have the luxury of going in person, simply log on to the Net and search through your favorite online store. Go to a place that specializes in pots and pans, and browse. You can check out the product you like and the specifications pertaining to each one.

Step Two: Read Reviews
Yes, you can now find pots and pans reviews online that are made by customers just like you and me who have bought sets and tried them out in real world activities. And don’t just go for a particular brand. Instead look for what the material is and what you would need it for. Once you’ve decided on the product you like then check out the websites for other pots and pan reviews. Getting below the surface will never feel so good.

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